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On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act brought Canada together as a Dominion. But it was not until November 7, 1885, that the Canadian Pacific Railway brought Canada together as a country. It was on that morning at precisely 9:22 Pacific Standard Time that the last spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line. For the first time in its young history, Canada had a transportation route that linked the country together from east to west.
The story of the CPR is really the story of the Canadian west, for the construction of the railway forever changed the face of the vast plains and mountains lying west of Ontario. Plans for the railway had been considered as early as 1864, when Sandford Fleming delivered a detailed plan for a railway "from Canada to the Pacific Ocean on British Territory."
It was not until British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871 that the government seriously proposed building a "transcontinental" railway. Part of the condition for British Columbia joining was that a railway be built linking Canada's eastern rail network with the Pacific coast.
Original plans called for work to begin within two years and the railway to be finished in 10 years. However, problems arose when it was discovered that the company asked to build the railway had contributed election money to the government. The "Pacific Scandal" of 1873 helped bring down Canada's first government and delayed the start of railway construction at Fort William (now Thunder Bay) until June 1875.
After British Columbia threatened to withdraw from Confederation unless construction started in that province, work slowly got under way on the west coast. By 1881, however, less than 300 miles of track had been completed in 10 years. Anxious to finish the railway, Canada struck a deal with the newly-formed Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The government agreed to pay the company 25 million dollars and give it 25 million acres of prairie land to finish the job.
Led by William Cornelius Van Horne, the CPR quickly went to work, laying track west from Winnipeg and east from the Pacific coast. As the rails cut across the prairies, settlers followed. Towns such as Brandon, Selkirk, Medicine Hat and Calgary began to grow alongside the railway line.
Although they progressed at a steady pace, work was not easy for the CPR construction crews. Laying a railway across Canada meant building bridges and tunnels over huge valleys, around swampy muskegs and through rocky mountains. Workers often spent 14 hours a day toiling on the railway lines.
Despite the obstacles, the CPR took just four years to complete the project. On November 7, 1885, eastern and western construction crews met at Craigallachie in British Columbia.
Donald Smith, a CPR representative, was given the honour of driving the last iron spike. CPR company officials then climbed aboard Locomotive 148, and became the first people to travel by rail across Canada to the Pacific Coast!