A Promise to British Columbia
Canadian politicians did not mince words when they learned in 1871 that Sir John A. Macdonald, the country's first Prime Minister, had pledged to build the longest railway in the world within ten years! Opposition leader Alexander Mackenzie called the promise "an act of insane recklessness..."
The Prime Minister's trans-continental railway dream was intended to lure the colony of British Columbia into the new confederation of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. A decade of fierce political battles and brutally difficult exploration followed the announcement, in the campaign to select a route that would connect Pacific tidewater to the rest of Canada. Surveyors explored more than a dozen passes during the "Battle of the Routes", with crews confronting biting flies, heat, muskeg and bone-chilling temperatures in winter. Forest fires and fast-flowing rivers took many lives. In the absence of any roads, supply lines were a major undertaking. Despite all of the hardships, 74,000 km (46,000 mi) of reconnaissance surveys were conducted - all of them on foot and horseback. The surveyors finally recommended the Yellowhead route as the best choice after ten years of scouting, and the federal government signed a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to build the rail line over Yellowhead Pass.