|The Mount Macdonald Tunnel (2003)
What started out as a shortcut through the Selkirks yielded a mountain of
headaches for Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and produced the longest railway
tunnel in the western hemisphere — CPR’s Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
was then an ingenious shortcut through the mountains is now the most costly
pass on the line. CPR spent over one million dollars in the 1880s building
snowsheds, loops and trestles in the pass. And in the 1910s, CPR spent
$60 million tunneling under the pass. To cap it all off CPR spent a further
$500 million in the 1980s. But the most horrendous cost came in lives.
In the first 30 years, when trains went through the pass instead of under
it, more than 200 people lost their lives. Mostly from avalanches.
The fact that the western hemisphere’s longest railway tunnel pierces through British Columbia’s Mount Macdonald is mostly due to the dogged determination of a scrawny but crusty American major. Major A. B. Rogers got his title in the 1862 Sioux uprisings in the United States. He got his engineering degree at Brown University and then went on to Yale. He got his practical experience surveying the Milwaukee Road. And he got his reputation by swearing like a sailor and eating like a bird. He wasn’t a mountain man. He lived and worked on the American Prairies. And yet CPR commissioned him to survey a shorter route through the Rockies and Selkirks. And, CPR hoped, he would find a pass through the Selkirks.
Major Rogers pored over Walter Moberly’s accounts. Moberly discovered Eagle Pass in the Gold Range in 1865. Albert Perry, Moberly’s assistant, found the beginning of a pass from the Columbia River up the Illecillewaet River. So Major Rogers rediscovered it, in 1881, and went further upriver. He confirmed there was a pass. But it was only half a pass. True to form, Rogers ran out of food. He went back the way he came, looped around the Selkirks through the United States and finished surveying a line through the Rockies. He settled on the Kicking Horse Pass. CPR head office, with Rogers’ assurance of a pass through the Selkirks, decided on a more southerly route for its main line. And the mandated-by-charter route through the Yellowhead Pass was abandoned. Keeping closer to the US border was not only politically correct, but it was shorter. The trick now was to save even more time and distance — and find a shortcut through the Selkirks. The railway wouldn’t have to skirt north along the “big bend” of the Columbia River. So, in 1882, Rogers set out to find his pass from the east. After a false start, again due to a lack of food, he found the other half of his pass through the Selkirks in July.
And what did Major Rogers get for his trouble?
CPR named the pass after him — Rogers Pass. CPR also gave him a $5000 bonus. But he didn’t cash the cheque. Instead he framed it and hung it on the wall at his brother’s house for his nieces and nephews to see. So then he got another reward. CPR’s William Van Horne enticed him with a suitably engraved gold watch — if only he would cash the darned cheque! So Rogers cashed the cheque, picked up his princely sum, and a fine gold pocket watch in the bargain!
The line was built through Rogers Pass in 1885. It looped back and forth along the sides of mountains, crossing creeks and ravines on massive wooden trestles, and passing under no fewer than 31 snowsheds. The line often fell victim to avalanches.
In 1916, CPR opened the double-track, eight-kilometre Connaught Tunnel, which avoided the worst of the avalanche paths, eliminated more than 2300 degrees in track curvature and reduced the rail summit by 168 metres. In 1958, CPR converted the tunnel to a single-track down the center to accommodate higher loads.
But there was still a tough climb along the Beaver River Valley to the Connaught Tunnel. The line rose 275 metres in just 13 kilometres — a steep climb for freight trains. The steep grade called for six additional locomotives, called pushers, to be added to westbound freight trains.
To alleviate this, CPR started constructing a second line through the pass in 1984. The project was the largest CPR undertaking of its kind since the completion of the transcontinental rail line in 1885. The project reduced the overall westbound grade to one per cent, and eliminated the need for pusher locomotives.
The $500-million, 34-kilometre Rogers Pass project includes 17 kilometres of surface route, six bridges totaling 1.7 kilometres in length, and two tunnels. The centrepiece of the project is the Mount Macdonald Tunnel. Stretching 14.7 kilometres, it is the longest railway tunnel in the western hemisphere. It is driven under Mount Macdonald and Cheops Mountain. There is a second tunnel, 1.9 kilometres long, under Mount Shaughnessy and passing under the Trans-Canada Highway.
Preparatory project work began in 1982, but work on the Mount Macdonald Tunnel started in mid-1984. Crews blasted from west end and bored from the east, using a huge boring machine called the “mole”, meeting in the middle on October 24, 1986. The Mount Macdonald Tunnel is equipped with a ventilation system with four 1.68-megawatt fans, a ventilation shaft to the summit of Rogers Pass, complete with building, gates, controls and monitoring system. The tunnel has a 0.7 per cent grade and crosses over the old Connaught 91 metres below it and 259 metres below the original mainline through Rogers Pass — enough height to fit Chicago’s 60-storey Bank One building between Mount Macdonald Tunnel and the original mainline through the pass.
Completed in 1988, the tunnel features the first use in North America of a concrete “Pact-Track” floor system, eliminating the need for wooden railway ties and crushed rock ballast — greatly reducing maintenance costs. The tunnel interior is 5.1 metres wide and 7.8 metres high, surveyed using laser and satellite technology, and built to accommodate, should the need ever arise, an electrified railway.
The first revenue train went through the tunnel at noon on December 12, 1988.
1871 — Commitment made by the Canadian federal government to build
a railway to British Columbia from Eastern Canada, to cross the continental
divide at Yellowhead Pass.
1881, Feb. 16 — Canadian Pacific Railway Company incorporated also
to build line via Yellowhead Pass.
1881, spring — The new Canadian Pacific Railway Company desires
a shorter, commercially viable route and hires Major A. B. Rogers to explore
such a route using Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies and find a passage
through the Selkirk Range.
1881, May 29 — Rogers, in company with his nephew Albert, and a
number of Indians, finds the pass through the Selkirks to which his name
was subsequently given. It links the valley of the Beaver River with that
of the Illecillewaet River.
1882 — Rogers explores eastern slope of Selkirks and locates railway
route on eastern approach to Rogers Pass.
1882 — Federal legislation passed, amending Canadian Pacific’s
act of incorporation by permitting it to use any other pass through the
mountains, providing that it is not less than 60 kilometres from the international
1884, January — CPR’s Board passes a resolution to give $5000
to Major A. B. Rogers for “the discovery of a practicable route
through these (Rocky and Selkirk) mountains and in location of the line
1885, August 17 — Railhead under construction reaches the summit
of Rogers Pass.
1885, November 7 — Last spike completing the CPR transcontinental
line, driven at Craigellachie, B.C., in Eagle Pass, in the Gold Range
of the Monashee Mountains.
1885, November 22 — A boxcar of navel supplies from Halifax destined
to Nanaimo, B.C., arrives at Port Moody, B.C. This was the first commercial
shipment to cross Canada by rail. It passed through Rogers Pass about
November 20, 1885.
1885-86, winter — Snow observation party established in Rogers Pass,
under the direction of Granville C. Cunningham.
1886, spring — Stations and sidings in Rogers Pass completed in
preparation for regular service.
1886, July 3 — The first through passenger train, No. 1 Pacific
Express, stops at Rogers Pass station en route (11:30, Pacific Time) from
Montreal/Toronto to Port Moody, B.C.
1886, July 7 — The first eastbound passenger train, No. 2 Atlantic
Express, stops at Rogers Pass (13:40, Pacific Time) inaugurating service
to the east from Port Moody, B.C.
1886 — Glacier National Park established.
1887 — Glacier Hotel opens for business.
1897 — Crows Nest Pass Act freezes grain freight rates at a level
of one-half cent per ton-mile.
1899, January 31 — Avalanche destroys the station at Rogers Pass,
killing seven people.
1900, summer — Rogers Pass station and yard moved 1.6 kilometres
further west to a safer location.
1910, March 4 — Avalanche 1.6 kilometres west of new Rogers Pass
station location kills 62 members of a gang of men clearing an earlier
snow slide. Following this, as part of a program of double-tracking the
railway main line, proposal is adopted to route new line through a tunnel
under the pass.
1913, August — Work begun on the Connaught Tunnel, eight kilometres
1916, December 9 — First train passes through new double-track Connaught
Tunnel. Regular service begins four days later.
1917, summer — Railway track through Rogers Pass lifted and snowsheds
1925 — Glacier Hotel closed permanently.
1956 — Federal Government selects Rogers Pass as route for the Trans-Canada
1958, November 11 — Connaught Tunnel converted to single-track operation.
1962, September 3 — Trans-Canada Highway completed by opening section
through Rogers Pass. Monument dedicated at the summit by Rt. Hon. J.G.
Diefenbaker, prime minister of Canada.
1981, July 31 — CPR files an application with the Canadian Transport
Commission for authority to undertake a $600-million railway grade improvement
project in Rogers Pass. CPR president emphasizes that project will only
be able to proceed if a way can be found for the railway to be compensated
for the multi-million-dollar losses it incurs in moving export grain traffic.
1982, April 13 — CPR submits detailed plans for the proposed 34-kilometre
double-tracking project through the Rogers Pass to a federal environmental
assessment panel in Vancouver. Similar environmental hearings are held
in Revelstoke (April 14), Golden (April 15) and Calgary (April 16 and
17). The plans cover CPR’s program of controls, which are designed
to mitigate any adverse environmental effects during construction and
operation of the new line.
1982, July 14 — CPR awards two contracts valued at $22 million for
preparatory work on the Rogers Pass Project. Foundation Company of Canada
Ltd, Toronto, in a joint venture with Atlas Construction (1981) Inc.,
Montreal, S.A. Healy Co., McCook, Illinois, and S.M. Constructors Inc.,
Solon, Ohio, is awarded a contract for construction of the east and west
portals of a nine-mile tunnel through Mount Macdonald. Edgeworth Construction
Ltd., Prince George, B.C., is awarded the contract covering clearing of
an access road along 18.2 kilometres of the surface route.
1982, November 5 — Preliminary construction work on contracts awarded
in July 1982 nears completion.
1983, November 17 — Grain rates are still established by statute,
and therefore in a sense still “statutory”. Royal Assent given
to Western Grain Transportation Act, which provides for gradually increasing
the statutory freight rates set in 1897, and compensates the railways
for hauling grain. Passage of the legislation clears the way for the construction
by CPR of a new 14.6-kilometre tunnel under Rogers Pass, for use by westbound
1984, January 31 — CPR calls tenders for construction of a 14.6-kilometre
railway tunnel under Rogers Pass, which will be the longest in North America.
Construction of the tunnel will be carried out from both ends. It will
pass 91 metres under the existing Connaught tunnel, and 259 metres beneath
the original mainline through Rogers Pass summit. It will be built to
accommodate future electrification.
1984, Feb. 10 — CPR awards a contract covering construction of two,
year-round work camps for CPR’s Rogers Pass Project to Atco Pacific
of Penticton, B.C. Both camps are located in Glacier National Park and
will be designed to meet environmental standards contained in an agreement
between Parks Canada and CPR.
1984, Feb. 27 — CPR awards a contract for security services for
work camps on the Rogers Pass Project to Base-fort Security Services (B.C.)
Ltd. of Richmond, B.C.
1984, March 23 — CPR awards a contract to Atco Pacific of Penticton,
B.C., for a third work camp, located outside of Glacier National Park
at Rogers, B.C.
1984, May 11 — Contracts are awarded to two joint-venture companies
for construction of the 14.6-kilometre Mount Macdonald Tunnel. Successful
bidders are Selkirk Tunnel Constructors, a joint-venture company consisting
of Foundation Co. of Canada, Toronto, Atlas Construction Inc., Montreal
and S.A. Healy Co., Chicago. Selkirk will construct approximately eight
kilometres of the tunnel and Manning-Kumagai Joint Venture, made up of
Manning Construction Ltd., Aldergrove, B.C., and Kumagai-Gumi, Tokyo will
construct 6.4 kilometres.
1984, May 18 — CPR awards a contract to Interior Reforestation Co.
Ltd. of Cranbrook, B.C., for environmental rehabilitation and re-vegetation
on the Rogers Pass Project. More than 431 000 deciduous trees and shrubs
and 181 000 coniferous species, all native to the area, will be planted
by the completion of the project in 1988.
1984, May 22 — CPR awards a contract to Cana Engineering Ltd. of
Calgary for the construction of three bridges on the surface route. The
bridges are over Cupola Creek, Mountain Creek and Connaught Creek.
1984, May 24 — CPR awards a contract to Dawson Construction Ltd.
of Vancouver for grading of railway roadbed on four kilometres of surface
route, called Segment A, from Rogers Pusher Station to Mountain Creek.
1984, May 24 — CPR awards a contract to Goodbrand Construction Ltd.
of Aldergrove, B.C., for grading of 8.5 kilometres, Segment B, of the
surface route between Mountain Creek and Stoney Creek.
1984, June 25 — CPR awards a contract for construction of Segment
C of the surface route to Pitts Engineering Construction of Vancouver.
The contract includes a 213-metre bridge over Stoney Creek and a 1229-metre
1984, June 26 — CPR awards a contract to Speers Construction Ltd.
of Revelstoke, B.C., for construction of 69-kilovolt electrical power
transmission line between Rogers Pass and Revelstoke to supply power for
use during construction and operation phases of Rogers Pass Project.
1984, June 27 — CPR awards a contract to Hume and Rumble Electrical
Division, Commonwealth Construction Co. Ltd. of Burnaby, B.C., for installation
of the underground cable portion of electrical power transmission line
between Rogers Pass and Revelstoke.
1984, August 27 — Selkirk Tunnel Constructors sets off the first
blast removing 15 cubic metres of rock marking the beginning of excavation
of the 14.6-kilometre Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1984, October 16 — The first shipment of 18 600 seedlings, which
is part of the reforestation in the vicinity of CPR’s Rogers Pass
Project leave Reid Collins Nurseries, Aldergrove, B.C., for the Rogers
1984, November 16 — CPR awards a contract to The Cementation Co
(Canada) Ltd. of Brampton, Ontario, for excavation and concrete lining
of the 349-metre vertical ventilation shaft from the surface to near the
midway point of the Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1984, November 26 — CPR awards a contract to Manning-Kumagai Joint
Venture of Vancouver, for construction of the 1.8-kilometre Mount Shaughnessy
1985, June 11 — CPR takes delivery of 50 air dump cars valued at
more than $5-million from National Steel Car Company of Hamilton, Ontario.
The cars were purchased for exclusive use on the railway’s Rogers
Pass Project. The 14.2-metre long, 70-ton capacity cars are used to remove
excavated material from the west end of the Mount Macdonald Tunnel and
to transport the muck to double tracking projects between Revelstoke and
1985, June 13 — CPR awards a contract to Flakt Canada Ltd. of Ottawa
for supply and installation of equipment, including four 1.68-megawatt
fans, for the Mount Macdonald Tunnel ventilation system.
1985, October 3 — CPR awards a contract to Manning-Kumagai Joint
Venture of Vancouver, for construction of the 300-metre centre section
of the 14.6-kilometre long Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1986, January 30 — CPR reaches the halfway point in the construction
of the Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1986, April 25 — A 302-tonne tunnel boring machine or “mole”
grinding out the eastern portion of the Mount Macdonald Tunnel sets a
new world record of 62.78 metres of rock excavation by a 6.7-metre diameter
machine in a 24-hour period. The previous record, of 62.48 metres, was
set in Saskatchewan in 1961.
1986, June 3 — CPR awards a contract to Pacific Northern Rail Contractors
of Langley, B.C., for the installation of 15.6 kilometres of railway track
on the surface route portion of the Rogers Pass Project. The contract
extends from Rogers to Stoney Creek and includes installation of 20 300
concrete and 5900 wood railway ties, 27 500 cubic metres of crushed rock
ballast and 31 088 metres of main line rail.
1986, July 2 — Exactly 17 months, 10 days and 53 minutes after it
began grinding its way westward under 2893-metre-high Mount Macdonald,
the tunnel boring machine working for CPR on the Mount Macdonald Tunnel
finishes its 8353-metre long portion of the tunnel.
1986, July 18 — CPR awards a contract to PCL Industrial Constructors,
Inc. of Edmonton, for construction of the 2787-square-metre building for
the ventilation system as well as gate systems, electrical and mechanical
work in the Mount Macdonald Tunnel and the central controls and monitoring
1986, October 24 — With a 200-kilogram blast that removed a 100-cubic
metre wall of rock, two joint venture contractors working for 29 months
on the longest railway tunnel in North America meet near its centre. CPR
president R. S. Allison set off the breakthrough blast in the west section
of the Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1987, April 1 — At 10:46 work crews at the ventilation shaft set
off a blast that links the vertical shaft to the Mount Macdonald Tunnel.
1987, June 25 — The last of 45 spans that make up the 1229-metre
long viaduct is installed. This marks completion of the surface route
from Rogers Pusher Station up the Beaver Valley to the east portal of
Mount Shaughnessy Tunnel.
1987, September 22 — A contract for the installation of 16.57 kilometres
of a concrete roadbed known as Pact Track in the Mount Macdonald and Mount
Shaughnessy Tunnels is awarded to Manning Construction, Aldergrove, B.C.,
and McGregor Paving, Chesterfield, England. It is the last major contract
to be awarded on the Rogers Pass Project.
1988, December 12 — The first revenue train passes through the Mount
Macdonald Tunnel at noon.
1989, May 4 — After more than a decade of planning and construction,
CPR officially inaugurates its new $500-million railway line through Rogers
Pass and the Mount Macdonald Tunnel — the longest railway tunnel
in the western hemisphere.
2003, October 15 — Mount Macdonald Tunnel — the longest railway
tunnel in the western hemisphere — is inducted into the Canadian
Railway Hall of Fame.
Photo: Shawn Smith