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Manitoba History: Review: Glenbow Museum, The Great CPR Exposition: The Impact of the Railway on Western Canada, 1883-1930

by Donald B. Smith
University of Calgary

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

The Great CPR Exposition. The Impact of the Railway on Western Canada, 1883-1930. Glenbow Museum, Calgary. Sponsored by Canadian Pacific. Organized by Georgeen Klassen and Bill McKee. Shown from 11 August 1983 (the 100th anniversary to the day of the arrival of the CPR at Calgary) to 13 May 1984.

Construction crew and camp on “Loop” at Illecillewaet below Glacier House, BC.
Source: Glenbow Archives, Calgary

No single event so changed the history of Western Canada as the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The purchase of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter, the entry of British Columbia into Confederation, the signing of the numbered Indian treaties, all played a role in western development. But the “trail of iron” shaped the region’s history by influencing all facets of its growth.

The Glenbow Museum’s “The Great CPR Exposition” vividly depicted the planning, the building and the impact of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The organizers of the exhibition gave particular attention to the origin and to the construction period of the railway, but they also reviewed in depth the company’s post-1885 history and operations in Western Canada to 1930. To do it justice the exhibition really required two visits: the first to experience it in its totality; the second to read the accompanying panels and the full captions to the photographs, models and artifacts.

So many impressions remain from the Exposition. First and foremost, the sounds. While walking through the galleries one heard a constant montage of the busy noises of a railway station: of steam trains arriving, shunting, and gradually pulling out. The sounds of the line gave an atmosphere to the galleries and life to the hundreds of maps, photos, and documents, and particularly to the dioramas.

The dioramas and reconstructions stood out the most dramatically. A group of local volunteer model railroaders, for example, spent thousands of hours to recreate the appearance of the end-of-track during the construction across the prairies in 1883. Similarly, in an adjoining gallery the scale reconstruction of the completed Stoney Creek Bridge as it looked in July 1886 was outstanding. At more than eighty-five metres, this structure, located east of the summit of the Rogers Pass, was then the highest wooden bridge in the world.

Other innovative displays followed. Just around the corner from the Stoney Creek Bridge one almost walked into the interior of a mountain snowshed. Built three-quarters of its full size by the Alberta Pioneer Railway Association, it showed two section men aboard a hand car, their lantern providing the only light in the darkness. Then one arrived at the duplication (compressed to twelve metres) of the CPR mainline half-a-century ago between Vancouver and Cochrane. To the delight of the children a model train sped over the track. Other galleries contained full-scale replicas of a country railway station, a sleeping car, and the setting of a table in a railway dining car (with mirrors at either end giving the illusion of an infinitely long dining car).

From other collections across the country—particularly from the CPR Archives itself—the organizers assembled many historical artifacts. One saw, for example, the track-laying tools, the two last spikes, and contemporary posters. The original letter of William Van Horne, by which he accepted in 1889 the presidency of the CPR, left a lasting impression. He received a salary of $50,000 a year. (Although the organizers do not point this out, he earned over a hundred times more than a labourer on his railway line).

In general the exhibition favoured the CPR. Portraits and statues of its first Presidents all respect-fully appeared, and the organizers avoided any direct criticism of the CPR’s early administration. But there were exceptions. One learns in the exhibit, for example, of the generous financial terms initially given by the government to the CPR syndicate and the further financial assistance that came later. The Glenbow organizers regarded this as normal, as the text read: “because of the high price of construction the syndicate required all the above privileges ... members of the syndicate also repeatedly risked their own fortunes in order to complete the project.” Yet, in another gallery a cartoon from Grip magazine, dated 18 November 1882, presented the contrary view. When Manitoba tried to charter a competing railway, the federal government re-confirmed the CPR monopoly. In the drawing, Manitoba is personified as a woman crushed by a huge burden marked “Syndicate Bargain.” In her hand she tightly grasps a long knife with which she prepares to stab “the Chief,” Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

Throughout the exhibition labour relations between the CPR and its staff received little attention. But the organizers did give well-deserved recognition to the contribution of the Chinese labour force. The panels describing the building of the railway through the Rockies mentioned how deadly were the rock slides and collapsing tunnels. On Andrew Onderdonk’s construction contracts in the Rockies, four Chinese died for every mile laid of track.

The exhibit also included the Western Canadian Indians. One panel, in the section “A Diverse and Profound Impact,” described the CPR as “a key instrument in the Canadian invasion of Indian lands.” Near the reserves the trains ran over horses and livestock owned by Indians, and sparks from passing trains occasionally caused prairie fires on reserve land. The railway and telegraph allowed the Canadian Government to put down the Rebellion of 1885.

Unfortunately “The Great CPR Exposition” will not, in its full version, go on tour. This is a great loss for Canadians outside of Calgary, for the exhibit conveyed so well the impact of the CPR on the location of western settlement, the rise of cities, and the development of ranching, agriculture, mining, logging, petroleum and even tourism. Fortunately, Canadians will have access to many of the best photographs in the exhibit. These have been reproduced in the beautiful Trail of Iron: The CPR and the Birth of the West, 1880-1930 by the exhibition’s organizers, Bill McKee and Georgeen Klassen, (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1983). As the book was produced before the dioramas had been assembled, photos of them do not appear. Illustrations showing several of them are included, though, in Jack Peach’s “Trail of Iron. CPR Exposition,” in the Canadian Geographic, December 1983/January 1984, pp. 62-71. The organizers, their helpers, and the sponsors (in particular the CPR itself) deserve high praise for giving Calgary this excellent exposition.

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