The 1885 Craigellachie Telegram

The Last Spike and Hearing the History of the CPR

When the Last Spike was hammered home at Craigellachie, BC, William Van Horne sent a telegram to Ottawa which read “From Craigelleaichie, Eagle pass BC / Thanks to your far seeing policy and unwavering support the Canadian Pacific Railway is completed the last rail was laid this (Saturday) morning at 9:22 / W.C. VanHorne.”[1]  Its recipient was John A. Macdonald and the telegram told him that a railway whose construction was once called impossible was completed, linking Canada “…from sea to sea…making it one in fact…”[2]

A copy of the telegram sent by William Van Horne to John A. Macdonald included in the ‘Building the CPR’ Jackdaw. Source: ‘Building the CPR’ Jackdaw No. 4, OISE Library.

The Old Tomorrow and the Manager[3]

Both William Van Horne and John A. Macdonald had immigrated to Canada.  John A. Macdonald came from Scotland in 1820, becoming Canada’s first Prime Minister. William Van Horne came from the United States in 1881, hired as the General Manager of the CPR.  Years after it’s completion, both men were praised for the parts they played in the CPR’s construction.

The Unheard Voices

While attention has been paid to Van Horne and Macdonald, the voices of those individuals and communities who built the railway, like the Chinese, have not always been heard.  While Chinese migrants came to Canada for reasons other than the railway, they were integral in its construction but left few written records.[4]  However, as I have learned, through alternative sources like oral histories the importance of their accounts has now been acknowledged.[5] While within the telegram the laborers voices are absent, through that gap it is possible to hear them.

Public Memory

In my research I learned that in public spaces it has taken a while for their voices to be accepted. On the 75th anniversary of The Last Spike in 1960, the Montreal Gazette lauded Van Horne and Macdonald, but only briefly noted the railway laborers.[6] When consulting educational tools like “Building the CPR” Jackdaw, which this copy of the telegram is part of, the workers and Chinese laborers were mentioned a few times.

Hearing the Voices

While researching the telegram, I learned that only within the past few decades have stories of groups like the Chinese laborers have been acknowledged.  In Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver monuments to the Chinese laborers have been erected.[7]  In 2011, an exhibit on the subject, Chinese Legacies,[8] was displayed in a number of Canadian cultural institutions.[9]  As well, during its 120th Anniversary, the CPR named an intersection in Kamloops, BC after a Chinese worker.[10]

The site of the Last Spike in August 2016 at Craigellachie, BC. Source: Connor Kurtz, 2016.

Spaces of Silence

However, despite all of these accomplishments, I believe that the place where the past is memorialized is often as important as the memorials themselves.  I have stopped at Craigellachie, along the Transcanada Highway, at a roadside stop on the site of the Last Spike.  Here, where the CPR finished their railway, there is a gift shop, photo cutouts, a section of track to ‘hammer’ home a spike and a monument.  However, I have noticed,among all these spaces at Craigellachie there is no prominent memorialization of the workers, like the Chinese, who labored on the railway.  I think it is unfortunate that in this most sacred and significant spot on the CPR their voices still cannot be heard.


Connor Kurtz is a graduate student in the University of Toronto’s Museum Studies program.   He holds a BA in History and Political Science from the University of Alberta and an MA in History from Queen’s University.  He has interned with the Washington Center in Washington, DC and has worked for the City of Leduc as a historical researcher.  He is currently volunteering at the Royal Canadian Military Institute Museum in Toronto.

[1] Stuebing, 1968, Jackdaw No. C4: Building the CPR, No. 8:  The 1885 Craigellachie Telegram.

[2] Macdonald, 1881, p. 1.

[3] Plamondon, 2015, p. 17.

[4] Roy, 1984, 13.

[5] http://www.mhso.ca/tiesthatbind/index.php

[6] The Gazette, November 7, 1960.

[7] Jean, 2010, Outdoor Art Work.

[8] http://www.revelstokereview.com/community/113527839.html.

[9] Canadian Pacific Railway names Kamloops’ interchange, 2005.

[10] Editor, 2010, 125 years on.

“While within the telegram the laborers voices are absent, through that gap it is possible to hear them.”