Choosing the Route of the Canadian Pacific Railway
through the Mountains of British Columbia
In 1867, with Confederation, Canada became a nation, and the United
States bought Alaska.
Both events contributed to the construction of the
Canadian Pacific Railway through Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains
of British Columbia, Canada.
Confederation included regions in the eastern part of North America,
parts of the present day Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec
along with the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
It was generally agreed that British interests also extended north of
the 49th parallel from Ontario and the Pacific Ocean. However, at the
time there was little to stop the United States from annexing
territories north of the 49th parallel and they had a large standing
army left over from the American Civil War with which to achieve it.
The American doctrine of Manifest Destiny (the belief that the United
States was destined to expand from the Atlantic seaboard to the
Pacific Ocean), had been used to justify in the 1840s the annexation
of much of what is now the western United States (the Oregon
Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession).
So there was reason for concern that with the American purchase of
Alaska in 1867 the United States would attempt to link its western
territories by annexing the United Colonies of Vancouver Island
(established in 1849) and British Columbia (established in 1858).
In 1870, to forestall the annexation of British Columbia by the
Americans and as part of the terms of British Columbia’s joining the
Canadian Confederation, an agreement was made to link the coastal
settlements of British Columbia with the East by completion of a
railway within ten years.
A Southern Route Favoured
Although a route through the Yellowhead Pass (just west of present-
day Jasper, Alberta) was considered by many to be the preferred
route, it was decided to build the line further south for the following
It was deemed that keeping the line further south would minimize
the risk of U.S. railroads penetrating north of the 49th parallel.
A more southerly route would be cheaper as it would require fewer
bridges to cross the predominantly north-south watercourses in the
Since most of Canada’s existing population centers were located
within 100 miles of the U.S. border, there would also be some
savings in rail mileage, in comparison with a route that swung
north through the Yellowhead Pass.
A southern route was also preferable because of its proximity
to coal and other mineral deposits being discovered in and
near southeastern British Columbia.
But, it was stipulated that the line must be located at least 100 miles
north of the 49th parallel in case of attack by the United States. The
49th parallel was considered at the time to be the international
No Known Pass through the Selkirk Mountains
This latter stipulation ruled out the already discovered South Kootenay
and Crows Nest Passes in favour of the Kicking Horse Pass through the
Eagle Pass through the Gold Mountains, now know as the Monashee
Mountains, had also already been discovered.
But there was no know pass through the Selkirk Mountains.