For 23 years prior to the construction of the Spiral Tunnels the Canadian Pacific
Railway’s track west of the Kicking Horse Pass plunged down what became know
as the “Big Hill”.
The Big Hill was to have been a temporary solution to the Kicking Horse River's
valley dropping 1,140 feet in the first 7.5 miles. The original Canadian Pacific
Railway’s charter had stipulated that in constructing the route nowhere should
the grade be more than 2.2%. But meeting this stipulation proved impossible for
the western descent from the Kicking Horse Pass, as it would have necessitated
crossing many avalanche paths and unstable areas.
The solution, meant to be only temporary, was to run the run the rails straight
downhill to the floor of the Kicking Horse Valley, creating a 4.5% grade. The
charter was amended to allow this, as it was to only be a short-term solution. It
remained in service for 23 years and 4 months.
The steepest standard-gauge track ever operated in North America with regular
passenger service was the 3-mile long, 5.03% Saluda Grade constructed in 1878
on the Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad in North Carolina. The Big Hill would
take second place.
Accidents were inevitable. So, to attempt to reduce the damage that would
result from the pile-ups the Canadian Pacific railway built three runaway spurs
approximately 4,900 feet apart. The “safety switches” were set to divert trains
from the mainline onto runaway spurs.
When a train was 1000 feet from a safety switch, the engineer was to give one
long whistle blast to alert the switchman then a further four short blasts when
300 feet from the switch, to indicate that the engineer had the train under
If the engineer had lost control of the train he did not give the four short blasts.
In that case, the switchman kept the switch to the mainline closed. The train
was diverted onto the inclined runaway spur where wrecks could take place
without hindering traffic on the mainline.
Among the more famous pile-ups was one involving a five-car freight train,
which, among other things, resulted in the destruction of a refrigerator car of
eggs and a car of whiskey. As it was -25°F at the time of the derailment, at the
very least, it was a case of Scotch on the rocks.
Today the Trans-Canada Highway follows the eastern portion of the Big Hill