Around this tiny historical site, there’s a small gift shop with interpretive information, several picnic tables, an old caboose, a cartoonish cut out of Donald Smith with a hole where his face should be, Canadian and provincial flags and a rough cairn made of stones from every Canadian province. Set into the cairn is a plaque that reads, “Here was driven the last spike completing Canadian Pacific Railway from Ocean to Ocean November 7, 1885.”
Nearby, a sign fills out the story rather poetically. “A nebulous dream was a reality; an iron ribbon crossed Canada from sea to sea. Often following the footsteps of early explorers, nearly 3,000 miles of steel rail pushed across vast prairies, cleft lofty mountain passes, twisted through canyons and bridged a thousand streams. Here on November 7, 1885, a plain iron spike welded East to West.”
Railways don’t build themselves. Back in the van, heading toward Revelstoke, I Google Donald Smith and discover that the famous image of him pounding that iron spike with the maul hides the full story of the nebulous dream. Perhaps because Smith didn’t work with his hands, his blow with the maul glanced off the spike, bending it so badly, it had to be replaced. This small truth is like a window upon the larger truths not told at Craigellachie, perhaps the most iconic location in a very large country, some say the very spot the nation of Canada was born. Canada encouraged workers to emigrate from China to work on the railway. The CPR company worked them so hard in dangerous conditions, an estimated 600 died. So poorly were they paid, most could not cover the debts they incurred to cross the Pacific. Shortly after the driving of the last spike, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants, easily dissuading others from making the journey.
Just a few kilometres along the Trans Canada Highway, we pull into the Three Valley Lake Chateau to explore more history, in this case, the story of one man’s personal obsession. The 200-room, red-roofed Chateau is impressive enough, but the elaborate Heritage Ghost Town beside it is a testament to the life-long work of the Bell family – mostly the founder, Gordon Bell – to preserve local history. Our tour guide, Thane, leans on a polished walking stick and begins telling us the story of the 26 buildings, railway roundhouse and antique auto museum. Some of the buildings were moved here, some are replicas. At the Craigellachie School House, Thane jokes that students of the time had it tough, forced to walk uphill both to and from school. At the Golden Wheel Saloon, he tells us about the women who entertained upstairs, adding with a wry smile, “And that’s how the west was won.”