Field and the Big Hill   By G.H. Soole

 Click to enlarge
An eastbound triple-headed Canadian Pacific Railway train on the second crossing of the Kicking Horse River while climbing the Big Hill between the Lower and Upper Spiral Tunnels. Fireman Walter Towns leans from the cab of the first of two Santa Fe locomotives helping a Selkirk pull the Dominion up the grade - CP Archives M2079.

Many, many years ago Canadian Pacific published a series of ten books named the "Foundation Library". One particular book in this collection, published in 1937, is named "Factors in Railway and Steamship Operation". It contains many short stories and articles dealing with the company during that period. This month's article is from that book, "Field and the Big Hill", written by G.H. Soole in 1936 and is reprinted here for your enjoyment with the addition of some appropriate photographs.

The Story

Field - to the average tourist a huddle of dirty dwellings, of black oil tanks and grimy sheds, with strings of red box cars and untidy snowplows. Black engines belch forth foul smoke which hangs over the village, which cannot rightly be called a town in size; the mountains echo with the great whistles of freight engines. A town where the motorist from Yoho to Emerald is glad to be on the other side of the river; dirty blistered houses, a blemish on the beauty of the landscape - although tiny indeed among the massive peaks. No - a noisy, sooty place, they say.

Field, B.C. - central railway town of the Rockies, and all that it means. Just go over the Kicking Horse on that spidery bridge; have a look at that wooden station, at its pretty lawns so incongruously set under that pall of smoke, among a tangle of rails. Just walk down to the platform end to the operator's office, and look at that train board - all the trains on time, you see. Although railroading in the Rockies is a herculean task, the ideal is attained - schedules are maintained. Now you stand where the sidings bunch in, and I advise you to think of a moment what is the full meaning of that grimy roundhouse, that fan of rails along the oily ground. Nearly every track in that shed is occupied by a mighty black and diabolically misshapen pusher, none of whom will be going further east than Lake Louise, none further west than Golden, if as far. Other through freight engines simmer gently with them, ready to wheel the Seaboard over the hill to Calgary; but most of those engines do not have to go far. The presence of so many monsters is ample testimonial to the hill they have to fight; smaller indeed than the number that used to be here in the old days, but nevertheless a formidable array. From the beginning the Canadian Pacific has been sending its strongest and best engines against the Field Hill, and tonight we are to see them in action. These are the fighters of the Canadian Pacific Railway against the Rockies, and their sole duty is to put tonnage and more tonnage over a hill which makes Shap look like a billiard table. Even in repose they are brutally splendid; they are watched over carefully and are kept surprisingly clean, although cleanliness is a luxury in places such as this. What they have got to do is work, and work under the hardest of conditions; in winter it is their job to keep that line open with a rotary snowplow, to keep it open at all costs, that the artery of a continent may not for a moment be cut. A small army of men is there to supply their needs, to tend them and to put them into shape for their battles; and under that pall of smoke and those sooty roofs lies all the determination of a mighty transcontinental railway to keep the line open every minute, to do its bit in ensuring that the Dominion will arrive in Toronto three days hence on the dot. "Get them up to the top of the hill", is the slogan at Field.

At the west end of the platform there are several tracks, the main line west, and yard tracks, fanning out, and several tracks to the roundhouse. On one of these shop tracks one of the big ones is waiting - one of the 2-10-2s of the 5800 series, pride of the CPR until the 5900s elbowed them into second place. 5810 is humming and thumping and hissing to herself, and the driver is over by the shop, talking. The driver is not too pleased, for often Train No. 2 is light enough to go up the hill unassisted, whereas tonight a wire has come from Revelstoke - "assistance is needed up Field Hill". The shop foreman has read it, and that, in brief, is why 5810 is waiting there. The driver has orders to go on to Louise after, and to assist a westbound freight, so he won't be home until midnight. A long eastbound drag is waiting in the yard further down against the black silhouette of Mount Dennis; the engine has just switched on his headlight.

Yes, there is No. 2's whistle away down by Ottertail; he is over the worst up grade down there, and the wind brings his exhaust to us fitfully. Five hours ago the operator wrote on the board outside his office the fact that "Eastbound Train No. 2, Montreal, due to arrive 7 p.m. P.T., leave 8:20 M.T., arrives 7 p.m. P.T., leaves 8:20 M.T., ON TIME". There are several red barrows full of ice, to put in the ice-boxes; the paper and the candy boys are turning out, and the fellows and the girls in the Y.M.C.A. restaurant are rolling up their sleeves and preparing to do a bit of work. The chime whistle again sounds splendidly down the valley, and, bell clanging, 5902 crashes over the yard switches, whistles to the freight loco, ( which returns the courtesy ), and bears down on the curve; red cars run past more and more slowly, and as they stop out come the porters, and the platform is in a turmoil. The new engine crew, which has been standing at the east end of the station, climbs up into the cab; they chat with the men who have come over from Revelstoke, now 125 miles away, and take over the controls of the engine, which is going through. Back on the platform, various fellows on step-ladders are putting the ice into the coaches; and pusher 5810 has coupled onto the open top observation which was put on at Kamloops in the morning, and has shoved it into the spur; bell clanging, it passes down the other side of the train and out to that pair of automatic signals, the westbound one sticking up to the purple sky in the clear position, and winking greenly at Train No. 2 - "come on, get on with it". The switch is thrown, and down comes 5810 and couples gingerly to the front of 2-10-4 No. 5902. The whole town is down by the line for this free evening sight. Air tests have been completed.
The clock is showing 7:18, or 8:18 Mountain Time as soon as the train gets out of Field - when the "all aboard" sounds. Figures come down from the steps of the restaurant, and tourists slip back out of the cool evening air to the observation; the engine bells are clanging raucously; there are two "pheeps" from the cabs - and there is no level grade ahead now, but a hill!
They are away; 5810 stops ringing, 5902 likewise; both engine throttles are wide open, out for all the run they can get. 5902 loses her feet, and the drivers spin madly as the exhaust hurls thunderous defiance at the mountains. Now they have stopped slipping - booster shuddering and spitting beneath her - winning all the momentum they can get; 5810 has got her teeth into it, pulling steadily. The Rockies are ahead, and the battle is on.
And what a hill! Thirty yards off the platform end it begins; and I have a mental picture of Driver Gilbertson of the Royal Scot that night, looking down the side of the crimson and gold boiler at the test that he was to undergo. The first stretch of 1 in 40 rises and doubles away round a curve; those crews won't be seeing level until Wapta, eleven and a half miles away by rail; and the easiest grade they will see before then will be 1 in 50 ( 2 percent ). 5810 hits the grade first; and the pair of giants thunder ear-splitting defiance as the first twenty yards of hill are spurned by twenty driving wheels. Two black columns of smoke go up to join the pall that hangs over Field, and twelve long red cars slide obediently after the locos, below; the columns rise a hundred feet or more. The thunder of the engines grows louder as the beat of the exhaust is forced down and down by the hill, and by the relentless pull back of those coaches; the smoke is blacker now, although both engines are oil-fired - a pair of ten-driver engines on a 2.2 percent hill, with over a thousand tons to hold them back!
Curves, and again more curves; the line is barged more and more into precariousness by the six thousand foot cliffs that Mount Stephen begins to send down, and the wide white Kicking Horse drops further and further away. Now the locos are down to their minimum pace - twelve miles an hour - and the crash of the exhausts tells the world that Train No. 2 is going up the hill with both engines working wide open and cutoff in full gear, a thing that I have never seen before or since. From the road, gold-capped Stephen fills half the sky; and along that colossal cliff two tiny engines and a string of pinprick lights culminating in the soft but brilliant lamps in the wide-windowed observation car are struggling at a snail's pace for all the height they can get. It is unbelievable that two such tiny things could make such an indescribable noise; the valley is filled with thunder and desperate battle that those infinitesimal little toys may crawl up to the Great Divide.
Just before the mine, Stephen's great buttress goes sheer into the river; and the railway ( now over 100 feet above the white waters ) pierces the rock, and on each side there are snowsheds. The voice of the monsters is muffled and then silenced for a moment, and the long train swings passively in behind.

Suddenly 5810 bursts from the tunnel, and his colleague behind; and when you are in the camp, Stephen's cliff acts as a huge sounding-board. Both exhausts rise straight up like a tree, meeting now two hundred feet above the train and hanging in a long cloud; and above them is that mighty scar in the mountainside, the old avalanche that swept away Cathedral Station in the old days.
 Click to enlarge

And then - the warning for the mine and the lower grade crossing. The desperate wail from the whistles of the twin battling giants sounds clear above the rolling thunder of the combat; and in an instant Stephen's cliffs have taken it up and flung it over to Burgess; Burgess to Cathedral and up to the rose-pink crags; Cathedral to Odgen and far up the Yoho Valley; Odgen to Stephen, back and forth - a great burst of echoes dying fitfully away, and engulfed by the bellow of the engines. Dimly the bells are heard again, clanging raucously as the pair drag their massive load over the grade crossing - as if they needed a warning bell! Several seconds' pause as they crash through the little tunnel, and when they come out they have put on speed, for the hill is easier here. Five miles an hour is all that it is, but the work is not slackened - they must have a run at the next bit. This piece is of 1 in 50 or so, and the train is surrounded by the pines on the long slope which is topped by the Cathedral Crags. Sidings swing out, and here is Cathedral Station; the engines are racing more now, for by the eastern yard limit board the gradient grows worse. Now the sound of the engines is a continuous rapid roar, no longer the staccato barks heard lower down. Now they are toiling round a great curve, and the lower railway bridge over the Kicking Horse is below them; they are labouring over it, and a moment later their thunder is muffled and swiftly silenced - they are under Ogden, in the Lower Spiral tunnel. In the auto camp by the mine, the campers know that half the time is up; in a few minutes the train will go back again, higher up. For to them three stages of a battle royal are played before their eyes.

A few moments later the roar bursts forth again as the two of them make their appearance on the side of Ogden; they are crossing their former line now, over fifty feet above it. This is a gruelling gradient, made worse by a sharp curve and second crossing over the Kicking Horse, and the thunderous explosions of the battling giants echo all down the valley to Field, sounding right up to the ragged pines at timberline. They are moving at hardly more than running pace now, pounding the great 130 pound steel; from side to side they sway with the horsepower in alternate cylinders; the headlights etch the pines with brilliance, and again the hoarse whistles howl in unison for the upper grade crossing. The fireman of 5810 opens the fire-door and paints the black smoke against the pines of gold and red; they cross the road, now running west; sidings branch off, and in a few minutes the buildings at Yoho Station fling back the deafening roar, while the operator stands in the open door of his hut. On they storm, through a cutting; and now they make a wonderful sight from the camp, the sight which so amazed us that first night. A curve, the string gallows by the tunnel, and artillery of the engines is silenced as they enter the snowshed and the tunnel. Only a strange hush, and a hanging smoke, and the gentle squeak and rhythm of the coaches, the ring of flanges on the rails as they take the curve, and billows of steam rising from the tunnel mouth. The high smoke cloud is left, bewildered; it rises indecisively and slowly, waiting for the supplies which will never come to it again; and the last two coaches and the bright observation car slide successively into the Upper Spiral tunnel. That lovely Cathedral mountain holds Train No. 2 in its very vitals. Now the coaches are silenced, and an auto can plainly be heard grinding pitifully in second gear up the hill; it stops, and then a great silence descends on the valley.

Suddenly a plume of smoke bursts out of Upper Spiral, then another. Up and up mounts a new sky-climbing pillar, threatening to darken the very crags of Cathedral, which hang glowing in the last high rays of the setting sun. Slowly the two engines drag their reluctant load from the tunnel, high on the side of Cathedral up there, half way to timberline; they are swallowed up in the pines again, but the hill is just as bad; they must go on, and they do. Higher and higher yet you can follow those columns of smoke, up to the lofty pine-clad saddle between Ogden and Cathedral; and, crawling up a hill that has a very wicked sting in its tail through the top of the Kicking Horse Pass, they burst on the placid enchanted Wapta Lake, sending the very trout scudding away through the clear water.
It may be that they will shut off here and grind to a reluctant stop, if anybody wants to get off; here at Hector Station you have to flag the train. In this case it means that the locos do not get much run at the little stretch up to Sink Lake. Otherwise the pair quicken to a perfectly incredible rate on the level past Wapta and fairly yank the unhappy observation car out of the gorge, going hell for leather at the final hill. Down in the auto camp by the mine all this has sunk to a distant mutter; all that is left is thinning clouds of smoke rolling up with imperceptible slowness into the star-dusted indigo of a summer mountain sky. Up by Hector to the east, where the night is already sweeping over the pass, the battle still goes on; and by Sink Lake the level is reached. The clouds of black smoke roll away un-supplied, and by the switch points the pair come panting to a standstill. 5810 is uncoupled, and rumbles away gratefully to the wye; on each side the mountains look lower now, but the valley is peaceful, and the last echoes have died. A wide valley this, fraught with pride; the Canadian Pacific Railway has done it again; the Rockies have again been conquered, for every successful ascent of the Field Hill is a veritable victory, a cool-headed onslaught into the worst gradients that it has ever been my privilege to see.
5902's bell clangs, and she jerks her train forward; and alone - how thin she sounds - she wheels the twelve coaches away with quickening rhythm, checking momentarily by the dispatcher's cabin. Brakes, no, and plenty of them, to Lake Louise; and an hour and a half hence they will draw placidly into Banff, where we so often saw them. Only 5810 is left; this picture of brute force striving through the mountains has changed, and the actors have stolen away quietly, coming in like lions and going out like lambs. Presently 5810 slips quietly off down to Louise in the wake of No. 2 and complete peace descends on the Kicking Horse Pass - G.H. Soole 1936.
CP 5810 2-10-2 Santa Fe Type Class S2a


Serial Nos.
Cylinders (Dia x stroke)
Drivers (Dia)
Pressure (psi)
Weight (Lbs)

26.5 x 32

Fifteen engines of the 2-10-2 wheel arrangement comprised class S2a. They were known as "Santa Fe" types after the railroad which first introduced such a wheel arrangement in 1903. Canadian Pacific's 2-10-2s were designated "S2" and were numbered in the 5800 series; not only did they precede the "Selkirks" ( 2-10-4 ) by ten years - they were introduced in 1919 - but they were the largest and most powerful locomotives in Canada from the time of their introduction until 1924 when a heavier version of the same type was introduced on Canadian National Railways. Moreover, and unlike the 5900s ( which were constructed by Montreal Locomotive Works ), the S2s were built right "at home" in Canadian Pacific's Angus Shops of Montreal.
The 5800s' comparatively small ( 57 inch ) driving wheels made them rather more useful in freight than in passenger service, but after the arrival of the 2-10-4 Selkirks in 1929, the "Santa Fes" were frequently used as helpers on both freight and passenger trains. A favorite combination up Field Hill when the eastbound "Dominion" was heavy, was a T1 as the train engine, and an S2 coupled ahead to assist.
One or two of them eventually found their way east, and were used in transfer service around the Montreal Terminals, equipped with tiny 5,000 gallon tenders which looked puny trailing after such an impressive locomotive. All had been scrapped by the time that main line dieselization had come into stride - Omer Lavallee.
CP 5901 2-10-4 Selkirk Type Class T1a


Serial Nos.
Cylinders (Dia x stroke)
Drivers (Dia)
Pressure (psi)
Tractive effort (Lbs)
Weight (Lbs)
* 12,000 more with booster

25.5 x 32
441,000 *

25 x 32
435,000 *

25 x 32

Measuring just short of one hundred feet long, the 5900 series of 2-10-4 Selkirk type locomotives were the largest and heaviest steam locomotives in the Commonwealth. In the United States, locomotives of this wheel arrangement were known as "Texas" types, but in the 1930s, a competition conducted among Canadian Pacific employees resulted in the type name "Selkirk" being selected, after one of the ranges of the Rockies through which these dozen impressive locomotives were in daily operation.
Equally at home at the head of the "Dominion" or a long freight train, these versatile and clean lined machines were based at engine houses from Calgary to Revelstoke. Those who yearn for the sight of a "5900" would do well to visit Calgary, where No. 5934 is on display, or the Canadian Railway Museum near Montreal where No. 5935, the last of its breed and the last standard-gauge steam locomotive built for a Canadian railway, is on display. Museum pieces at the age of sixteen, these exhibits are a silent yet telling commentary on railway technological advances in the post-war era - Omer Lavallee


Canadian Pacific's Big Hill a Hundred Years
of Operation

Floyd Yeats
British Railway Modellers of North America
ISBN:  0919487149
50 pages - 11 x 8.5 inches - 28 x 21.5 centimetres - softcover stapled
Original cost $10.
A photographic look at the Canadian Pacific Railway line between Field, B.C., and Lake Louise, Alberta, before and after the construction of the Spiral Tunnels. Now in its fifth printing, it was written by Floyd Yeats who was an engineer on "The Canadian" for many years. Floyd Yeats passed away in June 2000.
Men of Steam:  The Early Careers of Floyd and Bill Yeats on the C.P.
William G. Yeats
British Railway Modellers of North America
ISBN:  091948770X / 0-919487-70-X
48 pages - 8.5 x 11 inches - 21.5 x 28 centimetres - softcover
Cost US$16.98
The Early careers of Floyd and Bill Yeats with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The men worked for the Railway between Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The booklet consists of stories by both men of their experiences working for the Railway for many years.
Spiral Tunnels and the Big Hill, The
Graeme Pole
Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd.
ISBN:  1-55153-908-X
80 pages - 5 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches - 15 x 22.5 centimetres - perfect bound
Original cost $12.95
Railway history comes alive in this fascinating book about one of Canada's most incredible railway stories. It describes the construction and operation of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the treacherous Kicking Horse Pass in the Canadian Rockies.
Associated Web Sites

Canadian Pacific Railway
Kicking Horse Pass - Wikipedia
Field British Columbia - Wikipedia
The Big Hill - Wikipedia
Dad Didn't Like Diesels by Bill Yeats
Double Header Photos by Bill Yeats
The CPR's 2521 by Bill Yeats
Working With Dad by Bill Yeats
Scenic Railroads
Richard Leonard's Steam Locomotive Archive
CPR Empress 2816 Steam Locomotive
MSTS - CP Heritage Steam Collection
Unofficial Home of the Canadian Pacific Railway Steam Program
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http://www.okthepk.ca     Victoria British Columbia Canada