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CPR Magazine Article

Spring 2004

Canadian Pacific Railway Employee Communications
Room 500 401-9th Ave S.W. Calgary AB T2P 4Z4


 CPR Archives collection
CPR Archives collection.

Despite the essential contribution railways make to the overall health of the North American transportation network, the twin bands of steel often appear to have no more than a tenuous foothold in the vast sea of mountains they traverse - and never is that more true than when heavy snowfalls, winter conditions, and bad luck conspire to humble even the most prepared railroaders.
Even as the CPR transcontinental main line was being constructed westward toward the Rocky and Selkirk mountain ranges, in the early 1880s, railway surveyors were awed by the raw power of the avalanches they observed in the direct path of the advancing rails. Major A.B. Rogers, of Rogers Pass fame, had reported the prevalence of spring avalanches to head office while conducting his initial assessment of the route through the mountains. And, in February 1885, just nine months before the completion of the historic east-west link, James Ross, engineer-in-charge, wrote to general manager William Van Horne about his serious misgivings.
"The great trouble we are labouring under at the present is that the men are frightened," Ross related. "Seven have already been buried in slides, though fortunately only two were killed. I find the snow slides in the Selkirks are much more serious than I anticipated, and I think quite beyond your ideas of their magnitude and the danger to the line."
If there were any doubts as to the disruptive potential of the millions of tons of ice and snow that could at a moment's notice tumble down a mountain side at more than 100 miles per hour, sweeping aside anything in their path, they were dispelled during the winter of 1885-86. That year, with the transcontinental line completed but unprotected from the vagaries of winter, the railway was temporarily abandoned. Observation camps, established to record the amount of snowfall and the frequency of avalanche occurrences, determined where snowsheds would be built and snowfighting equipment would be stationed to support winter operations. With annual snowfalls in excess of 50 feet in some areas, and nearly as much occasionally dumped on the main line in a single slide, it was not a pretty picture.
The worst incident occurred in the winter of 1910 as CPR workers worked to clear a slide that had tumbled down from Mt. Cheops at the west end of Rogers Pass. While they struggled to reopen the line - largely with hand shovels - an even worse deluge of snow roared down one of the long sweeping slide paths on the aptly-named Mt. Avalanche, towering on the opposite side of the narrow passage. Sixty-two men were killed. A 100-ton rotary snowplow, of limited use clearing the first slide due to the amount of broken trees and other debris that came to rest on the roadbed, now lay on its side. Hundreds of feet of showshed had been demolished.
It was the final straw that led to the CPR's decision to build the double-track Connaught Tunnel under Mount Macdonald, thereby avoiding the most dangerous section of the pass. The five mile (eight kilometre) bore was one of the most spectacular engineering feats in North America, until the 1980s, when the nine mile (14.5 kilometre) Mount Macdonald Tunnel was driven beneath the same treacherous peaks, just below the Connaught Tunnel.
The Macdonald Tunnel now handles heavier CPR westbound trains, while the Connaught takes eastbound traffic. The twin bores, along with the addition of hundreds of feet of reinforced concrete showshed, have gone a long way toward making the route through the Selkirks more tenable in winter; but CPR railroaders can never let their guards down.
Avalanches have killed hundreds of railroaders over the years; they have knocked bridges from their abutments; they have closed the CPR main line for days and weeks at a time. At the same time, though, many strategies have been put in place to mitigate the effects of the giant, killer snow slides, prevent the tragic loss of workers and keep traffic moving on what continues to be an essential economic lifeline.
In partnership with provincial governments, National Parks, and the men and women who labour to keep the Trans-Canada Highway open through the winter months, CPR now has access to continuous weather monitoring services, detailed snowpack observations, and sophisticated sensors high above the tree line where avalanches occur. The Canadian Armed Forces fire howitzer artillery guns, under the guidance of skilled avalanche observers, to trigger slides under controlled conditions. And the railway's track forces wait to clear whatever winter might throw at them - and spread it away from the roadbed to make way for the next onslaught.
In addition, CPR is proud to partner with the Canadian Avalanche Association to increase awareness and avoid the deadly consequences of one of nature's most destructive forces.
Today in the mountain passes, during the warmer months, you can see the heavy, black plows and spreaders sitting idly in the hot summer sun, like old workhorses put out to pasture.
But when the snow starts to fly, they venture out from their yards in Revelstoke, Golden, and Cranbrook to patrol up and down the line, fighting the fight that ebbs and flows but never ends and - when Old Man Winter does his worst - still clearing the tons of snow and ice that annually cascade down the mountains in avalanches.

This Momentum article is copyright 2004 by Canadian Pacific Railway and is reprinted here with their permission. All photographs, logos, and trademarks are the property of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.