From the history file: The Grand Trunk Pacific

Getting stopped by a train is a frustrating experience, as anyone who’s had to wait for a train to clear the crossing in Vanderhoof.

  • Sep. 16, 2015 8:00 p.m.
The Last Spike

The Last Spike

Barbara Roden

Caledonia Courier

Getting stopped by a train is a frustrating experience, as anyone who’s had to wait for a train to clear the crossing on Burrard Avenue in Vanderhoof can attest. However, there’s a direct connection between that train line, the sinking of the Titanic, and the hit TV show Downton Abbey. If you don’t believe me, then read on. . . .

The train line that runs through Vanderhoof is now part of the Canadian National Railway, but it began life as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The first trans-Canadian railway had been the Canadian Pacific, which was completed in 1885, and for the next twenty years that company enjoyed a lucrative monopoly on rail transport west of Winnipeg. By the early years of the twentieth century the federal government was keen to have another rail line heading west, but taking a more northerly route than the CPR, to provide access for farmers who were expanding northward in the prairies, and encourage new settlers to move to the area.

The Grand Trunk Railway seemed to be the logical company to fill this perceived gap. Indeed, Ottawa had approached the GTR to provide the first trans-Canadian rail link shortly after Confederation in 1867, but the company had declined, preferring to push east and south from Ontario rather than tackle the west. By 1903, however, things had changed, and the GTR was more than receptive to a new request to head to the Pacific.

The company was by then led by a dynamic and visionary General Manager named Charles Melville Hays. He had risen through the ranks of various railways since starting work as a clerk in 1873, and by the time he was appointed GM of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1896 it was approaching insolvency. Hays was appointed to the General Manager’s position by the board in the hopes that he would bring more “American” business practices to the company and turn it around. The strategy worked, with Hays promptly restructuring the company, building new tracks, and purchasing more powerful locomotives.

By 1900 he was already looking west, with grand plans to extend the GTR line to Winnipeg and thence north across the Prairies and B.C. to Prince Rupert, which he saw as a deep water port that was closer to Asia than was the port at Vancouver. He ran into opposition initially, but by 1902 the GTR board, as well as the Canadian government, was prepared to back the ambitious plan.

Hays planned to buy out an Eastern rival, the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), but that company refused; and then, in what must have been an annoying move for Hays,  announced its own plans to build a trans-Canadian rail line, the Canadian Northern Pacific, that would parallel the southern CP line through much of its passage through British Columbia. It was a decision that would prove challenging for the company, since the CP, as the first railway through such difficult terrain as the Fraser Canyon, had naturally chosen the easiest and most convenient places to build, leaving the CNoR to take whatever land was left.

Construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway began in 1905, with Hays envisioning a chain of resort hotels—to match what CP had built along its line—stretching all the way to the coast, and culminating in the proposed Château Prince Rupert. As a result of these grand plans, the population of Prince Rupert—some 3,000 people in 1909—swelled in anticipation of the boom the town would soon undergo.

In 1908 construction of the B.C. portion of the track commenced, and it was soon clear that this would cost far more than anyone had anticipated; the eventual price tag was more than $112,000 (in then-current dollars) per mile. The company was also dealing with difficult terrain (the 186-mile section from Prince Rupert to Hazelton took four years to complete), extreme weather conditions, and a shortage of workers. By 1912 the company’s position was dire, and the line was still two years away from being completed and starting to carry freight and passengers.

In the spring of 1912 Hays was in England, trying to drum up financial support for the Grand Trunk Pacific, but was anxious to be back in Canada, as his daughter Margaret was having a difficult pregnancy and he wanted to be with her. Hays was invited by J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star line, to join him on the maiden voyage of the White Star’s newest ship, the RMS Titanic. On April 10, 1912 Hays, along with his wife Clara, his daughter Orian, his son-in-law Thornton Davidson, his secretary Mr. Vivian Payne, and a maid, Miss Mary Anne Perreault, set sail from Southampton, England in cabin B69, a deluxe suite on the Promenade Deck.

At some time during the evening of April 14, Hays is said to have remarked to a fellow passenger that “The time will come soon when this trend [of passenger ships trying to set new speed records for crossing the Atlantic] will be checked by some appalling tragedy.” If he did say this, then he was remarkably prescient, for Hays could not have known that the Titanic, despite having received several warnings from other ships of icebergs in the way, was ploughing ahead at high speed, intent on setting a new record for the Atlantic crossing. At 11:40 that night the ship struck an iceberg, and less than three hours later was on her way to the bottom of the ocean, taking Hays, Davidson, and Payne with it (the three women in the party were helped into a lifeboat by Hays, and survived).

Hays’s body was recovered, and he was buried in Montreal’s Mount Royal cemetery. Work on the railway continued, and on April 7, 1914 the Last Spike on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was driven home just east of what is now Fort Fraser. The Last Spike of the CNoR Railway was pounded near Ashcroft on Jan. 23, 1915, giving B.C. the distinction of containing  all three of the trans-continental railway last spikes.

However, the completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway did not guarantee a happy ending for the ambitious—and costly—venture. The start of World War One in August 1914 severely impacted rail travel and settlement in the country—particularly in the area through which the GTPR ran—and the loss of Hays proved a lasting blow, as the company’s finances deteriorated into a complicated mess. By early 1919 the company was in serious difficulties, and in March of that year it defaulted on loans to the federal government, leading to the railway being nationalized. In July 1920 the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was placed in the management of a Crown corporation, the Canadian National Railway, where it joined the Canadian National Pacific, which had run into even more severe financial difficulties two years earlier.

And how does all this tie in with a wildly popular British television show? Viewers of Downton Abbey may recall that early in the third series (set in 1920) Lord Grantham, owner of the eponymous house, was forced to confess to his wife that the family fortunes had recently taken a severe blow. His Lordship had been advised to invest in shares of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, on the basis that the proposition could not fail. Fail it did, in rather spectacular fashion, taking with it a number of real-life fortunes in addition to Lord Grantham’s fictitious one.


And there is one last thing which ties fact with fiction, and links a train line in northern B.C. with a hit TV show. One could argue that the death of Charles Hays on board the Titanic in 1912 signalled the beginning of the end for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, as without Hays at its head the company plunged into a turmoil from which it never recovered. It was the death of the heir of Downton Abbey, in the same sinking, that triggered the events depicted in the series. So the next time you’re stopped by a train in Vanderhoof, you can spend the time reflecting that fact and fiction often meet in unexpected ways. It might make your wait pass just a little bit faster.