Rocky Mountain Express

Synopsis: A history of the nation's first transcontinental railway accompanies a steam-train ride through the Canadian Rockies.
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): Stephen Low
Production: Stephen Low Films
  1 win.
46 min



William Cornelius Van Horne

was born on a dirt farm

in Illinois.

As a young man,

he was given the task

of building the longest,

toughest wilderness railroad

on the face of the earth,

a task many considered



They once roamed the earth

by the tens of thousands.

Their whistles spoke

of distant places,

of adventure and romance.

Abandoned for decades,

what memories

might still be evoked,

what spirits conjured up

from an age left behind

so long ago?

(fire crackling, roaring)

(engine revving)

(steam hissing)

(engine clicking)


(machinery squealing)

Their crews considered them

living things,

each with a unique personality.

Some were cranky and difficult;

others, good natured

and spirited.

2816 has been resurrected

by the Canadian Pacific

in an extraordinary attempt

to illuminate history itself,

to summon the spirits

of the past.

They were explorers, engineers,

surveyors and guides.

They traveled by boat and foot,

packhorse and raft.

They passed through landscapes

the likes of nothing else

on earth.

They fell through ice,

slipped from cliffs,

died in rockslides

and were lost in rapids.

They followed countless rivers

and many a promising route

that ended nowhere.

For years, they searched

for an ideal passage

across the vast mountain

wilderness of western Canada.

(wind whistling)

Some worked too late

into the fall

and were ambushed

by snowstorms.

Trapped in makeshift shelters,

they struggled

to survive winters

that could last

over six months.

After 20 years of exploration

spanning hundreds

of thousands of square miles,

at least 40 men had died

and still no ideal route

had been found

through the mountains.

The province of British Columbia

had joined Canada

on the condition that it would

be connected to the east

by a transcontinental railway.

In desperation, the federal

government began construction

beside a small church

on the edge of the Fraser River

in the spring of 1881.

(train bell ringing)

(whistle blowing)

(engine chugging,

wheels squealing)

(engine chugging)

(bell clanging)

Departing from Vancouver,

what lies ahead is

one of the longest,

toughest railways on earth.

An extraordinary,

3000-mile journey

for a locomotive

that first turned a wheel

over 80 years ago.

(whistle blows)

(chugging rapidly)

(whistle blowing)

(chugging rapidly)

The first few miles along

the Fraser River flood plain

were easy going

for the builders,

at least,

until the line turned north

into the jaws

of the Fraser Canyon.

Hard granite walls towering

3,000 feet above the river

brought construction

to a painful crawl

that would last

over six years.

(whistle blowing)

10,000 men worked

the Fraser Canyon

in the early 1880s.

6,500 were Chinese.

(explosion thunders)

(horse neighs)

They blasted night and day,

drilling tunnels

into the granite rock,

carving roadbeds on the sides

of vertical cliffs.

Working with hand tools

and black powder,

they averaged barely

five feet a day.

In these canyons, six men died

for every mile of track laid,

most of them Chinese.

We can only glimpse

the courage of these men

in the extraordinary work

they left behind.

(whistle blowing)

(engine chugging)

(wheels clacking)



By 1882,

construction moved out

of the Fraser Canyon

and east along

the Thompson River

as the railway climbed inland

up to the central plateau

of British Columbia.

Here the land becomes arid

and the rock gives way

to softer sandstone.

It made for easier


but this barren desert

absorbs little water.

Torrential rains erode

and sculpt sandstone cliffs

into hoodoos that can collapse

into mudslides,

and bury the line.


Here, engineers and tracklayers


a new set of obstacles

that could be neither

filled, nor bridged,

nor tunneled through.

When construction crews

arrived at these lakes,

they fully intended

to bridge them and continue.

But when they dropped weights

attached to 400 feet of rope,

they never reached the bottom.

The lakes would be simply

too deep to cross.

Trains would have to take

the long route around--

as they do to this day.

(engine chugging rapidly)

Where the ground was flat

and the grades easy,

General Manager Van Horne

pushed hard

to make up for time and money

lost in the canyons

and mountains.

They were Canadians, Americans,

British, Europeans, and Asians.

(men chatting, tools clanking)

They froze in bitter cold

and toiled

in fierce summer heat,

eaten raw by insects.

Yet, with bare hands,

they laid as many as six miles

of track every day.

In 1882,

nearly 500 miles of track

were laid in a single season--

a world record and a source

of enormous pride

for the track crews.



(whistle blows)


At the railroad town

of Revelstoke

the canyons, lakes and deserts

of the interior lay behind.

Relatively easy going,

compared to the Selkirk

and Rocky Mountains

looming ahead.

General Manager Van Horne

was an amateur geologist,

a talented artist,

and an accomplished violinist.

Though he was best known

as an all-night,

scotch-drinking poker player.

Perhaps his greatest

gamble, however,

lay in the route chosen

east of Revelstoke.

Van Horne, the CPR,

and the government

were anxious to keep

powerful American railroads

from moving

into Southern Canada.

There were two routes through

the mountains being considered:

a northern route

recommended by the surveyors,

and a southern route

considered much more difficult

by virtually everyone.

A fateful, perhaps reckless,

decision was made,

by the railway and government,

to gamble

on this southern route,

where no passes

were yet known to exist.

An American surveyor

by the name of A. B. Rogers

had convinced many,

including Van Horne,

that he could find

a southern pass

through the Selkirks.

The future

of the Canadian Pacific

was now in the hands

of two Americans.

One, a brilliant leader

and gambler,

the other, a stubborn surveyor

considered wildly eccentric.


(water rushing)

Rogers and his guides only

traveled in the spring

and summer months up the western

face of the Selkirks.


they found no evidence

that humans of any kind

had ever ventured amongst

these almost vertical slopes.

In the summer of 1882,

when Rogers declared

he had discovered

a viable railroad pass,

he did not fully appreciate

the nature of the beast

that would come

to bear his name.

When engineers and tracklayers

arrived the following season,

at the foot of the Selkirks,

they were appalled

by what Rogers

had declared a pass.

They would have to build

massive looping trestles

to give the railway distance

to lessen the steep climb

up the mountain face.

For the men working here,

it was a bad omen.

The trestles were frail,

and prone to fire in the summer

and avalanches in winter.

They were soon replaced

with stone pillars,

and eventually,

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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