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

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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