My Town Monday - Kicking Horse Pass - The Big Hill
[1-Looking SW toward Kicking Horse Pass, Mt. Stephen on far right - click to enlarge]
When the Canadian Pacific Railway continued construction on its transcontinental railroad in 1885 the Big Hill was the most difficult portion of the route. It was located in the Canadian Rockies west of the Continental Divide and Kicking Horse Pass.
[2-CP Empress 2816 backing up before running Morant's Curve -click to enlarge]
The rail line route along the Kicking Horse River was considered the worst. From the west end of Wapta Lake the original survey revealed a uniform grade of 2.2% (116 feet to the mile) to Ottertail required a 1,400 foot tunnel through Mount Stephen and exposure to avalanche paths. The CPR realized that digging this tunnel would delay things for a year. This resulted in a temporary alternate route being built instead. The new route descended at 232 feet per mile or 4.5%, more than double, passing Wapta Lake to the base of Mount Stephen, along the Kicking Horse to a point just west of Field, then climbing again the meet the original survey at Muskeg Summit.
[3 - CP Empress 2816 crosses the Ottertail - click to enlarge]
Three special reverse grade dead end spurs to control runaway trains were built. Runaways and deaths did occur despite the safety precautions. The Big Hill between Field and Hector that ran for eight miles was ‘temporary’ for almost 25 years. It took four engines to get 710 tons up the grade. Trains were limited to a certain number of cars; freights were allowed more and passenger trains less. The route was dangerous and very expensive to operate. The remains of one accident can be found near the Kicking Horse River campground.
Trains loaded with heavy dining cars and sleeping cars were unable to climb the Big Hill, resulted in the CPR building rest stops at Mount Stephen House and Glacier House.
[4 - CP Empress 2816 entering Field - click to enlarge]
Special locomotives had to be built to haul the trains up the Big Hill. Heavy 2-8-0’s were enormous for their day, the first Consolidation type equipped with water brakes. Hundreds more would follow, larger and stronger, and were stationed at Field where a train stonehouse with turntable had been built for their storage and maintenance. Field had originally been known as the Third Siding until December 1884 when the CPR named it after C.W. Field, a Chicago businessman, whom they hoped would invest in their railroad.
[5 - Big Hill and CPR 1890]
Big Hill” on the CPR, 1890. Safety Switch No. 1 and its uphill spur are shown foreground and right; the truss bridge under the rear of the train, now known as the "Old Bridge", survives as a tourist attraction.
In 1909 the Big Hill was replaced by an engineering marvel, the Spiral Tunnels, reducing the grade to 2.2%, the norm for railroad tracks for maximum grade, at a cost of $1.5 million.
[6 - Spiral Tunnels in early 1920s - click to enlarge]
The tunnel under Cathedral mountain is 3255 feet long with a turn of 291 degrees, and the one under Mount Ogden turns through 217 degrees over 2992 feet. When the tunnels were bored, the measurements were off on one tunnel 1.5 feet when the two ends connected, and on the other tunnel, six inches.
[7 - CP Empress 2816 climbing rise to Spiral Tunnels - click to enlarge]
A bit of trivia about Mount Ogden: it was once the venue for a piano concert. A railway employee had been transferred and decided to move his small piano by loading it aboard a small push car. As he coasted through the lower tunnel he played his piano, much to the surprise of another railway employee who was patrolling the tunnel, watching for rockfall.
[8 - Spiral Tunnels map - click to enlarge]
There is a lookout just off the Trans-Canada Highway from which visitors can observe both portals of the tunnel. Passengers can ride this route, at least in the summer, on Great Canadian Railtours' "Rocky Mountaineer" train from Calgary to Vancouver.
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