Big Hill

The next four post’s are railroad related to the building of the historic Canadian Pacific Railroad around 1886. Enjoy!

The grade from Field, British Columbia up to Kicking Horse Pass on the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline was once (1885 to 1909) the steepest and most hazardous in North America. It was called the “Big Hill” and that it was.

The essential problem was that the railway had to climb 1,070 feet in the space of 10 miles from Field at 4,267 feet ascending to the top of the Continental Divide at 5,340 feet.

Note how many smoke plumes, one for each Engine are on this train. They used pullers and pushers.
Public Domain Photo

Field was created solely to accommodate the CPR’s need for additional locomotives to be added to trains about to tackle the Big Hill. They would continue to build even bigger locomotives to serve this purpose.

In a push to finish the work quickly, the descent from the Kicking Horse Pass to the river valley was built on a slope with a steep grade of 4.5%, more than twice the maximum allowed according the CPR directives. Numerous runaway lines failed to prevent the many derailments on the Big Hill, leading to the idea maybe they should rework the line.

Trains loaded with heavy dining cars and sleeping cars were unable to climb the Big Hill. This resulted in the CPR building rest stops for their passengers at Mount Stephen House (Field – 1886) and Glacier House (Rogers Pass – 1886). Mount Stephen House will be the March 15 POST and Glacier House the POST on March 16.

Construction on the Spiral Tunnels began in 1907, driving the trains through two loops deep inside the mountains and reducing the slope of the descent to 2.2%. The area has long been a challenge to the operation of trains and remains so to this day.

Even though the Spiral Tunnels eliminated the Big Hill, the mountains remained and so too did the Field Hill. Field remained an important place as it was still necessary to add helper engines to get trains over the steep grade of the Field Hill. Diesel-electric locomotives would follow, and over the decades bigger and more powerful diesels replaced smaller ones just as was the case with the steam locomotives that had preceded them.

The completion of the railway was not without its problems. The Spiral Tunnels are in use to this day, and the viewpoint is a popular stopping place for visitors to Yoho National Park.

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