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Parks Canada photos
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Parks Canada photos
By Rick Reynolds
The Snow War
This is the story of an epic human struggle with nature in Rogers Pass, high in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. For more than 125 years, Rogers Pass has been one of the most complicated transportation corridors in Canada. Many of the problems faced by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 still challenge the operation of the Trans-Canada Highway today.
The Railway Pathfinder
The 1880s were times of feverish surveying activity in the western mountains. In 1871, British Columbia had joined Canada with the understanding that a transcontinental railway would soon be constructed to link it to the east.
Railway surveyor, Major A.B. Rogers, was a determined man. In 1881, Rogers' crew struggled up the Illecillewaet Valley (past present-day Revelstoke). Near the icefield that forms the headwaters of the Illecillewaet River, he glimpsed a narrow pass through the Selkirk Mountains. He knew the long-sought pass had been found – the pass that would soon bear his name. Without this pass, the railway (and highway) would have to take a lengthy detour northward around the Big Bend of the Columbia River.
"The Men are Frightened" ....
By 1885, construction on the new railway line was ascending the Beaver Valley on the eastern flank of the Selkirk Mountains. At Mountain Creek just inside the boundary of Glacier National Park, a trestle was built across a 331 metre gap in the valley, 50 metres above the mountain torrent. A few kilometres farther up the line at Stoney Creek, a bridge was constructed which towered 64 metres above its footings. This bridge was heralded as the highest such structure in the world at the time. After six months of trial by avalanche, forest fire and rainstorm, the railway finally gained the summit of Rogers Pass.
Laying out a good line west down the Illecillewaet Valley was complicated by avalanche paths and steep grades. The problem was solved by constructing an intricate series of loops in the track, lengthening the rail line by five kilometres and carrying it safely down the south side of the valley. Today, the abandoned rail line encircles Loop Brook Campground in Glacier National Park.
From Rogers Pass, the line descended to the Columbia River at what would become the site of Revelstoke. Crossing the Columbia, the line left the Selkirks and entered the Monashee Mountains. On November 7, 1885, the westbound construction crews met the end of steel from the Pacific at Eagle Pass in the Monashees. Canada's first transcontinental railway became a reality with the driving of the last spike 48 kilometres west of Revelstoke at Craigellachie.
"The Climax of Mountain Scenery"
The mountains that battled the railway all winter were tremendous assets in summer. The first scheduled passenger train service started in June, 1886. In summer, when avalanche dangers had passed, passengers could enjoy a view of the Great Glacier protruding from the skyline just west of Rogers Pass.
Below the Great Glacier (later called the Illecillewaet) and on the main line, the railway company constructed Glacier House in 1886. What started as a simple meal stop for passengers grew to become Canada’s first great mountain resort hotel over the next 40 years. North American mountaineering was born in the high peaks that surrounded Glacier House.
In the same year that the first passenger trains ran through Rogers Pass, the Canadian government took steps to preserve the area for all time. Canada's first national park had been declared around the hot springs at Banff in 1885. In 1886, the embryonic Glacier National Park in the Columbias and Yoho National Park in the Rockies were established in an area described as the climax of mountain scenery.
The night of March 4, 1910, began like most other nights for the men working in Rogers Pass. The crew was at the summit clearing a big slide that had come down Cheops Mountain on the west side of the pass and had blocked the tracks.
A half hour before midnight, some of the men outside the cut heard a deep rumbling, then timbers cracking. An unexpected avalanche swept down Avalanche Mountain on the side of the pass opposite the first slide. Trapped within their snow-walled tomb, most of the men never even heard the slide approach. Fifty-eight died.
Between 1885 and 1911, more than 200 people were killed by avalanches on the railway line. Faced with this kind of peril to employees and passengers, crippling costs and steep grades, the railway company prepared to retreat from the summit of the pass. If trains could not go safely over the pass then they would run under it - through an eight-kilometre tunnel piercing Mount Macdonald. The Connaught Tunnel went into operation on December 13, 1916 and Rogers Pass was abandoned to the elements.
The Highway Battle
Design work started on the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway through Rogers Pass in 1956, and in 1962 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker presided over the road’s grand opening at the summit of the Pass.
Crossing 143 avalanche paths, the Trans-Canada Highway runs a gauntlet of white thunder in winter. An elaborate defense system was developed to protect motorists on the new road. Several snowsheds shield the highway from avalanches in particularly hazardous areas, and earth dams, dikes, mounds and catch basins contain or regulate snow slides.
The highway is kept open through the combined efforts of Parks Canada avalanche control and highway maintenance crews, and Canadian Department of National Defense personnel.
Circular gun positions along the road shoulders are used to station a 105 mm howitzer manned by the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. Under the direction of the Parks avalanche scientists, the army bombards known trigger zones high up the avalanche paths. The shock waves from exploding shells trigger avalanches which thunder harmlessly across the closed highway.
There Can Be No Peace
The Trans-Canada Highway has had a major effect on Glacier National Park. The natural environment along the highway corridor has been heavily modified in order to allow safe traffic operations. At the same time, the highway allows millions of people each year an opportunity to see some of the country’s most rugged mountain wilderness.
It would be a mistake to think that Rogers Pass has been subdued. Each winter, crews and equipment are on guard day and night to keep the highway open. Tremendous amounts of human energy and money are spent holding the highway's position in the pass. Every winter, the timeless forces of snowfall and avalanche batter away at the defenses. The Snow War goes on.
Learn and Experience More
Visit Rogers Pass National Historic Site and Glacier National Park during the snow-free season at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre, Illecillewaet Campground and Glacier House, Loop Brook Campground and Trail, Rogers Pass Summit Monument and Memory Garden, and picnic areas and viewpoints throughout the park.
In winter, you can ski the historic backcountry of Rogers Pass on fat touring skis and snowboards (proper equipment and training is strongly recommended).