The Last Spike

Wikipedia’s start page lists anniversaries, selected from a main entry listing events on that date in history. For November 7, 2005, the selections from the general November 7 entry include the beginning of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia (it was October on the Julian calendar in Russia), the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.
For Canadians, the Last Spike in the CPR at Craigellachie BC in 1885. For Canadian nationalists, a song and a poem and links to photos. The National Archives of Canada have a couple of ways of getting the iconic picture, as a gif image or through a link on a an information page. Or see the section on The Last Spike in the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on the construction of the CPR. The CPR has a different photo on photo history page on its Web site. It is a posed photo of follically gifted men in top hats and tails. For hairy Scots, a note in Canadian history and literature.


Where would Gordon Lightfoot have been without the CPR? Probably fine, but the Canadian Railroad Trilogy is one of his finest songs:

“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run, when the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun … ”

Not as well remembered, E.J. Pratt’s epic poem “Towards the Last Spike” ends with the driving of the spike on November 7, 1885:

Silver or gold? Van Horne had rumbled ‘Iron.’
No flags or bands announced this ceremony,
No Morse in circulation through the world,
And though the vital words like Eagle Pass,
Craigellachie, were trembling in their belfries,
No hands were at the ropes. The air was taut
With silences as rigid as the spruces
Forming the background in November mist.
More casual than camera-wise, the men
Could have been properties upon a stage,
Except for road maps furrowing their faces.
Rogers, his both feet planted on a tie,
Stood motionless as ballast. In the rear,
Covering the scene with spirit-level eyes,
Predestination on his chin, was Fleming.
The only one groomed for the ritual
From smooth silk hat and well-cut square-rig beard
Down through his Caledonian longitude,
He was outstaturing others by a foot,
And upright as the mainmast of a brig.
Beside him, barely reaching to his waist,
A water-boy had wormed his way in front
To touch this last rail with his foot, his face
Upturned to see the cheek-bone crags of Rogers.
The other side of Fleming, hands in pockets,
Eyes leaden-lidded under square-crowned hat,
And puncheon-bellied under overcoat,
Unsmiling at the focused lens — Van Horne.
Whatever ecstasy played round that rail
Did not leap to his face. Five years had passed,
Less than five years — so well within the pledge.
The job was done. Was this the slouch of rest?
Not to the men he drove through walls of granite.
The embers from the past were in his soul,
Banked for the moment at the rail and smoking,
Just waiting for the future to be blown.
At last the spike and Donald with the hammer!
His hair like frozen moss from Labrador
Poked out under his hat, ran down his face
To merge with streaks of rust in a white cloud.
What made him fumble the first stroke? Not age:
The snow belied his middle sixties. Was
It lapse of caution or his sense of thrift,
That elemental stuff which through his life
Never pockmarked his daring but had made
The man the canniest trader of his time,
Who never missed a rat-count, never failed
To gauge the size and texture of a pelt?
Now here he was caught by the camera,
Back bent, head bowed, and staring at a sledge,
Outwitted by an idiotic nail.
Though from the crowd no laughter, yet the spike
With its slewed neck was grinning up at Smith.
Wrenched out, it was replaced. This time the hammer
Gave a first tap as with apology,
Another one, another, till the spike
Was safely stationed in the tie and then
The Scot, invoking his ancestral clan,
Using the hammer like a battle-axe,
His eyes bloodshot with memories of Flodden,
Descended on it, rammed it to its home.
* * *
The stroke released a trigger for a burst
Of sound that stretched the gamut of the air.
The shouts of engineers and dynamiters,
Of locomotive-workers and explorers,
Flanking the rails, were but a tuning-up
For a massed continental chorus. Led
By Moberly (of the Eagles and this Pass)
And Rogers (of his own), followed by Wilson,
And Ross (charged with the Rocky Mountain Section),
By Egan (general of the Western Lines),
Cambie and Marcus Smith, Harris of Boston,
The roar was deepened by the bass of Fleming,
And heightened by the laryngeal fifes
Of Dug McKenzie and John H. McTavish.
It ended when Van Horne spat out some phlegm
To ratify the tumult with ‘Well Done’
Tied in a knot of monosyllables.
Merely the tuning up! For on the morrow
The last blow on the spike would stir the mould
Under the drumming of the prairie wheels,
And make the whistles from the steam out-crow
The Fraser. Like a gavel it would close
Debate, making Macdonald’s ‘sea to sea’
Pour through two oceanic megaphones —
Three thousand miles of Hail from port to port;
And somewhere in the middle of the line
Of steel, even the lizard heard the stroke.
The breed had triumphed after all. To drown
The traffic chorus, she must blend the sound
With those inaugural, narcotic notes
Of storm and thunder which would send her back
Deeper than ever in Laurentian sleep.

Early in this epic, Pratt remarks on the temperament of the Scots entrepreneurs, engineers and politicians who were involved in the project:

Oatmeal was in their blood and in their names.
Thrift was the title of their catechism.
It governed all things but their mess of porridge
Which, when it struck the hydrochloric acid
With treacle and skim-milk, became a mash.
Entering the duodenum, it broke up
Into amino acids: then the liver
Took on its natural job as carpenter:
Foreheads grew into cliffs, jaws into juts.
The meal, so changed, engaged the follicles:
Eyebrows came out as gorse, the beards as thistles,
And the chest-hair the fell of Grampian rams.
It stretched and vulcanized the human span:
Nonagenarians worked and thrived upon it.
Out of such chemistry run through by genes,
The food released its fearsome racial products: —
The power to strike a bargain like a foe,
To win an argument upon a burr,
Invest the language with a Bannockburn,
Culloden or the warnings of Lochiel,
Weave loyalties and rivalries in tartans,
Present for the amazement of the world
Kilts and the civilized barbaric Fling,
And pipes which, when they acted on the mash,
Fermented lullabies to Scots wha hae.
Their names were like a battle-muster — Angus
(He of the Shops) and Fleming (of the Transit),
Hector (of the Kicking Horse), Dawson,
‘Cromarty’ Ross, and Beatty (Ulster Scot),
Bruce, Allan, Galt and Douglas, and the ‘twa’ —
Stephen (Craigellachie) and Smith (Strathcona) —
Who would one day climb from their Gaelic hide-outs,
Take off their plaids and wrap them round the mountains.
And then the everlasting tread of the Macs,
Vanguard, centre and rear, their roving eyes
On summits, rivers, contracts, beaver, ledgers;
Their ears cocked to the skirl of Sir John A.,
The general of the patronymic march.

3 thoughts on “The Last Spike”

  1. Garth Danielson

    I love theTacoma Narrows Bridge falling down. It’s one of my favorite clips of all time, too bad a dog had to die, but it was it’s own fault. Stupid dog.
    That’s a crappy poem, hardly anything rhymes, better to have a picture.
    But, then again I just don’t like poetry, except that one about the guy from Nantucket…it’s dirty, he he he.
    So in Canada the Scots were your Chinese. Good thing you don’t have mom and pop haggis shops as a left over.
    Oh, I just looked up some Last Spike data and it looks like plenty of chinese were killed making their dollar a day. Oh, well things are pretty much the same all over.
    At least we can celabrate the collapse of a bridge and the creation of a great clip. And, really that’s what life is all about, tiny sound bites.
    see ya.
    Garth

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