7 Essential Experiences for the Canadian History Buff

The railroad tracks winding through British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies tell the story of Canada, and to this day, give travellers the opportunity to experience key historical moments—up close and personal. Hop onboard for our magical history tour of seven pivotal moments in Canada’s past that are best experienced by train.

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Driving the last spike in the railroadPhoto: Alexander Ross, Best & Co., Winnipeg

The Last Spike

With just one spike, a nation was united. On the morning of November 7, 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed: a massive, continent-spanning project that was 4 years in the making, and packed with enough calamities to fill whole history books. Built from both ends, the tracks were finally joined with the Last Spike at Craigellachie (pronounced “Cray-GAL-ick-ee”), British Columbia. Travel with luxury train Rocky Mountaineer on its “First Passage to the West” route and you’ll not only have a perfect photo opp of the famous spot (marked by a small railway museum and historical plaques), but you’ll learn rail history from onboard Hosts during the entire trip.

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The Spiral TunnelsPhoto: Richard Thrasher

The Spiral Tunnels

Forming a seemingly impenetrable wall, crossing the Canadian Rockies presented a quandary for those building the Canadian Pacific Railway. The early solution, employed at Kicking Horse Pass, was to lay track on a steep grade with multiple spurs. This approach was eventually abandoned in favour of the engineering marvel known as the Spiral Tunnels. Built in 1909 inside Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain, these two big loops—both nearly a kilometre in length—take trains through the hearts of the mountains, crossing twice under the Trans-Canada Highway and emerging safely above, or below, the pass. You’ll have the opportunity to travel through these historical wonders onboard Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West” route connecting Banff/Lake Louise and Vancouver. (In fact, it’s the only regularly scheduled passenger train that still traverses these engineering marvels, and the views when you come through them are truly remarkable.)

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Old Kamloops CourthousePhoto: Tourism Kamloops

Old Kamloops Courthouse

Built by the same pair of architects who designed the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Kamloops Courthouse inspires the same level of awe as its west coast counterpart. Built in 1873 from locally made red brick, it’s a nice example of Edwardian-Baroque style, and you can admire the façade while walking around town on your evening stopover during your Rocky Mountaineer journey. Under the impressively turreted copper roof, there is an original courtroom with a perfectly preserved witness stand, judge’s bench and jury box, and—down in the basement—slightly spooky prisoner’s cells. The main floor also plays host to a gallery that showcases the work of the town’s thriving arts community.

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Jasper House National ParkPhoto: Rogier Gruys, Parks Canada

Jasper House

Located just outside the present-day Rocky Mountain town of Jasper, Jasper House—now recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada—was once an important weigh-station on the journey west. Located at the confluence of the Yellowhead Pass and the Athabasca Pass, Jasper House operated as a trading post for much of the 19th century. Although little remains of the original house for which it’s named—it’s now a tranquil archaeological site—it’s not difficult to imagine the adventures of those intrepid travellers when strolling the fields.

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Hell's Gate on Rocky MountaineerPhoto: Rocky Mountaineer

Hell’s Gate

Midway between Vancouver and Kamloops, Rocky Mountaineer follows the course of the Fraser River—one of the mightiest rivers in the west. At the southern end of the Fraser Canyon (milepost 7.0), however, the river abruptly narrows to a mere 35 metres, funneling the furiously flowing water (we’re talking twice the volume of Niagara Falls each minute) into seething rapids. It was the river’s namesake, legendary explorer Simon Fraser, who gave the passage its moniker by writing in 1808: "...Surely we have entered the gates of Hell.”

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B.C. gold rushPhoto: ShutterStock

Gold Rush Towns

In the 19th century, Canada’s West—and British Columbia in particular—was a place of dreams; an irresistible lure for men and women dreaming of wealth in the form of tiny golden nuggets. While few actually made a lucky strike during the boom-and-bust days of the Wild West, the places they left behind are nothing short of compelling. At the peak of gold fever, the appropriately-named town of Hope, B.C.,—visible along Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West” and “Journey Through the Clouds” routes—swelled to a population of 400 almost overnight. For an even greater taste of what it was like during the days of the “Cariboo Gold Rush,” take a ride on Rocky Mountaineer’s three-day “Rainforest to Gold Rush” route. Venturing deep into the B.C. wilderness, you’ll spend the night in the former fur trading post of Quesnel, which drew prospectors from all over the world in the hopes of striking it rich. Although the gold hunters are long since gone, an enormous monument in their memory—purported to be the world’s largest gold pan—makes an irresistible photo opp.

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Rocky Mountaineer at Cisco CrossingPhoto: Rocky Mountaineer

The Cisco Crossing

An iconic site for history buffs and railway enthusiasts alike, this spot on the Fraser River features not one, but two railway bridges—one built by Canadian Pacific, the other by Canadian National—in very close proximity. It’s here that the two competing rail lines actually swap sides of the Fraser Canyon (having arrived here first, Canadian Pacific claimed the land that was easier to build on), and has the distinction of being one of the few places in Canada (and the world) where you can capture a photograph of two trains crossing different bridges at the same time. Just as thrilling? Capturing a shot of a train traversing the Canadian Pacific bridge while you’re onboard Rocky Mountaineer: the luxury train crosses the Fraser on Canadian National’s orange truss arch bridge—the longest in the CN system at almost 250 metres.