The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in the Skeena Valley

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway 100 years in the Skeena Valley

GTP Logo2014 is the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first passenger train from the east on what was in 1914 the newly constructed Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.  The first passenger train to travel through the Skeena Valley came in early April 1914 and arrived in Prince Rupert on April 9, 1914.  Only a few days earlier on April 7, 1914, a ceremony was held and the last spike was driven in the last steel rail near Fort Fraser B.C.  Who exactly drove the last spike is not entirely clear (for more on this mystery see Les Kozma's 2014 article in CN Lines footnoted below) however it is known for certain that on that day the tracks of Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) Railway were finally joined.  That first passenger train was largely a train of GTP officials and dignitaries but was in fact the first train to travel the entire GTP line from Winnipeg.  The line, however, did not actually come into full commercial operation until August of 1914.  The first commercial passenger train from the east did not arrive in Prince Rupert until early September, 1914.[1] 

 GTP Train in Prince Rupert 1914

First train to arrive in Prince Rupert, April 9, 1914 (Royal BC Museum Archives #D-08001)

Ten years earlier the president of the Grand Trunk Railway Charles M. Hays stood before the shareholders and announced his vision to complete a Canadian second transcontinental railway to a yet to be built west coast port city of Prince Rupert.  This railway would be called the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.  Over the next ten years, the GTP would promote the advantage of a northern rail line and how it would open up opportunities for mining, agriculture and forestry, not to mention to the new port city of Prince Rupert and the advantage of shorter sailing distances to Asian markets.  Then Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was also convinced of the idea of a second transcontinental railway and therefore assisted by having the Dominion Government of Canada provide financial guarantees during construction.  The GTP expected to recover the costs of construction by profiting from the influx of settlers, the resulting freight shipments and the sale of prospective townsites along the line.  Today, in northwest B.C. Smithers, South Hazelton and Prince Rupert are all communities resulting directly from the GTP. 


Surveyors and engineers had chosen the Yellowhead route through the Rockies Mountains to Prince Rupert because it afforded the best grades.  The GTP had set a high standard for the railway grade of four tenths of 1%, or 21.12 feet per mile and curves were to be 4 degrees or greater.  This would make it the lowest grade railway through the Rocky Mountains in North America.  The Mountain section of the GTP was the most difficult and expensive section of the railway that began in Winnipeg.  The construction of the Mountain section began from two points.  From the east it began at Wolf Creek, Alberta.  From the west it began at Prince Rupert.  The construction of the line began in Winnipeg in 1905, reaching Wolf Creek, near present day Edson, Alberta, in 1909.  The construction of the line going east from Prince Rupert did not begin until May of 1908.  The distance from Winnipeg to Wolf Creek was 916 miles while the Mountain section from Wolf Creek to Prince Rupert was 839 miles.  The principal contractor for the construction of the Mountain section was Foley Brothers, Welch and Stewart Company.


Within the Mountain section the Skeena Valley portion of the railway was a distance of 180 miles from Prince Rupert to Hazelton.  This portion of the railway was the most difficult and the most costly part of the Mountain section.  The total cost to build the rail line from Winnipeg was $109.8 million and of that the Mountain section cost $78.2 million.[2]  The Skeena River from Hazelton to the Pacific Ocean falls 1,000 feet making it one of the most rapidly descending rivers on the west coast of North America.  Such obstacles along the way included the steep mountain walls of the lower Skeena, Kitselas Canyon and the crossing of the Skeena west of Hazelton.  The man in charge of this section of the construction was GTP engineer C.C. Van Arsdoll, nicknamed “four tenths Van” for his insistence that the grade not exceed four tenths of 1% in a mile, even during this difficult section.  This high standard contributed to the challenges and costs of building a railway in this difficult environment. 


Tunnels were extensive, in the first 200 miles of the railway some thirteen tunnels where built totaling over 8,800 feet.  A tunnel 1600 feet long was built at mile 44 on the lower Skeena to avoid excessive snow slides and three tunnels totaling in excess of 2200 feet in length, within one mile, were blasted out of the rock in Kitselas Canyon.  The Kitselas Canyon tunnels were not completed until January 1912.  The steel span bridge across the Skeena at mile 174, thirteen miles west of Hazelton (commonly known as Skeena Crossing) was a 930 foot span completed in March of 1912 and only 10 miles further a second bridge almost 900 feet long was constructed over Sealy Gulch.  It is estimated that to build the first 100 miles of grade east of Prince Rupert cost $80,000 a mile before any track was laid. 

 Kitselas Canyon RR Tunnel 2014  Kitselas RR Tunnel 2014

Kitselas Canyon Tunnels, 2014

Construction on the Skeena portion of the line was carried out by the principal contractor Foley Brothers, Welch and Stewart (F. W & S) who in many cases sublet to other contractors.  Construction camps to house workers were situated along the route approximately every two to five miles.  To services the camps F. W & S employed sternwheeler steamers to ply the waters of the Skeena.  They owned five sternwheelers that would travel the Skeena to the head of navigation at Hazelton.  These vessels, prior to the arrival of the GTP, were the means of choice of getting supplies between the coast and the interior. Ironically the sternwheeler was being used the help build a railway that would end the sternwheeler era on the Skeena.  Throughout construction, due to poor living conditions and low wages, workers were hard to retain and it was said that for every man arriving at camp to work one was leaving.  Workers would often refer to F.W & S Company as Fool’em, Work’em and Starve’em.[3] 


The first passenger train through from the east did not travel the line until April 1914, however, there was passenger service operating on the Skeena section by 1911.  With the arrival of the tracks at Skeena Crossing in March of 1912 the GTP was offering passenger service from Prince Rupert to Hazelton with a ferry service across the Skeena.  Even before this in 1911 passenger service was available for the first 100 miles to Kitselas, which at the time was called Vanarsdol and would later become the site of a station. 

 Skeena Crossing Under Construction 1911

Skeena Crossing Bridge Under Construction 1912 (Royal BC Museum Archives #E-02778)

The GTP situated railway stations at approximately every 6 to 8 miles along the route from Winnipeg and it was no different on the Skeena portion of the line.  At it’s opening in April 1914, the line between Prince Rupert and Hazelton had 22 stations.  Divisional points were also significant sites for railway operations.  They not only had a station but also a roundhouse and rail yard for the maintenance and servicing of locomotives.  Typically divisional points were 100 to 140 miles apart.  The first divisional point east of Prince Rupert was located at the community of Pacific, formerly called Nicholl.  The stations with only a few exceptions were of a standard design.  By far the GTP’s most common station type was the Design ‘A’ 100-152.  At its opening in 1914 this was true for all the stations on the Skeena portion of the line with the exception of Pacific which being a divisional point had a larger 100-159 plan station.  Sadly today, there are no examples of the stations left along the Skeena portion of the line with the exception for the Kwinitsa station which was moved to Prince Rupert’s waterfront.  The stations were all named and the names of these places remain today and in some cases are the names of those involved with the construction of the GTP.  Places such as Dorreen, Salvus, Vanarsdol (later Kitselas) and Ritchie. 

Exstew Station 1959  Dorreen Station 1940s

 GTP Stations at Exstew (L) 1959 and Dorreen (R) 1940s 

Exstew Photo Courtesy of RD McDonald Collection.  Dorreen Photo Courtesy D. Horwill Collection

As noted earlier the GTP opened in the summer of 1914 for full commercial operations but the company was in financial trouble right from its opening.  The first blow to the GTP came two years before it was completed when the railway’s president and visionary Charles M. Hays, on a return trip from Britain to secure capital for the railway died with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.  Eventually the high cost of construction, failed townsite land deals, competition, low traffic volumes and the start of world war one conspired against the success of the GTP.  By 1918 the GTP was in negotiations with the federal government to take over not only the GTP but also the parent Grand Trunk Railway.  The GTP was forced into receivership in 1919 and was eventually taken over by the government.  By 1923 the government rolled several failed railways, including GTP’s competitor the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), into one company and formed the Canadian National Railway (CNR). 


The Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, as a result of the historical significance the GTP had on the development of the region, recognized two GTP related sites.  In 2013 the Regional District added sites within the former GTP railway communities of Dorreen and Pacific to its community heritage registry.  Those sites were the GTP roundhouse at Pacific and the site of the former GTP station at Dorreen. 

GTP Poster

Grand Trunk Pacific Railway 100th Anniversary Poster


[1] Kozma, Leslie, “The Truth About 7 April 1914”, CN Lines, Vol. 17, No. 1, Issue 62, page 13

[2] Leonard, Frank, “A Thousand Blunders: The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Northern British Columbia” UBC Press, 1996., page 89

[3] Stevenson, Jane, “Making Tracks” Northword Magazine, February 2009


Construction of the 930 foot Skeena Crossing Bridge west of Hazelton. BC Archives Photo.
A Grand Trunk Pacific Passenger Train on the Skeena River (near Exchamsiks River) in 1914. BC Archives Photo.