Big Hill

From Academic Kids

The Big Hill on the Canadian Pacific Railway main line in British Columbia, Canada, was the most difficult piece of railway track in all of Canada. It was situated in the rugged Canadian Rockies west of the Continental Divide and Kicking Horse Pass. The area has long been a challenge to the operation of trains and remains so to this day. It cannot be said that the railway ever conquered the mountains, only that the railway copes with the challenge and the mountains tolerate the railway.

To complete the Pacific railway as quickly as possible, a decision was made to delay blasting a lengthy 1400 foot tunnel through Mount Stephen and instead build a temporary eight mile line over it. Instead of the desired 2.2% grade (116 feet to the mile) a steep 4.5% grade was built in 1884 (some sources say 4.4%). This was one of the steepest railway lines anywhere. It descended from Wapta Lake to the base of Mount Stephen, along the Kicking Horse River to a point just west of Field, then rising again to meet the original route.

Three safety switches were built to protect against runaway trains. These switches led to short spurs with a sharp reverse upgrade. Speed was restricted to eight miles per hour for passenger trains and six for freight, and elaborate brake testing was required of trains prior to descending the hill. Nevertheless, disasters occurred with dismaying frequency.

Field was created solely to accommodate the CPR’s need for additional locomotives to be added to trains about to tackle the Big Hill. Here a stone roundhouse with turntable was built at what was first known simply as Third Siding. In December 1884 the CPR renamed it Field after C.W. Field, a Chicago businessman who had visited recently on a special train. At that time, standard steam locomotives were 4-4-0’s, capable enough for the prairies and elsewhere, but of little use on the Big Hill. Baldwin Locomotive Works was called upon to build two 2-8-0’s for use as Field Hill pusher engines in 1884. At the time they were the most powerful locomotives built. Two more followed in June 1886. The CPR began building its own 2-8-0’s in August 1887 and over the years hundreds more were built or bought.

This “temporary” line was to remain the main line for twenty-five years until the famous Spiral Tunnels of John Edward Schwitzer (Senior Engineer CPR Western Lines), were opened on September 1, 1909. Even after the opening of the spiral tunnels, Field Hill remained a significant challenge.


  • Pierre Berton The Last Spike McCelland and Stewart Ltd. 1971 Toronto/Montreal 0-7710-1327-2
  • W.Kaye Lamb History of the Canadian Pacific Railway Collier MacMillan Canada Ltd. 1977 ISBN 0-02-567660-1
  • Omer Lavalee Van Horne's Road Railfare Enterprises Ltd. 1974 ISBN 0-919130-22-4 Library of Congress Number 73-86285
  • Robert D. Turner West of the Great Divide Sono Nis Press 1987 Victoria BC ISBN 0-919203-51-5
  • Floyd Yates Canadian Pacific's Big Hill BRMNA Calgary, Alberta 1985 ISBN 0-919487-14-9

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