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Sir John A.'s Last Spike


Last night, full of the British Columbia centennial spirit and a certain melan­choly, I pushed my way along an overgrown forest trail, up a steep hill, to a decisive point of Canadian history. Most investigators would not have recog­nized it as such, however. Few investigators seem to pass this way. Only a faded wooden sign, its letters almost indecipherable, its post half rotten, records the historic fact that here, on the thirteenth day of August 1886, Sir John A. Macdonald drove the last spike of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

To be sure, that spike was not as important to the young nation as the spike (a plain iron one because the thrifty builders would not provide the usual gold) driven by Donald Smith in the Rockies, a year earlier, to open the main line of the CPR. Just the same, the last spike of the E. and N. (whether gold or iron) represented a great event in Canada.

We have quite forgotten it now, we are thinking of other things in the centennial year, but in the eighties the E. and N., a small local railway, threatened to dismember the new Confederation.

Vancouver Island wanted that line from Nanaimo to Esquimalt almost as much as it wanted the CPR across the continent. If you will read the private letters of the Marquis of Lorne, then governor general, you will find that the agitation for the E. and N. frequently distracted that able young Englishman. He came out here in person, after riding on horseback across Canada, to find out for himself what made the Islanders so unreasonable about their little railway scheme that British Columbia threatened to withdraw from Confederation if steel tracks did not soon join Nanaimo to Esquimalt.

After some years of fury, appeals to the throne in London and much backroom politics in Ottawa, the railway was finally built by the Dunsmuir coal interests and a bright future was assured. Macdonald himself spiked down the prosperity of the Island with a sledgehammer on a hill called Cliffside, above Shawnigan Lake.

You would have thought that an event so pregnant with hope would have been suitably commemorated, at least with a monument of stone or, preferably, a bronze statue of Macdonald, or Dunsmuir, or both. Instead, a listing sign of wood, not two feet square, stands there in a tangle of underbrush and no one can read its weathered lettering as the train sweeps by.

Last year the sign fell to the ground and I propped it up with rocks, venturing to trespass illegally upon the right-of-way and trusting that, in the interests of history, the E. and N. would not prosecute me. On my annual pilgrimage last night I found that some railway track crew, installing new ties, had paused for a moment to prop the sign up again, an obscure pathetic gesture to Macdonald's renown. But in another year the lettering will have faded out altogether. Soon the decisive point of Canadian history will be entirely forgotten.

Perhaps Macdonald's latest successor, Mr. Diefenbaker, will hear of this minor tragedy and repair it. One of these days, when he has a moment to spare from his onerous duties in Ottawa, I hope the prime minister will come out here, as Macdonald did, and find a new inspiration in our Island air, a quiet sanity in our thick jungle, a sense of the nation's greatness on that lonely hillside. There, I trust, a suitable monument will be erected and dedicated by the prime minister in memory of his famous predecessor—in memory also of those forgotten, name­less men who built our Island civilization.

That would be a valuable reminder for all of us. We think today, when we are enduring a ferry strike and various other difficulties, that we are having a pretty hard time. It would be useful to remember that our grandfathers were having a pretty hard time, too, back in 1886.

Macdonald was getting to be an old man then, his life's work mostly behind him. A plump, moon-faced boy of twelve years was living in Berlin, Ontario, and his name, unknown outside that town, was William Lyon Mackenzie King. The boy to be christened John Diefenbaker had not been born. The city we now inhabit was a crude little town, the nation a frail, quarrelsome collection of local interests that called themselves provinces.

All the visible prospects, as Macdonald drove that spike at Cliffside, certainly did not look encouraging. Business was bad (though the word "recession" had not been invented), politics were in confusion and only a wild optimist like the first prime minister could feel sure that the ramshackle nation could long endure.

Somehow it endured just the same. The spikes at Cliffside and in the Rockies were well and truly driven. Remembering them, contemporary Canadians will see their present problems in better proportion. A symbol of our life in Canada,

the gleaming rails run straight and glistening to the distant horizon. g



Late in the same year, Hutchison informed his readers: "Every cause I have ever supported invariably failed ... my political friends and even dumb animals regard me as a kiss of death. But that long cycle of defeat at last has been broken." His plea had reached the right ears. The officials of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway had written to "inform me that they had done their duty to the father of inform our country." Next time he walked by the lonely station shed at Cliffside, he would not be disappointed. A proper cairn, which still stands, had been erected to commemorate Sir John A.'s Last Spike.


From the Victoria Times, 17 June 1958

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