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The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 Paperback – Aug 14 2001
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The Last Spike, winner of a Governor General's award for non-fiction, is the second of Pierre Berton's lively two-volume history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sequel to The National Dream, which was on best-seller lists for 80 weeks, The Last Spike finishes the story of how a fledgling nation pushed over 3,000 kilometres of steel across the continent in record time. Berton, author of 47 books and Canada's best-known historian, brings the tale to vivid life with comical anecdotes and sparkling characters. The massive railway was started only after a bitter and drawn-out national debate full of scandal, corruption, and backroom warfare. The wrangling wrecked the health of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who broke down with bowel cramps and could not be present when the Governor General finally approved the railway bill for which Macdonald had worked so hard.
Berton excels at recreating the hardscrabble, sometimes brutal realities of the 19th-century frontier and the bizarre, determined, and unscrupulous personalities behind "the Syndicate," the tycoons who masterminded the colossal project. Among them was W. C. Van Horne, the CPR's general manager, a ruthless, cold-eyed marathon poker enthusiast who constantly sucked on Havana cigars. Few Canadians were unaffected by the project. The railway became the spine of life west of Winnipeg for the next century and gave the CPR something close to absolute control over scores of communities. Some 800 villages, towns, and cities sprung up along the right of way, including Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, and Brandon. Construction also brought a flood of settlers, entrepreneurs, and speculators who displaced the First Nations peoples. Winnipeg, with a population of 16,000, had no fewer than 3,000 real estate dealers. "No other company, with the single exception of the Hudson's Bay, has had such an influence on the destinies of the nation," Berton writes in this deft and entertaining narrative. --Alex Roslin
"No novel could surpass The Last Spike for plot; no western for wildness... This is a great book."
"Lively, human and utterly absorbing."
—The Financial Post
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We read of the political negotiations with British Columbia, which at first only wanted a wagon trail. We witness the fighting between the surveyors of different routes through the Rockies. I was surprised to discover that the greatest political difficulty was getting the railroad to go through Ontario, over the desolate granit of the Canadian shield, so that it avoid going south of the lakes, through the US. The Pacific railway had to be an all-Canadian venture. Still in politics, Berton describes the money politics of 1870's and ends by putting us in the House of Commons during the CPR debates of December 1880.
Canada today is a country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, capping the lower 48 of the United States. At Confederation in 1867, Canada ended at the Great Lakes; west of there but not part of Canada was the Hudson's Bay Company's land, the Red River colony (today Manitoba) and British Columbia. Canadian visionaries correctly saw the railway as the only way to ensure Canada survived American expansion. The CPR was a ridiculous undertaking. Imagine a country the size of New Zealand deciding that survival meant a space program and you get the picture.
The CPR was an instance of a particularly Canadian National Policy whose purpose is to keep Canada whole. The price we had to pay then was that expensive all Canadian route.Read more ›
If you are an adult Canadian, you should read this slice of our history.
Most recent customer reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because I am going to cross Canada by rail in September. This book was very enlightening and will make my trip more interestingPublished 11 months ago by Margaret sanders
I read this many years ago and felt then as I do now, "pretty good history-writing" for a journalist. Read morePublished 22 months ago by NGD1948