Awed by the majesty of Canada’s Rocky and Columbia Mountains
and the history of Rogers Pass
After weeks of driving through stunning scenery along the west coast of the United States and Canada, I was becoming blasé to nature’s beauty. “More lovely scenery. Check.” My indifference vanished as my husband and I drove east from Revelstoke, British Columbia. The Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Mountains still had the power to inspire awe. We were mesmerized and silent during the 382 kilometre drive on the Trans-Canada Highway from Revelstoke to Banff, Alberta, except for the frequent times one of us said “Wow!”
Rogers Pass is 65 kilometres east of Revelstoke in the Selkirk Ranges of the Columbia Mountains. It is a narrow valley with steep terrain located within Glacier National Park. Its elevation is 1,323 metres (4,360 feet) and it receives heavy amounts of snow in the winter. Prehistoric people never lived in the central Selkirks because of the rugged mountains and harsh climate.
In 1865 the Government of British Columbia commissioned Walter Moberly to find a railway path through the Selkirk Range. After two expeditions, one with Albert Perry, interest waned until 1871 when British Columbia joined Canada based on the building of a transcontinental railway which would connect them with the rest of the country to the east. In 1881, A. B. Rogers, a railway engineer, was hired to find a possible route. He started his search in what is now Revelstoke based on Moberly’s recommendations. In 1882 the site which would bear his name was selected.
The construction of the railway across Rogers Pass was no easy task. A 331 metre long trestle was built to stretch across a gap in the valley wall. It was 50 metres above a rushing mountain torrent. A few kilometres away, the construction of a bridge standing 66 metres above its footing was heralded as the highest such structure in the world. The railway through the pass was completed in 1884 and the full Canadian Pacific Railway transcontinental route was completed in 1885. (The Last Spike occurred at Craigellachie, British Columbia, 48 kilometres west of Revelstoke.)
Shortly after completing the railway line, metres of snow buried the tracks and avalanches destroyed sections. Thirty-one snow sheds were built to protect the line from the worst slide paths. The first scheduled passenger train service began in June 1886.
Avalanches between 1895 and 1911 resulted in over 200 deaths. Given the peril to passengers and employees as well as immense costs of operation, the Canadian Pacific Railway prepared for a change. If the train could not go safely over the pass, maybe it could go under. In 1913 construction began on the longest train tunnel in Canada, eight kilometres through the base of Mount Macdonald.
In the 1950s another effort to cross the Selkirks started. Work began on the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway through Rogers Pass in 1956. The road opened in 1962. Prior to its opening, the road east from Revelstoke was known as the Big Bend route as it followed the Columbia River on a 300 kilometre loop from Revelstoke to Golden. That distance was cut in half and reduced to 148 kilometres via the Rogers Pass.
The highway construction faced many of the same challenges as the railway construction. Travellers pass through several snow sheds to shield the highway from avalanches at hazardous points. Earth dams, mounds and clay basins contain or regulate snow slides. There are about twenty permanent sites for mobile artillery guns used to intentionally trigger avalanches during the winter avalanche season. Rogers Pass has the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program.
Rogers Pass was declared a national historic site in 1991. The Rogers Pass Discovery Centre, a replica of an historic snowshed, contains a museum with information about the history of Rogers Pass.
Springs running down the sides of the mountains reminded me of a trip I’d taken with my family to the west coast when I was in University to visit relatives for the Christmas season. On the way to the west coast, springs ran down the mountains. On our return trip a couple of weeks later these springs had frozen and turned to ice.
Revelstoke, British Columbia is a mountain town of about 7,000 peoples. It has a thriving tourism industry, attracting outdoor enthusiasts year-round. Banff, Alberta is a resort town 140 kilometres west of Calgary. In a beautiful natural setting, it is near to skiing and hiking. Its streets are charming and lively with boutique shops and restaurants.
If you plan to travel this section of the Trans-Canada, be aware there are long stretches with no place to stop. At points the distance between fuel stops is more than 100 kilometres (60 miles). Snow tires or chains are needed in the winter. Driving the route in winter is not recommended if you are unfamiliar with winter or mountain driving. You should carry winter survival gear and check road conditions before starting off.
While the drive in winter may have you holding your breath, the drive any other time of year will simply take your breath away. It is like driving through a postcard.