National Geographic : 1994 Dec
surely as these. His grandfather, son of a rail road man in England, came here as a young man and worked on steam engines for the CPR. Bell's father worked for the railroad for 42 years. From the age of six Bell himself went out Saturdays with his father in the steam locomotives, up and down some of these same lines. His father would put a can of beans up on the boiler, they'd cook hot dogs in the firebox, and they'd haul grain. The dream that made this world of grain was a dream of rails. Grain is the railroad's biggest single commodity, but the farmers couldn't have reached the prairie without the railroad, and then, without the railroad, there would have been no way to market the abundant grain the prairie can produce. The idea itself-of a railroad from coast to coast-is older than Canada, but it began to take shape just after nationhood in 1867. Soon it became the single most important thread in the fabric of Canadian identity. "Every nation rejoices in at least one epic moment from its past, as much myth as his tory," wrote Pierre Berton, author of two best-selling books on the CPR, "the Spanish Armada, the storming of the Bastille, the Boston Tea Party, the Long March, the Voortrek. Ours is unique, less violent but equally dramatic: the construction of a line of steel to unknown shores to create a nation." The story of the CPR is almost as frequent ly told to Canadians as the legend of King Arthur is told to Britons: A grandiose dream born long before Canada became a nation, a series of backroom political intrigues, a web of desperate financial maneuvers, and an ordeal of construction across ancient granite, endless prairie, and walls of rock, carried to triumph in 1885 by a young general manager named William C. Van Horne. The final spike-made of iron, not gold, since Van Horne did not like elaborate ceremony-was driven 27 miles west of Revelstoke, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885. "All I can say," Van Home remarked Half a continent, largely unexplored, waited beyond Winnipeg when the CPR began to lay tracks west. A challenge then as now, winter on the prairie sends a conductor to check a frozen switch (bottom).