Skip to content

Sarah Onderdonk’s Salon: Cleaving the heart of the Cascade Range

February 12, 2014

Contracts to build sections of the CPR from Port Moody on Burrard Inlet,  to Savona’s Ferry at the western end of Kamloops Lake, were awarded in 1880 and 1881 to Andrew Onderdonk, an American engineer.

Railroading was a small world and the big projects attracted many who had previously worked together and knew each other intimately,  or who would form lasting bonds during the current work.

The route of the CPR from the coast would follow the north side of the river through the Fraser valley before cutting northward, traversing the steep mountainsides of the Fraser Canyon until it reached the Thompson River, thence eastward, following that river to Kamloops Lake.

Beginning with his first project from Emory to Savona, Onderdonk located his company headquarters and construction workshops at Yale, in the Fraser Canyon.

Chosen by Onderdonk as his General Superintendent was Edward Gibson Tilton of Washington Territory, son of James Tilton. EG Tilton had worked on railroad projects in the Andes Mountains and knew Onderdonk at  San Francisco.  He stayed with the Onderdonks at Yale, a household sometimes referred to as  "Hotel Onderdonk", in honour of Mrs Sarah Delia Onderdonk’s gracious hospitality.

At Emory, five miles below Yale, was located the supply depot and commissariat where Howard Tilton, brother of EG Tilton, was established as Freight Agent.

Also employed at Yale was George Findlay Kyle, a pioneer settler from Washington State with no previous railroad experience, who began as timekeeper, became Assistant to EG Tilton and by 1885, Master of Transportation.

James Leamy  contracted with Onderdonk to build the 29-miles from Emory to Boston Bar.  This section through the Fraser Canyon, requiring 13 tunnels, was considered the most difficult on the entire Canadian Pacific line.

Fraser Cañon - Notman"That portion between Emory and Boston Bar, is, without doubt, un-approached on this continent in its magnitude, and only finds parallel in the great trans-andean and trans-alpine roads of Peru and Switzerland. . . .From Yale to Boston Bar the Fraser finds a passage in the deep and narrow gorge cleaving the heart of the Cascade Range, with bold, precipitous walls thousands of feet in height flanking it on either side."  ( American Engineering News and American Contract Journal, March 31, 1883)


Upon completion of the line to Savona, Onderdonk contracted to continue the railway to Griffin Lake, in the Selkirk Mountains, where it would meet up with the contractors building westward.

James Leamy completed a challenging three miles of rockwork on the railway along Kamloops Lake. 

Moving steadily eastward, the CPR Co. managed by George F Kyle built 19 miles of relatively easy-going railroad from Chicamous Narrows to Craigellachie, whilst James Leamy, teaming up with GB Wright,  pushed the road to the end of Onderdonk’s contract, nine miles through the Eagle Pass to Griffin Lake.

Let go in 1885 - return of Onderdonk's last menIf all had gone according to form, this would have been the spot for the driving of the last spike. However, laying steel on this final section had to be left to the eastern party: Onderdonk ran  out of rails and on September 30, 1885 discharged his men.

Tracklayers from the east continued westward along the road built by James Leamy and met up with the last rails laid by Onderdonk’s men at Craigellachie, where the last spike was hammered in on November 7, 1885.

No comments yet


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s