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Bands of steel & friendly ties – The first boundary arch

October 20, 2014

The Peace Arch was not first ceremonial arch to be erected at the boundary line between British Columbia and Washington State and it is a  culmination of  ideals which first found expression beneath an earlier arch, on a snowy Valentine’s Day in 1891.

1891 02 14 railway matrimonial - NWSR joins FSR at Canada-US boundaryThe last-spike ceremony, February 14, 1891, completing the railway between Brownsville BC and Blaine Washington, was "an important commercial event" as dryly declared the the Seattle Press-Times:

"The event is an important one in the railroad history of this section. It means railway connections from the sound cities with the Canadian Pacific."

Yet for the participants in the ceremony, it developed into something far more significant: a celebration of good will and cooperation between the people of two countries.


The occasion began with the simultaneous arrival at the boundary line of a train from Brownsville on the British Columbia side, and a train from Fairhaven on the United States side. 

Two steaming locomotives, each decorated with flags, bunting and evergreen bows, stood stationary at a gap in the road, awaiting the laying of the last rails.  Snow was blowing in a light wind as the passengers disembarked and huddled together at the line.

An arch had been erected over the rail road at the point it crossed the international boundary, bearing the mottos "British Columbia" and "Blaine, Washington."

Dignitaries arriving for the ceremony included railway executives, members of State and Provincial legislatures, councillors, mayors and foreign consuls. A large crowd from Blaine and neighboring municipalities on both sides of the line had come to witness the event and celebrate the occasion.

Members of the press, representing newspapers across North America, numbered twenty-two.

along the boundary -  1901For many attending, coming from as far away as Victoria, Seattle, Portland and St Paul, Minnesota, it was their first time seeing the border, and it made an impression. Apart from the special arch and banners there was nothing marking the boundary but a clearing.

As the crowd milled about the unprotected frontier awaiting the start of proceedings, jokes were made about the often uneasy relations between nations.  A reporter:

"Much chaff ensued about invasion, annexation, unrestricted reciprocity and conversion, all mixed up with a great many witticisms, and no small amount of good humor."

Lieutenant-Governor Hugh Nelson of British Columbia drove the first silver spike and Washington State Lieutenant Governor Charles E. Laughton, in taking the hammer to drive the next spike, said:

"I hope that all the blows that will ever be struck between the Canada and the United States,  will be blows of this kind."


It was a rather uneasy reference but it laid to rest the latent anxieties of most of the assembled multitude.

At a reception in Blaine following the boundary ritual,  Lieut.-Gov. Nelson gave a short speech, applauding progress, and thanking the people of Blaine for the kindness of their welcome to those from the Canadian side, saying it was


"an indication of the amity which exists, and he hoped would always exist, between these two peoples."

This sentiment was warmly applauded and acting Governor Laughton embraced the spirit of good will, expressing his pleasure

Charles E Laughton - Lieut-Gov Washington State 1891"to participate in uniting these two countries in a bond of international amity; two peoples actuated by the same hopes and ambitions, and between whom the only rivalry that exists is that healthy emulation which conduces to the more perfect development of this our young country."


Laughton’s sentiments evidently matched those of the assembly and his remarks were enthusiastically received.

H Y Thompson - railway attorneyHY Thompson, President of the New Westminster Southern Railway, spoke next, in a "grand oratorical deliverance" considered the best speech of the day. Thompson reviewed the history of the Northwest, placing the day’s events within a broader context:

"the joining of these bands of steel at the boundary was the greatest international event since the memorable treaty which fixed the boundary itself."


Speakers referred to the relationship between the peoples of these two nations as both "brotherly love" and "sisterly love."   The connection of the railways was also characterized as a “wedding.”

Newspaper headlines reported “Hearty Expressions of Mutual Good Will” and “Bonds of Commerce and Friendship.”

On the day, the Americans were generally more effusive in their enthusiasm than the Canadians, who, while enjoying the arm of friendliness thrown around their shoulders, distrusted the grip.

A telegram purporting to be from U.S. Secretary of State James G Blaine  included the statement:

“it is my most earnest wish and hope that the bonds formed today by you may not only be of a commercial union, but of that grander and nobler brotherly love that will unite in the end the two nations in one powerful union. . .”

Hugh Nelson and John Robson of British ColumbiaIt was a bit too much for a bristling Premier John Robson, who  mixed caution with levity:

"Don’t try to knock these two nations into one, for they would be too big for the earth to contain."

Welcoming American guests at New Westminster that afternoon,  Lieutenant-Governor Nelson summed up the theme of hope born out of the day’s celebration with more characteristic British Columbian courtesy:

“May we not anticipate that in all the coming years we shall dwell side by side in mutual helpfulness and mutual esteem."

See also –

First Runs and Auspicious Openings and

“The ‘Little Warbler’ and her Vice-Regal Ladyship” at What Was Herring’s Point?

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