What do the story of Canada’s western expansion, the building of the railroad, the discovery of a major fossil deposit and the beginning of tourism in the Canadian Rockies, have in common? History is often described as a chain of events. Here is one tale which intertwines all of the above in a web of people and places all converging together for different reasons.

As the fledgling country of Canada developed, it was united by a grand project: the railroad linking east to west. Geological explorations and the development of a tourism industry led to the discovery of the first fossils in the Canadian Rockies during the 1880s. The discovery of the Burgess Shale by Dr. Charles Walcott, an American geologist and palaeontologist, in 1909 depended heavily on these earlier finds.
What do the story of Canada’s western expansion, the building of the railroad, the discovery of a major fossil deposit and the beginning of tourism in the Canadian Rockies, have in common? History is often described as a chain of events. Here is one tale which intertwines all of the above in a web of people and places all converging together for different reasons.

As the fledgling country of Canada developed, it was united by a grand project: the railroad linking east to west. Geological explorations and the development of a tourism industry led to the discovery of the first fossils in the Canadian Rockies during the 1880s. The discovery of the Burgess Shale by Dr. Charles Walcott, an American geologist and palaeontologist, in 1909 depended heavily on these earlier finds.

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of C.D. Walcott posing with a pry-bar at the Burgess quarry 1912 (?)

Charles Walcott posing with a pry-bar at the Burgess quarry 1912 (?)

 

© 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Part of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” was a railway linking Canada’s four eastern provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario) to the Pacific Ocean. The CPR was a bargaining tool to persuade the Northwest Territories and British Columbia to join the new Confederation (in 1870 and 1871, respectively). After its completion in 1885, the railroad not only bound the young country together, it also opened up vast areas for exploration and exploitation.
Part of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” was a railway linking Canada’s four eastern provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario) to the Pacific Ocean. The CPR was a bargaining tool to persuade the Northwest Territories and British Columbia to join the new Confederation (in 1870 and 1871, respectively). After its completion in 1885, the railroad not only bound the young country together, it also opened up vast areas for exploration and exploitation.

 

Photograph of a train crossing the Kicking Horse River Bridge, 1901

Train steaming along Kicking Horse Bridge with Mount Stephen in the background, British Columbia, 1901.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum. All Rights Reserved.


The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was established in 1842 by the Legislature of the Province of Canada (roughly the area representing the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec today) as its first scientific organization. The Survey played a critical role in evaluating Canada’s vast geological resources, and helped unify the country by demonstrating that its economy could be sustained by a healthy mining industry.

During the first 60 years of its history, the Survey was actively involved in exploring and mapping the vast reaches of the country, including the new lands added when the Northwest Territories and British Columbia joined the Confederation.

The Survey originally assisted in developing mining in Canada by identifying deposits of valuable minerals, but its role also included the collection of specimens (rocks, minerals, plants, animals, artifacts, and fossils) from across the country. Parts of these collections became the heart of the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1856. The GSC retains large collections of minerals, rocks and fossils today.

The railroad Read More
The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was established in 1842 by the Legislature of the Province of Canada (roughly the area representing the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec today) as its first scientific organization. The Survey played a critical role in evaluating Canada’s vast geological resources, and helped unify the country by demonstrating that its economy could be sustained by a healthy mining industry.

During the first 60 years of its history, the Survey was actively involved in exploring and mapping the vast reaches of the country, including the new lands added when the Northwest Territories and British Columbia joined the Confederation.

The Survey originally assisted in developing mining in Canada by identifying deposits of valuable minerals, but its role also included the collection of specimens (rocks, minerals, plants, animals, artifacts, and fossils) from across the country. Parts of these collections became the heart of the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1856. The GSC retains large collections of minerals, rocks and fossils today.

The railroad project became a pressing reason for the Government to expand geological explorations in western Canada. Many of the GSC geologists brought back fossils, including some from Mount Stephen in the Rocky Mountains which would go on to play a key role in the later discovery of the Burgess Shale.

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) survey crews collaborated to locate various potential routes for the railroad and mineral resources that might prove useful for the project (such as coal or iron deposits).
The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) survey crews collaborated to locate various potential routes for the railroad and mineral resources that might prove useful for the project (such as coal or iron deposits).

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Cross section showing final CPR route through the Canadian Rockies, showing elevation of different mountains

Final CPR route through the Canadian Rockies, showing elevation of different mountains. Contrary to its previous plan (proposed by Sandford Fleming in 1871), the CPR opted to complete the last, most challenging section of tracks through the Kicking Horse Pass instead of going by an easier (but much longer) northern route. This decision led to the need for more geological surveys of the area around the pass.

 

© 2011, The University of British Columbia, Rare Books and Special Collections. All Rights Reserved.


At the same time, a group of CPR construction workers and engineers migrated into the area around the nearby village of Field, at the foot of Mount Stephen, to build the palatial Mount Stephen House. It was at this time that key fossils (now considered to belong to the same formation as the Burgess Shale) would be discovered on Mount Stephen by local labourers, catching the attention of GSC geologists working in the area and eventually of Charles Walcott.
At the same time, a group of CPR construction workers and engineers migrated into the area around the nearby village of Field, at the foot of Mount Stephen, to build the palatial Mount Stephen House. It was at this time that key fossils (now considered to belong to the same formation as the Burgess Shale) would be discovered on Mount Stephen by local labourers, catching the attention of GSC geologists working in the area and eventually of Charles Walcott.

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Tinted souvenir postcard showing Mount Stephen House

Tinted souvenir postcard showing Mount Stephen House (mentioned above) and Mount Stephen. C. 1909.

 

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


Photograph a train arriving in front of Field Hotel, British Columbia

Had the rail line not been built, or if the railway had used a different route to the Pacific, who knows how long these fossils would have remained unrevealed? The 1909 discovery of the Burgess Shale by Charles Walcott is deeply rooted in these earlier finds from Mount Stephen.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


Photograph of Swiss ountain guides in the Rockies, 1899

Even as the tracks were being completed, the CPR was launching an ambitious program to bring tourists to the area. The company built a series of lodges and hotels based on those found throughout the European Alps. The company even brought over experienced Swiss mountain guides (seen in photo at Glacier House, British Columbia, 1899) to help tourists make their way through the Rockies.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


View of Takakkaw Falls from Lookout Point, British Columbia, 1901.

The scenic beauty of the mountains and their natural wonders (including fossils) were at the forefront of a burgeoning tourist industry. Here we see a view of Takakkaw Falls from Lookout Point, British Columbia, 1901.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


Photograph of two people climbing a glacier, 1905

Glacier climbing, unknown location in the Canadian Rockies, 1905.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


Photograph of an avalanche, in British Columbia

Falling avalanche, British Columbia, between 1894 and 1912.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


A CPR poster promoting tourism in the Canadian Rockies

Promotional poster produced by Canadian Pacific Railway to promote tourism in the Canadian Rockies, 1910.

 

© 2011, Canadian Pacific Railway Archives. All Rights Reserved.


In a 1910 promotional booklet untitled The Challenge of the Mountains the Canadian Pacifique specifically listed the trilobite fossil discovery site on Mount Stephen as a tourist destination:

"The lower slopes of the mountain have one spot well worth visiting, the fossil bed, where for 150 yards the side of the mountain, for a height of 300 or 400 feet, has slid forward and broken into a number of shaly, shelving limestone slabs, exposing innumerable fossils."
In a 1910 promotional booklet untitled The Challenge of the Mountains the Canadian Pacifique specifically listed the trilobite fossil discovery site on Mount Stephen as a tourist destination:

"The lower slopes of the mountain have one spot well worth visiting, the fossil bed, where for 150 yards the side of the mountain, for a height of 300 or 400 feet, has slid forward and broken into a number of shaly, shelving limestone slabs, exposing innumerable fossils."

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of man possibly collecting Burgess Shale fossils, 1900

Man possibly looking for fossils, Mount Stephen, British Columbia, 1900.

 

© 2011, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. All Rights Reserved.


Mary Vaux photographing flowers in the Rocky Mountains

Mary Vaux photographing flowers in the Rocky Mountains, date unknown. One of the first tourists to the area was Mary Vaux of Philadelphia (who later married Charles Walcott). Vaux was a prominent artist and naturalist who took many photographs in the Canadian Rockies.

 

© 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives. All Rights Reserved.


There is another reason we can thank the “iron horse” (the steam locomotive) for the Burgess Shale fossils. Today, the Burgess Shale (including the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds) is located within Yoho National Park, under the protection of Parks Canada and closed off from casual visitors and fossil-hunters. This helps ensure the fossils are preserved for scientific research while remaining accessible to the public through special guided hikes (the area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980)

But if it had not been for the railway, there might not have been any national parks in this area. The CPR’s focus on tourism and recognition of the huge economic potential of the region gave the company a strong incentive to keep the scenery pristine. As the CPR’s general manager, William Van Horne said, "Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists."

The economic importance of the tourist trade led the CPR to encourage the federal govern Read More
There is another reason we can thank the “iron horse” (the steam locomotive) for the Burgess Shale fossils. Today, the Burgess Shale (including the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds) is located within Yoho National Park, under the protection of Parks Canada and closed off from casual visitors and fossil-hunters. This helps ensure the fossils are preserved for scientific research while remaining accessible to the public through special guided hikes (the area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980)

But if it had not been for the railway, there might not have been any national parks in this area. The CPR’s focus on tourism and recognition of the huge economic potential of the region gave the company a strong incentive to keep the scenery pristine. As the CPR’s general manager, William Van Horne said, "Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists."

The economic importance of the tourist trade led the CPR to encourage the federal government to set aside huge swaths of the Rockies as reserves or national parks. This included the Mount Stephen reserve in 1886 — which eventually became Yoho National Park in 1901.

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

1867, July 1: British North America Act: four provinces join to form Canada.

1870 Canada acquires the Northwest Territories.

1871 British Columbia joins Canada on the promise made by Sir John A. Macdonald to link B.C. to the rest of Canada by railroad within 10 years; Sir Sandford Fleming preliminary survey of the railway routes: 7 possible destinations on the Pacific coast.

1876 Prime Minister John A. Macdonald introduces his "National Policy", including a series of tariffs on imported goods and a renewed focus on a national railway.

1880, October 21: Contract for the completion of the Pacific Railway is signed.

1881, February 15: Canadian Pacific Railway is officially incorporated; search for an alternative passage through the Rocky Mountains begins.

1881, May 29: Discovery of the Rogers Pass.

1884 Railway reaches Kicking Horse Pass.

1885 North West Rebellion.

1885, November 7: Last spike at Craigellachie, B.C.; the CPR is officially finished.

1886 CPR builds Field Hotel (later renamed Mount Stephen House) and receives its first guests in the summer.

1886, Summer: Read More

1867, July 1: British North America Act: four provinces join to form Canada.

1870 Canada acquires the Northwest Territories.

1871 British Columbia joins Canada on the promise made by Sir John A. Macdonald to link B.C. to the rest of Canada by railroad within 10 years; Sir Sandford Fleming preliminary survey of the railway routes: 7 possible destinations on the Pacific coast.

1876 Prime Minister John A. Macdonald introduces his "National Policy", including a series of tariffs on imported goods and a renewed focus on a national railway.

1880, October 21: Contract for the completion of the Pacific Railway is signed.

1881, February 15: Canadian Pacific Railway is officially incorporated; search for an alternative passage through the Rocky Mountains begins.

1881, May 29: Discovery of the Rogers Pass.

1884 Railway reaches Kicking Horse Pass.

1885 North West Rebellion.

1885, November 7: Last spike at Craigellachie, B.C.; the CPR is officially finished.

1886 CPR builds Field Hotel (later renamed Mount Stephen House) and receives its first guests in the summer.

1886, Summer: First collections from the Trilobite Beds; CPR publishes first tourist pamphlet.

1886, July 4: The first passenger train from Montreal/Toronto arrives in Monroe, B.C.

1886, October 10: Creation of Mount Stephen Dominion Reserve.

1888 Charles Walcott’s first publication on fossils from the area.

1892 Whiteaves publication of Anomalocaris canadensis from the Trilobite Beds.

1897 First excursion by the German-Austrian Alpine Club up the Yoho valley.

1899 June: First arrival of Swiss guides.

1901 Mount Stephen Dominion Reserve is renamed Yoho National Park.

1902 CPR builds two log cabins on the shore of Emerald Lake.

1906, March 27: Creation of the Alpine Club of Canada; first annual camp at Yoho Pass in July.

1907 Walcott visits the Trilobite Beds.

1908 Walcott publishes an account of his discoveries in the Canadian Alpine Journal.

1909 Spiral Tunnels are completed, replacing the Big Hill; Discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils by Walcott


© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Since the construction of the CPR through the Rockies, Canadian, federal and provincial governments have taken a number of steps and measures to protect specific areas. From reserves to parks, portions of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and B.C. are now designated as parks and managed by Parks Canada, and their provincial counterparts. The Burgess Shale has been on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1980 and is now part of a broader designation as Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

Research and report on the following:

1. What are the criteria on the UNESCO World Heritage list that justify the designation of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks as a protected site?

2. Discuss the role that the Burgess Shale fossils play in the designation as a World Heritage site.

3. In the Burgeoning Tourism Industry section, there are a number of black and white photographs from the Mary Vaux collection. Describe her experience of having traveled in this region based on these photos.

4. Compare these actual photographs to the CPR promotional material. Is t Read More
Since the construction of the CPR through the Rockies, Canadian, federal and provincial governments have taken a number of steps and measures to protect specific areas. From reserves to parks, portions of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and B.C. are now designated as parks and managed by Parks Canada, and their provincial counterparts. The Burgess Shale has been on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1980 and is now part of a broader designation as Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

Research and report on the following:

1. What are the criteria on the UNESCO World Heritage list that justify the designation of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks as a protected site?

2. Discuss the role that the Burgess Shale fossils play in the designation as a World Heritage site.

3. In the Burgeoning Tourism Industry section, there are a number of black and white photographs from the Mary Vaux collection. Describe her experience of having traveled in this region based on these photos.

4. Compare these actual photographs to the CPR promotional material. Is the promotional information representative of the actual tourist experience? Justify your answer.

5. Look at the colour souvenir postcard of Mount Stephen House. Imagine that you are recipient of this postcard. What does it convey about the tourist experience in the region?

6. What do you suppose is the economic impact?
A. Of the CPR traveling through this region
B. Of designating the Rocky Mountain Parks (including the Burgess Shell) as a UNESCO world heritage site

Timeline section

Look at the timeline and pull out the events related to the construction of the railroad. How are these related to the discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils? Which event is most significant in making this discovery possible?

In the following section: A Late Decision and the First Fossil Discoveries examine the schematic showing the CPR line through the Rocky and Selkirk mountains. Identify the Kicking Horse pass. Discuss the challenges the CPR engineers had in designing a railroad through this kind of landscape.

The photograph showing the steaming train along the Kicking Horse Bridge with Mount Stephen in the background is evocative of the experience the visitors have of being on this train and of the challenges the CPR had in taking this path through the Rockies. Explain this statement from examining this photograph.

© 2011, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

  1. Students explore how the history of the region has influenced Canadian culture and identity.
  2. Students examine factors that led to the settlement of the Canadian west and explore technological achievements.

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