The history of how the Grand Trunk Pacific shaped the Prince Rupert we know today is laid out in the recently published Iron Road West: An Illustrated History of British Columbia’s Railways.
Geographer and author, Derek Hayes, explores how the rail industry developed the province with a chapter specifically on the promise of Prince Rupert’s location as a future major port city.
While the story of Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and his death on the Titanic is well known in Prince Rupert, Hayes goes further into the history of intense railway competition, and how the province was transformed by the emerging rail network in the early 1900s.
“I collected information, maps and images for years before I actually put pen to paper,” Hayes said.
He researched at museums across the province, the B.C. archives and the Ottawa library. He found old railway maps on eBay, and read through articles from the Prince Rupert Daily News.
The city’s history is laid out in the chapter titled “A railway to the Orient”. In an effort to compete with Vancouver, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway hired town planning consultants, Brett & Hall, to lay out the town.
“They did a lot of good work on the so-called ‘City Beautiful’ movement that was in vogue at that time. The layout of Prince Rupert today reflects that almost completely, all the crescents and curves and so on, and respectful of the topography as well. That’s fairly unusual in a fairly smallish town to have that level of sophistication in its town planning layout, but it was because it was destined to be, or they thought it was destined for bigger things than it actually was,” Hayes said.
The town was cleared by 1909, and there were 2,400 lots available.
In competition with the Canadian Pacific, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway had a few features going for it. Prince Rupert is 800 kilometres closer to Asian markets than Vancouver, and the railway route followed the Yellowhead route from Jasper.
“It was much flatter and actually was the least steep, least graded crossing of any across the Rockies. That saved fuel and time, because you could have more wagons per train, and generally the economics were better than the Canadian Pacific. They thought over time that would overcome the advantage of CP being there first, but of course it didn’t,” Hayes said.
The 240-page book is full of historic photos and maps, with more details on the frontier era of the province, and why Kaien Island was chosen over Port Simpson.
Iron Road West is available Eddie’s News in Prince Rupert or at Misty River Books in Terrace.