Regular passenger services no longer come through Field, but the railway is still one of the park’s “sights”, and among the first things you see whether you enter from east or west. That it came this way at all was the result of desperate political and economic horse trading. The Canadian Pacific’s chief surveyor, Sandford Fleming, wrote of his journey over the proposed Kicking Horse Pass route in 1883: “I do not think I can forget that terrible walk; it was the greatest trial I ever experienced.” Like many in the company he was convinced the railway should take the much lower and more amenable Yellowhead route to the north.
The railway was as much a political as a transportation tool, designed to unite the country and encourage settlement. A northerly route would have ignored great tracts of valuable prairie near the US border (around Calgary), and allowed much of the area and its resources to slip into the hands of the US. So, against all engineering advice, the railway was cajoled into taking the Kicking Horse route, and thus obliged to negotiate four-percent grades, the greatest of any commercial railway of the time.
The result was the famed Spiral Tunnels, two vast figure-of-eight galleries within the mountains; from a popular viewpoint about 7km east of Field on Hwy-1, you can watch the front of goods trains emerge from the tunnels before the rear wagons have even entered. More notorious was Big Hill, where the line drops 330m in just 6km from Wapta Lake to the flats east of Field. The first train to attempt the descent plunged into the canyon, killing three railway workers. Runaways became so common that four blasts on a whistle became the standard warning for trains careering out of control (the wreck of an engine can still be seen near the main Kicking Horse Park campground). Lady Agnes Macdonald, wife of the Canadian prime minister, rode down Big Hill on the cowcatcher (a metal frame in front of the locomotive to scoop animals off the track) in 1886, remarking that it presented a “delightful opportunity for a new sensation”. She’d already travelled around 1000km on her unusual perch; her husband, with whom she was sharing the symbolic trans-Canada journey to commemorate the opening of the railway, managed just 40km on the cowcatcher. Trains climbing the hill required four locomotives to pull fifteen coaches; the ascent took over an hour, and exploding boilers (and resulting deaths) were frequent.