Rogers Pass

 © David Watts


Not on the field of battle

Not in some hall of glass

Was Canada sealed, but in ice and steel

At the summit of Rogers Pass.


Some people say there’s a single day when our country had its birth

Others point back to the ancient trek of peoples who came first

Some see a deal or document, or a promise at last made good

What made us one land was an unbroken band or rock and steel and wood.



To find a path through the mountains they picked a man who’d never seen a

mountain before

Inside he was soft but he talked loud and tough and drove his workers sore

They stumbled up rocks and groped through valleys deep with snow

Mosquitoes and black flies swarmed round their eyes till they couldn’t see where

to go

One night after a narrow escape they sat around a fire

Some said “It’s a dream that will never be, if we live till we retire.”

Twenty men raised their arms to the sky and vowed if they survived

That they’d keep in touch with each other every year for the rest of their lives.



On a ledge of rocks trying not to fall off they followed the Kicking Horse

Then the next few weeks up Beaver Creek the going got even worse

In an opening in the sloping granite wall where mountain goats nibble the grass

Where the Bear and Illecillewaet waters begin Rogers found his Pass.



Back in the east, few believed the Selkirks could be crossed

Some took the major for a fake, his claim of a pass a fraud

To quell the doubts a party came out to prove that it could be done:

Rogers and Albert, a Doctor Grant, Sanford Flemming and his son.

They picked wild cherries and ate the berries that grew along the trail

And they sat on the rocks cushioned with moss while the Major told his tale

In a saucer-shaped meadow not far below the glaciers circling round

They played leapfrog for the Olympic gods in those peaks a peering down.



Now at the Summit the people come from all the world around

In vans and trucks and tours by bus while the trains go underground

They look at exhibits, see the inscriptions on an arch of wood and stone

Where a bristly man found the link in the line that made our country one.

(Chorus 2 times)


Endnotes/Commentary on “Rogers Pass”


1 Battles played a secondary part in the development of the Canadian spirit. The change from French to British administration in 1759 and the subsequent repulsion of American invasions in 1778 and 1812 contributed to a consciousness of ourselves as different from other European settlers on the North American continent. But apart from creating a sense of ongoing vulnerability, they did not establish what our national spirit would be.

2 The Quebec Conference portrayed in the Fathers of Confederation painting adopted the terms that shaped our 1867 constitution gave expression to a broader Canadian spirit: “dominion from sea to sea.” But Confederation by itself was simply a statement of intent.

3-4 Completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway achieved the “Dominion” hope. Rogers Pass was the last and most difficult link in the route, passing through the igneous backbone of the continent that many believed to be impassable. The discovery of the Pass, as a historical fact and as a human saga of comradeship and struggle, “sealed” Canada as a Dominion.

5 Those who take Confederation as Canada’s birth are leaving out a lot.

6 To counter this (5) limited historical perspective, others go back to the mists of pre-history.

7 Some focus on political agreements, but these were no more the summaries of something that had already occurred, or statements of a future intention.

8. What made Canada a geo-political reality was the completion of the C.P.R.

9. Major A. B. Rogers was a American engineer who’d worked n the plains. The C.P.R. hired him to find a path through the Selkirks. He was offered $5,000 and his name on the map.

10. “Hells Bells” and “the Bishop” were two of the names by which he was known for his feisty manner and steam of profanity. A couple of those who knew him realized this was only a mask for sensitivities he was afraid to show before the men he worked with.

11. The trek up the Illecillewaet Valley was a succession of slogging through dense vegetation, steep rock surfaces and deep drifts from the avalanches of the preceding winter.

12. They “couldn’t see” not only because of the clouds of these insects buzzing around their faces but because bites had swollen their cheeks and eyelids.

13. This took place later the same year not in Rogers Pass but on the continental divide of the Rockies–the other pass Rogers was to survey. The event of the day was finding Rogers’ nephew Albert, who’d been lost for several days. When he didn’t show up at a meeting point, others of Rogers’ party set out in search of him. They found each other when Albert went in the direction of a rifle shot. His supplies had run out, and he’d been without food for days until he found a dead porcupine.

When Tom Wilson saw Rogers’ reunion with Albert, he realized the tough talk was a front. Underneath was a feeling man who loved his nephew deeply. Albert Canyon is named after Rogers’ nephew. The Major’s name was Albert too, but no one in his party called him that.

14. The Major was in his tent writing up his journal for the day. The men were sitting around a campfire smoking their pipes and wondering where this insane adventure would end. Many doubted there’d ever be a railway through the country they were in. Some doubted they’d mak it out alive. Then someone said, “Tell you what: if we do make it out, let’s all be in touch once a year as long as we live.”

15-16. That was the Vow of the Twenty. In 1928 two of them were still alive are writing each other to express their love and appreciation—a bond that was forged in the Canadian wilderness.

17. The path they followed along the cliffs above the Kicking Horse River was so narrow that two parties with pack animals could not pass each other or turn around. If two parties going in opposite directions did meet up on “The Golden Stairs”, they drew lots to decide which would push its hapless mules over the side. Even the aboriginal guides avoided this route.

18. Having descending the west slope of the Rockies, Rogers’ party continued on to the east slope of the Selkirks. The year before–recounted in Stanza 2–they’d ascended the west slope of the Selkirks to the headwaters of the Illecillewaet. When Rogers spotted another stream flowing eastward out of the valley, he believed this was the pass he was looking for.

However he was running low on supplies and it was late in the season. (His men complained that he was always travelling light and underfed them. ) He returned to explore the eastern slope the following year. From the Columbia River near present day Golden he followed Beaver Creek upstream, hoping it would lead him to the valley of the previous summer.

19-20. It was a tributary of the Beaver, Bear Creek, that led back to the valley of the

glaciers where the Illecillewaet River begins.Rogers(‘) Pass was dis-covered!

21-22. But the public would not accept Rogers Pass on his say so. Some eastern newspapers had questioned Rogers’ suitability for the job in the first place. They also held that the Selkirks were impassible by rail, and that the notion of a Canadian transcontinental railway was an exercise in folly. Faced with reports of Rogers’ success, the skeptics promptly decided it was fraudulent. That was easier than to admit their previous three assumptions were wrong.

23-24. Van Horne accepted Rogers’ claim, but to go on the record with it politically, he needed another opinion. He asked Sanford Flemming, surveyor of the earlier Yellowhead Route, and later proponent of standard time, to visit the site with Rogers. Flemming was joined by his son, Rogers by his nephew. Completing the party was a Dr. Grant, a Scottish cleric.

25-26. This follow up party was a leisurely affair. Although he had recommended another pass–before the Government’s choice of more southerly route–Flemming was no egotist, and was quite willing to accept Rogers’ find if it was sound. The group followed Rogers’ lead, enjoying the out or doors and each others’ company.

27-28. It was Flemming who suggested the game of leapfrog to celebrate the find in the presence of the Olympic deities he fancied were looking down on them from the glacier-clad peaks. Two spontaneous rituals–the Vow of the Twenty and the Leapfrog game of the Five—marked Canada’s monumental achievement. The third–the Last Spike at Craigellachie, with its plain iron spike and 15 word speech by Van Horne–was not much more formal.

  1. Rogers’ Pass, reopened with the Trans Canada Highway, is now a tourist site for travellers.

  1. Today’s travellers come by road, the Railway now passes through the Connaught and Mount Macdonald Tunnels–more than 500 feet below the summit. Connaught Tunnel opened in 1916, the Macdonald Tunnel in 1987.