The Selkirk Locomotive

                                       © David Watts

Many heroes helped to win and hold the far frontiers

With troops and trade and treaties, hopes and sweat and tears

But the pride of the power of the CPR by which our West was won:

The Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


The Selkirk name in Rupertsland was a failure and a loss

Then they put it onto a mountain chain they said we couldn’t cross

But with CP’s strongest engines, a new day had begun

For the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


Henry Blaine Bowen intended to combine

Power of American size with British classic lines

In ‘twenty-nine he built the first of the new T-1s

And the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


Pulled the “Trans-Canada Limited” starting in that year

Then “The Dominion” through the War, “The Soo-” and “Mountaineer

The Queen when she was Princess in nineteen fifty-one

And the Selkirk Locomotive has never been outdone.


A “free steamer” on the mountain grades with pulling power to spare

From the Great Divide down the Kicking Horse up the valley of the Bear

Through Connaught to Revelstoke, where other power came on

But the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


Other lines had other engines shine and their backers boast

The Jubilees on the corridors, Royal Hudsons coast to coast

But on the Rogers Rocky Mountain high, the Revelstoke-Calgary run

The Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


The last of Bowen’s steamers, built in 1949

Were among the first displaced by diesels on the mountain climb

Sixteen of them were streamlined after a heavier twenty-one

And the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


They reassigned them north and east to run where the land was flat

From Calgary they pulled long freights to Red Deer and The Hat

Sometimes they went west again when diesels were short or down

For the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


They never took the prize for speed or maneuvering on a dime

But dependability unsurpassed on the Rocky Mountain lines

On the high portage of our northwest pass we saw them coming through

The Selkirk—our “Engine that could”—showed what we can do.


The last they ran was fifty-six and only two survive

At Saint Constant near Montreal, and Calgary’s Heritage Drive

Throughout the British Empire until the setting sun

The Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.



You may talk about the U-P “Big Boys” or the “Challengers” one by one

But the Selkirk locomotive has never been outdone.


Notes on “The Selkirk Locomotive”


This can be considered a “data song.” With 10 verses, there’s little left to be said—if you’re a railroader! For others, explanation may still be required:


1       “The Selkirk settlement” in what in Rupertsland—not to be confused with the present day town of Selkirk, Manitoba—was a disaster. The Earl of Selkirk attempted to plant a colony of poor Scottish crofters here with the consent of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He bargained without the severity of the weather, the North West Company and its rivalry with the Bay, and the Métis who considered colonization an invasion of their territory. Many settlers did not survive the winters and some died violently in “the massacre at Seven Oaks.” The colony was subsequently abandoned.

The Selkirk Mountains, named after the same lord, were considered virtually impassable due to their steep grades, heavy snowfall (they’re the filter of Pacific moisture from the incoming Westerlies) and their composition: igneous rock that’s harder than the limestone of the higher, newer Rockies to the west. Geologically, the Selkirks are the backbone of the continent. Their rise, from volcanic extrusion—not eruption—became a stressor on the deposited layers of limestone to the east and contributed to the wrinkling of these layers to form the later Rockies.

For these reasons, most engineering thinking favoured CP’s following the Big Bend of the Columbia River that by-passed the Selkirks—and added 270 km/150 mi to the line. The length of this bypass and extra running time/operating costs that would result, were reasons Major A.B. Rogers was offered an incentive to find a pass through the Selkirks. After Rogers Pass was abandoned by the Railway, replaced by the 8 km/5 mi Connaught Tunnel through Mount Macdonald, it was Selkirk locomotives—named in a contest among CP employees—that redeemed their name, in successfully meeting the challenge.

2       Henry Blaine Bowen, born in Britain, immigrated to Canada where he joined CP and rose to become the Company’s Chief of Motive Power, a position in which he had responsibility for locomotive design. The smooth jacketed, “semi-streamlined” Royal Hudson, Jubilee and later Selkirk locomotives were Bowen designs. These were a hybridization of the British designs he grew up with and North American practice of having most of steam locomotives’ external piping and machinery exposed. American railroads that streamlined their top passenger trains used heavier skirting that covered up almost all mechanical systems. Bowen’s designs proved classic Canadian compromises.

3       The Trans-Canada Limited was a first class sleeping car-only CP train launched in 1929. It ran only two years due to the Depression. Its ornate hardwood finished coaches were assigned to other trains/lines. A complete TCL train is on display at the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook BC: one of the finest restorations in the world.

After demise of the Trans Canada Limited, the Dominion became Canadian Pacific’s top train until its replacement by the stainless steel Canadian in 1955. The Soo-Dominion, shortened as “the Soo-,” was a CP transcontinental train that ran between Vancouver and Chicago, leaving the CP mainline at Moose Jaw SK to follow the Company’s subsidiary Soo Line through Weyburn and Estevan SK, Minneapolis and Saint Paul to the Windy City. In the summer, Soo-Dominion service was supplemented by The Mountaineer, a train over the same route that carried a number of American sleeping cars and private cars of millionaires wanting to see the Canadian Rockies. This mix gave an uncommonly bright, gaudy “circus train” appearance in contrast to the usual standardized CP Tuscan red (burgundy) colour scheme.

All these three trains were normally pulled by Selkirk locomotives for the Calgary-Revelstoke part of the line with the high grades. A little-seen postcard of the 1951 Royal Train shows a streamlined Selkirk ahead of a Royal Hudson in the mountains. Normally the Royal Hudson that had traveled cross-country with the train would have the Number One position, with the Selkirk cut in behind as a “pusher” for extra power. Because of its smoothness of operation and supremacy in the mountain terrain, the Selkirk was given unchallenged precedence here.

4      A “free-steamer” is a locomotive with lots of reserve power for its assignment. Unlike engines at their load limit—as with long freights—a Selkirk did not “bark”: emit heavy, staccato chugging when starting or ascending grades. Selkirks in passenger service and within proper loads gave a muted “chuffing” or “swooshing” that showed the ease with which they operated.

The last part of this stanza summarizes the highlights of the route they operated

5       Two others of Bowen’s “semi-streamlined” engine designs.

6      The last six steam locomotives delivered to Canadian Pacific and the last on Bowen’s watch as Chief of Motive Power arrived in March 1949. Three years later CP’s Executive Vice-President N. R. Crump, freshly returned from an American Master’s degree (Purdue, Ill) on dieselization, began the implementation of his policy in the territory for which the Selkirks were designed and where they excelled. By 1953 all westbound CP trains out of Calgary were pulled by diesels.

7       Because the Railway’s Calgary shops were uniquely equipped to service them, the Selkirks continued to be Calgary-based for the rest of their service lives. As their slightly smaller driving wheels gave them greater power than speed on the plains, they had no more passenger assignments but handled fast and long freights one sub-division east (Medicine Hat) on the mainline or one north (to Red Deer) on the secondary south-north line to Edmonton. The Red Deer turntable was enlarged to be able to handle them. When occasionally they pulled their trains all the way to Edmonton, they had to be turned on the “wye,” a triangle-shaped track configuration for tuning entire passenger trains, as South Edmonton’s turntable was not long enough. On these downgraded assignments the Selkirks lost their classic livery and were painted in the standard black of freight locomotives.

8       The Selkirks’ prime quality was be a Canadian one!

9     The two survivors, both of the T-1c class (the final six delivered in 1949): 5931 sits on a stub of track besides 14th Street SW Calgary and Heritage Drive: the entrance to Heritage Park that houses other CP equipment and memorabilia. 5935, the last steam locomotive built for Canadian Pacific, sits under cover at Expo Rail, the museum of the Canadian Rail Historical Society at Saint-Constant on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence opposite Montréal.