This painting depicts locomotives steaming over a trestle at Kicking Horse Pass, with the Kicking Horse River below and jagged peaks above. The pass straddles the Continental Divide on the border with Alberta, and it is the highest point on the Canadian Pacific Railway, at an elevation of 5,338 ft (1,627 metres). Its colourful name came from James Hector—a naturalist, biologist and doctor on the 1858 Palliser expedition—who was kicked by his packhorse while traversing the pass.
The Rocky Mountains posed a major obstacle to building the transcontinental railway. Despite its rugged terrain, Kicking Horse Pass was chosen for its proximity to the US border and its relatively short distance to the Pacific coast. This choice was so significant to Canada’s history that in 1971 it was designated a National Historic Site.
To speed construction, the company decided to delay blasting a tunnel through Mount Stephen, and instead built a temporary 8-mile (13-km) line over it, with a grade of 4.5%, one of the steepest railway lines anywhere, and far exceeding the desired 2.5% grade. In 1909 the 4.5% grades on BC’s side of the pass were reduced to 2.2% with the construction of Spiral Tunnels, making the route a little longer, but much safer.
In 1886, the Canadian Pacific Railway sent artists west to promote their new railway line through the mountains as a tourist destination. This 1887 watercolour by Toronto artist Richard O’Brien (1832-1900) was one of several he painted along the line.