Past, Present & Beyond- The Titanic, Grand Trunk Railway and Downton Abbey

Barbara Roden takes some unlikely subjects, puts them together and creates another intriguing story.

A Stop of Interest plaque marks the spot near Fort Fraser where the Last Spike of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was pounded in 1914.

The CN train whistles in Ashcroft are a source of frustration for many in the village. However, there’s a connection between that train line, the sinking of the Titanic, and the hit TV show Downton Abbey. If you don’t believe me, read on. . . .

What’s now the CN line in Ashcroft began life as the Canadian Northern Pacific Railway, and its northern portion, which goes east to west and terminates in Prince George, began life as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The first trans-Canadian railway had been the Canadian Pacific, completed in 1885, and for the next 20 years it enjoyed a lucrative monopoly on rail transport west of Winnipeg. The federal government was keen to have another rail line heading west, but taking a more northerly route, to provide access for farmers who were expanding northward in the prairies.

The Grand Trunk, which operated in eastern Canada and the northern U.S., was the logical company to fill this gap. It was led by a dynamic and visionary General Manager named Charles Melville Hays, who had risen through the ranks of various railways since starting as a clerk in 1873, and had almost single-handedly pulled the GTR back from the brink of insolvency. By 1900 he was looking west, with plans to extend the GTR line to Winnipeg and thence to Prince Rupert, which he saw as a port that was closer to Asia than was the port at Vancouver. He ran into opposition initially, but by 1902 the GTR board, as well as the Canadian government, was prepared to back the ambitious plan.

Hays wanted to buy out an Eastern rival, the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), but that company refused; and then, in a rather stunning twist, announced plans to extend its rail line west to Vancouver. Construction of the GTPR began in 1905, with Hays envisioning a chain of resort hotels along it, culminating in the proposed Château Prince Rupert. As a result, the population of Prince Rupert – some 3,000 people in 1909 – swelled in anticipation of a boom.

In 1908 construction of the B.C. portion of the track commenced, and it was soon clear that this would cost far more than planned; the eventual price tag was more than $112,000 (in then-current dollars) per mile. The company was also dealing with difficult terrain (the 186-mile section from Prince Rupert to Hazelton took four years to complete), extreme weather conditions, and a shortage of workers. By 1912 the company’s position was dire.

In the spring of that year Hays was in England, trying to drum up financial support, but was anxious to be back in Canada, as his daughter Margaret was having a difficult pregnancy. Hays was invited by J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star line, to join him on the maiden voyage of the White Star’s newest ship, the RMS Titanic. On April 10, 1912 Hays, along with his wife Clara, daughter Orian, son-in-law Thornton Davidson, secretary Mr. Vivian Payne, and a maid, Miss Mary Anne Perreault, set sail from England in cabin B69, a deluxe suite on the Promenade Deck.

At some time during the evening of April 14, Hays is said to have remarked that “The time will come soon when this trend [of passenger ships trying to set new speed records for crossing the Atlantic] will be checked by some appalling tragedy.” If he did say this, he was remarkably prescient, for Hays could not have known that the Titanic, despite warnings of icebergs, was ploughing ahead at high speed to set a new record. At 11:40pm that night the ship struck an iceberg, and less than three hours later had sunk, taking Hays, Davidson, and Payne with it (the three women in the party were helped into a lifeboat by Hays, and survived).

Work on the railway continued, and on April 7, 1914 the Last Spike on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was driven home just east of what is now Fort Fraser. The Last Spike of the CNPR was pounded near Ashcroft on Jan. 23, 1915, giving B.C. the distinction of having all three of the trans-continental railway last spikes.

However, the start of World War I in August 1914 severely impacted rail travel and settlement in the country, and the loss of Hays proved a lasting blow, with the company’s finances deteriorating into a complicated mess. By early 1919 the railway was in serious difficulties, and in March of that year it defaulted on loans to the federal government. In July 1920 the GTR was placed in the management of a Crown corporation, thus joining the CNoR, which had run into severe financial difficulties two years earlier. The new rail system that Ottawa had on its hands was renamed the Canadian National Railway.

And how does all this tie in with a wildly popular British TV show? Viewers of Downton Abbey may recall that early in the third series (set in 1920) Lord Grantham, owner of the Abbey, learned that the family fortunes had taken a severe blow. His Lordship had been advised to invest in shares of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, on the basis that the proposition could not fail. But fail it did, taking with it a number of real-life fortunes in addition to Lord Grantham’s fictitious one.

And there is one last thing which ties fact with fiction, and links a train line in B.C. with a hit TV show. One could argue that the death of Charles Hays on board the Titanic in 1912 signalled the beginning of the end for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. It was the death of the heir of Downton Abbey, in the same sinking, that triggered the events depicted in the series. Fact and fiction often meet in unexpected ways.

Note: In last week’s piece about St. Aidan’s Church it was stated that the church of St. John Before the Gate is on the Bonaparte Reserve. The church is in fact located on the Ashcroft Reserve.

Barbara Roden

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