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Canadian railway’s iconic silver spike joins museum’s collection

Donald A. Smith, later Lord Strathcona, drives home iron spike at Craigellachie, B.C. at 9:22 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1885, completing the CPR transcontinental line. With him are Sandford Fleming (left, top hat and white beard) and W.C. Van Horne (hand in pocket, black beard).

Ross, Best & Co. / CPR Archives / NS1960

How many last spikes does it take to complete a transcontinental railway?

At least three, including a silver one, which has just been given to the Canadian Museum of Civilization by the descendants of Sir William Van Horne, the railway baron who led the construction project that linked the disparate parts of this country with a ribbon of steel back in 1885.

The six-inch-long spike, which was presented in a ceremony in Calgary on Thursday, will go on permanent display within a few months, according to David Morrison, director of archeology and history at the museum in Ottawa. "The family felt, and we strongly agree, that it should be in a public institution for all Canadians to see," Dr. Morrison said, pointing out that the railway was integral to opening the West and achieving Confederation. "It changed everything."

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Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the Marquess of Lansdowne and the governor-general of Canada from 1883 to 1888, carried the silver spike west in his pocket. Bad weather and delays in completing the final section of the railway meant that he had to return to Ottawa before the ceremony could take place at Craigellachie, B.C., on Nov. 7, 1885.

Instead, Donald Smith, the Scottish-born fur trader and railroad baron, was hastily drafted as a replacement. Sporting a flowing white beard and top hat, he had his picture snapped hammering an ordinary iron spike into place. His first blow was off and bent the spike, so it was removed and he pounded a second into the track.

He later retrieved the bent spike and had bits of it fashioned into jewellery for the wives of members of the Canadian Pacific Railway's board of directors. What remained of that spike eventually made its way to the Museum of Technology in Ottawa.

The actual last spike, according to the late Pierre Berton, author of The National Dream and The Last Spike, was removed from the track after the ceremony to save it from souvenir hunters, and given to the son of the patent office president. He apparently recast it into a carving knife, although Dr. Morrison said that he has never seen the remodelled spike or even a photograph of it. "No museum owns it," he said. "If it does exist, it is in private hands."

A more circuitous journey awaited the ceremonial silver spike. Lord Lansdowne bestowed it on Sir William, president of the CPR, who is another top-hatted man in the famous photograph of the pounding of the last spike in Craigellachie.

The spike, along with letters between the two men and a collection of paintings, books, linens, furnishings, photographs and dishes, passed down through the Van Horne family for more than 100 years until they were inherited by Matthew S. Hannon through his sister, who had married Sir William's only grandson. The spike originally rested on Sir William's desk in his mansion on the corner of Stanley and Sherbrooke Streets in Montreal. After that house was demolished, the spike moved to Toronto with the Hannon family.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Hannon's widow, Janet, now in her 80s, asked her five children to decide among themselves who should become the custodian of the spike.

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"We felt it was time it went into the public domain," Sally Hannon, the family spokeswoman, said on Thursday in an interview, conceding her relief that a decision that "could only get more complicated" has been made.

"This is a wonderful but very emotional moment. This has been a huge part of my family history," she said. "We think the driving of the last spike was an iconic moment for the country and we think having this artifact [on display] as a souvenir, as governor-general Lansdowne described the spike, is important. We are delighted the museum has accepted it."

And so is the museum. "We would have been happy to accept the collection," said Dr. Morrison, "but the silver spike is the crowning jewel." It will go be placed in Canada Hall, the museum's permanent display on Canadian history. "It will fit right in. I've already written the label text."

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