For more than 125 years, rumours have swirled about the whereabouts of the simple iron spike that Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) pounded into a railway tie at Craigellachie, B.C., on Nov. 7, 1885, connecting the eastern and western portions of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
What happened to the railway spike after the photographer captured that late fall day in the Eagle Pass and the locomotive whistle sounded and the conductor shouted for the first time, “All aboard for the Pacific?” Does it still exist? And if so, where is it and who owns it?
Those questions heated up again last week when a ceremonial sterling silver spike was presented to the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. That spike had been carried west by Lord Lansdowne, the Governor-General of Canada in 1885, but delays and bad weather persuaded him to return to Ottawa with the silver spike still in his pocket.
That's when Mr. Smith, the Scottish-born fur trader and railroad baron, was drafted as a replacement and given a simple iron spike as a substitute. His first blow was off and bent the spike, so it was removed and he pounded a second iron spike into the railway. Everybody agrees that it too was removed.
What happened to it afterwards is less certain. David Morrison, director of history at the Museum of Civilization, said he had never seen that spike or even a photograph of it. “No museum owns it,” he said. “If it does exist, it is in private hands.”
That comment prompted reader Brian Purdy, a former criminal lawyer and photographer, to contact The Globe and Mail to say he had met the owner of the last spike in the Yukon in the mid-1970s and had the photographs to prove it.
As it turns out, The Globe has learned, what is believed to be the legendary last spike resides in a safety deposit box in a Winnipeg bank. Fashioned into the handle of a carving knife and silver plated to enhance its ceremonial appearance, the spike has been in the family of Canadian patent officer W.J. Lynch for three generations.
“It is my understanding that the one I have is the one that was successfully driven at Craigellachie,” W.H. (Binx) Remnant, whose late wife, Marion, was Mr. Lynch's granddaughter, said in an interview. He's even had the spike examined by a metallurgical engineer who attested it was the right age and materials to have been used as a railway spike in the 1880s. “I'm fairly satisfied that it is the genuine article.”
But is it? The late journalist and popular historian Pierre Berton certainly thought so. He included an account of its provenance, though not its exact whereabouts, in his 1971 book, The Great Railway, 1881-1885, The Last Spike. “As far as I know, the one in Winnipeg is the real one,” said historian Brian McKillop, author of Pierre Berton: A Biography. “Nothing else has surfaced,” he said. “There is no other story, and Berton certainly didn't suggest anything to the contrary.”
The Canadian Pacific Railway, which no longer has an official archivist on its payroll, said in an e-mail message that it couldn't corroborate the story of the carving-knife spike and declined an interview. That doesn't bother Dr. Morrison, of the Museum of Civilization. “There is a plausible line of provenance [about the Winnipeg spike],” he said. “It seems like a reasonable conclusion to make. You just can't be 100 per cent sure and that is very often the case.”
There are at least four last spikes embedded in the historical narrative of building the transcontinental railway. Besides the sterling silver spike, there is the iron spike that Mr. Smith bent with his first badly executed blow. Roadmaster Frank Brothers extracted that spike, which Mr. Smith later claimed as a souvenir. He had the bent spike cut into strips, which were mounted with diamonds and presented to the wives of some of the party assembled at Craigellachie. What remained of the bent spike is now on display at the Canada Science and Technology Musuem in Ottawa.
Later, Mr. Smith had another spike, usually called the ordinary or fourth spike, modelled into jewellery for other wives wanting the hot fashion accessory, but he made the strips larger so that discerning eyes could differentiate the knockoffs from the original brooches.
Mr. Smith's aim was truer the second time he raised his hammer at Craigellachie. Eager to thwart souvenir hunters, Mr. Brothers dug out the true last spike and later presented it to Edward Beatty, the first Canadian-born president of the CPR.
This is where the story gets twisty. The spike was subsequently stolen from Mr. Beatty's desk and somehow came into the possession of surveyor and engineer Henry Cambie, who in turn gave it to W.J. Lynch, chief of the patent office in Ottawa as a present for his son Arthur, who was wild about trains and was serving with the British Army Medical Corps. He in turn bequeathed it to his daughter Marion (who was known as Mamie and later as Mame) Remnant. “She was the youngest of his six kids and showed the most interest in it,” explained her daughter Margot Remnant.
Mr. Berton, a man with a nose for a good yarn, knew of the elder Ms. Remnant because he had been a student at the University of British Columbia at the same time as her husband's older brother Peter. So, when he was travelling across the country in the early 1970s to promote his railway books, he invited Mrs. Remnant to meet him in Edmonton. He even signed the title page of her copy of his book, The Last Spike, “For Mamie Remnant, who has it.” And so she did, until she died at age 63 in 1997.
Her widower, a retired businessman and former clerk of the Legislative Assembly of the Yukon, has been keeping it safe ever since in his safety deposit box. But now, approaching his 85th birthday, he's beginning to wonder what he should do with the “carving knife” spike. The father of three is not ready to make a final decision, but he's asking himself: “In the long term … should it not be in a museum somewhere?”
Coincidentally, there is a public institution that would be delighted to have the spike – the Museum of Civilization, which only last week accepted the sterling silver spike from the descendants of William Van Horne. “We would be very happy to entertain an offer to acquire,” Dr. Morrison told The Globe.