Historical Context

As the fledgling country of Canada developed, it was united by a grand project: the railroad linking east to west. Geological explorations and the development of a tourism industry led to the discovery of the first fossils during the 1880s. The discovery of the Burgess Shale by Charles Walcott in 1909 depended heavily on these earlier finds.

Importance of the Canadian Pacific Railroad

Part of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's "National Policy" was a railway linking Canada's four eastern provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario) to the Pacific Ocean. The CPR was a bargaining tool to persuade the Northwest Territories and British Columbia to join the new Confederation (in 1870 and 1871, respectively). After its completion in 1885, the railroad not only bound the young country together, it also opened up vast areas for exploration and exploitation.

Black and white photo of train with child sitting on cow-catcher

Child sitting on cow-catcher of a 95-ton locomotive used to haul trains up Upper Kicking Horse Pass, Field, British Columbia. 1894.

© Whyte Museum of the Rockies

Back to top

The Role of the Geological Survey of Canada

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was established in 1842 by the Legislature of the Province of Canada (roughly the area representing the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec today) as its first scientific organization. The Survey played a critical role in evaluating Canada's vast geological resources, and helped unify the country by demonstrating its economy could be sustained by a healthy mining industry.

During the first 60 years of its history, the Survey was actively involved in exploring and mapping the vast reaches of the country, including the new lands added when the Northwest Territories and British Columbia joined the Confederation.

The Survey originally assisted in developing mining in Canada by identifying deposits of valuable minerals, but its role also included the collection of specimens (rocks, minerals, plants, animals, artifacts, and fossils) from across the country. Parts of these collections became the heart of the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1856. The GSC retains large collections of minerals, rocks and fossils today.

The railroad project became a pressing reason for the Government to expand geological explorations in western Canada. Many of the GSC geologists brought back fossils, including some from Mount Stephen which would go on to play a key role in the later discovery of the Burgess Shale. Later generations of geologists from the GSC would go on to follow these pioneers, collecting other Burgess Shale fossils during the 20th century.

Back to top

A Late Decision and the First Fossil Discoveries

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) survey crews collaborated to locate various potential routes for the railroad and mineral resources that might prove useful for the project (such as coal or iron deposits).

Contrary to its previous plan (proposed by Sandford Fleming in 1871), the CPR opted to complete the last, most challenging section of tracks through the Kicking Horse Pass instead of going by an easier (but much longer) northern route. This decision led to the need for more geological surveys of the area around the pass.

Schematic of final CPR line through the Canadian Rockies, showing elevation of different mountains.

© University of British Columbia, Rare Books and Special Collection

At the same time, a group of CPR construction workers and engineers migrated into the area around the nearby village of Field, at the foot of Mount Stephen, to build the palatial Mount Stephen House. It was at this time that key fossils (now considered to belong to the same formation as the Burgess Shale) would be discovered on Mount Stephen, eventually catching the attention of Charles Walcott. Many of these fossils were discovered by GSC geologists working in the area.

Colour-tinted postcard of a luxurious hotel in front of a large mountain

Tinted souvenir postcard showing Mount Stephen House and Mount Stephen. C. 1909.

© Royal Ontario Museum Archives

Had the rail line not been built, or if the railway had used a different route to the Pacific, who knows how long these fossils would have remained undisturbed? The 1909 discovery of the Burgess Shale by Charles Walcott is deeply rooted in these earlier finds from Mount Stephen.

Back to top

A Burgeoning Tourism Industry

Even as the tracks were being completed, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) was launching an ambitious program to bring tourists to the area. The company built a series of lodges and hotels based on those found throughout the European Alps. The company even brought over experienced Swiss mountain guides to help tourists make their way through the Rockies.

Black and white photograph of two Swiss Guides

Swiss guides at Glacier House, British Columbia, 1899.

© Whyte Museum of the Rockies

The scenic beauty of the mountains and their natural wonders (including fossils) were at the forefront of a burgeoning tourist industry.

Colour brochure entitled 'The Challenge of the Mountains'

Promotional booklet produced by CPR to promote tourism in the Canadian Rockies, 1910.

© Canadian Pacific Railway Archives

In a 1910 promotional booklet entitled The Challenge of the Mountains, the CPR specifically listed the trilobite fossils as a tourist destination near Mount Stephen:

"The lower slopes of the mountain have one spot well worth visiting, the fossil bed, where for 150 yards the side of the mountain, for a height of 300 or 400 feet, has slid forward and broken into a number of shaly, shelving limestone slabs, exposing innumerable fossils."

Black and white photo of man looking at rocks

Man possibly looking for fossils, Field, British Columbia, 1900.

© Whyte Museum of the Rockies

One of the first tourists to the area was Mary Vaux of Philadelphia (who latter married Charles Walcott). Vaux was a prominent artist and naturalist who took many photographs in the Canadian Rockies.

You can share her experience of the Rockies in the Picture Journal relating her story.

Back to top

The Burgess Shale Protected by Parks Canada

There is another reason we can thank the "iron horse" (the steam locomotive) for the Burgess Shale fossils. Today, the Burgess Shale (including the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds) is located within Yoho National Park, under the protection of Parks Canada and closed off from casual visitors and fossil-hunters. This helps ensure the fossils are preserved for scientific research while remaining accessible to the public through special guided hikes (the area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980).

But if it had not been for the railway, there might not have been any national parks in this area. The CPR's focus on tourism and recognition of the huge economic potential of the region gave the company a strong incentive to keep the scenery pristine. As the CPR's general manager, William Van Horne said, "Since we can't export the scenery, we'll have to import the tourists."

Black and white postcard showing people on horseback in front of a log chalet

Souvenir postcard of Chalet at Emerald Lake sent by professor A. P. Coleman, one of the world's foremost glacial geologists who became first Director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Geology in 1913.

© Royal Ontario Museum Archives

The economic importance of the tourist trade led the CPR to encourage the federal government to set aside huge swaths of the Rockies as reserves or national parks. This included the Mount Stephen reserve in 1886 – which eventually became Yoho National Park in 1901.

Back to top