The Burgess Shale

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.
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.

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.