Article by Alexander Reford

HE PHOTOGRAPH of the last spike ceremony completing the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 is one of Canada’s most iconic images. A small group of hatted company men, railway workers, and a small boy is gathered around Donald Smith, who is holding a spike maul on a wet November morning in Eagle Pass, British Columbia. Smith looks up at the camera while pounding the last spike into its final home.

Smith mis-hit the spike, which was bent, removed, and later presented to him. The event resulted in one of the more eccentric pieces of presentation jewellery in Canadian history.

Donald Smith had a number of scarf pins made to commemorate the occasion for his wife and for the spouses of his fellow CPR directors.

Like the last spike ceremony itself, the jewel is fairly modest in proportions. It is in the stylized form of a railway spike, 6 cm in length. The pin has 13 mine-cut diamonds, ranging from 0.45 carats to 1.15 carats, along the length and the top, set in gold and silver.

A single round piece of iron, slightly bevelled at the edges, is at the centre of each pin. The iron plug was taken from the last spike itself. The gold setting bears the inscription, « Craigellachie, B.C. 7th Nov. 1885. »

The maker is not known, nor is there any hallmark. The whereabouts of at least four examples of the pin has been documented. The pin given to the railway’s president, George Stephen, is now in the Crown Collection at Rideau Hall. Donated by Robert W. Reford, a descendant of Stephen, it is used by the Governor General or the Governor General’s spouse on occasions such as Installation Day. The pin given to director Harry S. Northcote (who was married to Stephen’s adopted daughter Alice) is in a private collection. The Canadian Pacific Railway has two examples in their archives, one of which is intact and the other entirely denuded of its diamonds, leaving only the lonely iron plug at its core.

The modesty of the pin was probably intentional. In 1885, after five years of construction that had exhausted the resources of the CPR syndicate and the patience of the government and investors, the CPR was barely solvent. Stephen was battling to shore up the company’s share price and staving off creditors with short-term loans secured by mortgages on his Montreal mansion and that of his cousin, Donald Smith. Closely scrutinized by the government and the press, the leaders of the CPR syndicate did not wish to flaunt their wealth or display largesse at a time when they were pressing for more loans and relief bills.

The last spike from which pieces were removed for the commemorative pins has survived and is on display at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. It shows the scars of being drilled liberally, but the number of pieces removed is difficult to determine.

CPR publicist Murray Gibbon wrote in 1935 that the limited distribution of pins in 1885 had led to jealousy in the executive offices of the CPR, requiring additional pins to be made for CPR supporters and senior officials. The second lot of pins is described as being slightly larger, so as to distinguish them from the originals. The pin owned by the descendants of Donald Smith is longer and encrusted with more and larger diamonds than the other examples, appearing to contradict Gibbon. It may have been that Smith commissioned a larger jewel for his wife. A pin was reportedly given to Lady Agnes Macdonald (wife of the prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald). A second one was given to Madame Albani (Emma Lajeunesse), the Quebec-born opera diva. Albani was probably the best-known Canadian of her time. Given her regular appearances at opera houses in Europe, United States, and Canada, the gift of a pin may have been an early example of product placement.

As a presentation object, the last spike pin is less rare than many items of the kind, which are ordered for specific occasions and bear unique inscriptions, but as the sole jewel in the Crown Collection, the pin is an unusual piece that bears witness to an historical event and the creation of Canada as a trans-continental nation.

From Spring/Summer 2015 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Alexander Reford is the director of Les Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens), the historic gardens created by his great grandmother Elsie Reford on the St. Lawrence River at the gateway to the Gaspé Peninsula. He wrote the biographies of three CPR directors—Donald Smith, George Stephen, and R.B. Angus—for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Pin, in the stylized form of a railway spike, with an iron plug taken from the last spike completing the Canadian Pacific Railway

Last spike ceremony, Craigellachie, British Columbia, 1885 Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada