The Last Spike (not the first spike) was the final ceremonial railway spike driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway track in 1885, November 7, at Craigellachie, British Columbia.
This Last Spike symbolized more than the completion of Canada’s first transcontinental railway. It was an iconic moment that represented a new vision of the country, made possible by bridging diverse geographies, and opening it up to new aspirations for the future.
Author Pierre Berton called this event, and the heroic endeavors leading to it, the National Dream. (1,2)
In 1871, a tiny nation, just four years old — it’s population well below the 4 million mark — determined that it would build the world’s longest railroad across empty country, much of it unexplored. This decision — bold to the point of recklessness — was to change the lives of every man, woman and child in Canada and alter the shape of the nation.
In the four years between 1881 and 1885, Canada was forged into one nation by the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Some 2,000 miles of steel crossed the continent in just five years — exactly half the time stipulated in the contract.
The National Dream is above all else the story of people.
At the level of human execution, it was an accomplishment of political, promotional, technological, financial and operational willpower and deed.
This also made it an extraordinary entrepreneurial accomplishment.
Entrepreneurs confront these same elements, and each of these elements become more complex with more extraordinary visions.
Over three thousand kilometers of track had to be laid across the Precambrian shield, navigating unsurveyed forests and marshes, spanning canyons and tunneling through mountains. The vast amount of capital required was more than what a small country could hope to raise by itself. The politics were no less morally exasperating than it is today. Through this complexity, the contract was completed in half the time.
The modern version of this spirit is very much alive all over the world.
I see this aspiration in emerging markets as demographics and technological modernization lift their GDPs at an accelerating rate.
I see this in pockets of innovation across Europe, as companies are financed by regional investors who support the growth of family-owned businesses that intend to prosper over generations as anchors of their local economies.
Of course, I see this in the San Francisco Bay Area, where entrepreneurship and investing are carried out with a spirit of audacity and ambition, and whose playbook is being adapted by accelerators and innovation hubs in metropolitan areas across the United States.
In a world being shaped increasingly by technology and globalization, economic nationalism is reviving worldwide too. Purposeful transformational visions about business and business competition are even more important now for economic sustainability and survival.
This need is timeless: the Last Spike was about building something that never existed before. The path was uncharted. The execution was beyond the norms of the day. Its success was achieved because of a compelling idea that had the potential to expand the rubric of possibility.
However, ideas are not enough. What matters more are the conviction and commitment of the people engaging in a purpose.
Like that Last Spike, any dream is a story about people. It begins with finding people with whom to engage.
The last spike begins with the first spike.
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