Steam locomotion, together with the low rolling friction of iron-flanged wheels on iron rails, enabled George Stephenson (the first of the great railway engineers) to design and superintend the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1830), which began the railway age in England. By 1841 there were some 2100 km of rail in the British Isles and by 1844 the frenetic promotion of railways aptly called "The Mania" was under way. Many of the lasting characteristics of the railway were established in this early stage: steam locomotion, the standard gauge (1.435 m) and the rolled-edge rail (bellying out on the underside for strength).
Railway fever came a little later to British North America, which had a small population and much of its capital tied up in the expansion of its CANALS AND INLAND WATERWAYS. Nevertheless, it did not take long for politicians and entrepreneurs to realize the potential benefits. The Province of Canada (1841) was an enormous country. Its roads were poor and its waterways were frozen for up to 5 months per year. The first true railway built in Canada was the CHAMPLAIN AND SAINT LAWRENCE RAILROAD from La Prairie on the St Lawrence R to St Johns on the Richelieu R (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). Backed by John MOLSON and other Montréal merchants, the line opened officially 21 July 1836. Built as a "portage" between Montréal and Lk Champlain, in practice the railway carried little freight.
The first railway in the Maritimes was the ALBION MINES RAILWAY, built to carry coal from Albion Mines some 9.5 km to the loading pier at Dunbar Pt (near Pictou, NS), opened 19 Sept 1839. The MONTREAL AND LACHINE RAILROAD (1847) was another short (12 km) line built to supplement water transportation.
More ambitious was the ST LAWRENCE AND ATLANTIC RAILROAD, promoted initially by John A. Poor of Portland, Maine, and Canadian entrepreneur Alexander Tilloch GALT. The dual purpose of the line was to provide Montréal with a year-round ocean outlet and Portland with a hinterland. Promotion of the railway set a pattern often repeated later. In the initial enthusiasm, Montréalers subscribed £100 000 but paid up only 10% of that amount. Galt raised another £53 000 in England and mortgaged his land company to get the project moving.
But it was the GUARANTEE ACT, 1849, sponsored in the Canadian legislature by Galt's friend Francis HINCKS, that ensured the railway's completion (1853). The Act guaranteed interest of not more than 6% on half the bonds of a railway longer than 75 miles (120 km). A similar collaboration lay behind the GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY, which began construction in October 1849 and was completed from Niagara Falls to Windsor, Canada West (Ontario), in January 1854. In this case Conservative politician and businessman Allan MACNAB arranged for partners in Canada and the United States, persuaded the legislature to proffer a loan of £200 000, and profited mightily himself.
The most ambitious pre-Confederation railway project in Canada was the GRAND TRUNK RAILWAY - a bold attempt by Montréal to capture the hinterland of Canada West and traffic from American states in the Great Lakes region. The GTR aroused great anticipation, but Canadians had neither the money nor the technicians to build it. The success of Hincks and other promoters in raising money for the GTR and other railway projects was largely due to their determination and the seemingly unbounded enthusiasm of British investors for railways.
By the time it was completed from Sarnia to Montréal in 1860, the GTR was £800 000 in debt to the British banks of Baring Bros and Glyn Mills. Edward WATKIN, sent out by head office to reorganize the railway, declared the GTR "an organized mess - I might say a sink of iniquity." In 1862 the Grand Trunk Arrangements Act put an end to the annual government handouts to the GTR by injecting new capital. The contempt and hostility with which the GTR began to be viewed by the public matched in intensity the early enthusiasm for its potential.
The financial difficulties experienced by all early railways forced massive public expenditures in the form of cash grants, guaranteed interest, land grants, rebates and rights-of-way. In return, the railways contributed to general economic developments, and the indirect benefits for business and employment were clearly large. Unlike canals, railways extended into new territories and pushed the agricultural and timber frontiers westward and northward. The effect of railways on emerging urban centres was crucial and dramatic.
Toronto's dominant position in south-central Ontario was clearly established by its rail connections. It benefited from its connections with the Great Western and its central place on the GTR (neither of which it had done much to help build) and tapped the northern hinterland via the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway (completed to Collingwood, on Georgian Bay, in 1855, with a branch line to Belle Ewart on the south shore of Lake Simcoe), Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway (completed to Owen Sound, on Georgian Bay, in 1873), and Toronto and Nipissing Railway (extended to Lake Simcoe in 1877).
In sparsely populated and nonindustrial areas such as Newfoundland, railways were built for the same reasons and attended by the same problems as were those in central Canada, and tended to diminish in size and importance over time. The development of a Newfoundland Railway system, which was taken over by the CNR in 1923, is a case in point. In 1919 the CPR was earning $16 000 per mile while the Newfoundland system was earning $1500.
The railways played an integral role in the process of industrialization, tying together and opening up new markets while, at the same time, themselves creating a demand for fuel, iron and steel, LOCOMOTIVES AND ROLLING STOCK. The pioneer wood-burning locomotives had huge appetites, and "wooding-up" stations were required at regular intervals along the line. The first locomotive built in Canada, in 1853, was made by James Good of Toronto (the Toronto No. 2 of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron).
Entrepreneurial talents invested in the manufacture of almost everything that went into the operation of the railway, and consequently railways had a positive effect on levels of employment. Some small towns became in fact railway service and maintenance centres, with the bulk of the population dependent on the railway shops, eg, the Cobourg Car Works employed 300 workers in 1881. The railway also had a decisive impact on the physical characteristics of Canadian cities, since the tracks, the yards and the stations became central urban features, around which industries and hotels were built in ways that made the railway a central feature of the urban landscape.
The railway greatly stimulated ENGINEERING, particularly with the demand for BRIDGES and TUNNELS. Canadians contributed a few inventions, notably the first successful braking system (W.A. Robinson, 1868) and the rotary snowplough (J.W. Elliott, 1869; developed further by O. Jull), which made possible safe, regular travel in Canadian winters. The great Canadian railway engineer Sir Sandford FLEMING devised his famous zone system of time to overcome the confusion of clocks varying from community to community along the rail routes.
The second phase of railway building in Canada came with CONFEDERATION in 1867. As historian George Stanley put it in The Canadians, "Bonds of steel as well as of sentiment were needed to hold the new Confederation together. Without railways there would be and could be no Canada." In fact, the building of the INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAY was a condition written into the Constitution Act, 1867. Because political considerations often overrode economic realities (eg, in the circuitous routes the Intercolonial and other railways took to avoid American territory) and because of the grand scale of the new nation, government assistance was crucial.
The Intercolonial was owned and operated by the federal government and was largely financed with British loans backed by imperial guarantees. Despite the badgering of commissioners determined to make political advantage, Sandford Fleming built the Intercolonial to the highest standards and completed it by 1876.
In 1871 BC was lured into Confederation with the promise of a transcontinental railway within 10 years. The proposed line - 1600 km longer than the first US transcontinental - represented an enormous expenditure for a nation of only 3.5 million people. Two syndicates vied for the contract, and it was secretly promised to Sir Hugh ALLAN in return for financial support for the Conservatives during the closely contested 1872 election. The subsequent revelation that Allan was largely backed by American promoters and that he had sunk $350 000 into the Conservative campaign brought down the government (see PACIFIC SCANDAL). The contract with the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY Co, headed by George STEPHEN, was signed 21 Oct 1880.
Macdonald's controversial decision in favour of an expensive all-Canadian route seemed to be vindicated during the NORTH-WEST REBELLION; how would the American government have reacted to Canadian troops moving across American territory? The "Last Spike" was driven 7 Nov 1885 and the first passenger train left Montréal June 1886, arriving in Port Moody, BC, July 4. Completion of the railway was one of the great engineering feats of the day and owed much to the indefatigable supervision of William VAN HORNE and the determination of Macdonald.
Though ostensibly a private enterprise, the CPR was generously endowed by the federal government with cash ($25 million), land grants (25 million acres), tax concessions, rights-of-way, and a 20-year prohibition on construction of competing lines on the prairies that might provide feeder lines to US railways. Whether or not the country received adequate compensation for this largesse has been hotly debated ever since. However, the CPR was built in advance of a market and by a very expensive route through the Canadian Shield of northern Ontario. It had a profound effect on the settlement of the PRAIRIE WEST, and new cities, from Winnipeg to Vancouver, virtually owed their lives to the artery. Other western towns were strung out along the railway like beads on a string.
The flood of immigrants to the Prairie West after 1900 and the dramatic increase in agriculture soon proved the CPR inadequate, and a third phase of railway expansion began. Numerous branches sprouted in the West, of which the most notable was the CANADIAN NORTHERN RAILWAY, owned by the 2 bold entrepreneurs Donald MANN and William MACKENZIE. The Canadian Northern grew by leasing and absorbing other lines; it also constructed new links to Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Edmonton, and pushed on through the YELLOWHEAD PASS. It was linked to the East, with its main eastern terminus at Montréal, and also operated mileage in eastern Québec and the Maritimes.
Though sometimes portrayed as rapacious promoters, Mackenzie and Mann built their railway to serve western needs that were not being met by the CPR, and they invested most of their own fortunes in the enterprise. Nevertheless, the railway received public assistance of $250 million, most of it in the form of provincial and federal bond guarantees.
Meanwhile, the formerly aloof Grand Trunk was finally roused, under the leadership of Charles M. HAYS, to take part in western railway expansion, enthusiastically encouraged by Prime Minister LAURIER. Mutual jealousies precluded logical co-operation between the GTR and Canadian Northern, and the federal government itself undertook to build a line from Winnipeg to Moncton (the National Transcontinental Railway) and to lease it to the GTR on completion.
The GTR's subsidiary, the GRAND TRUNK PACIFIC, undertook to build the more profitable line westward from Winnipeg. The NTR was built through the empty expanse of northern Québec and Ontario in hopes of encouraging development there; begun in 1905, it was completed in 1913 at a cost of $160 million. The GTP began construction in 1906 and was completed in 1914 through the Yellowhead Pass and along the spectacular SKEENA RIVER valley to PRINCE RUPERT, BC.
The ill-planned proliferation of railways (about half of the track now in operation was built between 1890 and 1914) proved disastrous. Rumours of outrageous patronage in the building of the NTR were later confirmed. The Canadian Northern and GTP were constantly begging aid from the public purse. World War I delivered the knockout blow - ending immigration and stifling the flow of British capital. In confusion and frustration PM Robert BORDEN called a royal commission, headed by Sir Henry Drayton and British financier W.M. Acworth, which recommended (May 1917) "immediate nationalization of all railways of Canada except for American lines and the CPR ... that the Intercolonial ... National Transcontinental, the old Grand Trunk, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern be brought together into one system, to be owned by the people of Canada." The name CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS was authorized for this conglomeration in 1918, but organization was not completed for 5 years.
The period after formation of the CNR was essentially one of consolidation, although several lines were pushed into northern frontiers. The HUDSON BAY RAILWAY, beginning at a line built by Mackenzie and Mann to The Pas in 1906, was finally opened to traffic in 1929. The Pacific Great Eastern began pushing uncertainly into the interior of BC in 1912. It was completed from Squamish to Quesnel by 1921, but only reached Prince George and Dawson Creek in the 1950s. Northern Alberta Railways (owned jointly by CNR and CPR) ran lines from Edmonton North to Grande Prairie and to Dawson Creek by 1931.
Perhaps the most successful of these ventures was the ONTARIO NORTHLAND Railway, which reached James Bay in 1932. Owned by the Ontario government, the railway led directly to a fantastic mining boom in the Timmins-Porcupine area as well as to the emergence of the giant PULP AND PAPER INDUSTRY. The QUEBEC, NORTH SHORE AND LABRADOR RAILWAY, completed in 1954, provided access to the massive iron-ore deposits of the deep interior of Québec and Labrador. The Great Slave Lake Railway was opened in 1964 between Roma, Alta, and Hay River, NWT.
Did the railways achieve the ends expected of them? Did they repay the large infusions of public money? A final accounting can likely never be done, particulary in trying to judge the satisfaction of nationalistic and long-term economic goals. Regulation of the railways (now the responsibility of the CANADIAN TRANSPORT COMMISSION) and freight-rate agreements (notably the CROW'S NEST PASS AGREEMENT) have been highly controversial, and very different views have been taken by western farmers and the railway companies on these issues (see TRANSPORTATION REGULATION).
At the same time, the railwaymen - from Fleming and Van Horne to Allan, Mann, Mackenzie, Stephen and Lord SHAUGHNESSY - have been among the most prominent figures in Canadian history, evoking by turns admiration for their outstanding engineering feats and contempt for their perceived bleeding of the public purse. The building of the transcontinentals perhaps provided for Canada the closest approximation of a heroic age.
Author JAMES MARSH
Pierre Berton, The National Dream (1969) and The Last Spike (1971); A.W. Currie, The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (1957); W.K. Lamb, History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1977); R.F. Legget, Railways of Canada (1973); T.D. Regehr, The Canadian Northern Railway (1976); G.R. Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (1973); A. Tucker, Steam Into Wilderness (1978).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Pacific Railway
The CP Rail website features information about the company's extensive services and operations. Click on "General Public" to access the multimedia "Our History" section.
Kettle Valley Steam Railway
This site is devoted to the Kettle Valley Steam Railway in BC. Includes an illustrated description of steam locomotive mechanics.
Collection Profile: Rail
An extensive overview of Canada's railway history from the Canada Science and Technology Museum.
Picturing the Past
Access image collections held by the library and archives, along with related historical stories. With curriculum-based lessons and study guides. From the Canada Science and Technology Museum.
Canadian Railroad Historical Association
The website for the Canadian Railway Museum in Québec. Features detailed information about their rolling stock, a guide to their Archives Center, a photo gallery, and more.
Alberta Railway Museum
The website for the Alberta Railway Museum. Check out the videos of steam locomotives in operation and images of the museum's historic railway equipment and buildings.
Sir Sandford Fleming
Watch the Heritage Minute about Sir Sandford Fleming from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
The Adventure Train!
Travel back in time to discover important historical milestones in the development of Canada’s extensive railway system in this fun interactive game from the Virtual Museum of Canada.
The Train Messenger
Explore Canada’s railway history as you construct your own freight train in this fun game from the Virtual Museum of Canada.
The Colonial Despatches
View digitized copies of correspondence (dated 1846 - 1859) between the British Colonial Office and the "colonies" of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Search or browse this site for references to specific individuals, communities, companies, or industries in the province. Also includes digitized images of maps of various locations. From the website for the University of Victoria.
Browse this extensive "Images Canada" website for historical images depicting various Canadian trains and railways.
Explore this very extensive collection of photographs about Canada’s railway industry. Part of the CN Images of Canada Gallery at the Canada Science and Technology Museum website.
The Victoria Bridge
This fascinating virtual exhibit focuses on the history of Montreal’s famous Victoria Bridge. Produced by the McCord Museum in Montreal.
View an extensive collection of historical photographs that document the building of the CPR Railway through difficult terrain in B.C. Produced by the Kamloops Art Gallery.
The Crowsnest Pass Railway Route
This collection of photographs records the history of rail travel through the Crowsnest Past region of British Columbia. A Canadian Museum of Rail Travel website.
The Edge of the World: BC's Early Years
Watch a series of short films about the events, people, and places that shaped British Columbia's early history. Features a wealth of archival photographs. From knowledge.ca.
Donald Smith drives the last spike at Craigellachie
This famous image of Donald Smith driving the “last spike” at Craigellachie, B.C. is from “The Canadian West” feature at Library and Archives Canada.
Canadian Northern Society
The Canadian Northern Society is preserving prairie heritage through its collection of heritage railway station sties at Big Valley, Meeting Creek and Camrose, the Meeting Creek grain elevator site, and unique interpretive activities and events.
The Saga of Samson
Stories about Samson, Canada’s oldest locomotive. Accompanied by historical illustrations and photographs of its present home. From the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library.
Sudbury Area Mining Railways
A nicely illustrated site about the history of mining and railway development in the Sudbury area. From the “Old Time Trains” website.
Atlas of Alberta Railways
Climb aboard the "Atlas of Alberta Railways" website for a fascinating multimedia tour of Alberta history. This site will take you to a great collection of fascinating maps, old newspaper articles, scenic photographs, charts, graphs, and much more. From the University of Alberta Press.
North Bay, Ontario: A History in Vintage Postcards
Explore the history of the North Bay region of Ontario through this fascinating collection of vintage Canadian postcards from the private collection of R. H. Stewart. From VintagePostcards.org.
An extensive biography of Edgar Dewdney, civil engineer, contractor, politician, office holder, and lieutenant governor. Provides details about his involvement with Indian and Métis communities in the North-West Territories, the settlement of the West, the construction of the transcontinental railway, and related events. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
Quebec Railways Historical Research Institute
The website for the Quebec Railways Historical Research Institute. The objective of the Institute is to promote the research and publication of works on the history of Quebec railways, and of related subjects in transportation and communications.
Canadian Railway Hall of Fame
The Canadian Railway Hall of Fame honours Canadian achievement in the railway business. It fulfills a need to recognize various technology, communities and individuals that have been instrumental in the development of this vital Canadian transportation system.
The official website for the Town of Botwood, a historic community in Exploits Valley. This site offers a guide to the many local tourist attractions and a review of major events in its long history, including the fate of the local Beothuk community, the early European settlements, the flying boat era, the wartime role of the Botwood airbase, and much more.
Smiths Falls Railway Museum
Information page for the Smiths Falls Railway Museum. From the Virtual Museum of Canada website.
Indian Head Station
An 1884 photograph of Indian Head Station, Indian Head, SK. From the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
C.P. Rail Station House, Rockglen
Historical information about the C.P. Rail Station House, a Municipal Heritage Property located in the Town of Rockglen.
Nova Scotia Railway Heritage Society
A great resource for railway heritage sites throughout Nova Scotia.
Engine 1095 Restoration Project
See an online gallery of photos of Engine 1095 aka “The Spirit of Sir John A.," a former Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive currently located in downtown Kingston. Shows the locomotive in various stages of restoration. From flickriver.com.
Engine 1095: The Spirit of Sir John A.
See online copies of documents related to the restoration of "Engine 1095: The Spirit of Sir John A." in Kingston, Ontario. From the City of Kingston website.
John R. Booth
A biography of John R. Booth from the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame
The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America
A synopsis of A.A. den Otter's book in which he challenges popular ideas concerning the role of the transcontinental railway in spurring the West's integration into Canadian confederation. From the Memorial University website.
The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America
See a review of A.A. Den Otter's book that examines the "linkage" between railway technology and Canada's evolution as a nation. From the journal "Business History Review". Note: page loads slowly.
Philosophy of railways: the transcontinental railway idea in British North America
A review of an book that reviews the role of the transcontinental railway in advancing the pace of economic development in western Canada. From the "American Review of Canadian Studies", at findarticles.com.
Northlander train makes historic final ride
A CBC News story about the final run of the Northlander train, which provided rail service to communities from Toronto to Cochrane.