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The Road to Confederation: One of Steel

By Chris Gertridge


    If there had been no railways, there would not have been a Canada from coast to coast. When Canada was created from the spread out settlements of British North America, the path it took to become a nation laid on lines of steel and pine. All over the world, railways created economic revolutions, but in Canada it resulted in an unusual kind of political and economical importance. They made the vision of Confederation a possibility and gave early shape to a nation. They brought people who built towns, broke the land, and filled up the empty prairies. They stretched into the mineral-rich rock, and gave a new look to a country once known only for its furs. As an early railway engineer said: "The railway pushes into the wilderness, not just to pass though it, but to tame it,"(Skelton, 39).

    By 1860 there were only about 850, 000 people in all of British North America, and not a one of them could guess the cost of a railway. One Canadian recommendation to the British government estimated the cost of track at 10 a mile, on the assumption that the rails could be made from the "rough trees of the forest". Some tracks actually were constructed of maple; they warped so bad that they had to be abandoned. Wood covered with a thin layer of steel fared no better. The inevitable answer had to be metal. The cost climbed considerably higher than 10 a mile; it had reached $60,000 a mile in late 1860. (Mcdougall, 157).

    In terms of the population it served, the system of railways that Canada eventually built was of fearless proportions. Both in engineering and in financing it was a stupendous effort, leaving in its wake debts of such great size that they virtually bankrupted the new nation. Even with many of the original subsidies written off, the annual cost of Canadian railways as late as the 1930's was greater than all the income tax collected across the country. It was more than a century after the railways began to roll that Canada seemed able to afford them, and by then cars, trucks, and planes had come along to transport the public where they wanted to go.

    By as early as 1828, a petition was laid before the House of Assembly in Lower Canada supporting a consideration of a railway to be built around the rapids on the Richelieu River. This would greatly improve the water route between Montreal and New York. Four years later, a charter was granted to the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Company to build a line from Laprairie on the St Lawrence to St. John, just above the rapids on the Richelieu River, sixteen miles away.

    In 1835 construction began, and this first Canadian railroad was opened for business the next year. At first, the railway was kept open each year only as long as the waterway, but several years of successful operation rail lines were laid northwards to St. Lambert opposite Montreal, and southward to Rouse's Point on Lake Champlain by 1852. Already, the railway was becoming an alternative to water transportation rather than a supplement.

    For ten years, the Champlain and St. Lawrence was the only public railway in Canada. In that same period, Great Britain had built 2,800 miles of line and the United States had almost twice as much. This could be contributed to the fact that there was continuing Canadian interest in the building of canals, which soaked up available public funds. It could also be partly blamed on the political crisis following the Rebellions of 1837, and commercial depression.

    From the earliest days of the railway era, there had been much more ambitious dreams of lines to reach deep into the west for the rich existing American trade and the future Canadian traffic. One plan was to link Toronto with Georgian Bay by a portage railway to capture the trade of steamboats plying the Upper Great Lakes and at the same time tap the fertile agricultural land which still lay in forest, north and south of Lake Simcoe. The Northern Railway reached Collingwood in 1855. It was a very profitable venture, because it was the only link with the Canadian west until the coming of the transcontinental railway.

    The first proposal for a transcontinental railway was made by a Toronto promoter in 1851. Some of the biggest names in railway building were associated with other plans submitted during the next fifteen years, but clearly a railway to the Pacific was beyond all the resources that private and the government could collect. In those days too, any promoter would have to make good ties with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which controlled most of the land though which the track would run. The HBC was dependent upon the fur trade for its wealth, and was in no way too happy to just let an onrush of settlement that would push their operations deeper into the wilderness, but would be more than willing to give it up, for a price.

    The Confederation of Canada was much more than a union of the eastern colonies. The name "Dominion of Canada" reflected a dream of a "dominion from coast to coast". So the British North America Act provided for the admittance of Rupert’s Land, the North-Western Territory, and British Colombia. The purchase of Rupert’s Land was quickly arranged. Under the terms of a deed of surrender, Canada took over from the HBC the whole vast territory consisting of the present day prairies as well as parts of northern Ontario and Quebec. The HBC received 300,00, was allowed to keep its existing posts with surrounding lands and got the right to select over the next twenty years, one-twentieth of the fertile land that was to be settled.

    The transfer of Rupert's Land intensified the fears of the Metis settlers in Manitoba and was an underlying cause of the rebellion led by Louis Riel in 1869-70. As all of this was taking place, negotiations were taking place to bring British Columbia into Confederation. To reach Ottawa, the delegates from the West Coast had to travel by train through the United States. So not surprisingly one of their demands was some form of more direct land communications with the other provinces. Basically they had two demands: a coach road to link them with Manitoba and the start of railway construction within three years. Since Canada desperately wanted British Columbia to join the Dominion, they offered them more than they had asked. They would, "begin railway construction within two years and have it completed within ten," (Stevens, 98). Needless to say British Columbia became a province in 1871.

    Surveying for possible routes for the railway began even before the government chose a company to build it. It was directed by Sir Sandford Fleming, who was also involved with the Intercolonial Railway. The survey was an enormous task, and Fleming lost no time in sending out teams from both the east and the west.

    By the summer of 1871 over eight hundred man in twenty-one teams were in the field. While the surveys were still in progress, powerful business and financial groups were fighting for the government contract to build the railway. Eventually, Sir John A. Macdonald awarded the contract to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, headed by Hugh Allan. According to the agreement, the company had to raise $10 million to begin construction of the line within two years and had to complete it within ten years. In return, the government promised $30 million in cash and large land grants.

    All seemed to be going fine until a Liberal member of Parliament found evidence that in the 1872 elections Allan had given the Conservatives large sums of money. This looked very much like bribery, and as a result Macdonald was forced to resign. In 1873 Alexander Mackenzie became the new Prime Minister. Mackenzie did not really support the construction of the railway, he instead suggested building sections of rail to link navigable waters. This idea infuriated the people of British Columbia and they insisted he complete the rail line. Reluctantly he agreed to, but decided that the government rather than a private company would built it "as quickly as the resources of the country would allow." (Wilson, 31)

    Starting off, progress was too slow to satisfy the British Columbia. The province threatened to leave confederation and had to be placated by a visit from the Governor General in 1876. The general election of 1878 brought Macdonald back to power and he quickly signed building rights back over to the CPR. The CPR began operations in May of 1881 by taking over existing lines and beginning new ones. Before long, however, the directors realized that they needed a man who could supervise and speed up the actual construction. The man they found for the job was William Cornelius Van Horne, an experienced superintendent from Illinois. This sped up construction considerably; Van Horne was bluff and hardworking with a rough manner that at first offended many of the men who worked for him. But gradually, some came to respect him and even a few came to like him. From here on in, everything was organized to the last detail, the only thing Van Horne was concerned about was the actual construction of the railway. He overcame varying obstacles such as Canada’s various mountain ranges and he used the Red River rebellion to his advantage by transporting troops.

    On November 7, 1885, at Craigellachie, the last spike was driven into the track to finally complete Canada’s transcontinental railway. Most notably in attendance was Van Horne, Fleming, and many other important figures involved in the railway construction. Van Horne was asked to make a speech. He said: "All I can say is that the work has been done well in every way." (Stevens, 67)

    And so ended the race for the transcontinental, but what started was a movement; one called the country of Canada. The building of the railways, both to the Atlantic and to the Pacific, was made a condition of Confederation. Without trains, the delicate union of the Canada’s could not have been held together among all the pressures for separation and the great country of today would have not existed.



Burton, Pierre. The Great Railway McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Burton, Pierre. The National Dream McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Mcdougall, J Lorne. Canadian Pacific McGill University Press, 1968.

Mika, Nick and Helma. Railways of Canada McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Stevens, G R. Canadian National Railways Clarke, Irwin and Company,


Skelton, Oscar D. The Railway Builders Glasgow, Brook and Company,


Wilson, Keith. Railways in Canada: The Iron Link Grolier Ltd, 1982.


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