It was hard to get around Canada before the railways. Most of British North America was uncharted wilderness. On the few roads that did exist, travel was muddy and slow. Even the fastest stagecoaches required 36 hours to make the bumpy journey from Montréal to Toronto.
Canada’s first railway opened in 1836. The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad connected two commercial waterways near Montréal.
Railway construction boomed after 1849, when the government began guaranteeing private bonds to finance railways of 120 or more kilometres. Hundreds of new railways were launched; most lost vast sums of money. The greatest of these was the Grand Trunk Railway. Completed in 1859, the Grand Trunk connected Montréal to Sarnia and nearly bankrupt the Canadian government in the bargain.
Canada’s most famous railway, the Canadian Pacific, was built as part of the 1871 deal under which British Columbia joined the fledgling Confederation. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, persuaded a group of private investors to build the transcontinental railway at their own expense. Macdonald sought to avoid another Grand Trunk-style bailout but wound up enmeshed, instead, in the sordid Pacific Scandal, in which government officials were accused of accepting bribes in the bidding for the national railway contract. Plans to build a privately funded railway collapsed in 1873, along with Macdonald’s government.
The promised railway was revived, albeit slowly, by Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated in 1881. In exchange for $25 million in cash and large tracts of western land, the new syndicate promised to build a railway to British Columbia and to operate it “forever.”
Legions of Canadian, Chinese and Irish workers laid track across the seemingly bottomless muskeg of the Laurentian Shield, through the snow-covered passes of the Rocky Mountains and along the steep canyons of the Thompson and Fraser rivers.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in November 1885, it was the longest rail line in the world. Within a few years, the Canadian Pacific was providing scheduled service from London to Hong Kong — via Montréal and Vancouver — months faster than the journey by sea. And within a few decades more, this spine of an empire had carried hundreds of thousands of European immigrants into the First Nations territories across western Canada.
Railway construction boomed again after 1900, as new firms sought to connect to and compete with the Canadian Pacific monopoly. Two more transcontinental railways were built during this period: the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific. But Canada’s economy declined precipitously in the years leading up to and including the First World War. In order to maintain service, the federal government bailed out several of these new (and newly bankrupt) rail lines and, by 1923, had folded them into a government-owned company called Canadian National Railways.
Passenger demand for short-distance rail travel had begun to fall off in the 1920s and 1930s, however, due to the growing popularity of automobiles and buses. Demand for long-distance travel spiralled downward in the 1940s and 1950s, as airline service expanded. By the 1960s, both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National sought to abandon their money-losing passenger rail routes.
In 1978, the federal government created VIA Rail to take over passenger service from both railways. The Crown corporation modernized and expanded passenger service in Canada for most of the next decade but was forced to radically restrict operations in 1990, after the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney slashed its budget.
The government successfully privatized Canadian National in 1995, creating what is now Canada’s largest railway.
This piece gives insight into the history of rail in Canada, with a scrollbar of photographs, each supported by narrated explanation.