Era Of Canadian Railways

FOR a new country transportation is life. Without adequate transportation progress is impossible, and in a country of great distances, such as is Canada, this is more than ever true. Forests, mineral wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, land of amazing fertility, all are comparatively useless without the means to bring them within the human reach. Canada, it is true, possesses a fine system of waterways, rivers, and lakes, which within and about the Dominion are estimated to contain half the fresh water of the world. The St. Lawrence cuts deep into the heart of the continent. Hudson’s Bay, too, breaks in from the north. The great lakes provide transport in the south. Innumerable rivers, broad and navigable, are to be found. Amongst them the hand of man has been busy in the construction of canals, yet still they are inadequate for the traffic which is the life of the country. Besides, for some months of every year these waterways are closed by frost, and navigation must cease for months. There is, too, that enormous barrier, the Rocky Mountains, which bars the prairies from the Pacific. In England the first line of railway between Stockton and Darlington was opened in 1825, and in Canada the men who were at the head immediately grasped the possibilities of steam. Between 1835-45 many charters for small lines were granted, but the country was unsettled, the rebellion of 1837 had sown suspicion in the minds even of Canadian well-wishers, and capital preferred some less speculative opening ; so that in 1850 there were but fifty-five miles of railway in the whole country. The last report of the Ministry of Railways shows that Canada now has 27,000 miles completed and under construction.

The railway era may be said to have begun in 1850 with the turning of the first sod of the Northern Railway, and two years later the Grand Trunk Company was incorporated. Between 1853-58 the Great Western built and used 360 miles, so that up to the time of Con-federation in 1867 about 2,500 miles were in use. Practically all these systems have been absorbed in the Grand Trunk, the first railway organisation of Canada. The stimulus provided by these lines was amazing : Ontario leaped into prosperity, the sleepy cities of Montreal and Toronto woke from their lethargy and be-came living centres of industry. The lines were an inestimable boon to the country, but to the investors they must have cost some little heartburning.

In 1846 Britain adopted the system of Free Trade, so abolishing the preference previously given to Canadian wheat and Canadian timber, and whilst the benefit or otherwise may be still a matter of political debate there can be no doubt that the abolition of preference preceded a severe crisis in Canada. The crisis was succeeded by a depression which did not lift until the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 was arranged with the United States.

Again it must be remembered that the railways were built by English engineers, skilled in the linking up of crowded English towns but ignorant of the methods suitable to a thinly populated country, where transport of merchandise was of more value than transport of men. These early lines were of sound construction but their cost was prohibitive. The most striking example of this tendency is the Victoria bridge over the St. Lawrence, where the Grand Trunk Railway enters Montreal. It was built under the direction of Robert Stevenson and cost 6,300,000 dollars with interest charges accruing during the six years of its construction. A few miles up the river is the steel bridge built long after by the Canadian Pacific Railway performing exactly the same office, which was built in a year and cost less than 1,000,000 dollars. The example of Ontario and Quebec was followed by the little provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, who, working on the same lines, had the same objects—communication with Quebec so as to reach the upper provinces, and communication westward from the New England states.

When, in 1867, Confederation came to bind together the whole country, the construction of the Inter-Colonial Railway was one of the main conditions of that great covenant. At that time the maritime provinces were cut off from the rest of Canada by a trackless wilderness, and so were completely out of touch entirely with the rest of their fellow-countrymen. Thus, there was some danger that the force of circumstances would fling them into the arms of the United States. England was almost as deeply interested in the construction of the line as was Canada. It was urged in favour of the construction of the railway that troops sent out in 1861-2 were cut off by the winter snows and had to be transported over hundreds of miles on sledges to reach the centre of the disturbance in the upper provinces. The Trent affair of 1861 and the Alabama trouble had created hostile feelings, and Canada would in all probability have been the battle-ground had war broken out between the two great branches of the British race.

Ultimately, the Imperial Government guaranteed a loan of £3,000,000, required to defray the cost of construction, on the understanding that the line should take a strategic route, that is to say, one sufficiently remote from the American frontier to guarantee freedom from a sudden raid in the case of hostilities. This line, from a purely commercial point of view, and probably hampered by politics, has not at all times been an un-qualified success, but it must be remembered that it was built for and achieved a great national purpose, and it has given the Dominion access through its own territory to its own ports, which are open all the year round.

Thus on the east communication was established ; but it was equally necessary to bind the continent together from east to west, that there should be a railway linking up the open spaces between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains.

Now, as has been told in a previous chapter, British Columbia still held out from the union, and if she was to be drawn in the only method was to provide her with a railway, and so the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the great engineering works of modern times, came into being.