CPR, from Sea to Sea: The Scottish Connection

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Introduction MP-0000.158.125 II-46604.2 I-10825.1 I-66959 II-166275.0 II-289652.0 VIEW-8799 MP-0000.25.257


The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1880-85) is one of the great heroic narratives of Canadian history. Most Canadians know the story of the "national dream", but fewer are aware of the contributions of Scottish Canadians to the project, and thus to the early development of the Dominion of Canada. Even the first, failed plan for a railway, abandoned after the "Pacific Scandal" of 1873, had a close Scottish connection, for the villain of the episode - Montreal shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan - had been born in Scotland.

The failure of the first railway project put Confederation itself in danger, for British Columbia was threatening to secede, and the prairie economy was at a standstill. In October 1880, however, five entrepreneurs, four of them Scots, formed a syndicate to build the railway, raising $2 million of the first $5 million required to get the project underway. Over the next five years, the syndicate worked tirelessly, surmounting enormous difficulties to push the project through.

The most notable of these Scots was Donald A. Smith. He had been involved, on the government's behalf, in negotiations with Louis Riel in 1870, and later, as Lord Strathcona, raised and financed a regiment to serve in the Boer War. He was a great philanthropist, especially in connection with McGill University's medical school, and served as Canadian high commissioner to Britain. Sir George Stephen, the CPR's first president, was also president of the Bank of Montreal. Sir Sandford Fleming, the railway's chief engineer, had an international reputation as a proponent of the idea of standard time.

The Scottish connection therefore went far beyond a railway: it left its mark on the landscape of Canada in names such as Banff and Mt. Stephen (and with magnificent mansions in Montreal), as well as on Canadian banking, science and philanthropy. Even the CPR's current president, Robert J. Ritchie, has deep roots in Scotland, carrying on the tradition of Donald Smith, George Stephen and the other Scots who, 122 years ago, built the iron road that truly linked Canada from sea to sea.