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Railways in Canada, 1830-1918

By Ève Préfontaine

Trains originated in Europe, and were first used in coal mines in England in the early 17th century. With the arrival in the 19th century of steam as an important energy source, trains, which until then had been simple machines, began a period of rapid development. On the forefront of advances in modern transportation and commerce, the railways were a catalyst in the growth and unification of Canada.

The era of coal and steam

The construction of the railways created a huge demand for wood, as well as for coal, fuel oil, iron, steel, locomotives and rolling stock. It also stimulated heavy industry, and the growth of engineering, essential in the construction of bridges and tunnels.

Railway expansion

In the 1820s a cable train, driven by a steam engine, was used to lift the stones used in the construction of the Citadel in the city of Quebec. In the same period a short railway was used to build the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. However, the construction of the railways as such began in the 1840s first in Lower Canada, then in Upper Canada.

A few examples

Canada's first railway opened in 1836: The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad linked the cities of La Prairie and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. The first railway in the Maritimes, the Albion Mines Railway, was opened in 1839; it transported coal from the mines in Pictou, Nova Scotia, to loading docks on the coast, about 9.5 kilometres away.

Before Confederation the most ambitious railway project was the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. It had lines mostly in Ontario and Quebec and was, in 1867, the longest railway in the world. Intended to link Montreal to Portland, Maine, and to guarantee the former year-round access to an open port, it was the Grand Trunk that built the Victoria Bridge, inaugurated in 1860 by the Prince of Wales. A remarkable technical achievement, this tubular bridge spanned the St. Lawrence River. Several other railroads were also built in Quebec and Ontario.

The Intercolonial Railway was built to fulfill a condition by which two provinces agreed to join Confederation. Completed in 1876, the Intercolonial was intended to be a national railway linking, essentially, the cities of Halifax and Truro in Nova Scotia and St. John and Shediac in New Brunswick to Rivière-du-Loup and Sainte-Flavie in Quebec, where the line connected with the Grand Trunk. The Intercolonial was not, however, a commercial success.

The same cannot be said for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which had a huge influence on the future of Canada. Its construction started in 1875, but most of the work was done between 1881 and 1885. When completed the CPR stretched from St. John, New Brunswick, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and was the fulfillment of the great dream of a Canada linked from sea to sea. As its western terminal, Vancouver was to expand to become a major port on the West Coast.

Finally, there was a third wave of railway construction from 1896-1914. In 1919, the Canadian Government Railways (today, Canadian National [CN]) was formed. This company now has 50,000 kilometres of rail lines in Canada and the United States. CN was privatized in 1995.

The economic impact

In the 19th century the railway companies and banks had considerable economic power in Canada. From 1863 up until the creation in 1935 of the Bank of Canada (owned wholly by the government), the Bank of Montreal acted as the government's bank. To a great extent, this bank financed the building of the railways. Several notable Scottish Canadians, such as Donald A. Smith (the future Lord Strathcona), George Stephen (Lord Mount Stephen) and Sir Sandford Fleming, were key figures in the formation and management of the CPR.

The railways not only carried people and goods from one side of the country to the other, they also fostered economic exchanges with the United States, the Orient and Europe. As veritable engines of industrialization, they linked existing markets, opened new markets, stimulated industry and created employment.

The CPR was profitable from its inception, thanks to the trade in tea and silk from Asia. Its financial services, hotels, shipping lines and telegraph service, the poles of which ran alongside the railway, were other important sources of revenue.

The historical impact

Combined with tariff protection for Canadian industries, the growth of the railways was a major catalyst in Canadian Confederation. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia agreed to join Confederation in 1867 on the condition that the Intercolonial Railway would be built. And British Columbia decided to join Confederation in 1871 on the basis of the federal government's promise to built a transcontinental railway. As for Prince Edward Island, it joined Confederation in 1873 in order to wipe out the debt it had incurred to build ... a railway!

Major events

The Pacific Scandal
After the federal elections of 1872, Sir Hugh Allan, the Montreal financier and maritime shipping magnate, won the contract to built the CPR. However, he was suspected of having donated a large sum of money to John A. Macdonald and his party during the 1872 elections. The affair blew into a full-scale scandal in 1873, with critics of the deal forcing Macdonald and his government to call a new election. British Columbia, which had joined Confederation two years earlier on the condition that the railway would be built, was so angered by the subsequent delays that it threatened to request to join the United States. When Macdonald was re-elected in 1878, the construction of the CPR finally went ahead, though Allan was shut out of the contracts to build it.

Role of the railways in settling the Prairies
In 1878 the government of John A. Macdonald adopted the National Policy, a tariff agreement aimed at protecting Canadian manufacturers. This in conjunction with the CPR, which linked Canada from the east to the west, opened the way for the colonization of the Prairies. New arrivals bought eastern manufactured goods and, in turn, found markets in the east for their agricultural products. The railways, in particular the CPR, thus played a major role in the development of not only the various regions of the West but also several cities, including Winnipeg. Long the gateway to the West, thousands of immigrants passed through this city.

The impact on cities

With the advent of the railways, cities such as Halifax, St. John, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver were able to dominate the area surrounding them. The railways also helped shape the urban landscape in many cities. For example, in Montreal, the yards operated by the Grand Trunk in Point St. Charles and the Angus Yards, operated by the CPR, occupied large tracts of land. And the building of the railway lines, stations and hotels also constituted major economic stimuli, which in turn attracted other industries and businesses.


Printed sources

Linteau, Paul-André (ed). Histoire générale du Canada. Montreal: Boréal Express, 1990 (1987).

Careless, James Maurice Stockford. Canada: A Celebration of our Heritage. Mississauga, ON: Heritage Publishing House, 1997.

Gillis, Peter R. and Thomas R. Roach. "A Touch of Pinchotism: Forestry in British Columbia, 1912-1939." A History of British Columbia, Selected Readings, Patricia E. Roy (ed.). Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1989.

Lavallée, Omer. Van Horne's Road. Streetsville, ON: Railfare Enterprises Limited: 1990 (1974).

Linteau, Paul-André. Histoire de Montréal depuis la Confédération. Montreal: Boréal, 1992.

Online sources

Eagle, John, A. "Van Horne, Sir William Cornelius." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] ( page consulted 12 June 2006).

Farr, D.M.L. "Smith, Donald Alexander, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] (page consulted 12 July 2006).

Lavallée, Omer. "Canadian Pacific Railway." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

Marsh, James. "Railway History." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

Morrison, William, R. "CPR, from Sea to Sea: The Scottish Connection." McCord Museum of Canadian History, Thematic Tours [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

Morrison, William, R. "Go West! Settling Canada's Prairies." McCord Museum of Canadian History, Thematic Tours [online ] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

Morrison, William, R. "Forging the National Dream." McCord Museum of Canadian History, Thematic Tours [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

McCord Museum of Canadian History. "The Victoria Bridge, The Eight Wonder of the Modern World." [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).

Regehr, T. D. "Fleming, Sir Sandford." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] (page consulted 12 July 2006).

Waite, P. B. "Pacific Scandal." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online] [] (page consulted 10 July 2006).


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