Disasters and Calamities, 1867-1896
Nathalie Lampron



Under the new Canadian Confederation, cities and towns open the doors to development. Railway infrastructures undergo rapid expansion, while steamship transportation becomes quite popular. Tourism also develops. Railway and shipping companies convince people at home and abroad to experience the pleasant excursions they offer. However, the putting into place of these great transportation networks is not without incident; a balance has to be found between profitability and safety, a point driven home by disastrous events like the wreck of the steamship Victoria on the River Thames in 1881, the 'shipwreck' of a locomotive on the Saint Lawrence River the same year, and the collapse of a bridge in Victoria in 1896 while a packed streetcar is crossing it.

This brief period marks the beginning of massive immigration to the Canadian West. The new arrivals settle on homesteads, plots of land that they assiduously clear and cultivate. The vicissitudes of the Canadian climate, like the big freeze of 1883, and grasshopper epidemics like the one that occurs in 1874 in Manitoba, do at times give farmers grave cause for worry, since their very subsistence depends on their harvests. Sudden storms also lead to excruciating losses in the Maritime Provinces: in 1873, for example, a cyclone claims 500 victims in Nova Scotia. Still, technological progress, among other things, will provide the tools that will make it possible to prevent such grim catastrophes from happening again.

The pace of Canadian industrialization and urbanization picks up during this period. While communities benefit from such growth, they are not immune to large-scale catastrophes like the spring floods that cause extensive damage to Montreal's port area, or the deadly landslide that will sweep down from the Cap-Diamant promontory across rue Champlain in Quebec City. Nova Scotia, for its part, has two massive mining disasters in 1873 and 1891; together these take the lives of 200 people. Moreover, a number of Canadian cities also experience fires. One of these breaks out in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1877.

Whether they are caused by the upheavals of nature, technical failures or human error, disasters are painful reminders that lead us to look more closely at our situation and put things in perspective. By looking at disasters, we follow history's thread from a point in the thick of the action.