National Treasure #141: Canadian Pacific Railway

The railway was originally built between Eastern Canada and British Columbia between 1881 and 1885 (connecting with Ottawa Valley and Georgian Bay area lines built earlier), fulfilling a promise extended to British Columbia when it entered Confederation in 1871. It was Canada’s first transcontinental railway, but no longer reaches the Atlantic coast. Primarily a freight railway, the CPR was for decades the only practical means of long-distance passenger transport in most regions of Canada, and was instrumental in the settlement and development of Western Canada. – Wikipedia

Canadian Pacific Railway was founded in 1881 to link Canada’s populated centres with the vast potential of its relatively unpopulated West. This incredible engineering feat was completed on Nov.7, 1885 – six years ahead of schedule – when the last spike was driven at Craigellachie, B.C. – CPR site

At this remove in history, it all sounds so tidy. And after all, how hard could it be? Build a national railway to link Eastern manufacturers with Western markets and raw materials, and (not incidentally) meet a promise made to get BC to join Confederation: the provision of a land transport link to the Eastern provinces within 10 years.

It was, of course, anything but tidy: politicians lost power, senior construction managers lost their jobs, and William Cornelius Van Horne, an American railway official, had to be brought in at great expense to save the day. And the project.

The railway’s early construction was filled with controversy, toppling the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald in 1873 and forcing an election. By the time Macdonald was returned to power in 1878, the massive project was seriously behind schedule and in danger of stalling completely. – CPR site

Completion of construction was just the beginning of the CPR’s growth and diversification into the telegraph business, land sales, manufacturing of passenger cars, and a few other industries.

Through its history, CPR got into numerous other ventures including abattoirs, animal husbandry, bus transportation, china and crockery, containers and pallets, forestry, foundries, immigration and colonization, insurance, irrigation, manufacturing, milling and foodstuff, mines and minerals, newsreels, oil, pulp and paper, radio broadcasts, stockyards, supply farms, trucking, waste management, even bottled spring water. In 1942, CPR even took to the skies, amalgamating 10 northern bush plane companies into Canadian Pacific Airlines. – CPR site

And then there’s the War.

With the outbreak of World War II, the entire Canadian Pacific network was put at the disposal of the war effort. On land, CPR moved 307 million tons of freight and 86 million passengers, including 280,000 military personnel. At sea 22 CPR ships went to war where 12 of them were sunk. In the air, CPR pioneered the “Atlantic Bridge” ““ a massive undertaking that saw the transatlantic ferrying of bombers from Canada to Britain. – CPR site

Today, in the interest of “unlocking shareholder value” (don’t ask me), the CPR is a separate company again, spun off from the conglomerate that developed through the years. A company with a lot of track.

CPR’s 14,000-mile network extends from the Port of Vancouver in the Canada’s West to The Port of Montreal in Canada’s East, and to the U.S. industrial centers of Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, New York City and Buffalo. “‹- CPR site

Old railway track.


This post marks the beginning of the end:
the final 10 of the 150 national treasures for my sesquicentennial project.


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4 Responses to National Treasure #141: Canadian Pacific Railway

  1. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – Is it worth pointing out that you can still travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific by train – only it is just not on a CPR rain.
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – It is. I did not know that. I see Via traffic only in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor, oddly enough the locations I’m most likely to be in when I need a train.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I don’t think I have yet told you about the writing assignment given to a prairie class: 500 words on “What I liked to do during the summer.”
    One creative lad wrote, “In the summer, I like to go down to the railway station and stand in the middle of the tracks there I can watch them heading for the horizon and getting closer and closer and closer and closer….” until he reached 500 words.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – That’s the opposite of the university student I taught who took the 5-page limit a little loosely. Working on a typewriter, he left no margins at all. Time for both of them to get out into a job where they will unlearn bad habits.

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