“For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road running from the sea to the sea”
Gordon Lightfoot – Canadian Railroad Trilogy
Canada has one of the greatest railway systems in the world. From our first railroad, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, opened on July 21, 1836, to the iconic Northlander, a passenger train running from Toronto to Moosonee (a line that was, sadly, discontinued in 2012), look in any province, on any coastline, in any interior, and to the furthest northern stretches imaginable, and you’ll find a set of railway tracks that was or is being used to transport people, goods, grain, fuel, and dozens of other things, from coast-to-coast. The Canadian railway story is as rich as any part of Canadian history, and here, in Canadiana Connection, it will be told in several parts.
The first and second parts of the story will deal with the history, toil, and railway lines that connected our great nation. Other parts will deal with individual railway systems, like Canadian Pacific or VIA. You don’t have to be train lover to enjoy or appreciate the rich stories of Canada’s railroads.
Canada’s first public railroad system was, as stated, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad. Conceived in 1832, and opened in 1836, it carried passengers to and from what we now know as St-Jean, to a point on the St. Lawrence River near Laprairie. And so the “Dorchester” (the name of the locomotive that pulled this first train), inaugurated a history that continues to this day. It didn’t take long for other railway milestones to occur across the country.
Even in a ‘general’ article about our rail history, we can’t name all of the milestones that have taken place over the past 175+ years; there have been hundreds. We hope the following start, covering the 19th Century, will satisfy your curiosity for now:
- 1839–1859: In 1839, the Albion Mines Railway, operating between Albion Coal Mines and New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, opened. Three steam locomotives imported from England were used on the line. In 1853, the Ontario Simcoe and Huron Railroad Union Company (which eventually became part of CN) was the first train in Ontario. It ran between Toronto and Aurora. That same year, the Grand Trunk Railway amalgamated six companies, and the first Canadian system, the Great Western Railway, opened its main line between Windsor and Niagara Falls. In 1854, Ottawa, the nation’s capital (at the time called Bytown) opened the Bytown and Prescott Railway. It was the first rail service to Canada’s capital city. Two years later, in 1856, a route between Toronto (Don Station), and Montreal (Point St. Charles) was opened by the Grand Trunk Railway. The journey that now takes approximately 5 hours by VIA Rail, took 14 hours at the time. At the close of the 1850’s, in 1859, in anticipation of the Prince of Wales visit, the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway built the first sleeping car (at their Brantford shop). Another famous name, American George Pullman, saw the sleeping car and obtained a US patent for it. (Pullman’s sleeping car entered the scene in 1863.)
- 1860–1867: In 1860, the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII) was on hand to formally open the Victoria Railway Bridge in Montreal (its first train ran in December, 1859). That same year, the first railway tunnel in Canada was opened by the Brockville and Ottawa Railway, running 1/3 of a mile under Brockville. In 1863, the “Pioneer” locomotive was put into service for the first railway opened in Western Canada (to haul ballast and coal in the Nanaimo area of BC). A year later, Canada’s worst railway accident (more terrible than one in Hamilton, in 1857) occurred. A train from the Grand Trunk Railway went through an open drawbridge at Beloeil, Quebec, killing 99 people. On the formation of our Confederation in 1867, Sir Sandford Fleming directed surveying and construction of trackage that would eventually connect Halifax with the St. Lawrence. That same year, the Great Western Railway introduced rail’s first dining car.
- 1871–1879: In 1871, when British Columbia was admitted to the Dominion of Canada, one condition was that within two years the construction of a railway from the Pacific toward the Rocky Mountains would begin, connecting the seaboard of BC with the existing railway system of Canada. In 1873, as Prince Edward Island joined the Confederation, it too carried a condition: the Dominion Government would take over and complete the line commenced in 1871. In late 1874, the Grand Trunk Railway had converted its gauge (the distance between the rails) to standard between Stratford and Montreal, and later, for all 542 miles of their tracks. A year later, the “turning of the first sod” for the Canadian Pacific Railway took place, at Fort William. A dream was realized on July 1, 1876, when the Canadian rail system finally made rail travel possible between Halifax, Quebec, and the rest of Canada. A year later, the Sydney Mines Railway was the first to make use of the telephone to dispatch trains. As the decade was about to close, in 1879, two important events took place. A Minister of the Dominion was appointed to have jurisdiction over all railways in the newly formed Department of Railways and Canals, and in a separate event, His Excellency, the Marquis of Lorne (Governor General of Canada) formally opened the Credit Valley Railway at Milton, Ontario.
- 1880–1889: An awful lot of railway events took place in this period of time, so we’ll focus only on the major ones.
The first ice railway opened in January, 1880 between Longueuil and Montreal by the Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway. The Grand Trunk Railway extended its line to Chicago that same year. A year later, the Canadian Pacific Railway Act received Royal Assent. The new company received a $25,000,000 subsidy and 25,000,000 acres of land. In 1882 the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway succeeded in laying 480 miles of track across the Prairies. That same year, over 1,000 miles of track from the Great Western Railway were merged into Grand Trunk’s system. Still in 1882, the Canadian Atlantic Railway was opened. In 1883, the first train reached Calgary. In that same year, all railways adopted a standardized method of keeping time.Newfoundland’s first railway opened in late 1884, and on hand to drive the last spike was Prince George. In 1885, Canadian troops were moved through northern Ontario entirely over Canadian soil (making railways of strategic importance). That same year, the last spike for the eastern section of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in. In the fall of 1885, the famous circus elephant “Jumbo” was killed by a freight train near St. Thomas, Ontario. The last spike of the eastern section of CP Rail was driven in that year as well. Later that year, a CP train arrived at Port Moody at the Pacific, making it the first train to travel across Canada. In the summer of 1886, Sir John A. MacDonald drove the final spike at “mile 25” for the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (which joined CP in 1905). As the winter of 1887 was approaching, the Canada Atlantic Railway was the first to use electric light in its passenger cars. Around the same time, a first in Canadian railway history, the same company used steam from the locomotive to heat passenger cars. Another milestone occurred during the late spring of 1889, as the first CP train arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick. This marked the completion of CP as a coast-to-coast railway.
- 1891–1899: As the century closed out, augmenting the multitude of ‘firsts’ in our railway system, there were yet a few more surprises in sight. In the fall of 1891, a tunnel connecting Sarnia with Port Huron was completed. The Pontiac and Pacific Junction Railway, in the fall of 1897, was the first in North America to light its cars with acetylene gas. In the summer of 1898, the first ‘through’ passenger train left St. Johns to arrive at port aux Basques Newfoundland. As 1898 turned to 1899, another large event took place as the Canadian Northern Railway was formed as an amalgamation of several companies. It was in turn expanded (by 1915) to include almost 10,000 miles of tracks.
In its relative infancy, in the first 65 years of existence, the railroad systems of this great land, beginning humbly with the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad in the mid-1930s, saw that the entire country would be connected by rail. The formation of Canadian Pacific, of railway tunnels and bridges, of electric, steam, and even gas lighting all came to be. Princes and future Kings had their hands in or on the rails, and sleeping cars were invented because of them. Triumphs and disasters beset the youth of this national, identifiable system. People and goods everywhere rode the rails; they still do.
As Lightfoot sings later in his Canadian Railroad Trilogy:
“Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won”.
Resource: Significant Date in Railway History