Canadian History/Canadian Pacific Railway

Creation of the Railway


At the start, nobody was quite clear as to what the railway would look like. One of the main reasons for the Canadian Pacific Railway to be built was the fact that British Columbia would only join Canada if transportation between the East and West coasts was improved. As a result, John A. MacDonald promised that a transcontinental railway would be built in less than 10 years. It is thought that if MacDonald had known what the end cost would be, he may not have made the promise of a railroad. It was mostly a scheme to measure up to the United States at the time, which could only be achieved by building transportation and communication links. First, MacDonald had to find people to do the building for him. This was done, of course, in exchange for financial benefits during and after the building of the railroad. He also hired thousands of Chinese workers who would work hard, long and cheap. It is estimated that 1,500 Chinese Railroad Workers died during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway[1]. Following the initial hiring and planning, frantic railway building began. Technology to go through mountains was not available back then, and an appropriate mountain pass had to be found in order for the railway to be completed.

Many industrialists, including Jay Cooke, began to see that this railway had great economic potential. However, the only industrialist that had the money to finance a railway was Sir Hugh Allan. It was proposed that Allan take on the project and he agreed, but only if he had American support. In the summer of 1874, Allan created the Canadian Pacific Railway, a company that seemed to be entirely Canadian but was actually controlled by Jay Cooke's Northern Pacific Railway.

Through the building of this railway, a governmental lapse had occurred in the conservative party which was known as the “Pacific Scandal”. This episode resulted in the resignation of MacDonald’s government. Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals then took power and they disagreed with MacDonald, saying that the railway was much too expensive and troublesome. Mackenzie did not provide funding during his administration, so railway building ceased for the time being. Surveys as to where the railway would go continued, however, which would be useful information for the later building of the railroad and for the knowledge of the geography of the nation. Mackenzie's "do nothing" attitude did not sit well with the people and he was soon out of office.this had to be done quickly as Canada was in danger of being assimilated by the United States.

MacDonald and his party, after recovering from the Pacific Scandal, returned back to office and created a national policy that dealt with three things: a system of protective tariffs, western settlement, and the CPR. The tariffs protected the Canadian market; giving them a sort of economic independence from the United States. The western settlement encouraged movement to the west because of the great potential for farming and agriculture. The Canadian Pacific Railway was the cornerstone of it all, though. Without the CPR, agriculture and transportation would not be successful in the west.

As the railway building got underway again, private investment was soon needed to continue with this endeavor. Private investors bought the St. Paul and the Pacific Railway and turned it around for a $17 million dollar profit. MacDonald proposed that upon completion of the railway, they would receive $25 million and 25 million acres. As soon as the contract was approved the investors changed the route of the railway, which caused much controversy, and also brought about much more control over the prairies and their new towns. The change in route also meant that the earlier surveying done when Mackenzie was in office, was then irrelevant. Things were falling apart in terms of building, and someone very exceptional was needed to take over this project to avoid failure.

William Van Horne, a manager of a smaller railway in America, was chosen to undertake this project. For four years he drove the workers and himself to complete CPR as efficiently as they could. Van Horne was thought to be the person who would help the CPR meet its building deadline. Funding became limited and Van Horne had to cut many corners, finding alternatives to the original plan. Safety was risked and working conditions dropped. The CPR was being built entirely by hand and still needed to be completed.

When the Northwest Rebellion broke out, the CPR allowed the federal government to react to the crisis as soon as possible. This helped the government to see that the completion of the railroad was necessary and it was decided that the project would be funded towards completion. The CPR was completed on November 7th, 1885. Although there were still gaps in the track. The final cost of the project was over $37 million. The transcontinental link was completed as well, by the fall of 1885, 5 years ahead of schedule.

Results and Benefits of Building the Railway


The CPR resulted in many improvements in new Canadian towns. The first necessary small hotels sprang up. The CPR also started a postal service and a telephone service. National parks were established, drawing many people toward them, especially in the areas with hot springs. The railway also drew adventurous, thrill-seeking people towards climbing the Rocky Mountains. The Prairies were available for settlement as well, and the completion of the CPR helped to draw Europeans there. Agricultural development soon took off with wheat farming and irrigation. The industrialized east coast began to transfer business along the CPR line, and used the west coast as a window to trading with the ar East. The CPR opened up the western half of Canada to many opportunities that it would not have had without a transportation system. For example, CPR workers drilling for water in Alberta discovered the first natural gas of the province in 1882.

Not only did the CPR increase the standard of living and the quality of many Canadian towns and services, but it also helped in times of crisis. As previously stated, the Canadian Pacific Railway enabled the government to react quickly to the Northwest Rebellion, a very important thing for the government to do. The CPR also helped to transport war supplies and weapons during the First World War. When the Second World War occurred, the CPR once again helped transport ammunition and supplies. In the 1960's, the CPR switched entirely from steam to diesel locomotives. The Canadian Pacific Railway then changed its name to Canadian Pacific Limited, a company that aimed to operate more than just the railway. Some of the other business ventures this company eventually got involved in and operated were mines, ships, hotels, minerals & manufacturing, telecommunications, airlines, real estate and trucking. Canadian Pacific Air Lines, or CP Air, was even Canada's largest airline for a brief period of time, when it was flying from Vancouver to Amsterdam over the North Pole.



"Horizons: Canada Moves West by Prentice Hall, copyright 1999 Pearson Education Canada Inc." - Grade 10 Textbook

The Story of the Canadian Pacific Railway

The Canadian Encyclopedia - Canadian Pacific Railway - Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

  1.   Dawson, Brain (1991). Moon Cakes in Gold Mountain. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Detselig Enterprises Ltd. p. 21. ISBN 1-55059-026-X.