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A Short History of Western Canada was written by Grant MacEwan.  This book was first published in hardcover under the title \'West To The Sea.\' A Short History of Western Canada
Copyright 1968 McGraw-Hill Company of Canada Limited
163 pages,
ISBN 0-07-077787-X.

The Railways and the Land Rush

The Achievement of a Railroad

An ocean-to-ocean concept of Canadian development called for something better than canoe routes and cart trails to link the East and West. Improved transportation facilities seemed to be an essential ingredient for the success of Confederation. Clearly, the prospect of a railroad to be started "within six months after Union" was an important inducement in bringing the Maritime areas into Confederation and the intercolonial railway was one of the first Confederation promises to be fulfilled.

More important and more gigantic was the proposed transcontinental railway, a dream to be realized only after loud political controversy, near ruinous financial difficulties, and what seemed like almost insurmountable technical problems. It is significant that the plan which meant so much to the West was carried through. After defying the barriers of geography, the new railroad spanning the continent stood as an engineering and political achievement commanding admiration from many parts of the world.

Some Easterners, afraid of cost, scoffed at the idea of a railway reaching to the Pacific. It would be uneconomic, they were sure, and the builders would suffer bankruptcy. As an investment, it would never pay interest on the axle grease. If more reasons for opposition were needed, the forbidding mountain barriers would surely supply them. It would have been more sensible, according to some voices of the time, to settle for a wagon road to the Pacific.

Among those who believed a railway from Atlantic to Pacific could and should be built was Sir John A. Macdonald, who promised the people of British Columbia they would have rails within 10 years after joining as a province in 1871. In fulfilling the agreement, construction ran far behind schedule, and residents on the west coast became impatient and talked about secession to the United States.

It was up to the Government of Canada to convince the people of the East that the West was worth a railroad. Even Macdonald, as Prime Minister, had shown doubt, but when committed to the undertaking, he accepted the transcontinental challenge with typical determination. He hoped the costly railroad would be undertaken by private capitalists.

Two rival groups were interested in building, and until after the federal election of 1872, Sir John encouraged both, no doubt hoping that the two companies would amalgamate for the mammoth undertaking. Early in 1873, however, the government granted an exclusive charter to the group headed by Sir Hugh Allan and at once incurred the criticism of the rival bidders for the privilege. Charges were made that Macdonald had been aided in his election campaign with contributions from Sir Hugh Allan, and the so-called Pacific Scandal resulted.

The Opposition in the House of Commons made the most of circumstances, and the Governor General wrote to Macdonald, noting that his "personal honour is as stainless as it has ever been", but advising resignation. In November 1873, the Macdonald government resigned, and the Liberals under the leadership of Alexander Mackenzie took office and reassessed the railroad situation. A more cautious leader, Mackenzie favoured a government-built communication, partly rail, partly water. It would cost less and could be built one stage at a time, as funds became available.

How would Canada have developed if Mackenzie's policies had been carried out? It is a good question for contemplation. Settlement of the West would have been slower, but the large amount of land granted to the railway builders might have been retained or used to better public advantage.

Mackenzie's plan sounded fair enough at the time, but it was not enough to keep Macdonald as the Opposition. In the election of 1878, Macdonald was returned to power with fresh vigour for the construction of an unbroken rail connection between the Atlantic and Pacific. In wanting the road to be built by private capital, Sir John's ideas were unchanged, even though he would be prepared to offer inducements and even financial help.

A few politicians found support for their continuing resistance to government subsidies in any form, as shown by one who drew cheers at a Nova Scotia meeting in 1879 when he proclaimed: "We will never allow public funds to be spent for rails across the rocks and muskeg of Western Ontario, the waste spaces of the prairies, and the useless valleys of British Columbia."

In spite of opposition,.rails reached Winnipeg from the East in 1879 and a local real estate boom followed at once. Where the line would go from there and who would build it were still very much in doubt.

Sandford Fleming's recommendation was for a route touching Battleford and Fort Edmonton and traversing the Rockies by the Yellowhead Pass. Thus, the railroad would serve Palliser's fertile belt and have the added benefit of a relatively favourable grade in mountain country. The highest point would be 3,717 feet above sea level, considerably lower than the mile-high height of the land on the Kicking Horse route.

After long debate, a new railroad plan was approved in February 1881, granting the charter to a syndicate, later known as the Canadian Pacific Railway. The syndicate drove a hard bargain and was granted 25,000,000 acres of western land, $25,000,000 in cash, and a big measure of railway monopoly. Almost at once, the route to be taken across the West was changed. A fear had grown that if a railway were not built across the southern prairies, United States railways, expanding rapidly, would attract too much Canadian trade. At the same time, it did not seem desirable from the viewpoint of national defence to have the railroad very close to the international boundary. Government approval was granted for a change of route, provided that the railroad, in crossing the plains, was kept beyond 100 miles from the border. Instead of taking the northwesterly course by way of Fort Edmonton, the railroad would now be built more directly westward from Winnipeg, touching Portage la Prairie and Fort Calgary and negotiating the mountains by the Kicking Horse Pass. Construction westward from Winnipeg began in 1881, and by the next year, the syndicate was organized for faster operations in building grades and laying tracks. William Van Horne, as General Manager, brought new drive to the construction, but there were still many problems, some financial, some engineering, some Indian. Chief Piapot and his unhappy Crees protested in the only way they knew. Objecting to the prospect of locomotives belching smoke back and forth and frightening game, they pulled up the wood survey stakes and used them for campfires. When this did not stop Van Horne's crews, the natives simply pitched their tipis on the right of way, just ahead of the workers, and refused to move. Labourers had no desire to quarrel with these well-armed Indians and appealed to the Mounted Police who proved to be more persuasive than the engineers.

Even more serious were the financial problems. In desperation, the syndicate appealed to the government which, reluctantly, loaned $22,500,000 in 1883 and $5,000,000 in 1884. Even though the company was considered a poor risk at-that time, the government could not afford to let the railway project fail.

The building program of 1883 was an especially big one. Van Horne set an objective of three miles of new track per day for the prairie area. The objective was not always reached, but on some occasions it was far exceeded. Nine miles of track in a single day was considered a construction record.

On August 11, 1883, almost exactly eight years after Inspector Brisebois led his troop of Mounted Police into the Bow Valley to choose a site for a fort, the rails were laid to the east side of the Elbow River, where Calgary r stands today. Some of those who watched had never seen a train. Before the end of that season, rails were laid to the summit of Kicking Horse Pass, near Lake Louise. The route ahead was by Kicking Horse River Valley, Donald, Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Range, and Revelstoke. Clearly, the most difficult railroad construction was yet to be undertaken, where mountains had to be tunneled, gorges to be bridged, and the necessary precautions taken against snow and rock slides.

Actually, however, construction was already proceeding from the West, as Ottawa leaders sought to appease local indignation caused by delay. British Columbia people did not allow the federal government to forget its promises about railroad construction. Was not a railroad to be started within two years after the British Columbia entry into the Union and finished within 10 years? Construction did begin on a Vancouver Island line on July 19,1873, just one day before the first period of two years would elapse. Nevertheless, there was not enough activity to convince coastal residents of government intentions. After John A. Macdonald's defeat, his successor in office was unable to make a compromise arrangement with the British Columbia government and Premier Walkem appealed to Queen Victoria. The British government appointed Lord Carnarvon to look into the situation and received his report recommending that work be directed at building the Esquimalt-Nanaimo railroad on the island, completion of the survey on the mainland, a telegraph line and wagon road through the mountains, and completion of a railroad between the Great Lakes and the west coast by the end of 1890.

The British Columbia people might have accepted this, but there was no indication of a guarantee from Ottawa, and they became more and more annoyed. What Lord Dufferin, the Governor General, saw when he visited Victoria was an archway bearing the words: "Carnarvon Terms Or Separation." Walkem was returned to power in the province in 1878 on a policy of obtaining satisfaction from Ottawa or seeking secession. He went so far as to set a date in May 1879 for withdrawal from the Canadian union, if an acceptable arrangement were not made in the meantime.

As it turned out, Sir John A. Macdonald was back in power by that date and the prospect of realizing the railroad brightened. Sir John gave fresh assurances, and in the next year, 1880, workers began building the grade eastward from Port Moody, on Burrard Inlet. Andrew Onderdonk was the contractor, responsible for building along the Fraser and on as far as Savona. Much of it was terrifying and forbidding terrain.

Thousands of men were now employed, working from both East and West, blasting, digging, tunneling, and finally, on November 7, 1885, the construction crews met at Craigellachie, deep in the mountains, and there Donald Smith, better known as Lord Strathcona, hammered in the last spike to complete the longest railroad in the world and provide a tangible tie between East and West.

A government promise, although a little late, was made good. The first train from Montreal drew into Port Moody on July 4, 1886, amid loud enthusiasm from local people. But something more was needed at the western terminus: a deep-sea harbour. Before long, the rails were being laid to that more suitable harbour, and there, the city of Vancouver arose. Following completion of the C.P.R., the most courageous effort of them all, various other schemes for transcontinental railways were advanced, with two of them to be realized. The famous construction team, Mackenzie and Mann, built the Canadian Northern in bits and pieces, but not without a plan, and ultimately drove it to completion in 1915. It used the Yellowhead Pass route through the mountains, then to Kamloops, and along the Fraser River Canyon to Vancouver. The Grand Trunk, also using the Sandford Fleming or Yellowhead Pass route, was built to reach the Pacific at Prince Rupert and offer the shortest rail distance across the continent. It was completed in 1914.

Other railways were built on more modest scales. In Alberta there was the Northern Alberta Railway and in British Columbia, the Pacific Great Eastern, which was taken over by the provincial government in 1918.

But railroads, in some instances, were overbuilt, inviting financial difficulties. The Canadian Northern became bankrupt and was taken over in 1918 by the Government of Canada. The same fate befell the Grand Trunk, and by 1923, the federal government, more from necessity than choice, was welding several bankrupt lines and several other government-owned lines into the Canadian National Railway system.

One way or another, Canada emerged with the third largest network of railroads in the world. Some observers believed the country had more miles of railroads than it needed and certain lines could be abandoned. However that might be, railroads did serve the nation very well.


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