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Empires of Canada


Canada is unique in having had a number of empires in its railway history as well as major competing systems both private and government owned. No other country in the world owes so much to its railways as Canada,
in fact to its very existence. In most countries they built railways. In Canada, one railway built the country. The Canadian Pacific Railway, a private enterprise aided by government built a railway to join separate colonies into one country. The story has been told many times, no other railway has had as many history books written about it. Yet, few today appreciate what that railway did for Canada. It helped to create a country and to settle it. It built an "empire", a railway "from sea to sea", hotels, telegraph (remember that?), lake and ocean ships, highway transport (bus and truck) and eventually air transportation along with various natural resources.

A second empire was that of Canadian National Railways, this late-comer was created by the federal government to combine government railways and take over various failed private railways. It took over the government owned and operated Intercolonial Railway, and Prince Edward Island Railway (operated as Canadian Government Railways), the shareholder owned and bankrupt Grand Trunk, itself consisting of Great Western and many small railways, and the government-private (GTR) Grand Trunk Pacific that failed and helped bring down its parent. Government support was required for all railway construction; often this took the form of grants at a set rate per mile of line constructed and guarantees of bonds. Acceptance of these bonds as well as stock in cases of default resulted in government ownership by default. Railways were simply too important to not take them over.

Canadian National became a competing business Canada wide operating similar services as Canadian Pacific, hotels, telegraph, and ships. The federal government also owned and operated a major airline, Trans Canada, (later Air Canada.) For many decades the federal government made up its losses until it eventually became a shareholder company in November 1995.

Both of the two empires above were Canada wide and beyond, others were much smaller. They included both government and private ownership.

Ontario's provincially owned Temiskaming & Northern Ontario (later, Ontario Northland) was a smaller version of Canadian Pacific's empire in that it included rail, road (truck and bus), telephone, lake boats etc. The Province also owned a small local air line. Its primary purpose was to develop Northern Ontario, profit was not its motive.

British Columbia owned a similar development road, Pacific Great Eastern (later, British Columbia). It was almost entirely a railway operation and again, profit was not its motive, development was. Presently, it is being sold off.

Newfoundland had a difficult railway history one that included both private and government operation. Newfoundland took over the Reid railway operations and following Confederation, Newfoundland Railway was taken over by Canadian National.

Privately owned empires included Algoma Central, both under the Clergue empire of companies and its later shareholder version. The Booth empire was centred on lumber and included the Canada Atlantic. The Rathbun empire was also centred on lumber but included cement and local shipping along with the Bay of Quinte and other railways. The Reid empire in Newfoundland was likewise centred on lumbering but also included local shipping. All of these railways eventually became part of Canadian National, many later being abandoned.

Mackenzie and Mann were best known for their Canadian Northern Railway System, a third major railway system designed to compete with Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk. Theirs' wasn't a true empire in that it was mostly rail transportation including street railway operations. It was a remarkable empire nevertheless, one put together piece by piece until it covered much of Canada. Eventually, their empire of railways collapsed and they too were absorbed into Canadian National Railways.

In the end, only the mighty Canadian Pacific maintained its empire of transportation, hotels and resources until late in the 20th Century when much of it was sold off or broken up into separate entities. Everything else was in government hands with few, exceptions. Aside from mining railways such as Quebec, North Shore & Labrador, Cartier, Romaine River etc. (some have other traffic including passenger), and US railroads that remained in Canada in several places, the exceptions were few and far between. Excepting for the modern era of short lines, Essex Terminal remains one of the few independent railways, an original "short line" long before the term came into common use.

Railway History

In Canada, it all began with the very first common carrier railway, the Champlain & St.Lawrence opened in 1836. It was short portage railway around a cataract in the St. Lawrence River, running only 14 miles between Lapraire on the St.Lawrence River and St.John's on the Richelieu River. This was part of a route connecting Montreal and New York City. It eventually became part of the Canadian National Railways as did many struggling or failed railways.

Other early railways included: Montreal & Lachine, Erie & Ontario, Carillon & Grenville, Ontario, Simcoe & Huron, St.Lawrence & Atlantic/Atlantic & St.Lawrence.

The first major railway was the Great Western Railway. The GWR was incorporated in 1844 to build from the Detroit River to the Niagara River. The main line between Niagara Falls, via Hamilton and London to Windsor was opened on January 17, 1854. Under the charter of the Hamilton & Toronto a line was built between those two points and immediately became a branch of the GWR. Several small railways were soon taken over to reach many other points in Southern Ontario. The GWR itself was taken over by the GTR.

It was quickly followed by the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada incorporated November 10, 1852 to build from Montreal to Toronto. Through acquisitions it was soon expanded from Toronto to Sarnia and from Montreal to Portland, Maine.

All of these began before Confederation in 1867 and were just the beginning of a vast network of railway companies and lines that were to reach practically every community in Canada creating many of them as they passed by.

On the east coast there were a number of early efforts to build railways for different purposes, first for private use (coal mining) and later for public transportation and military reasons.

Various efforts were undertaken to build railways in Nova Scotia, this required the Colony to support construction and to seek aid to extend a line to connect with the main population areas of Montreal. Much of this was soon consolidated into the Intercolonial. Joseph Howe

The biggest effort was the construction of the Intercolonial Railway of Canada (IRC) stretching 700 miles from Halifax to Montreal. The initiative for the IRC was Confederation itself, and on December 21, 1867, the first publicly-owned railway in Canada was authorized. It opened in 1872 and was further expanded to other points. It lasted until 1919 when it was taken over by Canadian National Railways due to financial difficulties.

Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia. In common with Russia it has a large land mass but an even smaller population. Much of the population was located along the St.Lawrence River and on the East Coast, around Winnipeg and on the West Coast. In between were vast distances of open territory and rugged inhospitable land. To the south lay a growing and antagonistic country. The necessity to build a railway to connect British Columbia to the rest of Canada became a demand from BC to join Confederation. It was also a political necessity recognized by Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald.

All of this was very much in people's minds in the 19th Century on both coasts of Canada. On the East Coast, the Intercolonial Railway was surveyed and built away from the border to reduce the likelihood of its falling into enemy hands in a conflict. Had part of Quebec and New Brunswick not been lost to Maine as a result of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, there would have been less need to build the ICR in such an indirect route.

Railways in Central Canada were built to the Provincial Gauge of 5 feet 6 inches in order that they could not be easily used by enemy forces during war. Eventually, the threat subsided and railways were "narrow gauged" to 4 feet 8 and once-half inches, more commonly known as Standard Gauge, one that originated in England.

On the West Coast, the threat was more likely to have come from British Columbia seeking annexation to the United States of America due to its lack of connection with the rest of Canada, cut off by the formidable mountain ranges. Much of BC's trade and commerce was with the US and travel to and from the East was only possible by going through the USA. It was this isolation that forced the building of a railway to connect east and west. British Columbia had been seeking a railway to connect it with the east there was trepidation about the real need and affordability of such a massive undertaking in such a sparsely settled country with little financial resources. After Confederation, British Columbia was demanding a railway as a precondition to its joining Confederation. It joined in 1871 and the federal government set out to honour its agreement.

The Pacific Railway as it was colloquially known became the Canadian Pacific under Federal government construction by different contractors. The difficulties encountered by the contractors and the struggle by the government to finance it all threatened the project. It was then the government turned to the private sector to take over what existed and complete it in a timely fashion. A syndicate of investors bravely put up their money and in February 1881 incorporated the Canadian Pacific Railway Company; the true C.P.R.

Work began to join two disjointed portions of the railway as well as to extend it eastward through both construction and acquisition. A Montreal to Vancouver railway was the goal. Much of the eastern expansion came under the Ontario & Quebec which itself took over two early railways, Toronto, Grey & Bruce and Credit Valley. ser back

The famed Last Spike of the Pacific Railway was driven on November 7, 1885 but the completion of the CPR was still a long ways off. In fact, it continued to grow for many decades, both by construction and by acquisition. A long list of owned and controlled railways included those that were obvious to all, including Dominion Atlantic, Esquimalt & Naniamo, Quebec Central, Grand River and Lake Erie & Northern. Those that lost their public identity such as Montreal & Atlantic, Kingston & Pembroke and others were remembered for years. Still others were known only by legal interests such as the Campbellford, Lake Ontario & Western, Georgian Bay & Seaboard and many others whose names existed only on paper. These "paper railways" were operated the CPR for all of their lives retaining their name for legal purposes only.

The 20th century saw extensive railway expansion across much of Canada. Canadian Northern and Canadian Pacific both continued to build new lines "everywhere". The government of Canada encouraged and aided this directly for the benefit of the country. Another transcontinental railway was developed in conjunction with Grand Trunk which was to build an 1,800 mile railway from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, to be know as the Grand Trunk Pacific. The other half of the project was between Winnipeg and Quebec City, the National Transcontinental, some 2,000 miles of railway which was to be taken over by the GTP upon completion. The railway was completed, but it all came down in a house of cards collapse. GTR, GTP and NTR all came into government ownership along with the CNoR. That left only the CPR remaining in private ownership.

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