The concept of a Pacific railway had been in people's minds for many years since there was a vast amount of unsettled land in the West. Arable land would need to be available to large numbers of immigrants, many of them coming from Europe to North America.
There had been interest in building a railway across Canada as early as 1849 when Major Robert Carmichael-Smyth, a British officer, proposed a Grand National Railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The Hind and Dawson (link) (Simon J. Dawson biography and Professor Henry Youle Hind biography) expedition of 1857 was sent out by Canada to explore the Assiniboine and Red Valleys to assess their agricultural value. About the same time the Palliser (Capt. John Palliser) biography expedition was sent out by the British government to likewise explore the North West for farm settlement and a railway. Palliser's expedition (link) was the much more extensive one and resulted in the suggestion that a railway be built across the North West and through the Yellowhead Pass.
The need for a Pacific railway was very evident to the fledging Dominion of Canada not many years following Confederation on July 1st, 1867. Much of the remainder of British North America lay to the west of the initial provinces stretching some 2000 miles to the Pacific coast. That this land was in danger of being lost to the United States by either war or economic necessity was a clear and real possibility.
The United States had not only fought a war in 1776 to gain its independence from Britain, it declared war against Canada in 1812. It lost that war but was soon threatening another on the west coast to get British Columbia. Great Britain had been friendly to the Confederate cause and following the defeat of the Confederate States of America, retaliation against the remainder of British North America was feared.
The US had also been demanding all British territory of Oregon and British Columbia as far north as the 54o 40' latitude near Prince Rupert at the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The 1844 Democratic Party (which elected President James Polk) had as its slogan, 54 40, or fight. The Oregon Treaty signed June 15th, 1846 settled the boundary as the 49th parallel, which resulted in Canada loosing considerable land. Oregon Territory once consisted of present day Washington State, Oregon State and parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Vancouver Island, which had been a separate colony since 1849, combined with British Columbia November 19th, 1866. BC lay between the new US border on the south and its new possession of Alaska which was bought October 18th,1867 from Russia. It sought to join Canada but for some time had sought a railway to connect the two. It became a condition upon joining Confederation on June 20th, 1871 that such a railway be started within two years and completed within ten years.
The land in between consisted of a vast area of little population except for that around the Red River Settlement near Fort Garry. Manitoba joined Canada in 1870 although its area was very small at that time. The land across the prairies was endless and unsettled, most of it consisting of the vast land holding of the infamous Hudson's Bay Company which Canada purchased along with the North-West Territory effective December 1st, 1869. Then there came the mountains, vast ranges that presented yet another incredible challenge. The land of northern Ontario around Lake Superior was one of rugged desolation and forbidding obstacles largely in the form of almost impenetrable rock described as being "200 miles of engineering impossibilities".
National Archives of Canada C-008447
Champion of the Pacific Railway was Sir John A. Macdonald,
Canada's first Prime Minister.