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Watercolour illustration of Lake of Killarney, Ireland, circa 1820


Canadian Pacific Railway, 1920

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Ties that Bind: Essay

A Brief History of Railways in Canada

Photo of Cariboo stage, Fraser Canyon region, British Columbia, n.d.


Cariboo stage, Fraser Canyon region, British Columbia, n.d.

Prior to the introduction of the first passenger train in British North America, land transportation was a difficult undertaking. Diaries and journals of the day recount long, arduous trips by foot, wagon, coach, sleigh, or some combination of each with water transport. Roads were few. Where they existed, the dirt became mud in the spring and the addition of planks and logs was treacherous to the wagon wheels traversing them. "Macadamized" roads — roads made with layers of small, broken stones mixed with tar or asphalt — were an improvement, but expensive to maintain. Before the Grand Trunk Railway bridged the distance between Montréal and Toronto, it took at least thirty-six hours to travel between the two cities by stagecoach. Remote destinations, like the interiors of Newfoundland and Labrador or British Columbia, the Klondike or the Arctic, were almost impossible to reach.

Railway mania gripped Canada at various periods, but not long after the inauguration of the first railway in 1836, people realized the advantages of having a line run through their town. Mass transportation unified regions and the easier exchange of goods, services and people yielded profit, progress and development. Construction of the railroads and trains provided work. Convinced of its promise for their town or region, eager politicians jumped on the railway bandwagon and into the favour of their constituents.

Despite their popularity, most railways were characterized by chronic financial problems and eventually went bankrupt or were absorbed by larger companies. Governments that helped fund the ventures were left holding the empty moneybag when companies could not generate enough profit or pay their debts. Sometimes this happened before the construction of a railroad was complete and in many instances, it had not even begun. Public benefits from a new line were real, but over-zealous promotions masked a combination of unrealistic hopes and lack of proper planning and financing. Fierce competition helped to cloud matters. No one wanted to be left out of the railway adventure — towns clashed over prospective lines and too many companies received charters for the same region.

Poster of the Canadian National Railways, 1930, with colour illustration of a train, a cowboy and mountains


Canadian National Railways, 1930

By the beginning of the Great War, there were four dominant independents: the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP). Their frenzy of expansion left them over-extended. Heavy competition for dwindling resources, traffic and government assistance brought the latter three to the brink of bankruptcy. The advent of war brought the crisis to a head and the federal government had to act. By 1923, the CNoR, the GTP and GTR were amalgamated into the recently created Canadian National Railways (CNR). Railway services were thus combined into two transcontinentals.

By the 1930s, automobiles and buses had gained popularity and paved roads were becoming a familiar sight. This created a decline in railway passenger travel; in the 1940s and 1950s, airlines compounded the situation. The 1960s saw the close of an increasing number of branch lines and many railway companies folded. The CPR and the CN could not continue operations as they had in the past, and in 1978, the two companies combined their passenger services to form VIA Rail.

Importance of the Railways to Canada

Historically, the CPR is perhaps the best-known railway to Canadians. It was the CPR, unifying the country geographically and politically, that comprised John A. Macdonald's "national dream." Connection to the national railway was a promise made to both British Columbia and Prince Edward Island to ensure their entrance into Confederation.

Brochure of the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1922, showing routes in eastern Canada


Canadian Pacific Railway, 1922

Although the CPR stands out, over 2 500 railway company charters have been issued since the mid-nineteenth century. Relatively few are operating today, but their cumulative output has had an enormous impact on the economic and social lives of Canadians.

A railway line was like the golden touch to a town or region. Real estate prices jumped. Employment was plentiful; labourers were in demand to construct roads and the trains needed crew members, technicians for maintenance and providers of cordwood (in the early days) for fuel. People became less isolated and communication was facilitated. Heavy industry grew in several towns and cities, and service industries followed. In the West, whole new towns were created around the site of railway stations and immigrants came in droves.

Little-known areas of the country were being revealed. People were able to travel more easily, and to previously remote destinations. In some areas, there was a choice of railway lines. This led to a boom in the fledging travel and tourism industry.

Railways Promoting Canada

Poster of the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1925, with a colour illustration of the Banff Springs Hotel.


Canadian Pacific Railway, 1925

During the heyday of passenger travel, railway companies produced a barrage of advertising designed to lure people into their region and persuade them to travel on their line. By the early 1880s, the products consisted of broadsides or leaflets with plain or sometimes, tinted lettering. Soon, things grew more elaborate and colourful cards, posters, brochures and broadsides were exhibited and distributed all over Canada and, especially in the case of the CPR, abroad. Tourists were desirable but up to the 1940s, only the relatively wealthy could afford luxury travel. Advertising to local traffic took the form of "excursions" — short pleasure trips to interesting locales.

Poster of the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1955


Canadian Pacific Railway, 1955

The CPR emerged as an advertising master. Understanding the value of effective marketing, they inundated the public with promotions even before their last spike was hammered. Not content with dominating railway travel, the CPR created a whole transportation and communications system that included steamships, hotels, telegraph services and later, an airline. Some of their ads boasted not only CPR as a means of transportation, but CPR destinations. The well-heeled traveller of the 1920s might not have appreciated the natural beauty of the Rockies and its lakes without the man-made pleasures of the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise. To support this promotional machine, the CPR created its own art department whose output some consider to be among the best commercial art ever produced.

Brochure of the Quebec & Lake St. John Railway, 1898, with a descriptive text, a route map and a drawing of a salmon


Quebec & Lake St. John Railway, 1898

Smaller railway companies did not have such resources. But they too produced creative and interesting advertisements that focused on their own corner of the world. These works helped establish them within the larger Canadian railway network and allowed them to put their own unique mark on a region. "Britain's Oldest Colony" was the endorsement of Newfoundland by the Reid Newfoundland Company. The Quebec and Lake St. John Railway pushed their line as "The New Route to the Far-Famed Saguenay" and the Pacific Great Eastern proclaimed "Western Hospitality" with the greeting, "Hi There Pardner!"

The content of brochures and timetables included practical details like schedules and maps, but the imagery on the covers and on the posters, were often romanticized pictures of mountains, prairie and seashores that lent an exotic air to travel in Canada. In addition to using natural settings as promotional tools, railway companies used historical, literary and popular figures such as Frontenac in Quebec, Evangeline in Acadia, and Mounties in the Rockies. These practices helped to create stereotypes and solidified mythologies about Canada that still linger in today's popular imagination.

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