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ARCHIVED - Canada, by Train

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Nation Building - the Transcontinentals

Photo of the Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, 7 Nov. 1885

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The Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, Nov. 7, 1885

Railways unified regions by supplying work, connecting people and allowing for easier and cheaper exchange of goods and services. By providing transport to little-known areas, the railways promoted greater knowledge of the country and encouraged settlement.

Photo of the first Canadian Pacific Railway through train from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Port Arthur, June 30, 1886

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The first Canadian Pacific Railway through train from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Port Arthur, June 30, 1886

In 1871, when John A. Macdonald announced his dream of connecting Canada by rail from coast to coast, the central and eastern regions of the country already had access to a railway network. But Macdonald said, "[u]ntil this great work is completed, our Dominion is little more than a geographical expression." Fifteen years, a major political scandal, and a second term in office later, Macdonald oversaw the completion of his "national dream." The building of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) helped secure Macdonald's place in Canadian history. The extension of the CPR to the west coast also fulfilled a condition of British Columbia's acceptance of Confederation.

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Canadian Pacific Railway, 1886, covers and map

Brochure of the Canadian National Railways, n.d., reading ACROSS CANADA THE NATIONAL WAY, with a colour illustration of a train travelling across a map of Canada

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Canadian National Railways, n.d.

The creation of the Canadian National Railways (CNR) was accomplished under very different circumstances. By the beginning of the Great War, the railway network in Canada was in a crisis due to over-expansion, dwindling resources and competition for freight, passengers and government loans. The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) and the Grand Trunk system (Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP)) were virtually bankrupt. Their collapse would have been a disaster for the country. The federal government's solution was to combine them with the Canadian Government Railways to make one large transcontinental system. By 1923, the amalgamation was complete and the CNR became Canada's largest railway.

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