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A Brief History of Canadian Railroads, 1836 - 1937

This history is the introduction to the industry in the 765-page publication "A Statutory History of the Steam and Electric Railways of Canada 1836 - 1937 with other data relevant to Operation of Department of Transport", compiled by Robert Dorman and published by the Canadian Department of Transport in 1938. Copies are often available at AbeBooks.

    Railway history in Canada had its beginnings just slightly over one hundred years ago. [from the time this was originally published, in 1938].

    In 1832, by the Statutes of Lower Canada, the "Company of the Proprietors of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad" was incorporated to build from a point on the St. Lawrence river, nearly opposite the city of Montreal, to the village of Dorchester, now the city of St. John's. The line was opened for traffic between Laprairie and St. John's on July 21, 1836.

    From that date until the end of the year 1885 might reasonably be called the experimental stage in our railway history. The idea of railways had taken hold in Europe and in the United States. British North America, however, was sparsely settled, and its densest centres of population were along the Great St. Lawrence and its tributary waters and on the Atlantic seaboard. Used to the navigation of ocean and river and lake, the people clung tenaciously to water transportation. It is interesting to note that, in the wording of the charter of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, the promoters of that pioneer line thought of it only as a "portage" link in the water route from the St. Lawrence river to New York.

    Even in the number of projected railways that followed the success of the first railway in Canada, it is evident that the persons concerned were thinking of the railways as unavoidable, but minor, items in river and sea routes. Many charters contained the rights to acquire and operate vessels and to build canals.

    However, one or two roads which afterwards became important factors in Canadian life had their beginning in the early years of this period. The Grand Trunk railway of Canada in Quebec and Ontario, the European and North American railway in New Brunswick, and the Nova Scotia railways in Nova Scotia, the latter two being the nucleus of Canadian Government railways, commenced in the early fifties.

    Confederation brought a new impetus to railway construction. One of the articles of agreement between the four provinces called for construction of an Intercolonial Railway, and the Federal Government began the implementing of that agreement, extending the maritime provincial lines as far as Rivière du Loup in Quebec.

    Entry of the far away Province of British Columbia to the Union in 1871, brought further demands on the Dominion Government for provision of adequate and easy travel and trade communication between Eastern Canada and the west coast. And out of this necessity grew the Canadian Pacific railway.

    The construction of the first great transcontinental railway in Canada is an epic in itself and has furnished material for many books on the subject. Suffice it to say, here, that the completion of the Canadian Pacific railway from coast to coast in 1885 ended the experimental phase of Canadian railway construction. The impossible had been accomplished, and the prophets who had seen the railway in the future as "two streaks of rust across the prairies," were hushed.

    The years from 1885 until the commencement of the Great War must be classified as years of development and over-development, in so far as railway history in Canada is concerned. The success of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company in establishing long distance transportation by locomotives, brought many promoters to the scene. And the next thirty years saw lines on paper and lines in actuality building and projected all over the Dominion.

    The amalgamation, in 1899, of two railway projects in Manitoba, was the beginning of Canada's second transcontinental line. From this amalgamation the Canadian Northern System grew until, by 1914, it had lines in every province of Canada except two, and operated a fleet of ocean steamships.

    In 1903 the Grand Trunk Railway Company, which had hitherto confined its attention to Quebec, Ontario and the United States, entered the transcontinental race. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company was formed to develop the Canadian territory much farther north than the other railways had located and to open a more northerly port on the Pacific coast. The Eastern section of this project was to be built by the Dominion Government and, upon its completion, leased to the Grand Trunk Pacific Company.

    The war years, and the period immediately following, saw the inevitable reaction. A population which could adequately support one transcontinental transportation system, could not maintain three, and the financial depression due to the dislocation of business during the European trouble, made matters worse.

    The Eastern Division of the Grand Trunk Pacific railway had been completed by the Government and, in accordance with agreement, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company was requested to assume, under lease, responsibility for the road. The Company, however, made such delay and evidenced such reluctance to implement the agreement, that the Dominion authorities had finally to arrange, by chapter 43 of the 1914 Statutes, for operation of the line in conjunction with the Canadian Government Railways.

    Next the Canadian Northern Railway Company, which had appealed successfully many times to Ottawa for aid in various forms, announced, in 1917, its inability to carry on without further assistance. Negotiations were entered into with a view to Government acquirement of the Capital stock of the Railway Company. A Board of Arbitrators, which was appointed, made its award on May 31, 1918, and the Government took over control of the property. The Board of Directors was reconstituted, and, by Order in Council of November 20, 1918, the new board was entrusted with the management also of the Canadian Government railways. By Order in Council of December 20, 1918, the term "Canadian National Railways" was applied to all lines owned and controlled by the Dominion Government.

    On March 4, 1919, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company notified the authorities that it would cease to operate its railway after March 10 of that year. To prevent hardship ensuing upon such abandonment of service, the Minister of Railways and Canals was appointed by Order in Council of March 17, 1919, to act as Receiver in the company's affairs and to provide for operation of its lines of railway.

    In 1919 the Canadian National Railway Company was incorporated for the purpose of management of the swiftly growing aggregation of Government controlled railway properties, and by Order in Council of July 12, 1920, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was entrusted to the new Company for operation. In 1920, negotiations which had been under way with various interruptions since 1918, between the Dominion and the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada, culminated in an agreement, whereby the Dominion Government assumed control of the Company's properties. Appraisal of value of the Company's stock was left to a Board of Arbitrators which delivered its award on September 7, 1921. The railway was operated for some time by a committee of management, but, in 1923, the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada was finally amalgamated with the Canadian National Railway Compny.

    A glance at a railway map of Canada today will present the fact that the majority of railway lines in the country are embraced in two great systems. The Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific stretch from coast to coast, and include nearly all of the branch lines in every province.


    Most of the lesser roads which were projected and built through the experimental and development years were, from time to time, absorbed under long term lease or purchase by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, the Canadian Northern Railway Company and the Grand Trunk Railway Company. In the Maritimes, and, to some extent, in Quebec, the Canadian Government railways also have absorbed many of the so-called branch lines.


    Here and there across the country a few privately owned lines still function, and at various points along the United States Border, American railway companies, such as the Great Northern, the New York Central, the Michigan Central and the Père Marquette, own or lease connecting links between their main lines and Canadian cities. The Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway in British Columbia, the Canada Southern Railway and the Ottawa and New York Railway in Ontario, and the St. Lawrence and Adirondack Railway in Quebec, are examples of this latter ownership.


    Two railways are owned and operated by Provincial Governments. In Ontario, the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway is operated for the Government of Ontario by a Commission and, in British Columbia, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway is the property of the Government of that province. Four roads, formerly owned by the Province of Alberta. were, in 1929, jointly purchased by the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific Railway Companies and are operated on behalf of the joint owners by the Northern Alberta Railways Company.

    An attempt has been made, in the following pages, to trace, fully, the legislative history of the railways of Canada. Where possible, supplementary notes have been added that show such movements or disposition of the roads as may not be reflected in the Statutes. An index, alphabetical by terminal points, has been added to assist in tracing the history of lines which have lost their identities in the larger systems.


    Practically all railways in Canada today, and, in fact, in other lands, have a width of track between the rails of 4 feet 8½ inches. This is what is known as Standard Gauge. A few lines, operated for passenger service only, have a gauge of 3 feet 6 inches or less and, in some purely industrial roads, that is roads operated by industrial concerns between the units of their own establishments, the gauge is what is called "narrow."

    In the early years of railway history there were many divergent views held as to the safest and best width for the lines. To the lay mind, of course, it seemed a simple matter; very obviously the wider the tracks the more stable the equilibrium. But engineers and scientists found that curves in the tracks and the fact that car wheels turned not on the axles, but with the axles, and other factors must be considered.

    In Great Britain the first railway was built to a 4 foot 8½ inch gauge, and most of the later lines adopted this width. But a few roads tried out widths varying all the way from 5 feet to 7 feet. Eventually the standard gauge was accepted. In the United States most of the railway lines, from their inception, built to the width of 4 feet 8½ inches.

    When Canada, or the Canadian Provinces, began to construct railways, these divergent views had to be faced, and strong reasons were advanced for each view.

    The first railway in Canada, the Champlain and St. Lawrence railroad, was built to a gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches. This was probably influenced by the American lines immediately south of the border, which were already of that width, and with which the Champlain and St. Lawrence railroad would eventually connect.

    The European and North American line in New Brunswick and the Nova Scotia railways, which became the Intercolonial railway in later years, were built, on the other hand, to a gauge of 5 feet 6 inches. The Grand Trunk railway to Portland, Maine, and its roads in Ontario, as well as the Great Western railway in Ontario, which later merged in the Grand Trunk, all were built to the 5 foot 6 inch gauge. In the case of the Great Western a width of 7 feet had even been discussed.

    The Canadian Pacific railway was built throughout on the 4 foot 8½ inch gauge, but, of course, this was many years after the inception of the roads abovementioned, and their experience could be utilized.

    Inevitably, the problem of transshipment of freight between railways of different gauges arose. The Grand Trunk and the Great Western met, at the United States border, lines of narrower track, and could neither accept the foreign cars for through service nor could they send on their own cars with through freight. All shipments had to be "broken" and reshipped. The Great Western got around this, for some years, by the addition of a third rail which gave them a narrow gauge track within their wider line. But that was awkward and costly.

    Eventually, the gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches established its superiority, and the old lines bowed to the dictum of engineering science. It is noteworthy that, in recent years, archaeological research in Italy has shown that the chariot roads of Roman times were built for vehicles whose wheels, as evidenced by the ruts still showing, were just 4 feet 8½ inches apart.

    During the years 1872-'73 and '74 the gauge of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada was changed to 4 feet 8½ inches throughout.

    In the early summer of 1875 the gauge of the Intercolonial railway, the successor to the European and North American railway and to the Nova Scotia railways, was altered to 4 feet 8½ inches.

    With the advent of Prince Edward Island to Confederation in 1873, the Prince Edward Island railway became the property of the Dominion Government. The line, which had been partly built by the Provincial Government, was of 3 foot 6 inch gauge, and the Federal authorities completed it to that gauge. This line remained a narrow gauge road until recent years.

    In 1915 the construction of a car ferry for service on the Northumberland Straits brought the same problem to Canadian Government railways authorities as that which faced the Great Western in earlier times - the transshipment of trains between railway lines of different widths of track. The problem was met in the same way as the earlier one had been, by the addition of a third rail - this time to the tracks of the Prince Edward Island railway. But progressively, year by year since then, the gauge of the Prince Edward Island railway has been changed. Until, now, all of its main line and most of its branches are of the standard gauge.

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