The Canadian Pacific Railway

Citation metadata

Date: Sept. 27, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 958 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

From Sea to Sea

The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) on November 7, 1885 was the definitive physical act that established Canada as a transcontinental nation. Construction of the CPR fulfilled a fifteen-year-old federal government promise to British Columbia, made to induce the British colony to join Canada in 1871. In a larger sense, the railway became the backbone of Canadian territorial expansion and physical proof that the Canadian motto adopted in 1867, "From sea to sea" (in its Latin form a mari usque ad mare), had become a reality.

In many respects the completion of the CPR represented the triumph of hope over experience. The promise made to British Columbia by Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first Prime Minister (1815-1891) that a transcontinental railway would be built within ten years was rash; the new nation had limited funds and the engineering challenges presented by the rock and muskeg wilderness of the Canadian Shield were formidable. When MacDonald made his promise, a suitable pass through the Rocky Mountains had not yet been determined. MacDonald's railway initiatives in 1872 fell victim to his involvement in a political corruption scandal involving stockholders in the transcontinental railway project. MacDonald was driven from office in 1873.

The official breaking of ground for the CPR occurred at Fort William in 1875, but a poor economy held back the project for years. In 1881, with MacDonald back in power, the transcontinental railroad began moving forward in earnest. The Canadian Pacific Railway was incorporated in 1881. The government promised the company $25 million and 25 million acres of western land, as well as other benefits, in exchange for construction of a railroad linking eastern Canada to the Pacific.

Van Horne

The hiring of American William Cornelius Van Horne (1843- 1915) to manage construction was one of the most influential decisions in the history of the young nation. Van Horne, a veteran of the American transcontinental railway industry, was a hard-driving and determined project manager. He supervised the construction of over 450 miles of rail across the Prairies in 1882, and hired an army of ten thousand men to push the project across the Rockies between 1883 and 1885.

Van Horne became a legendary figure, known by his remark, 'I eat all I can, I drink all I can, I smoke all I can, and I don't give a damn for anything." When called upon to speak at the ceremonial driving of the "Last Spike" in 1885, Van Horne simply stated that "All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way." Van Horne later directed the construction of a series of luxury railway hotels that became tourist fixtures along the CPR route.

Difficult Work

The feats of engineering that accompanied the CPR construction between 1878 and 1885 are among the marvels of nineteenth century construction. An example is the trestle bridge built over the Montreal River north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where hundreds of workmen risked their lives to construct a sweeping structure with its track positioned over 100 m (330 feet) from the river below. Railway construction each summer placed the railway workers in daily battles with both the geographic features of northern Canada, and the ever-present black fly and mosquito populations that often made outdoor work unbearable.

The survey work to determine the best route for the CPR through the Rocky Mountains was not concluded until 1882. The construction of the line through the Rockies involved both bridge construction and highly dangerous blasting operations. In the early 1880s, most rock blasting was performed using the placement of highly unstable dynamite or nitroglycerin in holes bored in the face of the rock; hundreds of men perished in mountain railway construction accidents.

With labour in short supply in the sparsely populated west, thousands of Chinese workers were recruited to immigrate to Canada to help build the CPR. In the period from 1881 to 1882 alone, over six thousand Chinese were engaged in railway work. In the discriminatory climate of the era, however, the Chinese were welcome only for as long as they were necessary. In 1885, as the CPR was completed, the federal government passed legislation to restrict Chinese immigration into Canada.

A Nation Connected

The benefit provided to Confederation by the CPR was immediate. After 1882, as the railway pushed across the Prairies, tens of thousands of settlers were carried by rail into the Northwest Territory. The newly established railway hub at Regina was the basis to name the new city the territorial capital in 1884. Calgary became the first town in Alberta also thanks to the CPR. The remarkable western expansion that continued into until the outbreak of World War I provided the impetus to the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.

Another example of the railroad's impact on the nation was its use in putting down the Métis rebellion at Batoche, Northwest Territory (now Saskatchewan) in 1885. National troops were organised in Ontario and transported to this edge of the Canadian wilderness in less than nine days. Without a railroad to move them, it had taken a similar sized force sixty-nine days to travel the shorter distance to battle the Red River insurrection in 1869.

In 2015, Canadian Pacific attempted to purchase all available shares of the Norfolk Southern railway corporation in an attempt to merge the two railways. If successful, the maneuver would have created the largest railroad company in North America. The merger was opposed by Norfolk Southern, as well as firms from the United States. Many believed that the merger would reduce competition in the railway market. After three separate offers to buy out Norfolk Southern were refused, Canadian Pacific decided to cease pursuing the merger.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2181600076