Building the Canadian railway

Steam Train Construction of the transcontinental railway spurred the birth of Canada; in fact, all of North America was undergoing change in the 19th century. Immigrants, especially Europeans, poured in to settle the land. Cities sprang up everywhere. With trains, a day's trip overland was no longer measured in kilometres but in tens and hundreds of kilometres. Locomotives replaced horses, while coaches gradually gave way to automobiles and train cars. Suddenly everything became possible.


From the 1600s to the early 1800s

The inhabitants of New France travelled by boat, sleigh and calèche. Roads were bumpy, muddy and usually in very poor condition. In winter, rivers froze over and put an end to navigation. Deep snow isolated communities.

Canadian railway milestones to 1978

A turning point in Canada's history occurred in 1836, when the first public train began running between Saint Jean sur Richelieu and La Prairie near Montréal. The event triggered an extraordinary boom in every dimension of Canada's growth. Trains took passengers and large quantities of merchandise all over the continent. Towns grew around railway stations. Factories and industries sprang up in cities such as Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver. Canada was bustling!

Here are a few milestones in the history of Canada's railway, culminating in 1977 with the creation of VIA Rail Canada.

1800 In the late 18th and early 19th century, wooden rails were installed on slopes so that cablecars could haul merchandise uphill. One such notable system was built at Cap Diamant in Québec City to help construct the Citadel, the largest fortification in North America.
1825 World. On September 27, the world's first real railroad line officially opened in England. It connected Stockton to Darlington, near Newcastle. Distance: 19 km.
1826 Near Kingsey Falls, Québec, eccentric merchant James George used wooden rails to connect a logging site to the Saint François River six kilometres away. Horse-drawn carts hauled logs along the tracks.
1827 During construction of the Rideau Canal in the Ottawa area, wooden rails were used to haul stones between a quarry at Hog's Back and Nepean.

The 202 km long Rideau Canal connects the Ottawa River in Ottawa to Lake Ontario in Kingston. The plan to build this key component of a second line of communication between Montréal and Kingston for military purposes dates back to the end of the War of 1812. Some 50 locks were needed to control water levels at rapids along the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers.
1830 Canada's first industrial railway opened near Pictou, Nova Scotia.

World. The world's first public railway opened between Liverpool and Manchester, England. Distance: 51 km. It was really the combination of railway tracks, steam engines and regular schedules that marked the birth of the railway as a modern means of transportation.
1836 Canada's first public railway between Saint Jean sur Richelieu and La Prairie, Québec was opened by the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad. Trade and transportation were also greatly improved by the linking of Montréal to the Hudson River Valley and New York via the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain.

In the mid 19th century, Canada's roads were not very developed and navigable waterways were frozen up to five months a year. The Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad, financed by Montréal merchants such as John Molson, served as a portage road between Montréal and Lake Champlain. But not much freight was carried. The train travelled on wooden rails protected by iron straps.
1852 The Grand Trunk Railway Company was founded in Montréal. For several decades it was the biggest business in Canada.
1853 The first Grand Trunk trains began running between Montréal and Portland, Maine, whose harbour was open year round. It was the first crossborder railway in North America.
1856 Trains began running between Montréal and Toronto. In Point St. Charles, southwest of Old Montréal, Grand Trunk built Canada's largest railway shops, which hired over 2,000 workers.
1860 In August, Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, officially opened Victoria Bridge, an architectural masterpiece designed by engineer Robert Stephenson. Montréal Island could finally be reached by train.
1867 July 1 brought Confederation. Under the agreement, the only two Maritime provinces at the time, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, were promised railway connections to Québec and Ontario.
1869 Some 10,000 Métis, mostly French speaking Catholics, were now living on a large stretch of fertile land along the Red River. But the federal government began colonizing the area with English speaking settlers from Ontario, without regard for the ancestral rights of the Métis and Amerindians. This angered the Métis, who formed a provisional government headed by Louis Riel.
1870 On July 15, Manitoba joined Confederation and became Canada's fifth province. But the Métis crisis still simmered. Ottawa refused to recognize Louis Riel's provincial government and forced him into exile. In the years that followed, the Métis received support from Western tribes also threatened by colonization. But the combined forces of the Métis and Amerindians were no match for the better armed soldiers carried westward by rail.
1871 British Columbia now joined Confederation, but with a condition attached: a transcontinental railway had to be built within 10 years to connect it to Eastern Canada.
1873 Grand Trunk modified its railway to meet American standards. The wheels and suspension systems on its 3,000 cars were replaced, 150 more locomotives were built, and 800 more cars added to the fleet. During the night of October 4, 1,510 workers changed the gauge of 1,474 kilometres of track.
1876 The sparkling new 1,100-km-long Intercolonial Railway opened, connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Québec and Ontario.
1881 The Canadian Pacific Railway Company This link opens in a new tab   was founded in Montréal by a group of businessmen of Scottish descent: Donald Smith, George Stephen and Richard Bladworth Angus.
1882 On July 24, Rogers Pass, which would be used to cross the Rockies and Selkirk Range, was discovered. Fatal avalanches in the 1,330-metre-high pass convinced Canadian Pacific to build the 8 km long Connaught Tunnel in 1916.

Grand Trunk merged with Great Western Railway based in Hamilton, Ontario.
1883 Canadian Pacific began building its own steam locomotives and then its own cars. The company became the second transcontinental passenger train operator after the Pullman Company of Chicago, Illinois.
1886 The first train crossed Canada from Dalhousie Station in Montréal to Port Moody, 20 kilometres from the small town of Granville, which eventually became Vancouver. The following year brought construction of the first railway station in Vancouver, which quickly became Western Canada's main seaport.
1912 The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was founded, connecting Winnipeg, Manitoba to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. This put it into competition with two other transcontinental railways: Canadian Pacific and Canadian Northern.
1914 On August 18, at a special session of the House of Commons, the Conservative and Liberal parties agreed in principle on Canada's entry into World War I.
1916 The railway boom drove many companies to the brink of bankruptcy. The federal government nationalized them and created Canadian NationalThis link opens in a new tab . In a series of moves from 1916 to 1923, Ottawa took control of Grand Trunk Pacific, Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk, and merged them with Intercolonial and National Transcontinental, which were already nationalized, to create Canadian National Railways (CNR), now known as Canadian National (CN).
1939 On September 3, England and France declared war on Germany. Canada joined them a week later, over two years before the United States. As it had during the previous Great War, Pier 21 in Halifax served as a gateway for soldiers, and also for the European immigrants who poured into Canada during and after the war. From there, they boarded trains to various destinations across the country.
1950 In the wake of World War II, passenger train travel declined throughout North America as people opted for cars and airplanes.
1968 Turbo TrainLaunch of the Turbo Train with its turbine engine built by Pratt & Whitney (United Aircraft) in Longueuil. It looked futuristic but was withdrawn from service in 1981 because of countless mechanical problems, and replaced by LRC (light, rapid, comfortable) trains.
1977 With Canadian National and Canadian Pacific gradually cutting down their passenger service since the 1960's, the federal government decided to create VIA Rail along the lines of Amtrak, founded by the American government six years earlier.
1981 France's first high speed train (TGV) began running between Paris and Lyon. It reached a top speed of 260 km/h, which was later boosted to 270 and then 300 km/h.
1994 The SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) launched the Eurostar, which connects Paris and London in three hours through the Channel Tunnel (under the English Channel).
1995 CN became a private company. On November 17, trading in its shares began at the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol CNI and at the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol CNR.
2000 In November, Amtrak's first high speed train, the Acela, began travelling between Washington, DC and New York City in two hours and 26 minutes. Later, this American train would also connect New York City to Boston, and exceed speeds of 225 km/h.
2006 A North American first, VIA Rail made Wi-Fi (wireless Internet access) service available to its passengers.