Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was one of the most important forces in opening up the Canadian Prairies to settlement. What the Hudson's Bay Company did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the cpr did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Following the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, arrangements were made to transfer the Hudson's Bay Company territory, known as Rupert's Land, to Canada. The transfer of this territory, which comprises the present-day Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, was completed in 1870. In 1871 the colony of British Columbia joined the Dominion under the condition that a railway be built to connect it to the east. After several attempts, including more than five years of construction by the Canadian government, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated by act of Parliament on February 17, 1881. At that time the government of Canada gave the new company $25 million and 25 million acres of land in the Plains area between Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains.

At the start of 1882 the company hired William Cornelius Van Horne as its general manager. Under his leadership, construction proceeded at a record pace, and the first train reached Calgary (now in the province of Alberta but then in the Northwest Territories) in the summer of 1883. On November 7, 1885, the last spike in the main line was driven at Craigellachie in the mountains of British Columbia, and on June 28, 1886, the first through transcontinental train departed Montreal for the Pacific Coast, which it reached six days later.

During the next thirty years the cpr built a network of branch lines that connected many Prairie communities with the main line. Until other transcontinental railways were built, in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century the CPR was the only practical way of reaching the Prairies. Its influence on the pattern of settlement of western Canada from 1885 to 1914 cannot be overestimated.

As the CPR evolved, it began operating ships, both oceangoing and inland, airlines, and road transport as well as a chain of hotels. By the mid–twentieth century it was advertising itself as the world's greatest travel system and using the slogan "CPR Spans the World." It also began to exploit its oil and mineral resources and involved itself in many other activities besides transportation.

Today the 1881 company still exists as Canadian Pacific Limited and still owns some of the land originally granted. Since the majority of its business is in the West, the company moved its corporate headquarters from Montreal to Calgary in the 1990s. With its large reserves of oil, gas, and coal and its various transportation divisions, including the railway with which it started, Canadian Pacific Limited is still an important component in the ongoing development of western Canada.

See also TRANSPORTATION: Railways, Canada.

Fred F. Angus Montreal, Quebec

Eagle, John A. The Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Development of Western Canada, 1896–1914. Montreal: Mc- Gill-Queens University Press, 1989.

Innis, Harold A. History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

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