Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Railways provided absolutely essential economic and commercial transportation and auxiliary services for all Prairie people during the pioneer settlement period, and they remain one of the most important components of the region's economic infrastructure. They not only provided basic transportation services but also influenced and shaped many other aspects of Prairie life.

The first railway in western Canada was opened for tra.c in 1878. It was a short government-built line from Winnipeg to the U.S. border, where it connected with American railroads to Duluth, Minnesota. From Duluth, Canadian traffic was carried by lake steamers to Ontario ports. That first railway was part of a cautious scheme that used water transport on rivers and lakes, wherever possible, with rail links where needed. A much more ambitious all-rail transcontinental scheme had been proposed. It went down in scandal in 1873 but was revived in 1880. The Conservative government elected in 1878 provided substantial cash and land subsidies and turned over all of its surveys and the rail links already built, including the little Manitoba line, to a syndicate of railway promoters who organized the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The Prairie portion of the new railway was built between 1881 and 1883.

The railway determined the course and patterns of settlement on the Canadian Prairies. When the promoters, in an effort to fend off competition from American railroads, chose a route across the relatively arid southern Prairies rather than a more northerly route through the fertile and already partially settled parklands, new settlers took up homesteads or bought railway land close to the tracks. Those living farther north were served by north.south branch lines from Regina to Prince Albert and from Calgary to Edmonton, which were built in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Thousands of new towns and villages were created. Older ones served by the railway prospered; those bypassed by the railway languished, or, in a few cases, the buildings of bypassed towns were moved to new locations adjacent to the railway. Town sites were laid out approximately eight or ten miles apart, that being the distance it was thought farmers could haul a load of grain and return home the same day if the primitive dirt roads and trails were in good condition. Farmers farther away from the railway and those traveling in inclement weather faced sharply increased costs and frustrations.

Two political and economic issues.freight rates and branch lines.dominated early railway history on the Canadian Prairies. Freight rates in western Canada were higher than in eastern Canada or in the United States. Canadian Pacific officials insisted this was necessary because they had built and were operating an expensive 1,000-mile line north of Lake Superior and another 600-mile line across the Rockies. Neither generated appreciable local traffic. In eastern Canada freight rates had to be set to meet competition by water carriers and rival American railroads. On the Prairies effective measures were taken to keep out rival American railroads, and rates were then set to pay for the costs of carrying traffic to and from western Canada, including the operating costs of the unproductive Lake Superior and mountain sections. Vehement protests resulted in modest rate reductions in the late 1880s, followed by an agreement in 1897, under the terms of which the Canadian Pacific agreed to more substantial rate cuts in return for federal financial assistance to build a major branch line through the Crow's Nest Pass in southern British Columbia.

There were also persistent complaints about lack of adequate service for farmers far removed from the railway's main line. They demanded construction of branch lines. Railway officials argued that remote and sparsely settled areas did not generate su.cient traffic to justify construction of a branch line railway. Settlers responded with claims that growth was impossible until a region had rail service.

The resulting frustrations led to demands for railway competition. In 1895 two former Canadian Pacific contractors built a small, competitive branch line in Manitoba with government financial assistance. They gradually expanded their railway until, in 1901, the Manitoba government agreed to provide financial help if the contractors would build a railway from Winnipeg to Lake Superior that would compete directly with the Canadian Pacific. The ambitious contractors, who had in the meantime reorganized their railway as the Canadian Northern Railway, built and operated the new line as cheaply as possible but drastically reduced freight rates and continued to expand their lines with further government assistance. The federal government tried, with limited success, to regulate freight rates and other railway operations when it established the Board of Railway Commissioners in 1903.

The rapid settlement of the Canadian Prairies after 1900 prompted Canadafs oldest and largest railway, the Grand Trunk Railway, to expand westward. The railway tried first to acquire the economically weak but politically popular Canadian Northern Railway. Failure to provide assurances that it would carry freight at Canadian Northern rates scuttled Grand Trunk efforts to take over the Canadian Northern. Instead, the Grand Trunk sought and obtained federal and provincial assistance to build its own railway across the Prairies. A frenzy of railway construction by the Canadian Pacific, Canadian Northern, and Grand Trunk Railways followed. Thousands of miles of new rail lines were built on the Prairies. Many, however, were located in ways designed to injure competitors rather than to provide the broadest possible coverage. The result was wasteful crowding of new lines in some areas and neglect of other more remote regions. Even more disastrous was the decision of the managers of both the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Railways to build or make arrangements to expand their systems from coast to coast, including new lines north of Lake Superior and across the Rockies.

Rumors and threats of war after 1911 and then the actual outbreak of war in 1914 resulted in financial crises and inflated costs that pushed the new and as yet incomplete transcontinental railways to the edge of bankruptcy. They were only rescued when the federal government nationalized the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern systems and amalgamated them with other government-owned railways to form Canadian National Railways. There was new construction in the 1920s, particularly on the Prairies, to integrate previously competitive Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk lines into a single system capable of competing with the privately owned Canadian Pacific. Neither system prospered in the dismal conditions of the 1930s. The Canadian Pacific, with its very low debt charges, survived, and the federal government paid most of Canadian National’s much heavier debt charges inherited from its predecessor companies.

The railways were always much more than merely a transportation system. They were the harbingers of a new way of life and as such seriously disrupted the lives of the Native and mixed-blood peoples living on the Canadian Prairies. They made possible extensive settlement and the development of commercial agriculture. As holders of large tracts of land they influenced and on occasion dictated the nature and progress of settlement in particular districts. Their preference for experienced farmers, including many from central and eastern Europe, changed the ethnic composition of many Prairie communities. Canadian Pacific interest in arid land in southern Alberta resulted in the development of massive irrigation projects organized or assisted by the railway. Ownership of thousands of lots in hundreds of prospective towns along the right-of-way of the new railways made the railways key players in the development of towns and villages throughout western Canada, and their large holdings in urban real estate properties made them a dominant force in the shaping of all urban centers in western Canada.

The railways also acquired or participated in numerous ancillary enterprises, ranging from telegraph services to mining and lumbering and later oil and gas ventures. Huge land grants made them partners with the federal government in promoting aggressive federal immigration, homestead, and settlement policies.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the railways in western Canada became unique symbols of the nation’s failing economic system as hundreds of unemployed and angry young men moved about the country, riding illegally on railway freight cars. About 1,800 unemployed men, riding the rails with plans to stage a massive protest demonstration in Ottawa, were forcibly disbanded, with considerable violence, by the police in Regina in 1935. But the railways also performed valuable Depression Era services in moving animals and settlers from the drought-stricken southern to more northerly communities and animal fodder and other supplies from the northern communities southward.

Essential wartime services partially reestablished the reputation of the railways. They were, and still are, the most e.cient carriers of bulky western Canadian export products. They carried all manner of military supplies and made possible massive troop movements and the shipment of food products from western Canada to eastern ports and to Great Britain.

After the war Canadian railways faced serious competition in their freight business as a result of the conversion of wartime industrial production plants to the production of, among other items, automobiles and trucks as well as major government initiatives in the construction of better highways. They never recovered from a damaging strike in 1957 during which they lost much of their time-sensitive, high-cost, small-volume freight to the trucking industry. Airline competition gradually inflicted even greater damage on the passenger service offered by the railways in spite of a very costly effort, particularly by the Canadian Pacific in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to offer the best possible passenger service on the most modern passenger, observation, and dining cars. Canadian, like American, railways have abandoned or surrendered the passenger service to independent operators–Via Rail in Canada, Amtrak in the United States, both of which are heavily subsidized.

A contentious postwar issue, particularly in western Canada, has been the abandonment of tens of thousands of miles of branch lines and the decline or death of thousands of small Prairie towns served by those branch lines. With better road transport facilities, railway shipping points at six- to eight-mile intervals are no longer needed, but longer hauling distances increase costs to farmers and divert business from the small towns to larger centers. Nevertheless, the railways continue to provide an essential service in the transportation of bulky western Canadian agricultural and natural resource commodities to market. The increasing importance of that business is, perhaps, most clearly demonstrated by the move in the 1990s of Canadian Pacific headquarters from Montreal to Calgary.

The Canadian railway system was an essential building block in the development of Prairie society and in the integration of the trade of the Canadian Prairies with other parts of Canada. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement has resulted in the flow of more western Canadian tra.c southward, and the major Canadian railways have acquired or strengthened their links with vital American railroads, but on the Canadian Prairies they continue to provide essential economic services.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Settlement Patterns, Canada / INDUSTRY: Canadian Pacific Railway / PROTEST AND DISSENT: On-to-Ottawa Trek.

Ted D. Regehr University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary

Eagle, John A. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Development of Western Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989.

Lamb, W. Kaye. History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977.

Regehr, T. D. The Canadian Northern Railway: Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies, 1895–1918. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976.

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