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Photograph: Canadian Pacific Railway Locomotive No. 374 / National Archives of Canada / PA-143155
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Building the National Railways (1851 - 1885)

By the time of Confederation in 1867, the new federal government would seriously look at creating a national railway from coast-to-coast to bring new settlers and goods into Rupert's Land, and help stave off America from expanding its borders. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) even became a condition for British Columbia's entry into Confederation in 1871. However, a scandal related to its construction brought down the government of the first Canadian prime minister, John A. Macdonald. The national railway was also a source of controversy involving Chinese labourers who came to help build the CPR.

Topics in this section:

The Railway Act, 1851
The Intercolonial Railway, 1867 - 1876
The Canadian Pacific (Part I), 1867 - 1871
The Pacific Scandal, 1872 - 1873
The Canadian Pacific (Part II), 1880 - 1885
Chinese Labourers
Other Important or Interesting Documents

The Railway Act, 1851

Painting: The First Locomotive With A Steel Boiler / National Archives of Canada / E-001201284
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Prior to the 1830s, the main means of transportation in British North America was through a system of canals and inland waterways by ship. However, the steam locomotive - first used in Britain in 1830 - provided a new and more efficient means of shipping goods and people to far-flung places fast.

The very first railway in British North America was built in Lower Canada in 1836, and construction started up in earnest throughout the Maritime colonies after that.

 

Did you know?

Horses powered the first Canadian colonial locomotive that arrived in 1836.


One of the more ambitious railways of the period, the Grand Trunk Railroad, was incorporated in 1852 to connect Toronto and Montréal. However, the company overestimated demand for rail service and was plunged into debt by 1860.

The Grand Trunk wasn't the only railway line with problems. Other smaller companies without proper financial resources were getting swept away by railway fever. Many of these companies were cutting corners on construction and operating costs, so legislation was needed to allow the government to closely control railway activities. This would ensure the safety of passengers riding the rails and those working to build the railways.

The Railway Act was first passed in the legislature of Canada (West and East) in 1851.

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The Railway Act, 1851

Acte concernant les chemins de fer, 1851

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An act in amendment of the Railway Act, 1860 (Allows constables to be put on trains)

Acte pour amender l'Acte des chemins de fer, 1860

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An act to explain and amend the Railway Act, 1861

Acte pour expliquer et amender l'Acte des chemins de fer, 1861

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The Intercolonial Railway, 1867 - 1876

One of the conditions between the Canadas and the Maritime provinces upon Confederation was the building of an inter-colonial railway that would connect the regions. This condition was even written into the British North America Act, 1867.

The federal government provided assistance for the building of the Intercolonial Railway, but often had to take out loans from Britain to ensure its completion.

Sir Sandford Fleming was involved with the creation of these railways, which took part mainly in the 1870s. He also notably invented Standard Time Zones around this period, which created the idea of a uniform time within 24 different geographic regions separated by 15 degrees longitude around the world.

This system worked in opposition to having an infinite number of local times in a particular region, which had been the norm until Fleming devised his system during the late 1870s. (It was presented at an international tribunal in 1884 and adopted.) Local time, which had been adequate before people traveled long distances by train, caused chaos whenever passengers tried to figure out the correct arrival and departure times at particular stops along a rail line. For instance, one could now travel a fairly short distance rather quickly by locomotive, only to discover that the time at his destination was either many hours ahead or behind the time set at his original departure point!

The Intercolonial was finally completed in 1876. In 1879, the Intercolonial absorbed part of the preexisting Grand Trunk Railway.

 

Did you know?

Sir Sandford Fleming also created Canada's first postage stamp in 1851.


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British North America Act, 1867 (bilingual version)

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An act regarding the construction of the intercolonial railway, 1867

Acte concernant la construction du chemin de fer Intercolonial, 1867

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An act to amend the act regarding the construction of the intercolonial railway, 1874

Acte pour amender l'Acte concernant la construction du chemin de fer Intercolonial, 1874

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An act respecting the Intercolonial railway, 1875

Acte concernant le chemin de fer Intercolonial, 1875

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An act for the acquisition by the Dominion of a certain portion of the Grand Trunk Railway to be made part of the Intercolonial railway, 1879

Acte à l’effet d'autoriser le gouvernement fédéral à faire l'acquisition d'une certaine partie du Grand Tronc de chemin de fer, afin de l'annexer au chemin de fer Intercolonial

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An Act to confirm the purchase by the Dominion of a portion of the Grand Trunk Railway and the agreement made with the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada with respect thereto, 1880

Acte ratifiant l'achat par le gouvernement fédéral d'une partie du Grand Tronc de chemin de fer, ainsi que la convention conclue [avec] la compagnie du Grand Tronc de chemin de fer du Canada à ce sujet, 1880

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1889 Act regarding freight on the Intercolonial Railway

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Ocean to Ocean: Sir Sandford Fleming's 1872 journey (involves Intercolonial Railway)

 
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The Canadian Pacific (Part I), 1871 - 1885

Photo: Louis Riel - NAC/ANC C-052177
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In 1855, the last remaining wild land in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) was sold for settlement. This made many politicians in the province like George Brown think about moving settlements westward into Rupert's Land. Naturally, the country would need a mode of transportation to get these settlers onto this land quickly. Steam locomotives provided the main answer to the problem of getting people and goods out to far-flung places on the Prairies fast.

Aside from the issue of practically shipping settlers, there was another need for a railway extending to the West Coast.

In 1862, U.S. Congress agreed to the construction to:

  • the Union Pacific, a railroad that would stretch from the Missouri River to the west coast.

  • the Northern Pacific, a railway that was to run from Lake Superior to Puget Sound in the American northwest.

These American railways gave Canadian politicians pause, for it was felt they were the first step toward America obtaining land in the Canadian prairie. This is primarily why the federal government wanted to purchase Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company and have it settled as quickly as possible.

The proposed railway would take a great deal of money to complete. It would be 1,600 kilometers longer than America's longest Intercolonial railway.

The railway would be an important factor in getting British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. One of the conditions into Confederation the province wanted was that construction on the railway had to begin within two years of joining Canada. The railway also had to reach B.C. within the following 10 years.

However, the Pacific Scandal abruptly halted plans for the railroad in 1872.

For more information about British Columbia's entry into Confederation, please visit the Constitutional History section.

 

The Pacific Scandal, 1872 -1873

The Pacific Scandal brought down the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald. It was revealed by newspapers of the era that Macdonald had received about $360,000 in election campaign funds for the 1872 federal election from a railroad magnate named Sir Hugh Allan. Allan, in turn for his help, was to be given the contract to build the Canadian Pacific.

Macdonald's Conservatives performed poorly in the 1872 election, and his majority government had been reduced to minority status. After news of the scandal broke following this election, Macdonald resigned as prime minister, and a new federal election was called in 1873.

This issue particularly angered voters during the 1873 election because:

  • Taking campaign money in exchange for political favours showed the government to be open to corruption.

  • Macdonald and some members of his cabinet were guilty of patronage, or favouring a railway builder loyal to their party over another bidder who wanted to construct the railway.

  • American railway promoters backed Allan, which probably meant Americans would be involved in building the railway.

Although the new Liberal government promised to start railway construction in 1874, nothing happened until 1880.

 

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The Canadian Pacific Railway Act, 1874

L’Acte du chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1874

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Sir John A. Macdonald's note about the Pacific Scandal, 20th September 1878 (Footnoted material; Macdonald apologies for his role in the scandal.)

 
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The Canadian Pacific Railway (Part II), 1880 - 1885

The federal government, back under the control of Sir John A. Macdonald, tried to revisit constructing a railroad between British Columbia and Ontario. A contract was given to a new business called the Canadian Pacific Company in 1880. George Stephen headed this new railway firm between 1880 and 1888. Sir William Van Horne later managed it.

The company agreed to construct the railway for $25 million and 25 million acres of land from the federal government.

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) also received:

  • Seven hundred and twenty miles of existing rail line in the Canadian west.

  • An exclusive monopoly on the land to the south of the main railway line for 20 years.

  • Tax breaks and land right-of-ways.

Did you know?

In 1883, the CPR wanted another $22.5 million - just about all the money the federal government had in revenue - to finish the railway. The federal government agreed to the loan, which naturally led to more requests for money by the CPR. By 1885, the entire project had cost the federal government more than $60 million in grants and $35 million in loans.


In November 1885, the railway was completed. The westbound and eastbound sections of rail line were joined in British Columbia during a ceremony featuring main stockholder Donald Alexander Smith. This ceremony was known as The Last Spike.

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An act to amend the Canadian Pacific Railway Act, 1874; 15 May 1879

Acte pour amender l'Acte du chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1874

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An act to further amend the Canadian Pacific Railway Act, 1874; 15 May 1879

Acte pour amender de nouveau l'Acte du chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1874

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Sir Sandford Fleming's Recommendation for the CPR route through northern British Columbia, 1879 (No. 7; in English only)

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An act regarding the construction of the CPR, 1881

Acte concernant le chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1881

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An Act to authorize the construction on certain conditions of the Canadian Pacific Railway through some Pass other than the Yellow-Head Pass, 1883 (notable for the fact that this act rejects the recommendation of Sir Sandford Fleming.)

Acte autorisant à certaines conditions la construction du chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique par une passe autre que celle de la Tête-Jaune

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An Act to amend the Act entitled An Act respecting the Canadian Pacific Railway and for other purposes, 1884 (regards government subsidies to the railway).

Acte à l'effet de modifier l'Acte concernant le chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique et à d’autres fins, 1884

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An act further to amend the acts respecting the Canadian Pacific Railway, and to provide for the completion and successful operation thereof, 1885

Acte modifiant de nouveau les actes concernant le chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1885

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An act further to amend the Act respecting the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1886

Acte modifiant de nouveau l'Acte concernant le chemin de fer Canadien du Pacifique, 1886

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Sir Sandford Fleming's Report in reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1879 (Includes proposed costs of operation.)

 
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Canada on the Pacific (An account from Edmonton to the Pacific, with remarks on the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway route and Indian tribes of British Columbia, 1874)

 
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Chinese Labourers

 

Photograph: Construction of a Chinese Camp (Kamloops, B.C.) / National Archives of Canada / C-016715
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Between 1880 and 1885, about 15,000 Chinese labourers were brought into Canada from China and California to work on the British Columbia section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of these immigrants were hoping this job would help them escape from crushing levels of poverty in China.

The Chinese often had the most dangerous jobs on the railway carrying heavy rocks or planting unstable explosives. They were also paid about 30 to 50 per cent less than other workers. They lived in unsafe canvas tents that offered poor protection from the elements, including sudden rockslides in the Rockies.

Many of these workers died from diseases like smallpox and cholera, or were killed in work-related accidents.

Did you know?

Of the 5,000 or so Chinese workers who came to Canada in 1880, about 3,500 workers would be killed by the following year during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

 

In 1885, work on the railway was nearing completion. Chinese men generally didn't make enough on the railway to pay for a return fare back, so many wanted to stay in Canada.

Suddenly, trade union workers and some politicians on the west coast wanted to get rid of the Chinese, since Asians were willing to work hard at any job no matter how low the wages were or how appalling the conditions. This situation led to a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration.

In 1885, the federal government decided to pass the Chinese Immigration Act, which put a special $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in the hopes that this would deter the Chinese from entering Canada. No other ethnic group had to pay this kind of tax at the time.

Did you know?

Chinese people were prevented from voting in British Columbia as early as 1875. They only gained the right to vote provincially and federally in 1947.

 

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1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration

 
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Rapport sur l'immigration chinoise, 1885

 
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Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

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An act to amend the Chinese Immigration Act, 1887

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An act to further amend the Chinese Immigration Act, 1892

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For more information on Chinese immigration, please visit the Special Topics and Events section.


For more information on Chinese immigration, please visit:


For more information on railways and Chinese immigration, please visit The Canadian Encyclopedia online.

 

Other Important or Interesting Documents

 

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