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Building the Canadian Pacific Railway was a condition imposed on Canada

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about the Canadian Pacific Railway originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 274 published on 15 April 1967.

Canadian Pacfic Railway, picture, image, illustration

Constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway by John Millar Watt

Who said ” . . . this mad project”?

The answer is Henry Labouchere, writing in ‘Truth’ in 1881 about the Canadian Pacific Railway Project.


When British Columbia, the vast province in the West of Canada, joined the Dominion in 1871, one of the terms of the agreement was that the Government would build a railway right across the Continent to the Pacific in the next ten years. The future of the nation depended on a transcontinental railway: with such a railway the West could be opened up and settled, and Canada could become a great and united nation.

But the actual building of the railway was a tremendous task. Enormous sums of money were needed and bitter political troubles split the country before it was raised.

Then, suddenly, everything started to go right. Two brilliant Scots-Canadians, George Stephen and Donald Smith, ran the project, and an American engineering genius, William van Horne, was put in charge of construction.

Starting in 1882 and progressing with extraordinary speed, the rails pushed ahead over endless prairies, past mountains, through swamps and forests and the mighty Rockies. All Canada thrilled to the enterprise. Settlers started swarming into the newly opened-up country. Henry Labouchere’s prophecy about the “mad project”; that the railway would probably never get finished, that Canada itself would collapse under the financial strain, and that English backers of the scheme would lose their money, was proved false.

Yet it was touch and go, for money crises continued; the wheat crop failed in the West; there was a rising of French half-breeds and Indians.

But at last the great moment came. On 7th November, 1885, at Craigellachie in British Columbia, the last spike was driven in by Donald Smith: the Dominion was joined from coast to coast by the C.P.R.

Smith and Stephen later became peers, and the American, van Horne, was knighted.

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