Canadian Transport Sourcebook

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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> The Railway Builders > Chapter 3

Chapter III

The Call for the Railway

We have seen how in England a succession of workers almost apostolic in continuity had brought the steam railway to practical success, and how in Canada, before the railway came, men were making shift with bateau and steamer, with stage-coach and cart and calèche, to carry themselves and their wares to meeting-place and market. Now we may glance for a moment at the chief hope and motive of those who brought the locomotive across the seas.

In all but the very earliest years of railway planning and building in Canada, two aims have been dominant. One has been political, the desire to clamp together the settlements scattered across the continent, to fill the waste spaces and thus secure the physical basis for national unity and strength. The other has been commercial, the desire to capture the trade and traffic of an ever-expanding and ever-receding west. Local convenience and local interests have played their part, but in the larger strategy of railway building the dominant motives have been political and commercial. They have been blended in varying proportions; each has acted against the other as well as with it, but at all times they give the key to facts which otherwise remain a meaningless jumble of dates and figures.

The political motive is familiar and needs only brief reference. That the present Canada is not a natural geographic unit is an undeniable fact. Each of the principal sections has more natural connection with the corresponding section of the United States than with the other parts of Canada. And sixty years ago it was doubtful whether any common sentiment could take the place of the physical unity which was lacking. There was, of course, no national consciousness, based on common history and common aspirations. At best the link of the scattered colonies was that of common loyalty to the British crown, and at worst a common inherited antagonism to the great republic to the south. Yet far-seeing and courageous men were not content to accept the decrees of geography or of the diplomats who had been over-generous in conceding territory to American claims. They sought unity and understanding, out of fear of aggression from their overshadowing neighbours and out of faintly shaping hope of what the northern half-continent might become.

For unity, knowledge and daily intercourse were needed; for knowledge and intercourse, speedy and cheap transportation was essential. Within each province and between the two Canadas much had been done, but neither river, canal, nor turnpike could serve to annihilate the vast distances that separated east from west and west from farthest west. Only the railway could achieve such a task.

But more was needed than patriotic sentiment. All-red speeches might adorn a banquet or win an election, but facts—or fictions—as to freight and dividends were needed to beguile the capital from investors' pockets. The hope of securing for the Canadian provinces the trade and traffic of the golden West was, in early years as in late, much the strongest factor in railway policy.

When the white man came to North America, he found himself hemmed in to the Atlantic coast by the long range of the Appalachians. These mountains, though not lofty, were rugged and covered with dense forests and tangled undergrowth. There were few doorways to the great open spaces beyond. On the far north the southward intrusion of the ocean, known as Hudson Bay, opened a precarious way, important in the early days of the white man's period, possibly to become important again in our own, but negligible during the intervening years. From the south, entrance could be had by the Mississippi and its tributaries, offering for most of the year ten thousand miles of navigable waters. In the east the St Lawrence system, stretching three thousand miles westward from the sea, and the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, passing through a gap in the Alleghanies, offered still more convenient access.

Early and late in the history of the white man's America the land and the trade of the interior have been the prize sought by rival nations and rival cities, and the possession of a speedy and convenient route has been the means of securing the prize. The later warfare was less spectacular than the old, but no less keen. The navvy took the place of the Indian, pick and shovel and theodolite the place of bow and musket, and a lower freight by a cent on a bushel of wheat became the ammunition in place of the former glass beads or fire-water. But seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Englishmen and Frenchmen on the Mississippi, Frenchmen and Englishmen on the St Lawrence, Dutchmen and Englishmen on the Hudson, did not strive more eagerly for control than the Montreal and Halifax, Portland and Baltimore and New Orleans of the nineteenth century. The struggle became especially intense when the advancing flood of settlers cut their way into the prairies of the Mississippi valley. There was no longer a ten-year struggle to clear a space of forty or fifty acres; at once the soil was ready for the plough. For a few years the grain of the valley states was needed for their own in-rushing settlers, but a surplus grew rapidly and had to find an outlet in the east or in Europe. The miraculous speed of western settlement and the magnitude of the prize at stake soon centred public interest on the question of the route which was to provide this outlet.

The Mississippi route was the first to be developed. In canoe and pirogue, bateau, flatboat, and ark, settlers went up and produce came down. But the winding stream, the shifting channel, the swift current, the frequent snag and sandbar made navigation down-stream dangerous and navigation up-stream incredibly slow: the heavier vessels took three months for the trip from New Orleans to Louisville. With the coming of the steamboat a strong impetus was given alike to settlement and to export trade. By the forties New Orleans ranked the fourth port in the world and the Mississippi valley exceeded the British Isles in the ownership of ships' tonnage. In 1850 the Mississippi still carried to the sea cargoes twice the value of those that sought the Lakes and the Erie Canal, though in the import trade these proportions were reversed. At this time a line drawn east and west through the centre of Ohio marked the commercial watershed. Not until after the Civil War did the glories of the Mississippi pass away.

Next, New York devised its master-stroke, the Erie Canal. Gouverneur Morris and De Witt Clinton saw the opportunity which the Mohawk-Hudson cleft in the Appalachian barrier offered, and the state rose to it. Digging was begun in 1817, and in 1825 the first barge passed from Lake Erie to the Hudson. At first the canal was only a four-foot ditch, but it proved the greatest single factor in the development of the region south of the Lakes. Prosperous cities—Buffalo, Lockport, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady—sprang up all along the route. Cost of transport from Buffalo to New York was cut in four. The success of New York led Pennsylvania to build canals through the state to Pittsburg, with a portage railroad over the Alleghanies, while in the west canals were dug to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio, and Lake Michigan with the Illinois and the Mississippi.

To the Canadian of that day the West meant Upper Canada or Canada West, and 'the far west' meant Illinois and Indiana. The Saskatchewan was to him little more than the Yang-tse-Kiang. But although the far west was not under his own flag, it dominated his thoughts as greatly as the North-West has dominated our thoughts half a century later. Canada sought its share of the western trade. The Canadian provinces were thinly peopled, their revenues were scanty and their credit low, but the example of New York stirred them to the effort to remove the barriers to navigation in the St Lawrence, and to offer their magnificent lake and river ship-route against the petty barge canal which was capturing the western trade. The Welland Canal was built to carry east-bound traffic beyond the point where Buffalo tapped it, and by 1848, as we have seen, canals were completed on the St Lawrence, providing a nine-foot waterway from Chicago to Montreal.

It was a magnificent effort for a struggling colony. But it was scarcely finished—the pæans of self-congratulation on the unexpected discovery of an enterprise quite Yankee in its daring were still echoing—when it was found to have been made largely in vain. So far from monopolizing the trade of the western states, the St Lawrence route was not even keeping the east-bound traffic of Upper Canada itself. The reasons were soon plain. The repeal in 1846 of the Corn Laws and in 1848 of the differential duties in favour of the St Lawrence route were temporary blows. The granting of bonding privileges by the United States in 1845 drew traffic from Canada to southern routes. Ocean rates were cheaper from New York than from Montreal; in 1850, for example, the freight on a barrel of flour from New York to Liverpool was 1s. 3½d., while from Montreal it was 3s. 0½d. This was because the majority of the vessels arriving at Montreal came in ballast, and also because on the outward voyage the offerings of timber made rates high. Timber enjoyed a preference in the British market, and, as has happened since, this preference was simply absorbed by the vessel owner. But most important of all, in the United States the railway, with its speedy, all-year service, had already taken the place of the canal. The Canadian ports were fighting with weapons obsolete before completed.