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Chapter VI

The Intercolonial

The first 'age of iron—and of brass' came to an end before 1860. Between 1850 and 1860, it has been seen, the mileage of all the provinces grew from 66 to 2065. By 1867 it had increased only 213 miles. In two of the intervening years not a mile was built. A halt had come, for stock-taking and heart-searching.

This first era of activity had given as its most obvious result over two thousand miles of railway. In Nova Scotia, Halifax was linked with the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St Lawrence; in New Brunswick, St John was connected with the Gulf, and a road was struggling Canadaward from St Andrews. In the Canadas a 'Grant Trunk,' so nicknamed, ran from Rivière du Loup the whole length of the province to Sarnia, while lesser roads opened up new districts to the north or gave connection with the grain-fields and the ocean ports of the United States. The western province, at all events, was well served for a pioneer country, and the shipper and consumer had no great cause for complaint.

To the taxpayer it seemed otherwise. He had been induced to embark on a lavish policy of financial aid on the assurance that the roads would at worst be no burden, and at best might yield large profits to the state. As a matter of fact, nine out of every ten dollars advanced might be written off as lost. The Grand Trunk, Great Western, and Northern roads were indebted to the old province of Canada on July 1, 1867, in over twenty million dollars for principal advanced and in over thirteen millions for interest. Other roads were indebted to Canadian municipalities in nearly ten million for principal alone. Yet the taxpayer was not wholly justified in his grumbling. There had been waste and mismanagement, it is true, but the railways had brought indirect gain that more than offset the direct loss. Farming districts were opened up rapidly, freights were reduced in many sections, intercourse was facilitated, and land values were raised. The contribution to the railways was bread well cast upon the waters. It would have been better, if foresight had equalled hindsight, to have given the money out and out.

For the shareholder, English or Canadian, there was little but disappointment. Grand Trunk ordinary stock in 1865 was selling at 22, and even Great Western at 65. The securities of several of the minor roads had been almost entirely wiped out by reorganizations. In 1866 some $4,180,000 was paid in dividends and leases, representing only 2.7 per cent on the $158,000,000 which the roads had cost or were alleged to have cost. Premature extension into unremunerative territory, for political or contracting reasons, excessive competition in the fertile areas, heavy fixed charges on inflated capital or leased roads, water competition, absentee proprietorship, all played their part. Whatever the causes, the results were clear, and capitalists long fought shy of Canadian railway projects.

In the first thirty years of Canadian railway development no question aroused more interest than that of the gauge to be adopted. The cows of the good Dutch burghers of New Amsterdam fixed the windings of Broadway as they remain to this day. The width of the carts used in English coal-mines centuries ago still determines the gauge of railway track and railway cars over nearly all the world. 'Before every engine,' declares Mr H. G. Wells, 'trots the ghost of a superseded horse.' When the steam locomotive was invented, and used upon the coal-mine tramways, it was made of the same four-foot-eight-and-a-half-inch gauge. In England, in spite of the preferences of Brunel, Stephenson's great rival, for a seven-foot gauge, the narrower width soon triumphed, though the Great Western did not entirely abandon its wider track until 1892. In Canada the struggle was longer and more complicated.

It was a question on which engineers differed. Speed, steadiness, cost of track construction, and cost of maintenance were all to be considered, and were all diversely estimated. In early years, before the need of standardizing equipment was felt, many experiments were made, especially in the United States. In the southern states five feet was the usual width, and the Erie was built on a gauge of six feet, to fit an engine bought at a bargain. But in the United States, as in England, the four-foot-eight-and-a-half-inch width was dominant, and would have been adopted in Canada without question, had not local interests, appealing, as often, to patriotic prejudice, succeeded in clouding the issue.

When the road from Portland to Montreal was being planned, the astute Portland promoters insisted upon a gauge of five feet six inches, to prevent the switching of traffic to Boston. Montreal, in its turn, insisted on the same gauge for the Grand Trunk line, to ensure that all east-bound traffic should be brought through Canada to Montreal. It carried its point, and the wider or 'provincial' gauge became the standard in the Canadas, and later in the Maritime provinces.

Experience proved that it was impossible to maintain different gauges in countries so closely connected as Canada and the United States. As roads became consolidated into larger systems, the inconvenience of transhipping at break of gauge became more intolerable. The expedients of lifting cars bodily to other trucks, of making axles adjustable, and even of laying a third rail, proved unsatisfactory. Late in the sixties and early in the seventies the Great Western and the Grand Trunk had to adopt the four-foot-eight-and-a-half-inch gauge solely, and other lines gradually followed.

Meanwhile, the cry was going up for a still narrower gauge. In pioneer districts, at least, it was contended, a road three feet six inches wide, such as had recently been adopted in Norway, would suffice, and would be much cheaper both to build and to operate. Between 1868 and 1873 two experimental narrow-gauge lines were built running north from Toronto—the Toronto and Nipissing, and the Toronto, Grey and Bruce. This proved only a temporary diversion, however, and the decision of the Dominion government in 1874 to change the gauge of the Intercolonial to four feet eight and a half inches, and the adoption of the same standard by the Ontario government, ended the controversy.

Memory is short and hope eternal. Soon after Confederation another burst of activity began in all the provinces of the new Dominion. It was distinctly the period of local development.

In Ontario the opportunity which the fertile western peninsula, jutting down between New York and Michigan, offered for both local and through traffic, led to many projects, much parliamentary jockeying, and at last construction. The Canada Southern was built in 1873, running between Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo, and Amherstburg on the Detroit river. It was controlled by the Vanderbilt interests and operated in close co-operation with their other roads, the Michigan Southern, Michigan Central, and New York Central. The Great Western met this attack upon its preserves by building in the same year the Canada Air Line, from Glencoe near St Thomas, to Fort Erie, giving more direct connection with Buffalo. Both roads made use of the magnificent International Bridge, built across the Niagara in 1873, under Grand Trunk control.

The marked feature of this period, so far as Ontario was concerned, was the rivalry of the cities along the lake and river front in building new roads to tap the north country. From London there was built in 1875 the London, Huron and Bruce, halting at Wingham. From Hamilton, or rather from Guelph, with connections to Hamilton, the Wellington, Grey and Bruce reached Southampton on Lake Huron in 1873 and Kincardine in 1874. Both roads were virtually branches of the Great Western, and were expected to bring to London and to Hamilton respectively the trade of the rich northwestern counties. The Ambitious City, as Hamilton came to be called at this period, a few years later invaded the Northern Railway's territory by a line from Hamilton to Collingwood, also extended southerly to Port Dover, but control of this road was immediately acquired by the Northern interests. From still more ambitious Toronto two narrow-gauge routes were built between 1869 and 1874—the Toronto, Grey and Bruce running northwest to Owen Sound and Teeswater, and the Toronto and Nipissing northeast to Coboconk and Sutton. Whitby also had its visions of terminal greatness, when the Whitby and Port Perry was built in the later seventies. The Port Hope, Beaverton and Lindsay, renamed the Midland, was pushed northeast to Orillia in 1872 and to Midland in 1875. Cobourg's unfortunate northern line was continued to the iron mines of Marmora. Belleville was linked with Peterborough in 1878-79 by the Grand Junction. Kingston, with the co-operation of interests in New York state, planned the Kingston and Pembroke, which reached Mississippi in 1878, and five years later compromised on Renfrew as a terminus. The bankruptcy of the Brockville and Ottawa did not prevent its extension through an allied company, the Canada Central, to Pembroke in 1869 and to Ottawa, by a branch from Carleton Place, in 1876.

In Quebec the chief developments were the building of a line connecting Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa along the north shore of the St Lawrence, and of further connections between Montreal and Quebec and United States roads. The North Shore route had been projected early in the fifties, but, in spite of lavish cash and land bonuses, it was not until the Quebec government took it up as a provincial road, in the seventies, that it was pushed to completion. On the south shore the Eastern Townships triangle was interlaced by a series of smaller roads. From Lévis, opposite Quebec, the Lé and Kennebec ran south to the Maine border, and the Quebec Central to Sherbrooke. From Sherbrooke and Lennoxville the Massawappi Valley gave connection with the Connecticut and Passumpsic, to which it was leased for 999 years, while branches of the Central Vermont and minor roads opened up new sections and gave further connection with Montreal.

An interesting experiment, motived by the same desire for cheap pioneer construction with in Ontario brought in the narrow gauge, was the wooden railway built in 1870 from Quebec to Gosford. The rails were simply strips of seasoned maple, 14′×7"×4", notched into the sleepers and wedged in without the use of a single iron spike. The engine and car wheels were made wide to fit the rail. In spite of its cheap construction the road did not pay, and the hope of extending it as far as Lake St John was deferred for a generation. A similar wooden railway was built from Drummondville to L'Avenir.

In Nova Scotia the chief local development was the opening in 1869 of a road through the Annapolis Valley, the Windsor and Annapolis. This formed an extension of the government road from Halifax to Windsor, but the province preferred to entrust it to a private company, giving a liberal bonus. In New Brunswick there was much activity, all by private companies. The western section of the European and North American, from St John to the Maine boundary, was completed in 1869, though it was not until 1871 that the road was opened through to Portland—by a more circuitous route than Poor had originally planned. From Fredericton a branch was built to meet this road, and a line to Woodstock, which in turn was connected with the old New Brunswick and Canada, still pushing slowly north. In the meantime Prince Edward Island was building a narrow-gauge railway nearly two hundred miles long; in 1873 she was forced into Confederation to find aid in paying for it.

All this varied activity was made possible by a revival of the policy of provincial and municipal assistance. Whether from reasoned conviction or as to the indirect benefits of more roads, or because of the log-rolling activities of rival towns and wily promoters, a systematic and generous policy of aid was adopted. This aid came chiefly from the provinces and municipalities, the Dominion as yet confining itself to works of inter-provincial concern. Outright gifts for the most part too the place of loans, since experience had proved that direct returns upon the money interested were not to be looked for. Curiously meandering were the routes which promoters mapped out in the endeavour to follow the shortest line between two bonuses.1

Governments could help to build roads, but could not ensure for them traffic. It took very few years to show that the interests of the public were not best served by scores of petty isolated roads, and that the interests of shareholders were not secured by the cut-throat competition which prevailed in certain areas. This competition was keenest between the roads which were intimately connected with the lines in the United States and dependent upon through traffic. The Grand Trunk had cut into the territory of the Great Western by acquiring the Buffalo and Lake Huron line, and the Canada Southern and the Great Western were disputing for every ton of freight between the Niagara and the Detroit. All were involved in the rate wars which marked this period in the United States. In 1867 the Grand Trunk and the Great Western agreed to maintain rates, pool certain traffic receipts, refrain from competitive building, and co-operate in service. The agreement broke down; another was made in 1876, only to fail in turn. More effective measures had to be adopted.

The outstanding achievement of the period, however, was the building of the Intercolonial. It had been projected largely in order to make closer union between the provinces possible, but, as it turned out, it was Confederation that brought the Intercolonial, not the Intercolonial that brought Confederation.

After the breakdown of the negotiations in London in 1852, each province had turned to its own tasks. But each in building its own roads had provided possible links in the future Intercolonial chain. In Canada the Grand Trunk ran to a point 120 miles east of Quebec; in New Brunswick, St John was connected with both the east and west boundaries of the province; in Nova Scotia, a road ran north from Halifax as far as Truro. A gap of nearly five hundred miles between Rivière du Loup and Truro remained. To bridge this wilderness seemed beyond the private or public resources of the divided provinces. Unanimous on one point only, they once more turned to the British government. In 1857 and 1858 dispatches and deputations sought aid, but sought it in vain. When the Civil War broke out in the United States, official British sympathy was given to the South, and the Trent affair showed how near Britain and the North were to war, a war which would at once have exposed the isolated colonies to American attack. The military argument for closer connection then took on new weight with the British government, and it proposed, to a joint delegation in 1861, to revert to its offer of ten years earlier—to guarantee a colonial loan for a railway by an approved route. The colonies opposed the demand for a sinking fund, and again agreement was postponed. In 1863 Canada suggested that, as the British government had made an approved route an essential condition, a definite survey and selection should be undertaken forthwith. It was agreed that a commission of three engineers should be selected, one nominated by Canada, one by New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and one by Great Britain. Canada nominated Sandford Fleming, a distinguished Scottish-Canadian engineer, who had been connected with the Northern and other Upper Canada enterprises. The other authorities paid him the compliment of naming him as their representative also, to facilitate the work. During the progress of the survey negotiations for the union of the provinces had begun, and when Confederation came about in 1867, the building of the Intercolonial at the common expense of the Dominion, with an imperial guarantee to the extent of £3,000,000, was one of the conditions of union. The old difficulty as to the route through New Brunswick was still to be settled. Again western and southern New Brunswick struggled against the north and against far east Quebec; again Halifax and St John found plausible arguments to uphold their respective interests. Finally, the views of Sir George Cartier and Peter Mitchell triumphed in the Cabinet councils, and in March 1868 the engineer-in-chief advised the selection of the roundabout Bay of Chaleurs route—roughly 'Major Robinson's line'—ostensibly because safer from American attack, nearer possible steamship connection with Europe, and no worse, if no better, than the other routes in potentialities of local traffic.

The construction was entrusted in December 1868 to a commission of four; six years later the minister of Public Works took over direct control. Sandford Fleming remained engineer-in-chief for the building as well as for the survey. Tenders were submitted for the construction of the whole road, but the government decided to award the contract in small sections. The road was not completed as speedily as had been expected. Difficulties arose, expected and unexpected—cuttings in heavy rock, sliding clay banks, extensive swamps, lack of rock bottom for heavy bridges. Contractor after contractor found that he had underestimated the task, and went bankrupt or threw up the contract. Sometimes the contract was relet, sometimes the government completed it by day work. At last, on July 1, 1876, nine years after Confederation, the five hundred miles between Truro and Rivière du Loup were opened for traffic throughout. In the meantime the Dominion had taken over the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island government roads. In 1876 there were in all 950 miles of railway under the control of the Dominion government, as against 4268 miles of private lines.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.