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Chapter VII

The Canadian Pacific—Beginnings

On March 3, 1841, Sir George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the Hudson's Bay Company's domains, left London on a journey round the world. All the resources of a powerful and well-organized corporation were at his disposal, and his own reputation for rapid travelling gave assurance that on the actual journey not an hour would be lost. A fortnight's sail brought him from Liverpool to Halifax, and thence he journeyed by steamer to Boston, by rail to Nashua, by coach to Concord, and by sleigh to Montreal. The portage railway from St John to Laprairie was on his route, but it was not open in winter.

From Montreal Sir George and his party set out on May 4 in two light thirty-foot canoes, each carrying a crew of twelve or fourteen men. At top speed they worked their way up the Ottawa and the Mattawa out to Lake Nipissing, and down the French River into Georgian Bay. They camped every night at sunset, and rose each morning at one. Their tireless Canadian and Iroquois voyageurs worked eighteen hours a day, paddling swiftly through smooth water, wading through shallows, or towing the canoes through the lesser rapids, or portaging once to a dozen times a day round the more difficult ones. Each voyageur was ready to shoulder his 180 pounds, strapped to his forehead, or to ferry passengers ashore on his back. They reached Sault Ste Marie on May 16, only to find Lake Superior still frozen. They picked their way very slowly through the opening rifts along the shore, made the Company's post at Fort William in eleven days, exchanged their large canoes for smaller craft, and paddled and portaged through the endless network of river and lake to Fort Garry, which they reached on June 10, thirty-eight days out from Montreal.

From Fort Garry a fresh start was made on July 3 on horseback, with baggage sent ahead in lumbering Red River carts. Past Fort Ellice and Fort Carlton, they pushed on with fresh supplies of horses at the topmost speed that the limitations of their convoy of carts would permit. Band after band of Plains Indians, adorned with war-paint and scalp-locks, crossed their trail, but mosquito and sand-fly proved more troublesome. The travellers passed a band of emigrants making slowly for the Columbia, and everywhere found countless herds of buffalo. In three weeks from Fort Garry they reached Fort Edmonton. Here forty-five fresh horses were in readiness for riding, pack-horses took the place of carts, and the journey was continued to the south-west. The Rockies were crossed through Kootenay Pass, and at last—after many a halt to find straying horses, and after continuous annoyance from mosquitoes and venomous insects 'which in size and appearance might have been mistaken for a cross between the bulldog and the house-fly'—Fort Colville on the Columbia was reached on August 18. Their long horseback ride was over. Favoured by wonderfully fine weather, in the saddle eleven to twelve hours a day, they had made their way through open thicket and burning forest and rushing river, and had covered the two thousand miles from Fort Garry in six weeks and five days. From Fort Colville they reached the waters of the Pacific at Fort Vancouver (Washington) in another six days. The continent had been crossed in twelve weeks of actual travelling.

Sir George Simpson's journey stood as the record for many a year. For a generation after his day the scattered travellers from Red River westward were compelled to rely on saddle-horse and plains cart and canoe. From Montreal and Toronto the railway could be utilized as far as Collingwood, and thence the steamer to Port Arthur. Then for a time the government opened up a summer route to the Red River, beginning it in 1869 and maintaining it until 1876. The Dawson route, as it was called, included forty-five miles of wagon-road from Port Arthur to Lake Shebandowan, then over three hundred miles of water travel, with a dozen portages, and again ninety-five miles of wagon-road from the Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry.1 In 1870 it took ninety-five days to transport troops from Toronto to Fort Garry over this route. Such make-shifts could not serve for long. South of the border the railway was rapidly pushing westward, and in the new nation of the north, as well, its time had come.

Ever after the coming of the locomotive, it needed only imagination and a map to see all British North America clamped by an iron band. Engineers like Bonnycastle and Synge and Carmichael-Smyth wrote of the possibility in the forties. Politicians found in the theme matter for admirable after-dinner perorations—colonial governors like Harvey in 1847, colonial secretaries like Lytton and Carnarvon in the fifties, and colonial premiers like Joseph Howe, who declared in Halifax in 1851: 'I believe that many in this room will live to hear the whistle of the steam-engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and to make the journey from Halifax to the Pacific in five or fix days.' Promoters were not lacking. In 1851 Allan Macdonnell of Toronto sought a charter and a subsidy for a road to the Pacific, and the Canadian authorities, in declining, expressed their opinion that the scheme was not visionary and their hope that some day Great Britain and the United States might undertake it jointly. Seven years later the same promoter secured a charter for the Northwest Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company, to operate between Lake Superior and the Fraser river, but could get no backing; four years previously John Young, A. N. Morin, A. T. Galt, and John A. Poor had petitioned in vain for a similar charter. Then in 1862, on behalf of the Red River Settlement, Sandford Fleming prepared an elaborate memorial on the subject. Edwin Watkin, of the Grand Trunk, negotiated with the Hudson's Bay Company for right of way and other facilities, but the project proved too vast for his resources.

Two things were needed before dreams on paper could become facts in steel—national unity and international rivalry. Years before Confederation, such far-seeing Canadians as William M'Dougall and George Brown had pressed for the annexation of the British territories beyond the Lakes. After Confederation, all speed was made to buy out the sovereign rights of the Hudson's Bay Company. Then came the Riel Rebellion, to bring home the need of a western road, as the Trent affair had brought home the need of the Intercolonial. The decisive political factor came into play in 1870, when British Columbia entered the federation. Its less than ten thousand white inhabitants—deeming themselves citizens of no mean country, and kept to their demands by the urging of an indefatigable Englishman, Alfred Waddington—made the construction of an overland railway an indispensable condition of union, and Sir John Macdonald courageously accepted their terms.

The other factor, international rivalry, exercised its influence about the same time. In the United States the railway had rapidly pushed westward, but had halted before the deserts and the mountains lying between the Mississippi and the Pacific. The rivalry of pro-slavery and anti-slavery parties in Congress long brought to deadlock all plans of public aid to either southern or northern route. Then the Civil War broke the deadlock: the need of binding the West to the side of the North created a strong public demand for a Pacific road, and Congress, so stimulated, and further lubricated by the payment, as is proven, of at least $476,000 in bribes, gave lavish loans and grants of land. The Central Pacific, working from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific, starting from Omaha, met near Ogden in Utah in 1869—or rather here the rails met, for the rival companies, eager to earn the high subsidy given for mountain construction, had actually graded two hundred superfluous miles in parallel lines. In 1871 the Southern Pacific and the Texas Pacific were fighting for subsidies, and Jay Cooke was promoting the Northern Pacific. The young Dominion was stirred by ambition to emulate its powerful neighbour.

These factors, then, brought the question of a railway to the Pacific on Canadian soil within the range of practical politics. Important questions remained to be settled. During the parliamentary session of 1871 the government of Sir John Macdonald decided that the road should be built by a company, not by the state, that it should be aided by liberal subsidies in cash and in land, and, to meet British Columbia's insistent terms, that it should be begun within two, and completed within ten, years. The Opposition protested that this latter provision was uncalled for and would bankrupt the Dominion, but the government carried its point, though it was forced to hedge later by a stipulation—not included in the formal resolutions—that the annual expenditure should be such as to not press unduly upon the Dominion's resources.

The first task was to survey the vast wilderness between the Ottawa valley and the Pacific, and to find, if possible, a feasible route. So able an explorer and engineer as Captain Palliser, appointed by the British government to report upon the country west of the Lakes, and declared in 1863, after four years of careful labour in the field, that, thanks to the choice of the 49th parallel as Canada's boundary, there was no possibility of ever building a transcontinental railway exclusively through British territory. The man chosen for the task of achieving this impossibility was Sandford Fleming. Appointed engineer-in-chief in 1871, he was for nine years in charge of the surveys, though for half that time his duties on the Intercolonial absorbed much of his energy. Mr Fleming possessed an unusual gift of literary style, and his reports possessed an unusual gift of literary style, and his reports upon the work of his staff gave the people of Canada a very clear idea of the difficulties to be encountered. His friend, the Rev. George M. Grant, who accompanied him in a rapid reconnaissance in 1872, gave, in his book Ocean to Ocean, a vivid and heartening record of the realities and the promise that he saw.

It had been decided, in order to hold the balance even between Montreal and Toronto, to make the proposed Pacific road begin at some angle of Lake Nipissing. From that point nearly to the Red River there stretched a thousand miles of woodland, rugged and rock-strewn, covered by a network of countless lakes and rivers, interspersed with seemingly bottomless swamps or muskegs—a wilderness which no white man had ever passed through from end to end. Then came the level prairie and a great rolling plain rising to the southwest in three successive steppes, and cut by deep watercourses. But it was the third or mountain section which presented the most serious engineering difficulties. Four hundred miles from the Pacific coast, and roughly parallel, ran the towering Rocky Mountains, some of whose peaks rose fifteen thousand feet. Beyond stretched a vast plateau, three or four thousand feet above sea level, intersected by rivers which had cut deep chasms or, to the northward, wide sheltered valleys. Between this plateau and the coast the Cascades interposed, rivalling the Rockies in height and rising sheer from the ocean, which thrust in deep fiord channels. At the head of some one of these fiords must be found the western terminus.

Early in the survey a practicable route was found throughout. Striking across the wilderness from Lake Nipissing to lake Superior at the river Pic, the line might skirt the shore of the lake to Fort William, or it might run northerly through what is now known as the clay belt, with Fort William and the lake made accessible by a branch. Continuing westward to the Red River at Selkirk, with Winnipeg on a branch line to the south, the projected line crossed Lake Manitoba at the Narrows, and then struck out northwesterly, through what was then termed the 'Fertile Belt,' till the Yellowhead Pass was reached. Here the Rockies could be easily pierced; but once through the engineer was faced by the huge flanking range of the Cariboo Mountains, in which repeated explorations failed to find a gap. But at the foot of the towering barrier lay a remarkable deep-set valley four hundred miles in length, in which northwestward ran the Fraser and southeastward the Canoe and the Columbia. By following the Fraser to its great southward bend, and then striking west, a terminus on Bute or Dean Inlet might be reached, while the valley of the Canoe and the Albreda would give access to the North Thompson as far as Kamloops, whence the road might run down the Thompson and the lower Fraser to Burrard Inlet. The latter route, on the whole, was preferred.

While this route was feasible, the mountain portion promised to be extremely expensive. This factor, together with the uncertainty of government policy and the desire of Victoria to have the road built to Bute Inlet and thence, by a bridge across Valdes Strait, carried down to Esquimalt, made it necessary to seek untiringly, year after year, for alternative routes. The only important change made, however, until after 1880, was the deflection of the line south of Lake Manitoba to serve existing settlements.

Who was to build the road? It would be a tremendous task for either the government or the private capitalists of a nation of four million people. The United States had not begun its Pacific roads till it had over thirty millions of people, and wealth and experience to correspond. It was estimated that the Canadian road would cost $100,000,000, and it was certain that the engineering difficulties would be staggering. In Canada few roads had paid the shareholders, and though some had profited the contractors, the new enterprise meant such a plunge in the dark that contractors and promoters alike hesitated. In the United States, however, the Pacific roads had proved gold-mines for their promoters. The land-grants were valuable, and the privilege of granting contracts to dummy construction companies controlled by themselves and thus reaping larger profits was still greater.

It was not to be wondered at, therefore, that the first offer came from American capitalists. Alfred Waddington, enthusiast rather than practical promoter, sought at Ottawa a charter for the road he had done so much to secure, but his bill went no further than a first reading. At Ottawa he was met by G. W. M'Mullen, a Canadian residing in Chicago, who was visiting the Dominion on a canal deputation. M'Mullen became interested, and with his Chicago partners endeavoured to enlist the aid of the men behind the Northern Pacific—Jay Cooke, General Cass, W. B. Ogden, T. A. Scott, and others.2 M'Mullen soon found that Waddington had exaggerated his influence, and that the government was not yet prepared to discuss terms. Sir Francis Hincks, stormy petrel of railway building, whom Sir John Macdonald had just made his finance minister, suggested to Sir Hugh Allan of Montreal that he should get into touch with these Americans and provide the substantial Canadian interest which was essential.

Sir Hugh Allan was then the foremost business man in Canada. He was head of the great Allan steamship line, and had become interested in railways shortly before, when rumours of the intention of the Grand Trunk to establish a rival steamship line to Great Britain had led him to assist in promoting the North Shore from Quebec westward, to compete with the Grand Trunk and ensure traffic for his steamers. He now opened negotiations with the American capitalists through M'Mullen, came to terms, and then sought associates in Canada. Here difficulties arose: Ontario objected that Allan's control would mean a Quebec rather than an Ontario terminus, and that the Northern Pacific directors with whom he was associated were simply conspiring to get control of the Canadian road, in order to delay its construction and prevent it becoming a rival to their own northerly route. Sir George Cartier, too, powerful in the Cabinet and salaried solicitor of the Grand Trunk, was a stumbling-block; he declared himself emphatically opposed to control by any 'sacrée compagnie américaine.' But Sir Hugh, believing much in money and little in men, resolved to buy his way through. He soon started a backfire in Quebec which brought Cartier to terms. Ontario rivalry was harder to control: D. L. Macpherson and other Toronto men organized the Interoceanic Railway Company to oppose Allan's Canada Pacific Company. Both companies sought charters and aid. Allan pretended to drop his American associates; Macpherson charged that the connection still existed. The government endeavoured to bring about an amalgamation, with Allan as president, and, failing this, to organize a new company. In the meantime Allan was spending money so freely that even his New York associates were astounded. The Dominion elections were held in August 1872, and Macdonald, Cartier and Langevin drew heavily on Allan's funds, $162,500 in all, with a promise from Cartier that 'any amount which you or your Company shall advance for that purpose shall be re-couped to you.' After the election a new company, the Canadian Pacific, was organized, with representative men from each province as directors; and the new board, of its own motion, it was declared, elected Allan president. To this company the government granted a charter, promised a subsidy of thirty million dollars and fifty million acres of land, but insisted upon excluding the American interests. Allan acquiesced, and, repaying the advances made, informed New York that negotiations were ended. M'Mullen and his associates, angry at this treatment, conveyed rumours to Opposition leaders, and finally Allan's confidential correspondence, stolen by a clerk in the office of J. J. C. Abbott, Allan's solicitor, was made public.3 The fat was in the fire.

With the political controversy which followed we are not here concerned. In Sir John Macdonald's defence it could be said, that though Allan's money was taken no special favours were shown in the contract made; and that all that Allan secured by the government's victory was the certainty that the railway project would not be postponed or dropped altogether, and that he would be given control. Sir Hugh Allan had said with much force: 'The plans I propose are in themselves the best for the interests of the Dominion, and in urging them on the public I am really doing a most patriotic action.' Undoubtedly Sir John Macdonald sincerely held a similar opinion.

The Allan Company gave up its charter, unable to raise capital in face of financial depression and political upheaval. The Liberal party, led by Alexander Mackenzie, and swept into power by a wave of popular indignation, first endeavoured to induce other capitalists to take up the work. But the government's offers of $10,000 in cash and of 20,000 acres of land for each mile, plus an undetermined guarantee, had no takers in the years of depression that followed. Mackenzie then decided that government should itself build the road. He planned to build at first only the indispensable sections, using the waterways wherever possible, and hoped, but in vain, to secure British Columbia's consent to an extension of the time set for completion. His first step was to subsidize the Canada Central, which ran from Ottawa via Carleton Place to Pembroke, to extend its line as far as Lake Nipissing, in order to connect with the proposed eastern terminus of the Pacific road, and to award a contract (it was afterwards cancelled) for a branch from this junction point to Georgian Bay. Passing by for the time the country north of Lake Superior, he next let contracts for the greater part of the distance between Fort William and Selkirk and for a road from Selkirk to Emerson, on the Manitoba border. Here connection was to be made with an American line, the St Paul and Pacific, of which more will be heard presently.

When Mackenzie left office in 1878 the work of location or construction was well advanced in all three sections. For two years the new administration of Sir John Macdonald carried on the same policy of government construction at a moderate pace. The work in hand was continued and the gaps in the road between Port Arthur and Selkirk were put under contract. The line was made to pass through Winnipeg—instead of striking west from Selkirk, as the engineers had previously advised, and thus side-tracking the ambitious city growing up around old Fort Garry. Contracts were let for two hundred miles of the extension westward from Winnipeg. Two seasons passed before the new government could make up its mind as to the British Columbia section. Late in 1879 it decided to adhere to the route chosen under the Mackenzie administration, through the Yellowhead Pass, down the Thompson and the Fraser to Port Moody on Burrard Inlet. The difficult section from Yale, the head of navigation on the Fraser, to Savona's Ferry, near Kamloops, was shortly afterwards placed under contract.

The ten years' time allotted for the construction of the Canadian Pacific was nearly gone and there was little completed work to show. Hard times, depression in the railway world, changes of government and political upheavals, disputes as to route and terminus, had delayed construction. The building of the link north of Lake Superior, necessary for all-rail connection between East and West on Canadian territory, had been indefinitely postponed. Something had been done, it is true. Manitoba was being linked up with the East by a road south to Minnesota and by another line to the head of Lake Superior, and a start had been made in British Columbia. Some day, under some administration, the gaps would be filled up and the promise to British Columbia would be redeemed.

Suddenly, in June 1880, Sir John Macdonald, speaking at Bath, made the announcement that a group of capitalists had offered to build the road, on terms which would ensure that in the end it would not cost Canada a single farthing. Four months later a contract was signed in Ottawa by which the Canadian Pacific Syndicate undertook to build and operate the whole road. An entirely new turn had been given to the situation, and the most important chapter in Canada's railway annals, if not in her national life, had been begun.