Canada's Railroads

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Canada's Railroads


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


IN my childhood, as a boy growing up on a farm in western Canada, my greatest pleasure was to travel with my father to Neville, at that time a town of some 200 souls. What I looked forward to most was waiting for the train to make one of its weekly trips into town. It was more exciting than for a child today whose father is taking him to his first hockey or soccer game. For me, it would have been sad, indeed, if in that early era of my life someone would have prophesied that the trains serving almost every prairie town and village from the Trans-Canada railway lines would virtually disappear.

Chug-chugging its way into town, puffing smoke and with its whistle blowing, then letting off its passengers at the station, was for me, as for most of the farm children of the day, a picture of majesty and splendour. As I grew into my teens, the train making its way grandly to that tiny village station remained with me. I would often dream of steering that train or even shovelling coal into its boilers. In my young mind, the train would one day take me into the unknown outside world -- from our farm to places of mystery and romance.

Strangely, fate took a hand and subsequently my dreams were partially fulfilled. When I joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and in the ensuing years, I travelled across Canada more than half a dozen times -- always by train. I made new friends, spent enjoyable hours conversing with young ladies, and always relished the scenery, especially when crossing the majestic Rocky Mountains.

In the ensuing years, I never lost my love for that mode of travel. Every time I climbed into the coaches, the feeling of excitement that I felt as a child would return. Later, when the trains stopped taking passengers and the auto took over, I felt a great loss. Subsequently, I often travelled the same routes by car, but it was never the same. I longed for the train rides of yore. The railroads that virtually made Canada a nation, moving its people through vast spaces in comfort, with the exception of their symbolic movement of humans, had now become carriers of freight -- for many like myself, only a nostalgic dream from the past.

The Canadian railways can trace their history back to 1836 with the opening of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad -- the first public railway in Canada. However, it was only after the establishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1871 that the railroads were to become the true backbone of Canada. Hereafter, the history of this railway becomes the tale of the evolvement of this country into a nation of world status.

More than any other enterprise except the Hudson Bay Company, Canadian Pacific has been instrumental in shaping the destiny of Canada. The story of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the history of this North American country are inextricably tied together. There are very few other corporations in the world which have contributed so much to the formation of a nation. The saga of the Canadian Pacific Railway intertwined into the growth of Canada is a fascinating tale of development and success.

In 1867, after Canada became a confederation called the Dominion of Canada, the politicians of the day looked for ways to draw into the union the thousands of kilometres of the sparsely populated prairies and mountainous regions to the West -- in that era, only accessible by canoe or on horseback.

At about the same time, the United States was developing its western frontiers and the U.S. settlers began advocating the annexation of the prairies to the north. Many even began to speak of this expansion as their nation's 'Manifest Destiny'. America's population of over 40,000,000 compared to Canada's mere 4,000,000 gave them the confidence that these virgin lands would soon become part of the expanding U.S.A. This feeling increased after the end of the American Civil War as many Northerners resented Canada's supposed support for the South.

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