From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne

From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne

From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne

From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne


Winner of the 2005 Ottawa Book Award for Non-fiction , the 2005 University of British Columbia Award for Best Canadian Biography, and the Canadian Railroad Historical Association Award for Best Railway Book of the Year.

William Van Horne was one of North America's most accomplished men. Born in Illinois in 1843, he became a prominent railway figure in the United States before coming to Canada in 1881 to become general manager of the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway. Van Horne pushed through construction of the CPR's transcontinental line and went on to become company president. He also became one of Canada's foremost financiers and art collectors, capping his career by opening Cuba's interior with a railway.


The idea for this book originated years ago with my husband, David’s, observation that no adult-length biography of Sir William Van Horne had been published since 1920. This work, entitled The Life and Work of Sir William Van Horne, was written by Walter Vaughan, who had known Van Horne for twenty-five years and who had worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s legal department for seven years.

The very idea of an autobiography or a biography was anathema to Sir William, who responded positively only to requests that he write a history of his beloved Canadian Pacific Railway. To this end, he arranged in the summer of 1914 for Katherine Hughes, a freelance writer who had served as the provincial archivist of Alberta, to collaborate with him in such a work. Unfortunately, the First World War intervened, and in September 1915 Van Horne died without having made a start on the projected history. Their father’s death persuaded Bennie Van Horne and his sister, Addie, to continue the arrangement that Sir William had made with Katherine Hughes, but with one significant difference: she would write a biography of their father, not a history of the cpr.

Katherine Hughes collected material and produced the first draft of a book-length biography. in the summer of 1919, however, Bennie Van Horne approached Walter Vaughan with the rough, unpublished manuscript and asked him if he would write a biography of Sir William. Vaughan undertook the task, basing his work largely on the contents of Hughes’s manuscript. the result is a work that captures Van Horne’s larger than life personality but that is undocumented and provides virtually no details about his courtship or his relationship with family members. Since the book has long been out of print, Michael Bliss, the well-known Canadian historian, observed years ago that “a new Van Horne biography was badly needed.”

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