Canadian Pacific Railway

Year:1885

Duration:4 years

Cost:Can$25m (Can$625m today)

Country: Canada

What did this project achieve?

Create Canada’s first intercontinental railway

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was a major infrastructure project to connect east and west. Built by private companies, it was funded with government money.

American surveyor Albert Bowman Rogers, usually known as Major AB Rogers, mapped a way through the Selkirk and Rocky mountains for the CPR’s route.

Progress was initially slow - only 260km of track was laid by the end of 1881.

The CPR hired another American, railway executive William Cornelius van Horne, to speed things up. He delivered 700km of main line and 90km of sidings the following year.

The final spike for the line was driven at Craighellachie in the Eagle Pass in British Columbia on 7 November 1885 – uniting Canada with a ‘ribbon of steel’. Asked for a speech to mark the historic event, van Horne said: “All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way.”

Difference the project has made

Although it was initially mainly intended to carry freight, the CPR was for decades the only practical way for people to travel across the country.

The railway opened the prairies for settlement and united Canada both politically and economically.

How the work was done

Construction was carried out in three sections:

  • North Bay to Winnipeg
  • Winnipeg across the prairies into the Continental Divide
  • West coast to the Selkirk Mountains

Major flooding of the Red River in 1882 delayed the start of construction at Winnipeg. Despite this, nearly 800km of track was completed by the end of the year.

Five thousand workers constructed the section of line over the prairies. They used 1,700 horse teams to shift 10 cubic metres of earth. Average progress was 5km a day. The best day’s work saw 10.2km of track laid in one 15-hour shift.

In British Columbia, the route followed the Fraser River Canyon with a cantilevered bridge built to cross the river. Steel for the bridge was made in England and shipped in sections to Port Moody on the west coast of Canada.

The eastern section of the line above Lake Superior ran though extremely rocky terrain. The CPR needed a huge amount of explosive to blast and clear the route. The company built three temporary factories to supply this - each produced a ton of explosive a day.

"​‌

In the whole annals of railway construction, there has been nothing to equal it.

Sir John A MacDonald

First prime minister of Canada

Fascinating facts

Thousands of navvies (navigational engineers) worked on the CPR. Many were European immigrants. Contractors in British Columbia also hired around 15,000 workers from China.

Navvies were paid between $1 and $2.50 a day. They had to pay for food, clothing, transport to the site and medical care out of their wages.

Chinese labourers got as little 75 cents a day. They did the most dangerous jobs, including working with explosives to clear tunnels. It’s estimated that at least 600 Chinese workers were killed during the project, and their families didn’t receive compensation for their deaths.

Many of the Chinese who survived didn’t have enough money to return home, although they’d been promised this by railway bosses.

In 2006, the Canadian government formally apologised for the treatment of Chinese workers during and after construction of the CPR.

People who made it happen

  • Main promoters: the Canadian government
  • Contractors: syndicates led by Donald A Smith, JJ Hill, George Stephen
  • General manager: William Cornelius van Horne

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