Canadian Corner: CPR & VIA

A Historical Irony of the Early Canadian Pacific by Bob Mitchell

“I’ve always enjoyed observing and reading about ironies in life. Shakespeare, among many others, was a master at writing them. We’ve all experienced ironies in our own lives – some humorous, others more solemn – tragic even. In railroad history there are ironies also. The early history of the Canadian Pacific was no exception. Here’s one that’s worth relating here.

Canadian-born James Jerome Hill was born near Guelph in what is now the province of Ontario. After having moved as a young man to St. Paul, Minnesota, he established himself in, among other things, railroad building. He joined forces with George Stephen of the Bank of Montreal in the building of the St. Paul. Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway north to the Canadian border. He joined a syndicate of businessmen – George Stephen, Duncan McIntyre, Richard B. Angus, and Donald A. Smith – that was assigned in 1880 by the Canadian government of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to begin the construction of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. They were on a time limit of ten years as it was a condition of the joining of British Columbia in 1871 into the Confederation that was the new and emerging Dominion of Canada.

A clash of interests took place. Macdonald wanted the route to be all-Canadian, necessitating it to be built through the “unproductive” country of rock and lakes that was northern Ontario. Hill, on the other hand, required that the line be partially built through the United States from Sault Ste. Marie to join his line into Manitoba from St. Paul. To promote this idea, he hired William Cornelius Van Horne, general superintendent of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road), to be general manager of the Canadian Pacific. Hill believed that Van Horne would support his need for a partial route through the United States.

Born on a farm in Illinois, W.C. Van Horne had numerous interests as a child – even throughout his entire life. One of these was as a rock hound – an amateur geologist. I surmise that Van Horne recognized the rich potential of the rugged north in the value of its hidden metallic resources – copper, silver, nickel, and gold. He shrugged aside any thoughts of the future difficulty of heavy construction and supported Macdonald in his quest for an all-Canadian line. James Hill subsequently resigned from the Canadian Pacific, returned to the United States, and built the Great Northern Railway south of the Canadian border. Van Horne proceeded to complete the Canadian Pacific westward through northern Ontario, the Canadian prairies, and the dangerous Rocky and Selkirk Mountains to what is now the city and port of Vancouver.

James Hill died an American in San Francisco in 1916, the year following the death of William C. Van Horne, a Canadian, in Montreal.”

Video courtesy of rapidotrains via YouTube.

Rock on Trains © 2021, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

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