Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Intercolonial Railway



[This text was written in 1948 by W. Stewart WALLACE. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


About thirty years before Confederation united the Maritime provinces with the central provinces of Canada, the first proposals were made to unite them by railway communication. St. Andrews was the winter port of entry to British territory, and a Railway Association was formed there to promote the St. Andrews and Quebec Railroad; Lower Canada was approached, and both government and press gave favourable response. In 1836 a deputation was sent to England to carry on negotiations with the Imperial government for financial support; some encouragement was given, and a survey was begun by Captain Yule. No sooner was this step taken than the United States , aroused by the prospect of this development, questioned the always uncertain boundary between New Brunswick and Maine, and the railway project was held in abeyance until 1842, when the Ashburton Treaty fixed the boundary. Maine now stood, a wedge separating Lower Canada and New Brunswick; Yule's survey was found to be mostly outside British territory, and a new military significance was seen in the choice of a route. Moreover, Halifax was henceforth the accepted terminus, as St. Andrews was now too near the border.


Soon after this an awakening of interest in railways all over the United Kingdom afforded the next encouragement. Resolutions were passed in the legislatures of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada, urging the effect a railway would have on the commerce of the country, on the settlement of wild lands, on the union it would afford to the provinces, on the nearer connection established with the Mother Country, and on the greater security in case of war. Finally a survey was asked for, and some financial help. Gladstone, then secretary for the colonies, at last consented to send two officers of the Royal Engineers to undertake the exploratory survey. After careful investigation of several routes they reported on two that were possible between Halifax and Rivière du Loup, first by way of St. John, Fredericton, and Grand Falls, and second by way of Truro, Newcastle, the bay of Chaleur, and the Matapedia valley. They advised against the first because of the break in order to cross the bay of Fundy, and also because of steep grades and nearness to the international border. At this point opposition came from those interested in making the communication through a Montreal to Portland road; Joseph Howe was sent to place matters before the Imperial government, but it declined aid to any but a railway on British territory.


No further communications passed between the several governments during the next few years, but during this time the three provinces, without any united plan or action, commenced work, each independently, on railway construction at different points. In this way the Intercolonial system had its real beginning, without any assurance of completion or any outside aid. In 1858 a line was opened between Halifax and Truro, a distance of 61 miles; in 1860, between St. John and Shediac, a distance of 108 miles; and by 1862 there were 780 miles west of Rivière du Loup. The Civil War in the United States was used as a reason for a new appeal to the government in England, and a colonial loan was guaranteed. In 1863 the provinces asked for a commission of three engineers to decide on the route and carry out construction. It was a tribute to the ability of a distinguished Scottish-Canadian engineer, Sandford (afterwards Sir Sandford) Fleming that all provinces and the Imperial government made him their unanimous choice. He presented his report in 1865 on three routes, the Frontier (north along the St. John river ), the Central, and the bay of Chaleur routes. All his conclusions weighed in favour of the latter for these reasons: it would secure the greatest remuneration for expenditure, and develop the commerce an fisheries of New Brunswick; it would pass through a rich lumber country where already sawmills were busy; the new railway was to offer means development to towns on its route, it should do so for those on British territory.


In the meantime, steps toward Confederation were progressing, and the political union of the provinces was effected in 1867. The project of a railway had been urged for the purpose of a closer union between the provinces and had contributed much to that, but in the end it was Confederation that achieved the completion of the Intercolonial Railway. One of the first duties of the new Dominion government was to connect the systems already built and undertake the construction of the line between Truro and Rivière du Loup. This occupied nine years, and in 1876 the whole line of the Intercolonial Railway was opened, touching on six Atlantic ports and extending a length of over 700 miles. Additions were steadily made to this; in 1879 the Rivière du Loup to Quebec branch of the Grand Trunk was acquired; in 1884-7 the eastern extension, the Cape Traverse and the Pictou branches; in 1891 the Cape Breton Railway; and in 1898 the line to Montreal . In the course of time, the government acquired many privately owned railways, and these were added to the Intercolonial. Up to 1918 it was operated by the Dominion government as a direct responsibility of the Minister of Railways and Canals. The Canadian National Railways Act was passed in 1919, and four years later an order-in-council gave over to the Canadian National Railway Board the management and operation of all Canadian government railways, including the Intercolonial Railway.


Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. III, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 275-276.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College