The name of the longest railway in the world may confuse. It is transcontinental, not a railroad running along the western or Pacific coast of Canada. Work began in 1880, under a Conservative government led by Sir John Macdonald. In order to persuade capitalists to invest in it, Macdonald offered potential investors millions of acres of fertile arable land running alongside the proposed tracks. He also offered subsidies and tax exemption.
One of Macdonald’s headaches as Prime Minister of the second largest country in the world was that a part of it – British Columbia – refused to join the Canadian Federation in 1871 until a promise was made to build a transcontinental railway.
The actual construction of this extraordinary railroad was a miracle of engineering in itself: it had to be erected over mostly uninhabited territory, in temperatures over well under zero in winter; tunnels had to be blasted beneath the Rocky Mountains; bridges must be built over the Columbia and other wide and swift rivers.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was however completed by 1885, a superb feat of coordination, enterprise and engineering skills. In only five years a continent had been crossed. The railway achieved immediate political and economic importance. The boundary line dividing Canada from the United States, called the 49th parallel, was unmarked and undefended, as it always had been. The new railway ran just north of this mystic boundary line to ensure the US did not penetrate the area. Land-hungry US politicians had to accept the fait accompli.
Once the line was up and running, settlement of the prairies became possible and more immigration encouraged. Trade and industry in the St. Laurence Valley was extended westwards towards the Pacific.
Already established small towns on the route such as Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver grew at an astonishing rate. In 1891 Russia began her own version, called the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would also have remarkable industrial, economic and social effect on a basically backward country.