Canada’s First Railway

Charles Dickens took a day off from the theatre in Montreal to ride the railway, praising it extravagantly.

“Canadian writers get as excited about trains as French writers do about sex,” wrote Silver Donald Cameron. No wonder, since the country owes it very existence to the railway.

For most of human history, neither people nor goods could move any faster or in any greater bulk than the feet of humans or beasts could carry them. This did not change until the early 19th century when simple boiling water was harnessed for use in the steam engine. The happy congruence of steam power and tracks created the railway and the greatest revolution in transportation in the history of the world.

The first railway opened between Liverpool and Manchester, England, in September 1830. Despite the death of an MP, who was run down by the locomotive at the opening ceremony, the L&M Railroad ignited a fever of track laying around the world.

The potential of the railway for Canada, with its vast and difficult geography, was quickly realized by a group of Montreal businessmen. The first indication came in the 1820s when the mail from Britain was entrusted to trans-Atlantic steamships, cutting the time by two-thirds. Then in 1830 a snorting, belching steam engine was installed by sappers to drive a capstan to raise great blocks of granite up the precipitous slopes of the Quebec Citadel. A year later a railway opened between Albany and Schenectady, New York. Among its passengers were Peter McGill, president of the Bank of Montreal, and Jason B. Pierce, a New Englander who had been captured in the War of 1812 and had remained in St. John, a prosperous village on the Richelieu River. They, along with the brewer John Molson, were the authors of the bill that created Canada’s first railway company on February 25, 1832.

For Pierce in particular a railway to connect the St Lawrence and Lake Champlain was a natural, cutting valuable time off the tiresome journey between Montreal and New York.

Construction got underway in January 1835. Two young American engineers surveyed a route from St. John to the nearest point on the St. Lawrence, which happened to be the hamlet of Laprairie, 23.3 kilometres upstream from Montreal. The project finally was given its proper name, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad. By the end of the year the grading, fencing, masonry and bridge work, a wharf at Laprairie and parts of two station houses were completed. The company ordered a steam locomotive from Newcastle and four passenger cars from the United States. Flatcars and baggage wagons were built in a Montreal factory.

The tracks consisted of 6-inch pine squares joined by iron splice plates and bolts. Iron straps were spiked to the upper surface of the rails for protection. Though potentially dangerous, the rails caused only one minor accident before they were replaced by iron rails in the 1850s.

In June 1836, the locomotive Dorchester arrived at Molson’s wharf in Montreal. It had four driving wheels, a high centre of gravity and a short wheel base that earned it the nickname “Kitten” for its skittish behavior. An indentured driver was sent along with the engine, but since his contract was unenforceable in Canada he deserted soon after arrival. The Dorchester’s trial runs were staged at night in the moonlight so as not to frighten the public.

The line opened in July 1836 to a huge celebration. Lord Gosford, Governor General of Lower Canada, and Louis-Joseph Papineau, the future rebel, were among the first passengers. The 300 guests proved too much for the little engine so only the two first-class coaches, carrying 32 of the elite, were attached to it. The remaining coaches and flatcars were hauled by teams of horses. In two hours everyone had reached the brand-new station at St. John, where there were toasts and testimonials galore.

Although shippers found the railway to be too expensive, the passenger traffic was astonishing. Montreal families could not resist a combined ferry-railway outing which cost only a few shillings. Excursions were so numerous that the clutter of picnickers along the tracks was playing havoc with the schedules. Rules had to be made to curb the carefree behavior of the passengers. Penalties were enforced for walking on top of the coaches while in motion or for smuggling a dog into a first-class compartment. Charles Dickens took a day off from the theatre in Montreal to ride the railway, praising it extravagantly.

The success of the little railway was like a spark in dry tinder. The countryside spawned short lines in all directions. Although serious construction of railways did not occur in Canada until the 1850s, once it began it became a mania, dominating public policy, stimulating trade and industry, building cities, ferrying settlers westward, uprooting the First Nations, and stitching together an improbable country.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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