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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter XIII. The Canadian Pacific Railway


That achievement, great as it was, proved to be but the beginning of his railway enterprise. He had no thought of it then, but in the course of time he was to become one of the foremost in the origination and completion of a Canadian railway system unrivalled in the world—"The Canadian Pacific Railway."

As we have seen by the terms of the agreement with British Columbia, the Dominion Government was committed to the construction of a railroad to the Pacific Coast. It was a colossal task. Such a railway, trailing its vast length through hundreds, even thousands, of miles of uninhabited country, confronted in the Rocky Mountains with engineering difficulties that seemed insurmountable, and requiring an enormous capital and the greatest administrative capacity, was certainly a project in presence of which the boldest might well hesitate. As has been pointed out, the Macdonald Government was overthrown, on the ground of receiving money for the charter. The Mackenzie Government then took up the burden of finding a solution to this problem. Alexander Mackenzie was one of the finest of the many fine men who have had to do with the Government of Canada. Coming to this country from Scotland in his youth, and beginning his life here as a stonemason, he rose to the highest position in the State and became Prime Minister in 1873. He was a man of sterling character, impeccable honesty and great natural ability, but it is questionable if he were just the man for this particular occasion. The very qualities which made him strong and won the confidence of the people, namely, caution and reserve, proved a drawback when he was confronted with a project which demanded above all things boldness amounting almost to audacity. He hesitated before committing himself to such a huge proposal. He lacked the vision which would hate inspired courage. His Government fell upon evil days. The United States and Canada were passing through a time of great depression. Capital was timid. Bankruptcy was common. Trade was poor. To add to his troubles, his great opponent, John A. Macdonald, led an Opposition which harassed his every movement. He attempted to build the road as a Government road. His scheme was to make use of the great waterways that lay between Lake Superior and Fort Carry (that is, Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River, Lake Winnipeg, and Red River), and to cornmunicate with the Far West by means of the waters of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and the Saskatchewan River. He would make the railroad a supplement to the water routes. This is interesting as showing how the idea of building a continuous railway across the cortinent seemed, to the leaders of that time, too big to be seriously considered. It was some years later before it really came into the region of practical consideration. For five years Alexander Mackenzie held office and then his rival, in 1878, was returned to power by a great majority. At first Donald Smith had supported the policy of Mackenzie, but he became convinced that his railway policy would never meet the needs of the situation.

The need was pressing that something should be done. The Americans, as we have seen, had turned a covetous eve toward the trade of the Canadian North-West, and were considering the construction of a Pacific road which would draw the rich districts of the prairies and British Columbia. It was imperative that prompt, decisive action be taken. The slow and intermittent efforts of the Government were altogether inadequate to meet the needs of the time. Already the opening up of the North-West had begun to tell in the formation of little centres of population, destined to develop into great cities. There was a crying need for transportation. The whole West was alarmed and irritated by the patch-work methods of the Government. What was needed was a compact, comprehensive scheme, which would place immediately an unbroken line of railroad between the Far East and the Far West. To inaugurate and develop such a scheme required a bolder and more sanguine spirit than that possessed by the Mackenzie Government.

In 1878, Smith was returned to Parliament as a supporter of the Macdonald Government. That Parliament was to be memorable for the introduction of the "National Policy," by which Canada joined the ranks of the highly protected nations, and also for the inception of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The Government was faced by great difficulties, the chief of which was lack of capital. Sir John and Dr. Tupper went to London to try to secure British capital for the enterprise, but they met with a cold reception. The English capitalists regarded it with suspicion, for it looked like a foolhardy scheme, and the Ministers returned with empty pockets. The lack of faith was not confined to the Old Country, for the Opposition, led by that great lawyer, Edward Blake, deluged the proposition with cold water. Indeed, it was actually moved in Parliament that, to save the country from ruin, the British Columbia end of the road should be abandoned. This was defeated, but even on the Government side there was little enthusiasm. The enterprise went abegging, and there was no response. It looked as if the Government would have to fall back upon the old plan and build it as best they could, out of their own resources. A great deal of criticism has been since levelled at the agreement which was finally made, but it must not be forgotten that it was not possible at that time to foresee the enormous development of the next three decades. Those who assumed the responsibility, did so at great personal risk. They were liable to lose every dollar they invested.

It is a gratification to think that it was a company of Canadians that finally undertook the gigantic work and secured the charter. In 1880, a syndicate was formed, of which Geo. Stephens and Donald Smith were the moving spirits. This syndicate undertook to build the railway from Montreal to Port Moody (on Burrard Inlet), by 1891. By the terms of the contract, they were to receive from the Government, $25,000,000 as a subsidy and 25,000,000 acres of land, with all lands required for stations and workshops and all the sections of the railway already built and being built, (valued at $30,000 000). They were to import their materials for building the road free, were to be exempt from taxation for 20 years—no competing lines were to be built in the North West, south of the Can. Pac. Railway and connecting with the American lines, for a space of 20 years. Later they received further loans and guarantees to assist them in constructing the road. In the light of the present situation, the arrangement was a generous one, too generous, some might say, but in those days, the outlook was far from bright.

The most active spirit in this great venture was Donald A. Smith. He was possessed of an incurable spirit of optimism. ''It can be done. It should he done. It will be done.," might summarize his attitude. Years before this, on the defeat of the Macdonald Ministry, a Parliamentary colleague from the East, had declared the Canadian Pacific Railway project to be dead. To which Smith replied, "That railway is not dead and you and I, my friend, will be riding across the continent on the Canadian Pacific Railway within ten years." It was an amazing thing to say, but not so amazing as the fact that it came to be true, for in 1885 he drove the last spike in the great road which spans the continent. That a country of 3.000,000 people should have carried to a successful conclusion such a colossal project is without a parallel in the tale of railway achievements.

As we have said, the leading spirit was Donald A. Smith. This is not the place for, nor do the limits of this brief biography permit of, a discussion as to the. methods employed by those who had the matter in hand. There is, undoubtedly, room for variety of opinion and just criticism. But we must keep in mind the conditions of the time. The governments of those days found themselves entrusted with enormous undeveloped possessions, the possibilities of which no man could estimate, and the development of which presented difficulties that checked even the boldest spirits. At the same time, they were besieged by men who had some inkling of the advantages to be gained by those who, "got in on the ground floor," and who were not averse to using their Parliamentary positions and influence to secure for themselves claims and privileges. It was the age of railway development in a new country and we may admit that the policy of governments and the actions of railway promoters are open to criticism. That members of Parliament should not be interested in legislation which was for their own personal advantage seems a self-evident fact. Unfortunately, this simple truth was not clearly recognized, or at least, acted upon, in the time of which we are speaking, and there is no doubt that foundations of huge personal fortunes were laid by men who were able to manipulate the power of government for their private advantage. It is a hopeful sign of the times that the public is becoming more sensitive to this abuse of Parliamentary position and the standard of public conduct is much higher.

At any rate, the fact remains that this project, which for nearly ten years had maintained an anaemic and checquered existence, and seemed almost hopeless of completion, became instinct with new vitality. Under the direction of the new company, the enterprise was pushed forward with almost startling rapidity. The contract called for its completion in 1891, but the work was actually finished by 1885, such a result being due largely to the zeal and ability of Wm. C. Van Horne.

It is easy to speak of this great work and to criticize the promoters now that it is an accomplished fact—but perhaps no body of men were ever confronted by a more formidable obligation. The physical difficulties alone were appalling For hundreds of miles, through Northern Ontario and along the shores of Lake Superior, the road passed through a bleak and barren country, where a passage had to be blasted through the rocks. The district was remote and supplies were difficult to transport. An army of workmen had to be maintained and materials for the road carried in at a great expense. On the prairie it was comparatively easy going, but between that and the Pacific slope, ranges of mountains seemed to make further approach impossible. The proposal was greeted on all sides with incredulous scorn. It was predicted that even if it was built, the road would never pay. Cartoonists held up the scheme to ridicule and drew pictures of a train crawling through a desolate country, an object of wonder to wandering Indian or staring buffalo. But the men behind the enterprise persevered with dogged persistence. All their private resources were put into it. All their powers of persuasion were used to induce capital to come to their aid. At times it seemed as though they must fail, but Donald A. Smith roused their flagging spirits. His education had prepared him for difficult tasks. At last the work was done, and the last spike driven, the prophets of failure confounded and a telegram of congratulation was received from the Queen, in which the achievement was spoken of as one "of greatest importance to the whole British Empire." Lord Lansdowne in an address made the following statement:—"It is impossible to travel to the Western Ocean without feelings of admiration for the courage, and I am almost tempted to say audacity, both of those who first conceived and of those who have carried to a successful consummation this great National work. The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway stands alone in the history of great achievements in railway building."

The building of the railway, however, was but the beginning of the operations of this company. Today it is one of the greatest transportation systems of the World. It has connections with every part of the World and its lines of Steamships cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In Canada its branch lines of railroad reach out to every part. It is not yet thirty years old, but already it has accomplished what it has taken older roads a century to achieve, and on the American continent, it has set the railway pace. The confidence of the public is shown in the price of Canadian Pacific Railway shares in the Stock markets of the World. It is not too much to say that the credit of this huge success belongs largely to the subject of this biography.

Sir Chas. Tupper in a speech in London said:- "The Canadian Pacific Railway would have no existence to-day, notwithstanding all that the Government did to support that undertaking, had it not been for the indomitable pluck and energy and determination, both financially and in every other respect, of Sir Donald Smith." This tribute is of special value coming as it does from a member of the Government which launched the project and was its most active and enthusiastic promoter.

It must have been a proud day for Donald Smith when in British Columbia, at a little place called Craigellachie, before a representative gathering, he drove the last spike in the first Transcontinental all Canadian route. He, of all those present, was in a position to realize what it meant, what difficulties had been overcome, what an amount of anxiety it had entailed and what a mass of pessimistic prophecy it had falsified. He had been the driving force of the enterprise. It was fitting that he should be chosen to drive the last spike.


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