Thursday, August 23, 2018

Railroads, National Identity and Confederation in Canada

Railroads, in their early days were a significant force in geopolitics. This continues even today, as countries and regions vie for influence in today's globalized world. An admittedly small, but nonetheless, a part of North & South Korea's conflict involves connecting the two countries together via the railroad.

However, the railroad industry has actually built countries, and not in the physical sense, where a railroad builds cities and towns along it's route, but were actually responsible for developing a national identity and connectivity. Canada, with it's extremely large and spread out population, partially owes it's existence as a single transcontinental country to railroads. It is possible, if not likely, that Canada would look a lot differently today politically were it not for the railroads.

The Guarantee Act of 1849 ensured that any railroad investment in Canada would yield returns on their bonds. Of course, while the Act indeed spurred railroad development, it also led to an oversaturation of the market, and the creation of many unprofitable lines, as returns were backed by the government. A nearly bankrupt country would end the Guarantee Act in 1860, after financing the Grand Trunk Railway, linking Montreal with Sarnia, ON.

Canada in 1867 at Confederation. Image: https://sites.google.com/site/sirambrosesheacanada/home/newfoundland-and-labrador


But there were still vast swaths of the continent which needed rail service, as at this time, Canada was not yet a confederation. In an attempt to strengthen ties to the Maritime Colonies, the Intercolonial Railway was built, by the Canadian government as opposed to financiers, like in the early days.

Intercolonial Railway Locomotive. Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia
This line connected Nova Scotia with Canada, strengthening ties between the two, and was thus a driving factor in Canada's confederation, which occurred in 1867. The Intercolonial Railway was in service until 1918, when it was consolidated into another government built corporation, Canadian National Railways.

The success of the railroad in connecting and Confederating Eastern Canada would be replicated with British Columbia's entrance into Confederation in 1871, under promise of a line being built, connecting the Pacific with Eastern Canada. This promise of a railroad would be fulfilled 10 years later, with the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which has grown to be one of the largest railroads in North America. Canadian Pacific is one of only seven remaining Class I freight railroads in the US, and one of two in Canada.

Canadian Pacific Trestle. Source: Canadian Pacific Railway's History
Much as the railroads in the United States helped establish a national identity, and allowed for people to travel and communicate in ways hitherto unthinkable, the same was true in Canada. In addition to bringing people hundreds (if not thousands) of miles apart together in a unified identity, the railroads were also a vital resource in the war effort for the Allies in both World Wars, as both the US and Canada were able to transport troops, weapons, and supplies from battalions to ships across the continent.

As always, thanks for reading!

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