Railway History | The Canadian Encyclopedia

Railway History

The development of steam-powered railways in the 19th century revolutionized transportation in Canada.

Historic Railway Trestle
  1. February 25, 1832

    Railway History 

    First Railway Incorporated in Canada

    The Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad Company was incorporated, the first railway legislation in Canada.

  2. July 21, 1836

    Railway History 

    First Railway Opens in Canada

    Canada's first railway, the Champlain and St Lawrence Railroad, officially opened; it began operations on July 25. The railway heralded the most important change in transportation in Canadian history.

  3. September 19, 1839

    Railway History 

    Albion Mines Railway

    A celebration marked the opening of the first 4 kilometers of the Albion Mines Railway in Pictou County, NS. It was the second steam railway in Canada, and the first to use standard gauge.

  4. March 17, 1845

    Railway History 

    St Lawrence and Atlantic RR

    The St Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad was chartered to build a line between Montréal and Portland, Maine, giving Montréal year-round access to the Atlantic.

  5. October 11, 1850

    Railway History 

    Railway to Longueuil Opens

    The St Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad was opened from Longueuil to Richmond, Québec.

  6. January 27, 1854

    Great Western Workshop

    Railway History 

    Great Western Railway Opens

    The Great Western Railway opened its main line between London and Windsor, Ont.

  7. October 27, 1854

    Railway History 

    Rail Disaster at Chatham

    At Baptiste Creek, 24 km west of Chatham, Ont, a gravel train was hit by an express train that was running 7 hours late. The accident killed 52 and injured 48 others, the worst rail disaster in North America to that time.

  8. November 17, 1856

    Grand Trunk Railway

    Railway History 

    Grand Trunk Completed

    The Grand Trunk Railway was completed from Guelph to Stratford, Ont; the last stretch from St Marys to Sarnia was finished on November 21. The GTR was a significant factor in the economic development of Canada.

  9. March 12, 1857

    Railway Disaster, Desjardins Canal

    Railway History 

    Desjardins Canal Train Disaster

    A Great Western Railway passenger train crashed through the rotting timber bridge over the Desjardins Canal, near Hamilton, Ont, killing 59 people.

  10. February 08, 1858

    Railway History 

    Railway to Truro Opens

    A railway opened from Halifax to Truro and Windsor in Nova Scotia.

  11. June 29, 1864

    Train Wreck at St-Hilaire

    Railway History 

    Rail Disaster at St Hilaire

    A Grand Trunk Railway train plunged off the Beloeil Bridge into the Richelieu River at St-Hilaire, Qué, killing 99 people and injuring another 100. It was Canada's worst train wreck.

  12. September 01, 1864

    Delegates of the Charlottetown Conference, Prince Edward Island, 1864.

    Railway History 

    Cartier Attends Charlottetown Conference

    At the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, Sir George-Étienne Cartier led the Canadian case for a great confederation of all the colonial provinces, inspiring the Maritime delegates with a commitment to build the Intercolonial Railway.

  13. January 01, 1870

    Canadian Pacific Railway

    Railway History 

    Cartier Encourages BC to Join Confederation

    Sir George-Étienne Cartier welcomed British Columbia delegates John Sebastian Helmcken, Joseph Trutch and Robert Carrall to Ottawa in June 1870, and promised them a transcontinental railway if British Columbia joined Confederation (the delegates had planned only to ask for a wagon road east).

  14. October 15, 1872

    Sir Hugh Allan

    Railway History 

    CPR Formed

    The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was formed. The company was given a charter on 5 February 1873. Methods used by Sir Hugh Allan to secure the charter led to the defeat of Sir John A. Macdonald's government.

  15. November 05, 1873

    Pacific Scandal Political Cartoon

    Railway History 

    Pacific Scandal Forces Resignations

    In the Pacific Scandal, the Macdonald government resigned over the evidence that members of the government had accepted campaign funds from Sir Hugh Allan in return for the Canadian Pacific Railway contract.

  16. February 09, 1879

    Railway History 

    North Shore Railway Complete

    The North Shore Railway between Montréal and Québec City was completed.

  17. December 23, 1879

    Railway History 

    Fraser Canyon Rail Extension

    Railway contractor Andrew Onderdonk signed an agreement with the Canadian government to extend the CPR through the Fraser Canyon.

  18. February 16, 1881

    Ottertail Bridge

    Railway History 

    CPR Incorporated

    The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated.

  19. June 01, 1883

    Canadian Pacific Railway, Map

    Railway History 

    CPR Arrives in Alberta

    The Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Alberta, at Medicine Hat.

  20. January 01, 1885

    Constructing the CPR

    Railway History 

    Chinese Labourers and the CPR

    Some 15,000 Chinese labourers completed the British Columbia section of the CPR, with more than 600 of them perishing under adverse working conditions during this essential construction. Largely because of the trans-Canada railway, Chinese communities developed across the nation.

  21. September 15, 1885

    Railway History 

    Death of Jumbo

    A Grand Trunk Railway locomotive struck and killed Jumbo, beloved circus elephant in Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” near St. Thomas, ON. The autopsy showed that Jumbo’s stomach contained “a hat-full” of English pennies, gold and silver coins, metal trinkets and a police whistle, among other things. The death of the elephant made headlines world-wide.

  22. November 07, 1885

    The Last Spike

    Railway History 

    Last Spike Driven for CPR

    The “last spike” of the Canadian Pacific Railway was hammered by Lord Strathcona at Craigellachie, British Columbia. This fulfilled a government promise to connect BC to Eastern Canada via a transcontinental railway. Among the workers who built the railway were 15,000 labourers from China, many of whom died during the railway’s construction.

  23. August 13, 1886

    Railway History 

    Macdonald Drives Last Spike

    Prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, on his only visit to BC, drove the last spike on the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway at Cliffside near Shawnigan Lake.

  24. November 27, 1891

    Railway History 

    Railroad Opens from Seattle to New Westminster

    A subsidiary of the Great Northern Railroad, an American competitor to the Canadian Pacific Railway, opened from Seattle to New Westminster, BC.

  25. July 29, 1900

    Railway History 

    White Pass and Yukon Railway

    The last spike was driven on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, which ran from Skagway to Whitehorse.

  26. September 10, 1904

    Railway History 

    First Train Robbery in Canada

    “Gentleman Bandit” Bill Miner and two accomplices were involved in Canada’s first train robbery. They robbed a Canadian Pacific Railway car near Mission, British Columbia, of $7,000.

  27. November 24, 1905

    Canadian Northern Pioneer

    Railway History 

    Canadian Northern Completed

    The Canadian Northern Railway was completed to Edmonton.

  28. May 17, 1906

    Railway History 

    Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Begun

    Construction on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway began at Prince Rupert with the construction of a tool shed and the erection of tents as accommodation.

  29. August 12, 1909

    Railway History 

    Freight Handlers Strike

    Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ont, was placed under martial law as Greek and Italian strikers engaged Canadian Pacific Railway police in a protracted gun battle.

  30. January 21, 1910

    Train Wreck at St-Hilaire

    Railway History 

    Sudbury Train Disaster

    A broken rail caused derailment of a CPR passenger train west of Sudbury, killing 43.

  31. March 12, 1912

    Canadian Northern Railway

    Railway History 

    Fraser River Railway Strikes

    Railway workers organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) walked out of construction camps on the Canadian Northern line to protest conditions.

  32. August 19, 1913

    Railway History 

    Special Railway Fare for Prairie Harvesters

    Railways offered a special fare of one cent per mile to the prairies for workers who would help bring in the anticipated record-breaking harvest. The demand was estimated at 40,000 extra harvesters, and thousands of young Canadians, many from the Maritimes, responded to the call.

  33. November 17, 1913

    National Transcontinental Railway

    Railway History 

    National Transcontinental Complete

    The last spike was driven on the National Transcontinental Railway, which had begun work in 1903 and ran from Winnipeg, via Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing, Cochrane and Québec City, to Moncton, NB.

  34. April 07, 1914

    Railway History 

    Grand Trunk Pacific Completed

    The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was completed to Nechako, BC. The first train arrived at Prince Rupert on April 9.

  35. January 23, 1915

    Canadian Northern Railway

    Railway History 

    Canadian Northern Railway

    The last spike was driven on the Canadian Northern Railway at Basque, BC.

  36. June 06, 1919


    Railway History 

    Canadian National Railways Incorporated

    Canadian National Railways was incorporated. It became the longest railway system in North America, controlling more than 50 000 km of track in Canada and the US.

  37. March 09, 1925

    Railway History 

    CN Rail Establishes Canadian National Land Settlement Association

    The Canadian National Railway (CN) established the Canadian National Land Settlement Association to promote immigration and land settlement in Canada. This increased rail traffic and helped the railway use some of the land granted by the federal government.

  38. September 21, 1927

    Railway History 

    Rail Disaster in Yale

    Ten railway cars carrying a valuable cargo of silk went off the rails east of Yale, BC. Five of them ended up in the Fraser River.

  39. August 22, 1950

    Railway History 

    National Rail Strike

    A national rail strike caused one of the most serious transport crises in Canadian history.

  40. May 28, 1969

    Railway History 

    Alberta Resources Railway

    Alberta premier Harry Strom opened the Alberta Resources Railway, a 378 km line from Grande Prairie north to Solomon.

  41. February 28, 1977

    VIA Rail Logo

    Railway History 

    Via Rail Established

    The federal government established Via Rail.

  42. February 23, 1986

    Railway History 

    Train Disaster at Hinton

    Twenty-three people died in a head-on collision between a CN freight train and a Via Rail passenger train at Hinton, Alta.

  43. March 27, 1995

    Railway History 

    Rail Strike Ends

    Parliament passed back-to-work legislation, forcing some 30 000 rail workers to return to their jobs. The strike had begun on March 18 and was having severe economic repercussions.

  44. February 10, 1998

    Railway History 

    CN Buys US Railway Company

    Canadian National announced plans to acquire US rail company Illinois Central Corp for $2.4 billion, making CN the 5th largest railway company in North America with 30 000 km of track.

  45. July 06, 2013

    Lac-Mégantic derailment

    Railway History 

    Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Explosion

    A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, killing at least 47 people. Approximately 2,000 were evacuated after explosions and subsequent fires destroyed the centre of town.

  46. May 13, 2014

    Lac-Mégantic derailment

    Railway History 

    Charges Laid in Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Explosion

    Three employees of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway were charged with criminal negligence in the 6 July 2013 oil train crash that killed 47 people in the town of Lac-MéganticQuebec. An investigation into the disaster determined, among other causes, that the handbrakes on the train were insufficient, causing the train to slide down a sloped length of track, derail and explode in downtown Lac-Mégantic. Following a trial, jurors acquitted the three former employees on 19 January 2018.

  47. June 22, 2015

    Lac-Mégantic derailment

    Railway History 

    More Charges Laid in Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Explosion

    The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway and six former employees of the railway were charged under the Railway Safety Act and Fisheries Act for their role in the 6 July 2013 oil train crash that killed 47 people in the town of Lac-MéganticQuebec. On 5 February 2018, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act and was fined $1 million. The six former employees pleaded guilty to violating the Railway Safety Act. Five of the former employees were fined $50,000 each. The sixth former employee received a conditional sentence of six months in prison, to be served in the community.

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