The Intercolonial Railway

Intercolonial Railway Locomotive

The Intercolonial Railway

As early as the 1830s, the British colonies in what would become Canada recognized the need for railways to overcome their geographical isolation, marked by dense forests and rugged terrain. The invention of steam-powered locomotives in Britain in 1825 offered a promising solution to enhance communication, stimulate economic development, and strengthen military defence.

Colonial leaders envisioned railways as a way to connect towns and harness economic opportunities by linking mines and sawmills with shipyards and ports. They believed that railroads could boost intercolonial trade and provide better access to maritime markets and Britain, particularly through ice-free ports. Railways would also enable rapid troop and weapon deployments, fortifying the colonies’ defenses.

Intercolonial Railway locomotive no. 76, 1938
Intercolonial Railway locomotive no. 76, 1938

In 1836, a delegation to London was sent to request a rail route. However, progress was halted in 1842 when the United States and Britain signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. William Ewart Gladstone, British Colonial Secretary, later sent engineers to undertake a new survey of potential rail routes. Although several lines were proposed, the American railway interests proposed ignoring the intercolonial railway line and instead connect New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to the United States through Portland, Maine. There was a struggle between those wishing to make quick profits with the American line and those wanting to maintain British political and economic connections.

The American Civil War began in 1861, and British North American colonies were officially neutral. However, the war’s effects spilled over the border, emphasizing the need for an intercolonial railway. In 1863, talented engineer Sandford Fleming began rail survey work in the dense forests of New Brunswick. 

Sir Sanford Flemming
Sir Sanford Flemming

In September 1864, during the Charlottetown Conference—the first meeting about Canadian Confederation—delegates from the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island discussed unification and the pivotal role of railway construction. While PEI initially resisted spending on railways, seeing little direct benefit, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick made railway construction a condition for their participation in Confederation. By 1876, these rail connections had transformed regional communication, economic growth, and defense capabilities, knitting together several cities, resources, and ports across the region.

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One thought on “The Intercolonial Railway

  1. Interesting chapter in the history of the country. Too bad today’s Canadians don’t dream big the way our ancestors did.

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