The CPR: The Four Scotsmen Who Blazed A Trail Across Canada

16 Nov 2017
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On the 7th November 1885 in Craigellachie, British Columbia, Scotsman Donald Smith was given the honour of driving in the last spike on the newly-formed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The track united British Columbia, isolated in the west of Canada, with the east and remains a popular symbol of national unity in Canada to this day.

This November we’re taking a look at the construction of the CPR, a project that became known as one of the most impressive engineering feats of the 19th century.

The construction of the track faced many setbacks: from bribery scandals at the highest levels of government to escalating costs and constant route changes. Throughout its assembly the CPR faced odds that at times seemed overwhelming. However, more than 130 years later, it still stands as a great source of pride amongst Canadians. This is in a large part thanks to the hard work and determination of four Scottish-born entrepreneurs, who ensured that the creation of Canada’s first transcontinental railroad was completed.

Connections and Corruption

The idea of a transcontinental railway was first put forward in 1871, as Prime Minister MacDonald was negotiating British Columbia’s addition to the Confederation of Canada. The main condition of British Columbia joining the Confederation was the construction of a land transport link connecting them with the east. Before the CPR, if you wanted to travel from one side of the country to the other, you had to embark upon a four-month sea voyage!

The original agreement was for the railway to be finished within 10 years, but this quickly proved to be unlikely. The project became involved in a political scandal known as ‘The Pacific Scandal’ that would set it back several years. The Scandal revolved around allegations that 150 members of government were given bribes by shipping tycoon, Sir Hugh Allan, to secure the project. In particular, Prime Minister MacDonald was revealed to have received $350,000 and the revelations forced him to resign as Prime Minister in 1873.

Fortunately for MacDonald, The Pacific Scandal didn’t destroy his political reputation and in 1878 he was re-elected as Prime Minister. Although stages of the railway had been built by the previous administration, the project was bogged down in uncertainty and beset with problems. In a bid to get it back on track and finally fulfil his promise to British Columbia, MacDonald awarded the contract to a new syndicate in a bid to get the project moving more aggressively.

New Kids On The Track

In February of 1881 the new project gained Royal Assent, with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company being incorporated the next day. Within the syndicate were four prominent Scottish-Canadians: Donald Smith, Richard Angus, George Stephen and John Stewart Kennedy. The four men were the main driving force behind the project to get the railway back on track. They agreed to build the railway in exchange for $25 million in credit from the Canadian Government and a grant of 25 million acres of land.

Despite the new momentum,  the project continued to hit stumbling blocks throughout its construction. The route had to be constantly revised as they attempted to find the quickest and best way to navigate the unforgiving Canadian wilderness. One particular concern was the need to navigate a safe route through the Selkirk Mountains, at a time when it was not even known if such a route existed. The job was given surveyor Major Albert Bowman Rogers and, after his success, that section of the track, Rogers Pass, was named in his honour.

Another complication came in the form of the Blackfoot First Nation, a large group of indigenous people. The Blackfoot controlled a large portion of land on the proposed route and their leader, Chief Crowfoot, had to be convinced of the railway’s importance. He eventually agreed and for his contribution was famously granted a lifetime free pass to ride the railway. Crowfoot was also inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame in 2008, in recognition of his efforts.

Finishing touches

When the CPR was completed in 1885, it was the longest railway ever constructed. However, cost-cutting measures undertaken during the construction meant that regular journeys didn’t take place until several months later. During that time, work was done to improve the railway’s condition at parts where bad weather had prevented the work being fully completed during initial construction.

In June of 1886 the first passenger train left Dalhousie Station in Montreal, arriving at Port Moody, British Columbia six days later. For decades, the CPR remained the only practical means of long distance travel in most regions of Canada. For many immigrants, the train was also the ideal way to travel west and settle. Special ‘immigrant carriages’ were made available, offering low-cost travel. These carriages and their cargo of settlers in turn played a huge part in the large-scale settlement of Western Canada.

The Men Behind The Track

The four men responsible for ensuring the completion of the CPR were also incredible philanthropists. They dedicated large portions of their wealth to worthy causes both in Scotland and Canada throughout their lives:

Donald Smith

Born in the Scottish Highlands, Donald Smith emigrated to Canada at the age of 18 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He moved swiftly through their ranks, eventually becoming commissioner, governor and principal shareholder. Smith also served as chancellor of McGill University in Canada and Aberdeen University in Scotland. He became known as one of the British Empire’s foremost philanthropists, donating millions to help develop hospitals and schools and provide scholarships.

George Stephen

George Stephen, also born in the Scottish Highlands, is considered the financial mastermind behind the CPR. A cousin of Donald Smith, Stephen was equally known for his incredible generosity. He donated throughout his life to causes both in Canada and Scotland, helping fund the creation and maintenance of hospitals. From humble beginnings as a bare-footed stable boy, Stephen became one of the richest men in Canada. Stephen was also the first Canadian elevated to the Peerage of the United Kingdom, becoming The Lord Mount Stephen.

Richard Angus

Richard Angus was born just outside Edinburgh and moved to Canada at the age of 26. Angus worked for the Bank of Montreal and advanced through the company rapidly, eventually becoming President. Like his fellow co-founders, Angus was well-known for being generous with his wealth. He donated to many causes, and was named President of both the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and the Montreal Art Association due to his philanthropy.

John Stewart Kennedy

John Stewart Kennedy was born in Glasgow in 1830, and moved to America at the age of 20. Kennedy retired at the age of just 36 and, during his retirement, became very active in the financial sector. He was named President of the Bank of the Manhattan Company and his wealth continued to increase massively throughout his life. Kennedy became part of the ‘Millionaires Club’, striking close friendships with J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller. He was also a keen philanthropist, giving over $30 million to causes including Columbia University and the New York Public Library.

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