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Canadian Pacific RailwayReporting mark: CPR

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began as a promise made by Prime Minister John Macdonald to the people of British Columbia. As a condition of BC's entry into confederation in 1871, the prime minister had pledged to deliver a transcontinental railway. He had 10 years to deliver the goods.

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne
Library and Archives Canada, C-008549

The railway was no idle dream. Macdonald was passionate about railways which he saw as an integral means unifying the country. In his view, a transcontinental railway connecting the east to the west was absolutely vital to the survival of Canada.

Macdonald's first attempt to get the railway going ended with his government's removal from office. He was accused of accepting a $350,000 bribe for his election campaign from Hugh Allen, a Montreal-based railway promoter. Macdonald cried foul but the voters didn't agree. After a few years in the opposition trenches, Macdonald's political career, along with the railway, rebounded with his return to government in 1878.

In 1880 Macdonald signed a contract with a Montreal-based consortium to build the CPR. The consortium, comprised of leading members of Montreal's business community, extracted a Christmas list full of goodies in exchange for taking on the substantial risk of building a railway through uncharted virgin territory. The bounty included $25 million in cash (the equivalent of over half a billion today) 25 million acres of free land, a 20-year land tax deferral, and a lifetime property tax deferral.

By 1882 construction was still moving at a snail's pace. In frustration the railway hired William Van Horne, a renowned railway executive from the U.S. who claimed he could have 500 miles built by 1882. Van Horne's claims turned out to be optimistic, but only by a whisker. By the end of 1882, 462 miles had been completed and by the end of 1883, construction had reached the Rocky Mountains. Although the completion date had been extended to 1891, the railway was finished in 1885. Service was extended to the Maritimes in 1889.

Even before the railway was completed, the CPR had begun to diversify. Early ventures included telegraph lines, which were integrated into the railway network during construction, steamship lines, hotels and farming. Later ventures included the highly respected Canadian Pacific Airlines, which operated from 1942 until 1987 when it was sold. Throughout its history, the CPR was involved in a multitude of varying industries.

The CPR remained reigned supreme in the west where they had virtually no competition. The company was also in a position to envision the vast, untapped potential of the western provinces, which enabled them to launch their highly successful western colonization plan.

Agents, stationed in Europe, promoted an attractively priced package that included steamship passage to Canada, train passage to western Canada, and a parcel of farmland priced as low as $2.50 per acre. The seven-day train trip included sleeping facilities, and a small kitchen in each car. Once the farms were established, they would translate into a lucrative source of long-term revenue for the CPR.

The CPR used marketing techniques which were highly innovative for their time. In 1903 they began to produce a series of short travelogues. The imagery, which included lush farm scenes or busy urban centres, was carefully selected so as not to scare anyone away. Winter and wilderness scenes were strictly avoided. By 1910 they were beginning to produce fiction films.

CPR hotels were renowned for their beautiful decor and excellent service. The first hotel opened in 1887. At its height, the railway owned dozens of hotels across Canada. CPR remained in the hospitality industry until 2006.

On the downside, the CPR quickly developed a reputation for being fiercely anti-competitive. During its early years, the railway experienced serious cash shortages due to higher than anticipated construction costs. Part of the CPR's agreement with the government included a monopoly clause which forbade the construction of any competing lines to the south or southwest for 20 years. This enraged the Manitoba government who believed it was hindering growth.

Although the monopoly was rescinded in 1887, the damage was done. The province quickly followed by offering loans and sponsorship to anyone who expand the province's rail network. Their efforts led to the formation of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) in 1899.

Wails of dissent from the western farmers continued. High rates and excessive control were at the root of problems in Alberta. The government responded in 1903 by striking a deal with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) to build the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in an effort to encourage more competition. By 1920 both the GTR and CNoR had failed and were taken over by the government. In a strange twist of fate, the CPR's tactics had given birth to a new monster that the CPR could neither dominate nor control, the Canadian National Railway (CN).

The arrival of CN in 1923 finally gave the CPR its first taste of serious competition in the west. The CPR met its match in CN president, Henry Thornton. The two railways battled it out for 10 years until the Great Depression, when both railways were forced to curtail their costs in order to stay afloat.

By the 1930s, the golden age of passenger rail travel had come to an end. Passenger traffic continued to trickle downwards and by the 1960s, the CPR began cutting back on passenger service to focus on freight. In 1978 all transcontinental passenger traffic was taken over by the government owned VIA Rail.

Throughout its history, the CPR always maintained a reputation for class and elegance. In the early days before refrigeration, the railway owned numerous farms along its routes in order to have a steady supply of fresh food, most welcome on long journeys. At its height, it played host to presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens. As late as 1955, it launched The Canadian, a new luxury transcontinental passenger train.

In the year 2000, in keeping with its reputation, the CPR returned to its roots with the introduction of the Royal Canadian Pacific, a restored historical train that offers luxury excursion tours through the Rockies. The trip is not cheap, but it's been described as "the trip of a lifetime."

Today the CPR is Canada's second largest railway, focusing primarily on intermodal and freight transport. It maintains extensive operations in both Canada and the United States. Full details of its many operations, along with an historical section from the rich CPR archives can be found on the company's website.