Establishing The First Canadian Transcontinental Railway




James Douglas Haig McCannell, third son of Captain James McCannell, born in March, 1916, resides in the original family home in Port McNicoll. While growing up, he heard many Canadian Pacific Railway Company (C.P.R.) stories from his father. Because of his interest and his excellent memory, he is considered to be a good historian of the C.P.R.


By the early 1880s C.P.R. track had been laid westward to the Sudbury area, heading according to plan to Sault Sainte-Marie and north of Lake Superior past Winnipeg to Vancouver. James J. Hill, an enterprising Canadian operating his railway from its head office in Saint Paul, Minnesota, invited Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, C.P.R. President George Stephens and other Company officials to meet at Algoma Mills, part way between Sudbury and Sault Sainte-Marie, to discuss further C.P.R. development. Hill was hoping that the C.P.R. would accept his offer to connect their westbound tracks at Sault Sainte-Marie to his southbound tracks which extended westward south of Lake Superior in American territory, where he would add track heading back north to Winnipeg in British territory.  His plan would eliminate difficult, time-consuming and expensive track-laying through muskeg and rock outcrops north of Lake Superior, and establish him as a part-owner of a lucrative transcontinental railway.  When the meeting ended, Cornelius Van Horne, Hill’s former employee, whom he had recommended for the position of C.P.R. Director of Construction, sided with Macdonald and Stephens, who both insisted that despite the challenges the C.P.R. system would be built completely within Canada.  Their decision did not support Hill’s ambition.

The sparsely-populated landscape north of Lake Superior was a challenge for engineers and track-layers. Van Horne enjoyed challenges. On one of his visits to track-end he directed a contractor to blast a rock-cut, move the cut rock to construct a rail-bed across a bog about 300 feet wide, then blast a second rock-cut on the bog’s other side.  The contractor complained that the job would require 3 months.  Van Horne commanded, “I want it done in three weeks.”  The contractor completed the work on schedule.  On another visit to track-end he asked a crewman to drive a locomotive across a bog on newly-laid track.  When the crewman hesitated, recalling previous miscalculations and rescues, and fearing personal injury, Van Horne exclaimed, “I’ll do it myself!”, to which the crewman countered “Well, if you’re not afraid to do it Mister Van Horne, then neither am I,” and completed the task without incident.

In late 1884 Van Horne telegraphed the Prime Minister in Ottawa, “The C.P.R. pay train is ready to leave Winnipeg but there is not a cent on it”, that the Company was out of money.  Macdonald was already discouraged by the Liberal Opposition’s lack of support for railway-building, and by the loss of support from a few of his own Conservative Government members.  Federal Liberal Party Leader Blake from Nova Scotia, for example, claimed, “A transcontinental railway would not generate sufficient revenue to pay for the axle-grease for the wheels.”  Macdonald couldn’t raise $20 million in Ottawa to save the C.P.R., so in desperation he went to the Montreal office of C.P.R. President George Stephens where he also met with Donald A. Smith and R.B. Angus who happened to be in Mr. Stephens’ office.  By the end of the day Macdonald was able to tell Van Horne that he would “wire” him $5 million the following morning.  Stephens, Smith, and Angus, three visionary Scottish immigrants, had invested the rescue money from their personal finances and had committed to lending the C.P.R. another $15 million.  Their action ensured the continuation of track-laying from Winnipeg to Vancouver, resulting in the driving of the “Last Spike” at Craigellachie B.C. on November 7th, 1885.  Joining British Columbia to Eastern Canada by rail voided American plans to annex the Prairies and British Columbia.  The United States had already purchased Alaska from Russia in March, 1867 and their acquisition of British Columbia would have given Americans control of the entire Pacific Coast from Mexico to the High Arctic.

Later, when senior C.P.R. officials went about business between Montreal and Vancouver, they sometimes travelled on the C.P.R. Great Lakes passenger service’s S.S. Assiniboia with Captain James McCannell, Commodore of the Fleet. They could dine at the Captain’s table and exchange anecdotes, sometimes in Scottish Gaelic, about Company history and operations.  Some of them repeated stories passed along by earlier Company chroniclers, about difficulties and successes in establishing Canada’s first transcontinental railway.


James McCannell Interview; Port McNicoll History Project, P.O. Box 51, Port McNicoll, ON, L0K 1R0,     Art Director at

Technical Assistance; Branch Librarian, staff; J&M Young branch, Tay Township library. (


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