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Go the Great Lakes way
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- Canadian Pacific Railway Company
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When British Columbia joined the Confederation in 1871, it was with the promise of a railway connecting it to the rest of Canada within 10 years. By 1881, however, very little of the railway had been completed. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated on February 16, 1881 to take over construction of the transcontinental railroad. They were granted land for railway use as well as other development and were given a new deadline: 1891.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company hired William Cornelius Van Horne as the new general manager; under his management, 500 miles of track were built in 1882 alone. Andrew Onderdonk was hired to manage construction through British Columbia’s treacherous terrain. Onderdonk brought in thousands of Chinese labourers to work on the railway. These Chinese workers were paid considerably less than their Canadian counterparts and were often assigned the most dangerous jobs, such as working with explosives. Although the Chinese workers could lay 6 miles of track a day, it was at a terrible price: two men died for every mile of track laid.
On November 7, 1885, the last spike connecting the eastern and western sections of railroad track was driven by Donald A. Smith at Craigellachie, BC. While this was four years after the original deadline, it was still well in advance of the new 1891 deadline. However, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company had encountered financial troubles during construction and had taken cost-cutting shortcuts in order to complete the railway. These shortcuts entailed months of subsequent work before the railway was fit for use. The first transcontinental train left Montreal in June, 1886, heading for Port Moody, which was then the terminus station; the terminus would be moved to Vancouver in 1887.
Following the completion of the railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was concerned that the railway would not have enough business to be profitable. With this in mind, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company opened the first of what would quickly become an extensive system of luxury hotels in 1886. The first hotels were located in the Rocky Mountains and served a dual purpose: in addition to enticing tourists to take the Canadian Pacific Railway to visit the Rockies, these hotels also served to provide meals to train passengers where the grade of incline was too steep for trains to carry heavy dining cars with them. Luxury hotels in urban locales soon followed, such as the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, and the Royal York in Toronto.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company also introduced its trans-Pacific service in 1887 to ensure there would be business for the railway by shipping cargo such as tea and silk from Asia. In 1891, the company obtained a Royal Mail Service contract and established its steamship division as the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. They built three ocean liners for this purpose: the Empress of India, the Empress of China, and the Empress of Japan.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s steamship operations grew rapidly throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. In addition to its trans-Pacific service, the company had begun operating the Great Lakes Steamship Service, initially used to assist in railway construction, the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service, and the British Columbia Lake and River Service, which used sternwheeler ships that could operate in as little as 22 inches of water. Trans-Atlantic service was introduced in 1906 with two new Empress-class ocean liners, the Empress of Britain and the Empress of Ireland. The speed of these ships allowed the company to obtain half of the trans-Atlantic mail contract, which had previously been held in its entirety by the Allan Line. The company acquired the Allan Line itself in 1909, although they kept the acquisition quiet until 1915 when the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company was rebranded and became the Canadian Pacific Steamships Ocean Services Limited.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company also developed its rail services alongside its steamship services, expanding its reach by acquiring, leasing, or partnering with existing railways and railway companies. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company also developed a number of other assets during this period. These assets were extremely varied and included the Dominion Express Company, which handled deliveries and money orders; mining, having acquired a smelter in Trail, BC; and telecommunications, where telegraph line laid alongside railway construction allowed their Telegraph Department to operate what would be the only coast-to-coast telegraph network until 1921. Immigration in particular was of interest to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, which used the land grants they had received from the government to encourage colonization and settlement in the Canadian Prairies.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was an active participant in the First World War. The company provided 37 ships in service of the British Admiralty, where they functioned as cruisers, troop transports, and cargo carriers. These Canadian Pacific ships suffered heavy losses during the War, with 7 ships sold, 11 lost to enemy action, and 2 lost to marine accident. Replacing these ships became an urgent concern following the War.
The decline in immigration following World War I resulted in a company-wide shift in focus to tourism. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company began heavily promoting tourism in Canada and worldwide, marketing themselves as the “World’s Greatest Travel System.” These travel opportunities included tours of Canada as well as a range of luxury cruises, including annual four-and-a-half month long world tours. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company elected to keep their operations in-house as much as possible, such as operating their own sleeping cars rather than contracting out as was common in the United States, which allowed them greater control over the quality of their services. This period of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s history includes the high-profile 1939 Royal Tour by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), who voyaged on the Empress of Australia steamship and traversed Canada on Canadian Pacific Railway trains.
The Second World War resulted in further heavy losses to the Canadian Pacific fleet. Of the 22 ships provided to the British Admiralty, 2 were sold to the Admiralty, 12 were lost to enemy action, and 2 were lost to marine accident. With one ship remaining in trooping service, the Canadian Pacific had only 5 ships at its disposal after the War. Of these, three ships returned to Atlantic service, one to Pacific service, and one to the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service.
World War II signalled another shift in the focus of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s services: in 1942, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company formed the Canadian Pacific Air Lines through the amalgamation of 10 struggling independent airlines. They introduced several international routes in 1949, flying to destinations such as China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and added domestic flights between Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal in 1959. The Canadian Pacific Air Lines operated until 1987, when the airline was sold to Pacific Western.
With the rising popularity of air travel in the latter half of the 20th Century, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company began to focus on cargo and freight services. This included establishing a highway trucking service and introducing a “piggyback” service to hauling highway trailers on train cars. Many of the company’s ship-based services had ended passenger service or closed entirely by 1980, including the formerly popular British Columbia Coast Steamship Service. The third Empress of Canada, the Canadian Pacific’s last ocean liner, made her final voyage in 1971, although ocean-faring cargo carriers continued to operate. Railway passenger service ended in 1986, although the Canadian Pacific Railway Company continued to acquire smaller railways to support its cargo services.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s other assets underwent changes during this period as well. Many of these were sold, such as their mining and telecommunications assets, although they also expanded their hotel division through the acquisition of the Canadian National Railway’s hotel chain in 1988 and the acquisition of Fairmont Hotels in 1999. The turn of the century brought with it still further changes for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In 2001, the company underwent a significant restructuring, separating into five independent companies: the Canadian Pacific Railway, CP Ships, the PanCanadian Energy Corporation, Fording Coal, and Canadian Pacific Hotels. Since then, however, all but the Canadian Pacific Railway have been sold to other companies.
A detailed timeline of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company is available here: https://library-rbsc-2017.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2019/03/CPR-Timeline-Final.pdf
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Pamphlet advertising the Canadian Pacific Railway Company's Great Lakes Steamship Service.
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- Great Lakes Steamship Service (Subject)