Toronto promoter plans plan to beat U.S. with first transcontinental railway to Pacific coast

“The Toronto,” first railway locomotive built in Canada, by James Good for the Northern Railway of Canada, 1853. Canada Science and Technology Museum, photo MAT 001292.


North West Transportation, Navigation, and Railway Company has a plan to beat the United States with the first railway across the continent to the Pacific coast, the Ottawa Citizen reports, September 28, 1858.

Backed by Toronto investors, the plan is the brainchild of Toronto lawyer and mining and transportation promoter Alan McDonnell. Initially, transportation would be by steamboat from Georgian Bay, the western terminus of the existing railway, to the head of Lake Superior. From there, transportation would be by river steamboats with a series of connecting roads.

“Some three, or at the most four, links of road will be necessary to connect the comparatively long navigable reaches between Lake Superior and the Red River” settlement, the site of the future Winnipeg, says the Citizen. From Red River, only one connecting road of three or four miles would be needed for 800 miles of navigable water, “which comes within about 200 miles of the Fraser River and near some of the best passes of the Rocky Mountains.

“It is impossible to over estimate the importance to be attached to the success of this company, by means of which passengers would be enabled to reach Fraser River, through Canada, in about half the time they could by any other route; nor is it the least important consideration that such a result must almost immediately lead to the construction of a railway to the Pacific Coast.” And a railway to the Pacific, adds the Citizen, “is most practicable on British territory on account of the sandy desert and the greater difficulty of the mountain passes on the American side.”

It all seemed so simple on paper. Northwest Transportation did achieve steamboat and road transportation as far as Red River, but this Canadian route could not begin to compete with railway to St. Paul, Minnesota and steamboat from there to Red River. “It took one month for the Hudson’s Bay Company to get a letter from Red River to Montreal via the United States, five months through Canada,” historian Michael Bliss notes in Northern Enterprise. It was estimated to cost £100 for each letter that got through on the Canadian route.

Northwest Transportation collapsed in 1860. The first American railway to the Pacific was completed in 1869. Canada’s railway to the Pacific followed 14 years later with the driving of the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

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