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Railways and railway technology have figured prominently in the development of Canada

Building a Bridge on the National Transcontinental Railway, ca 1910. (CSTM/CN Collection 84083-9)

from the 1850s to the present day. Even before Canada extended its political boundaries across the continent, railways played a unique role in the birth of a nation that has continually faced the unique problems created by a comparatively small population spread out across a diverse and often inhospitable landscape. The formation of Canada itself in 1867 was based, in no small part, on the willingness of the new central government to encourage and construct a railway system capable of tying together the Atlantic region and the Great Lakes. Following Confederation, Canada and Canadians looked to railway technology as the most important means of political and cultural survival, as they began expanding and claiming the West as their own.

¾ Inch Scale Model of CPR steam locomotive 285. Manufacturer: J. Hewitson, ca 1970 (CSTM 710336)

While railways may have been effective tools of economic and political policy, throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they represented some of the best and worst traits of modern industrialism. Railways often provided the first and most obvious examples of modern technology to the Canadian public. Steam engines, hidden away in factories and shops, had already transformed the means whereby goods were produced; yet in the 1860s it was the steam locomotive that epitomized the rapidly-changing pace and apparently irresistible momentum of industrial Canada. The prototypes of steam locomotives like this model of CPR 285 (710336) were symbols of Canada’s expansion to the Pacific. By the early 1890s, electric streetcars such as Toronto Railway car No. 306 (680883) brought the marvel of electrical technology to the streets of Canadian cities, before electricity made its way into the home of the average citizen.

(Fig.3)  Toronto Railway streetcar No. 306. Manufacturer: Toronto Railway, 1894 (CSTM 680883)

Major engineering works, such as the bridges that spanned the St. Lawrence River and trestles through the Rocky Mountains, were tangible symbols of modern Canada’s ability to overcome natural obstacles and even Nature itself. Stations, railway hotels and railway shops set new standards in architecture, and provided focal points for urban growth and development. As the first modern corporations, however, railways attracted the ire of the public, who at times saw them as secretive, insensitive and avaricious. That being said, during much of the period prior to the Second World War, few Canadians’ lives were not touched by railway technology. In short, railway technology played an important role in shaping the character of modern Canada.

It is no surprise then that, when the Canada Science and Technology Museum—which is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the scientific and technological objects which have played a role in shaping Canadian society—was formed in 1967, railway technology was given a prominent place. Since then, the railway collection has grown with the institution, and now is comprised of over 1,000 artifacts which cover the field from its origins to the present day. These objects range from documents and engineering drawings to steam locomotives, streetcars and signalling devices—each representing an important aspect of railway technology and the people who made it work.

The collection continues to grow as new research identifies weaknesses in our holdings and points to new directions. Railways remain a vital component in Canada’s transportation system, and the Museum continues to identify items that are representative of Canadian innovation and practice in the field.

* The numbers in brackets are the accession numbers of artifacts held by the Museum.

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