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The Early Years

Following on the heels of developments in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the first public railway in Canada opened for service in July 1836. This first steam-powered railway, The Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad, was typical of early Canadian railways, in that it was designed to supplement the existing system of river travel. Constructed between the Quebec towns of La Prairie and Saint John—now St-Jean sur Richelieu, the railway effectively functioned as a portage between the St. Lawrence and Richelieu River systems.

Later railways served a similar function, and were often seasonal operations providing a means of speeding up the transfer of passengers or cargo between trans-shipment points. Others, such as the Albion Railway in Nova Scotia and the Chemin de fer de l’Industrie in Quebec were typically short in length, and served as resource or mining railways to transport coal or other products to water. It is indicative of the very limited impact that railway technology had on Canada during this early period that only 50 miles of line were in operation throughout British North America by 1850. Although many railway lines were planned and charters issued, a lack of adequate funding meant that few of these were actually built. As is often the case with new technology, the early history of railways in Canada was markedly local in extent, derivative by origin, and primitive in character.

Section of “U” rail used on Carillon-Grenville Railway. Manufacturer: unknown, ca 1852 (CSTM 750376)

Few artifacts have survived this early pioneer stage. The small sample of “U” rail (750376) dating from the 1850s is a prime case of early experimentation. Imported from Britain, this style of rail was used on many of Canada’s early railways. Although cheaper to produce than its solid counterpart, the rail proved to be inherently weak. This factor, combined with the effects of the Canadian winter, meant that much of the rail initially laid on Canadian railways had to be replaced within several years. This cost, along with other problems associated with the Canadian climate and environment, practically bankrupted the two major railway projects before they had time to make a profit.