Weren’t We Supposed To Get A Railway?

English: The Southern Railway of Vancouver Isl...


“Of all the conditions usually attached to a union of this colony with Canada, that of early establishment of railroad communication from sea to sea is the most important. If the railroad scheme is utopian, so is Confederation. The two must stand or fall together.” – British Columbian, 1870.

British Columbia became part of Canada in 1871 (see my post of July 20Welcome British Columbia!). The terms included a stipulation that a transcontinental railway would be started within two years, and completed in ten years. There was, however, a private agreement among the negotiators that British Columbia would not insist on a literal fulfilment of the deal if it caused too great a strain on Canadian finances. Some of the Ontario members wanted to include the clause: “within ten years if the financial ability of the Dominion will permit.” This amendment might have led to the defeat of the government, and so the gentlemen’s agreement was made and outlined to a caucus of Conservative members.

Two years went by and nothing had happened, except for a symbolic turning of the sod at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island on July 19, 1873, one day before the deadline! Rumblings of trouble began to be heard. It was forgotten that the agreement did not have to be adhered to strictly if it imposed financial strain. In fact that part of the agreement had been given very little publicity.

The rumblings gradually grew into a roar, beginning with an official protest on July 25, 1873. By the end of the year, Sir John A. Macdonald‘s government had been beaten and cautious Alexander Mackenzie (no relation to the explorer, by the way) had become prime minister. He wanted more time and asked for it. By 1874, many British Columbians were so angry that they invaded the Legislature (see my post of February 7Lover of the World).

The Cosmos was the Premier, and the people suspected that he was willing to change the terms of the agreement with the Federal Government. As a result, his career in provincial politics came to an abrupt end.

By 1878, the discontent had grown to such an extent that the British Columbia Legislature passed a resolution by fourteen to nine to secede from the Dominion if the railway were not started by May 1879. Future posts will describe the various developments and how they were solved.

To learn more, I found this .pdf (24 pages) called The Story of the Canadian Pacific Railway that’s interesting. You can also find interesting trivia at Wikipedia‘s Southern Railway of Vancouver Island.


  1. NL has no railway. In 1988 we gave ours up in return for an infamous ‘roads for rails’ agreement with Ottawa. In the end that decision probably will result in continued under-development of our fair province.


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