Golden Routes

Canadian Pacific’s quest to create a tourist mecca.

The beginnings of the company we now know as Canadian Pacific can still evoke fascination and wonder. This is with good reason, for the company’s early operations have a larger than life quality to them. In its glory days, Canadian Pacific carried passengers and freight across Canada, built luxury hotels for wealthy tourists and straddled the globe with its shipping and cruising vessels, while providing an avenue for the rapid settlement of the Canadian West. This multifaceted story is retold in Barry Lane’s new book Canadian Pacific: The Golden Age of Travel.

The Regina-born author studied history at Royal Military College. Later he served at the United Nations Emergency Force’s headquarters in the Sinai. More recently he retired from the vice-presidency of Mendel Tours, a company he co‑founded in Quebec City to teach Canadian history and culture. In this capacity he lectured extensively on Canadian Pacific’s history on rail tours across Canada and on cruise ships. For Lane, this history is also a personal one: the immigration of his own grandfathers to Canada from Lincolnshire and Alsace Lorraine and their settlement on the Prairies in 1900 owe much to the CPR.

Canadian Pacific provides a rich visual history that draws heavily on well-known secondary sources. Lane’s intended audience is the general reader, so those seeking a detailed knowledge of Canadian Pacific’s corporate development or a full view of Canadian railway history should not look here. What they will find are engaging summaries of various aspects of Canadian Pacific’s story, including descriptions of early railway travel and tourism.

In his opening chapters, Lane covers territory that will be familiar to many of his readers: British Columbia’s stipulation that a transcontinental railway be built to link it with the rest of Canada within ten years of the province’s entry into Confederation, the establishment of the CPR syndicate and the difficulties experienced building almost 3,200 kilometres of rail track across some of the most rugged countryside in the world.

The formidable challenges encountered in pushing the line through mountainous British Columbia are described by Lane in considerable detail. This was where the most difficult terrain and weather were encountered. But he barely mentions the daunting problems to be overcome in the so-called eastern section, especially in northern Ontario, where contractors had to lay rails across the 1,600 kilometre-wide Canadian Shield with its lakes, steep cliffs and huge, bottomless muskegs that swallowed tons of gravel and even entire locomotives.

All these construction challenges and their soaring costs taxed the determination and ingenuity of William C. Van Horne, a transplanted American railroading genius and a man of prodigious energy and imagination. As the CPR’s general manager, he pushed through the building of Canadian Pacific’s portion of the main line at a frenetic pace, overseeing the completion of construction in 1885, five years ahead of the Canadian government’s ­deadline.

First as general manager and then from 1888 to 1899 as president, Van Horne was the one who spearheaded the diversification of the company’s operations. The completion of the railway’s main line helped set the stage for a role in the mass immigration into the Canadian West, in which Canadian Pacific was involved in numerous ways.

Notable among the newcomers to Canada between 1896 and 1914 were Britons and agriculturalists from Central and Eastern Europe. To reach Canada, many of these immigrants crossed the Atlantic on CPR boats, for Van Horne had decided the company should move into maritime fleets as well as numerous other non-railway sectors. In doing so he ensured that what was often described as the empire’s greatest railway became an integrated transportation network that would girdle the globe.

The company’s fleet had begun with the acquisition of a fleet of ocean liners to handle Pacific Ocean travel. As early as 1889, the company ordered three passenger liners, the Empress of India, the Empress of Japan and the Empress of China, to provide monthly service to destinations in Asia. Van Horne named all three ships, selecting the designation “empress” to reflect the vessels’ superiority over all anticipated competition. Although the first of these, the Empress of India, completed the CPR’s first global journey by train and ship in April 1891, it was not until 1906 that the Empresses, in this case the Empress of Britain and the Empress of Ireland, made their first Atlantic crossing.

Part of Van Horne’s motivation in branching into new sectors was his wish to develop traffic for the railway. As Lane explains, the railway general invested a lot of time and imagination in developing the company’s tourist services, commissioning architects for its hotels, overseeing their construction and inventing witty advertising slogans to attract customers. In fact, Lane rightly credits him with firmly establishing an international tourist industry of significant dimensions in Canada.

Tourism promotion had valuable long-term consequences. For example, it ensured that a detailed visual record of the company’s operations was left for posterity. Indeed, the most outstanding feature of Lane’s book is its magnificent collection of photographs, often commissioned by the company itself. In his search for them, Lane visited archives in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Many are well known to railway history buffs, but others are not, notably those of the interiors of some of the iconic Canadian Pacific hotels, such as the Banff Springs, the Empress in Victoria and Ottawa’s Château Laurier. Today, the company’s most visible legacy in Canada is these great railway hotels and the distinctive château style that was adopted in their design.

Lane features the Château Frontenac in a chapter entitled “Gateway to the Orient.” The reason is the distinctive role the hotel’s host city played in the company’s operations. As Lane notes, “Quebec City was the key entry point for Canadian Pacific’s travel system in North America,” and thanks to the company’s Pacific fleet this also meant it could be viewed as a gateway to Asia. Only a business strategist as skilled as Van Horne could successfully brand Canadian geography in this way.

Of course, not all aspects of the early Canadian Pacific story were so positive, and these other aspects are only barely alluded to by Lane. Despite such gaps Canadian Pacific serves a useful function. Not least, by allowing readers to immerse themselves in an evocative age that did so much to forge modern-day Canada, Lane and his publisher have produced a volume that will delight and entertain. That is accomplishment enough for any book.

Canadian Pacific does not have an index, but it does provide suggestions for further reading. An unfortunate omission is Van Horne’s Road: An Illustrated Account of the Construction and First Years of Operation of the Canadian Pacific Transcontinental Railway by Omer Lavallée, Canadian Pacific’s penultimate archivist and historian. Readers interested in delving deeper after reading Lane’s book would find it well worth their while to consult Lavallée’s work and Canadian Pacific’s bibliography.