Bill Waiser

CPR Route 1877

CPR rerouting changed map of Saskatchewan

One of the most controversial decisions in Saskatchewan transportation history was the rerouting of the Canadian Pacific Railway main line.

Throughout the 1870s, it had been assumed that the railroad would travel along the North Saskatchewan country from Winnipeg to Edmonton and then through the mountains via the Yellowhead Pass. In fact, the federal cabinet formally endorsed the route in 1879.

But in the spring of 1881, the new CPR Syndicate boldly decided to build directly west from Winnipeg across the southern prairies and through a more southerly mountain pass.

This decision profoundly altered the region’s development by focusing settlement activity for the next two decades along a thin line through the grasslands. Places like Prince Albert and Battleford, which had anxiously awaited the arrival of steel, found themselves over two hundred miles north of the main line. As one observer remarked, “The North-West, for practical purposes, became replaced by the West.”

Many reasons have been advanced for the abandonment of the Yellowhead route.

It has been suggested, for example, that the southern route was shorter. That may be true but it overlooks the fact that the CPR had still not found a suitable pass through the Selkirk Mountains at the time of the decision. The Syndicate faced the prospect of sending the rail line north from present-day southern Alberta and through the Yellowhead Pass.

And even after the selection of Rogers Pass, the CPR faced significantly higher grades than those of the Yellowhead. Trains had to be broken into shorter sections and hauled by more engines before a system of spiral tunnels was introduced.

It has also been suggested that the re-assessment of the agricultural potential of the dry mixed prairie district brought about the route change. Botanist John Macoun, for example, claimed in the 1870s that all that was needed was “the mere scratching of the soil” to bring forth bountiful crops.

But if the CPR was so confident about the southern grassland’s potential, then why did it insist in its contract that its 25-million-acre land grant not only had to be “fairly fit for settlement” but could be selected anywhere in the territories? And why did the CPR deliberately schedule its transcontinental passenger service between Regina and Calgary at night in order to play down the marginal land along the route?

The reason for the re-location – found in the 1896-97 correspondence of CPR officials – was a strategic business one.

Even though the CPR deal included a 20-year monopoly over western traffic, the Syndicate still wanted to construct the main line as close to the international border as possible in order to keep out American competition. A more southerly route was also necessary if the railway was going to capture all the traffic of the North-West and offset the costs of operating the otherwise non-revenue producing sections north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains.

The CPR Syndicate actually wanted to send the railway through the Crow’s Nest Pass. But when the Canadian government objected for security reasons, it settled on Rogers Pass and its higher grades. Once construction was complete, the CPR had to devise a way to cover its operational expenses. It was not easily done because some sections of the line ran through regions (southern Ontario and Quebec) where there was stiff competition from cheaper water transport.

To survive and make a modest profit during its early years, the CPR took advantage of its western monopoly and set exorbitant freight rates that put many pioneer farms in jeopardy. The 1883 prairie schedule charged 30.6 cents to carry a bushel of wheat from Moose Jaw to Thunder Bay. That was almost half the price of a bushel of wheat at the time.

Perhaps there is some truth to the story that when it hailed, farmers would shake their fist defiantly at the heavens and shout, “God damn the CPR.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board.

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