Manitoba History: Commemorating the First Railway in Western Canada
by Parks Canada, Winnipeg
The Dominion of Canada was still quite young when it spread its wings and reached for the Pacific. But purchasing the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories and bringing Manitoba and British Columbia into Confederation were only the first steps to becoming a transcontinental nation. An effective communication and transportation route needed to be established between the eastern and western portions of the expanding country—indeed, such a route had been promised to British Columbia. While Sir John A. Macdonald proposed building the now-famous transcontinental railroad, Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie preferred a combination of rail and water routes to connect east and west. Macdonald’s eagerness to realize his vision led to the Pacific Scandal and the downfall of his Conservative government in 1873, giving Mackenzie’s Liberal coalition an opportunity to implement their own vision of a Canada stretching from sea to shining sea.
An integral part of this vision was a railway from St. Boniface, Manitoba (across the Red River from Winnipeg) to St. Paul, Minnesota, via Emerson, Manitoba and Pembina, North Dakota; this became known as the Pembina Branch. The line was built by the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway. Following both the Red River and generations-old cart paths, the first spikes were driven on 29 September 1877 by Governor-General Lord Dufferin and the Countess of Dufferin. It officially opened on 3 December 1878, when the Countess of Dufferin (the first locomotive in western Canada) met an American train at Dominion City, Manitoba where the last spike was driven. Both trains were carrying railway officials, dignitaries, and prominent citizens, to attend the event.
The significance of the arrival of the railway in western Canada cannot be overstated. In a practical sense, the rail connection between Winnipeg and eastern Canada (via American lines) allowed for the cost-effective import of both settlers and manufactured goods to the west, and the export of grain and other agricultural produce to the east. This not only provided an invaluable boost to the fledgling western economy, but encouraged capital investment in eastern centres as well.
Railroads embodied late nineteenth century concepts of progress and modernity, and were generally key to contemporary ideas of political and economic expansion. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had both made an intercolonial railway one of their few conditions for entering Confederation in 1867, and British Columbia had joined Confederation in 1871 on the promise of a transcontinental railway to be built. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growing network of railways connecting far-flung domestic markets emerged as one of the strongest pillars of the Canadian economy.
More importantly, though, the railway increased the feeling of connection with the east that was so necessary to making the west Canadian in spirit as well as in legal fact. Railways were the rivers of the new industrial age, connecting people and places to each other. The Pembina Branch was the first step in overcoming the sense of physical isolation imposed by vast distances and by geographical barriers like the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains. Even the most fiscally cautious federal government of the period was willing to invest heavily in this venture, knowing how important it was to Canada’s commercial and cultural development.
In 1954, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended that “the construction of the first railroad in Manitoba connecting that part of the country with the United States and Canada be declared of national historic importance and that a standard tablet be erected.” The next year, the Board clarified this recommendation, describing it as the construction during 1877 and 1878 of a railway from St. Boniface to the United States, through Emerson, Manitoba, on the American border, and Pembina, just to the south, in the northeast corner of North Dakota. The Board stated that this was the first railroad in the Canadian West, as well as the first section built of the water and rail route to British Columbia proposed by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1874, as an alternative to Sir John A. Macdonald’s projected complete rail route. Mackenzie’s proposal fanned the flame of the secession movement in British Columbia and so was an indirect cause of Lord Dufferin’s visit to that province.
An inscription was approved for the plaque in 1955. Entitled THE FIRST RAILROAD IN WESTERN CANADA, the text read: “In 1874 the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie proposed to link the West with Eastern Canada by a water and rail route. A first section of railroad was built from St. Boniface to the International Boundary, 1877-78. From nearby, on 3rd December, 1878, ran the first train en route to Emerson.” The plaque was not installed, and it was 53 years later that a plaque commemorating the Pembina Branch was finally unveiled at Dominion City, at a ceremony held on 5 July 2008.
Page revised: 11 June 2014Back to top of page