Red River: Trails to Rails
Railways replace wagon routes
Before the creation of Canada in 1867, riverboats and trains of creaking,
ox-drawn Red River carts hauled freight between the United States and Winnipeg.
Trade was developing from South to North, and many Americans were settling on
It seemed likely that American trade and immigration would lead inevitably to the absorption
of the Canadian West into the aggressively-expanding United States. To save the West from
the threat of American takeover, the Canadian government promoted the laying of a railway
from sea to sea.
Through grants of land and money, the government encouraged the privately-owned Canadian
Pacific Railway (CPR) company to lay track across the Prairie and over the Rocky Mountains
to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The tracks arrived in Winnipeg in 1879. Then, still a rough frontier town, Winnipeg became
the transportation gateway to the West.
To create customers for its new railway, the Canadian Pacific promoted immigration from
Europe and eastern Canada to the West. People and the goods they needed would be carried
westward. Agricultural products and livestock would be freighted east, back to the markets
of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.
The government in Ottawa promised the CPR a monopoly in the West and a guarantee that fares
and freight rates would stay high. For many Westerners, the CPR became a symbol for exploitation
of the West by eastern business and political powers.
In defiance of the national government and the CPR, the young government of Manitoba authorized
construction of a competing railway, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba. This railway was
taken over by the Canadian Northern which made downtown Winnipeg its main terminal.
The bankruptcy of several of the CPR's competitors in 1923 resulted in the federal government
creating Canadian National Railways. The CNR was the first strong, national competitor to
the CPR and this increased the importance of downtown Winnipeg as the railway hub of the
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