Railways may have had more impact on shaping the growth of Canada than in any other country – they played a fundamental role in uniting the many communities and vast landscapes of Canada, as well as being an instrument of economic growth throughout the nation’s history.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous peoples had their own methods for travelling great distances. Their equipment and method of moving across land and water was so effective it was adopted by early Europeans as they explored and settled in Canada. Early settler transport in Canada evolved in response to the fur trade. Despite long-distance and local transportation routes developing across the country, there was no alternative to road and water transportation before the 1850s. Settlement and trade occurred along these routes, which were often slow and dependent on the seasons. The advancement of railway technology and an increasing population brought the railway era to Canada. The rail was a fast, year-round system, and the construction of lines occurred with gusto in three periods of history: the 1850s, 1870-90, and 1895-1917.

Mill Street South, August 2021 - Ryan Gaynor

Progreston rail bridge - Photo #688

As the railway spread across the landscape during the 19th century, it was far superior to the earlier trunk roads that little effort was made to maintain or upgrade them. While these roads may have been impassable in certain weather conditions, they served as routes to railway stations.

As time rolled into the early 1900s, there would begin the transport tug-of-war between rail and road. Rapidly increasing motor vehicle usage pushed governments to provide properly engineered roads. The 1930s challenged the railways with loss of business due to The Depression, and motor vehicles. There was recovery of rail traffic during World War II, with rail freight more than doubling. Even so, motor vehicle activity was growing faster, and the railways couldn’t keep up. Changing technologies, such as the conversion from steam to diesel in the 1950s, allowed the railways to remain competitive. The use of intermodal freight allowed transportation systems to work together – containers could be loaded and shipped to destinations via rail as well as truck haulage. In 1966, CPR launched a ship designed for containers. In the 1990s, double-stacked containers doubled the capacity of a train without increasing its length.

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The associated brochure for the display is available for download through this link.

Many thanks to Garth Wetherall, heritage society member and director, for loaning all of the items to ensure our vision for the exhibit came to life. Thanks also to Ryan Gaynor for letting us use his amazing images as part of the exhibit.

Want to support further Heritage Society events and exhibits? Donate today. Tax receipts issued for donations $25 and up. Thank you so much for your support.

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