Intercolonial Railway

Intercolonial Railway

Infobox SG rail
railroad_name=Intercolonial Railway of Canada
logo_filename=Intercolonial Railway of Canada herald.pnglocale=Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec
old_gauge=, sections built to 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge but converted in 1875 prior to opening
hq_city=Moncton, New Brunswick

The Intercolonial Railway of Canada (IRC or ICR), also referred to as the Intercolonial Railway, was a historic Canadian railway that operated from 1872 to 1918, when it became part of Canadian National Railways. As the railway was also completely owned and controlled by the federal government, the Intercolonial was also one of Canada's first Crown corporations.


The idea of a railway connecting Britain's North American colonies arose as soon as the railway age began in the 1830s. In the decades following the War of 1812 and ever-mindful of the issue of security, the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and to a lesser extent Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, wished to improve land-based transportation with Upper and Lower Canada (later the Province of Canada after 1840). A railway connection among the colonies would serve both economic and military purposes during the winter months when the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River were frozen and shipping was impassable. [Robert F. legget, "Railways of Canada, (Douglas & McIntyre, 1973), page. 56]

Significant surveys were conducted throughout the 1830s–1850s. Several rival routes emerged, a southern, central and northern route. In 1849, Major William Robinson recommended the Northern route as most secure from American attack. [Jay Underwood, "Built for War: Canada's Intercolonial Railway" (Railfare Books, 2005) page 29.] Funding talks were established between the various colonial administrations and the British government, however progress remained slow and little was accomplished beyond talk.

Pre-Confederation Components

Railway construction came to the Maritime provinces as early as the mid-1830s with the opening of the Albion Railway, a coal mining railway in Nova Scotia's Pictou County and the second railway to open in British North America. Construction in the 1850s saw two important rail lines opened in the Maritimes to connect cities on the Atlantic coast with steamship routes in the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence:

* The Nova Scotia Railway (NSR) was built in stages between the Atlantic port of Halifax north to Truro, and northeast to industrial Pictou County, those being the towns of Westville, Stellarton, New Glasgow, Trenton, and the Northumberland Strait port town of Pictou. Pictou soon became an important ferry port for steamships servicing Prince Edward Island. The NSR also built northwest from Halifax to the town of Windsor, a port on the Bay of Fundy and gateway to the agricultural hinterland of Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

* The European and North American Railway (E&NA) was a line that was envisioned to extend the New England rail network eastward through the Maritimes to an ice free harbour closer to the shipping routes to Europe. The first portion of the E&NA built was between the Bay of Fundy port city of Saint John, via "The Bend" (of the Petitcodiac River, this area is today known as the city of Moncton) to the Northumberland Strait port town of Shediac. The Saint John–Shediac line opened on August 20, 1857, and eventually other companies built separate sections of railway linking Saint John west through Maine to the New England network, however the E&NA remained solely a Saint John–Shediac connection and never reached a port in Nova Scotia.

An intercolonial rail system in the British North American colonies was never far from the minds of government and civic leaders and in an 1851 speech at a Mason's Hall in Halifax, local editor of the "Novascotian", Joseph Howe spoke these words:

:"I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, yet I will venture to predict that in five years we shall make the journey hence to Quebec and Montreal, and home through Portland and St. John, by rail; and I believe that many in this room will live to hear the whistle of the steam engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and to make the journey from Halifax to the Pacific in five or six days." [ [ Lyle Dick “'A New History for the New Millennium': Canada: A People's History” 85.1 (2004) Canadian Historical Review, page 98.] ]

But a rail connection between the Maritime colonies and the Province of Canada was not to be for another quarter century. Central Canada's dominant railway player in the 1850s was the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and its profit-driven business model chose the U.S. Atlantic port of Portland, Maine, over a much longer journey to a Maritime port. As a result, Portland boomed during the winter months when Montreal's shipping season was closed.


Nevertheless, the geopolitical instability in North America resulting from the American Civil War led to increased nervousness on the part of British North American colonies, particularly wary of the large Union Army operating south of their borders. The demands for closer political and economic ties between colonies led to further calls for an "Intercolonial Railway". An 1862 conference in Quebec City led to an agreement on financing the railway with the Maritime colonies and Canada splitting construction costs and Britain assuming any debts, however the deal fell through within months.

It is speculated that this failure to achieve a deal on the Intercolonial in 1862, combined with the ongoing concerns over the American Civil War, led to the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, and eventually to Confederation of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (Ontario and Quebec) in 1867. [ [ "Confederation and the Intercononial Railway", Library and Archives Canada] ]

The British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 formally established an agreement calling for the construction of the Intercolonial Railway in Section 145:

:"145. Inasmuch as the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have joined in a Declaration that the Construction of the Intercolonial Railway is essential to the Consolidation of the Union of British North America, and to the Assent thereto of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and have consequently agreed that Provision should be made for its immediate Construction by the Government of Canada; Therefore, in order to give effect to that Agreement, it shall be the Duty of the Government and Parliament of Canada to provide for the commencement, within Six Months after the Union, of a Railway connecting the River St. Lawrence with the City of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and for the Construction thereof without Intermission, and the Completion thereof with all practicable Speed." [ [ Constitution Act 1867 (British North America Act X, Sect. 145, Canadian Dept of Justice] ]

Some researchers have suggested that the Intercolonial railway was used in the British North America Act to consolidate the 1862 railway debts created by the Duke of Newcastle into a consolidated revenue fund that absorbed the pre 1867 Indian Fund which supported native bands, thus forming a money laundering scheme intended to cheat Canada's First Nations peoples out of their Royalties.Fact|date=July 2008. However it is unclear what sources support this claim.

Despite being enshrined in the BNA Act of 1867, it would still be another decade before a route was finally selected and construction was completed; however, as a start, the federal government assumed the operations of the NSR and E&NA which were to be wholly absorbed into the ICR. The route connecting the NSR and the E&NA was not contestable as the line had to cross the Cobequid Mountain range and the Isthmus of Chignecto where options were limited by the local topography. In New Brunswick, it was a different story, as the choice was narrowed to three options. A commission of engineers, headed by Sandford Fleming had been unanimously appointed in 1863 to consider the following:

* The "Frontier Route"—surveyed in 1836 by Captain Yule (Royal Engineers) from Saint John, via Fredericton, up the Saint John River valley to Canada East, not far from the International Boundary which had been recently decided in favour of the United States during the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

* The "Central Route"—surveyor unknown, running north from a point near Sussex, passing near Grand Lake, and north to Canada East.
* The "Chaleur Bay Route"—surveyed in the 1840s by Major Robinson (Royal Engineers), running from "The Bend" (Moncton), north to Newcastle on the Miramichi River, Bathurst and Campbellton, to Canada East. It would cross the Gaspé Peninsula using the Matapédia River valley before heading up the St. Lawrence River valley to the rail connection with the GTR at Rivière-du-Loup.

Despite pressure from commercial interests in the Maritimes and New England who wanted a rail connection closer to the border, the Chaleur Bay routing was chosen, amid the backdrop of the American Civil War, as it would keep the Intercolonial far from the boundary with Maine.


Fleming was appointed "engineer in chief" of the ICR project by the federal government. The majority of the construction was to be tendered to local contractors, with engineering oversight to be provided by Fleming's staff, however political interference and contractor negligence (or incompetence) led to escalating costs on some of the contracts, forcing Fleming to assume some of the direct contractor duties as violators were discovered and purged from the project.

Perhaps the greatest case of cost overruns was caused by political interference during construction of the section of new line between the NSR trackage at Truro and the E&NA trackage near Moncton. This resulted in several diversions from the most direct route:

* From Debert to the Wentworth Valley running through the iron mining community of Londonderry on the southern slope of the Cobequid Mountains.

* From Oxford to Amherst, running near the coal mining community of Springhill, along the northern slope of the Cobequid Mountains.

* The section running from the interprovincial boundary at the Missaguash River near the town of Amherst to Moncton was diverted further west to run into the Memramcook River valley to service the village of Dorchester at the insistence of a politically influential local senator and former Father of Confederation.

To Fleming's credit, he insisted upon a high quality of workmanship in designing the route, using fills several metres higher than the surrounding landscape, where possible, to prevent snow accumulation, and mandated the installation of iron bridges over streams and rivers rather than the cheaper wooden structures that many railways of the time favoured. This latter decision proved extremely far-sighted as the strength of the bridges and their material saved the line from lengthy closures on numerous occasions in the early years during forest fire seasons. The scale of construction on the Intercolonial made it the biggest Canadian public works project of the 19th century. [ [ "The Intercolonial Railway" "Library and Archives Canada"] ]

Sections of the railway opened as follows:

* Truro to Moncton in November 1872. A major obstacle involved crossing the Cobequid Mountains with the Intercolonial's route running through the "Folleigh (Folly) Gap", also known as the Wentworth Valley.
* Rivière-du-Loup to Ste-Flavie (now Mont-Joli) in August 1874. This portion of the route is entirely in the lower St. Lawrence River valley.
* Moncton to Campbellton in 1875. A major obstacle involved bridging the northwest and southwest branches of the Miramichi River near their confluence at Newcastle.
* Campbellton to Ste-Flavie on July 1, 1876. The main obstacle involved running the line through the Matapedia River valley where deep cuts would prove to be a problem for years during the winter months. Problems with clearing snow in some of these areas were resolved with the construction of extensive snow sheds—the only ones in eastern Canada.

The ICR was initially built to broad gauge of 1,676 mm (5 feet 6 inches) to be compatible with other railways in British North America, namely its component systems, the NSR and the E&NA, as well as its western connection at Rivière-du-Loup, the GTR. Before the construction was even complete, Fleming had the ICR re-gauged to standard gauge in 1875, following the trend of standardization sweeping U.S. and Canadian railways at the time.

Operation and Expansion

In 1879, the ICR purchased the GTR line between Rivière-du-Loup and Levis, opposite from Quebec City.

In 1884, the ICR built a branch from its mainline east of Campbellton to service the port and forest industry town of Dalhousie.

In the late 1880s, the ICR received running rights over the GTR main line between Levis and Montreal (via Richmond), allowing passengers and cargo from the Maritimes to Canada's then-largest city to transit without interchanging.

In 1887 the ICR took over and completed construction of a line running from Oxford Junction to Stellarton, along Nova Scotia shores of the Northumberland Strait. This line was known as the "Short Line" and it provided an alternate route for ICR trains heading to Pictou County and Cape Breton from New Brunswick.

In 1890, the ICR completed construction of what had begun as the "Cape Breton Eastern Extension", with a line running from its former NSR terminus at New Glasgow eastward to the Strait of Canso at the port of Mulgrave where railcar ferries operated a 1-mile route across the deep waters to Point Tupper and thence onward to the port of North Sydney (with ferry and steamship connections to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland) and terminating in the port of Sydney itself.

In 1897, the Department of Public Works purchased the Drummond County Railway from James Naismith Greenshields and folded it into the ICR to provide the railway with a direct route from Sainte-Rosalie (east of Saint-Hyacinthe where it met the GTR main line) to Lévis. After this purchase was complete, the ICR stopped using the GTR's route via Richmond.

In 1904, the ICR purchased the Canada Eastern Railway, giving it a connection to the Fredericton area.

Moncton became the headquarters for the company and extensive shops and yard facilities were built, as well as a grand station, built to rival the Canadian Pacific Railway station in McAdam. Following a February 24, 1906 fire, the Moncton shops were rebuilt at a new location at the insistence of the local MP (who was Minister of Public Works and lobbied Prime Minister Laurier) northwest of downtown and the former shops location was converted into yard facilities; both Rivière-du-Loup and Campbellton had been lobbying to become the new headquarters of the ICR following the Moncton fire.

As a result of the ICR with its subsidized freight-rate agreements, as well as the National Policy of prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the industrial revolution struck Maritime towns quickly. The ICR was the perfect vehicle for transporting raw ore such as iron ore and coal to steel plants in Trenton, Sydney Mines and Sydney, as well as finished and semi-finished products to other Maritime and central Canadian locations. This led to foundries and factories of various industries springing up throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick along the ICR main line and branch lines.

Passenger Trains

Passenger trains on the ICR operated between all points on the system which included the following major sections:
* Halifax - Truro
* Truro - Pictou County - Sydney
* Truro - Moncton
* Saint John - Moncton
* Moncton - Newcastle - Bathurst - Campbellton - Rivière-du-Loup - Lévis - Montreal

Several "name trains" were started by the ICR, including the "Scotian", "Maritime Express", and the longest-enduring "name" passenger train in Canada to this very day, the "Ocean Limited".

ICR passenger trains also connected with steamship services to Prince Edward Island at Shediac and Pictou, provided railcar ferries to Cape Breton Island, and steamship services to Newfoundland at North Sydney.

First World War

As a government-owned railway and the only operator of a rail connection to the port of Halifax and the extensive defence establishment there, the ICR became a lifeline for the Canadian and British war effort throughout the First World War, particularly since the CPR line to Saint John ran through the state of Maine on its eastward route from Montreal, thereby any war shipments on CPR would violate the United States' neutrality.. [Jay Underwood, "Built for War: Canada's Intercolonial Railway" (Railfare Books, 2005) page 129.]

Halifax grew in importance, particularly as Germany introduced use of submarines for the first time to a large-scale conflict, requiring the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy to institute the use of convoys for protecting ships. Halifax's protected harbour allowed ships to load and form up into convoy formations under protection due to torpedo nets strung across the harbour entrance. The ICR swelled in its ranks of employees and equipment as it struggled to carry the burden of war "materiel" from Central Canada to the Atlantic Coast. After 1915, the busy wartime railway officially operated under the name Canadian Government Railways but continued to be widely known as the Intercolonial. An equally important connection was the line from Cape Breton where the largest private employer in Canada, the "Dominion Steel and Coal Company" (through its predecessors) produced vast quantities of steel and coal for the war effort, much of which was carried by the ICR westward to other industrial centres, before returning via Halifax for shipment overseas.

The tragedy of the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917, played havoc with much of the ICR's infrastructure in the Richmond neighbourhood of north-end Halifax. The ICR's North Street station was heavily damaged and its Richmond Yard and shipping terminals were destroyed or rendered unusable. Hundreds of freight cars were destroyed and dozens of passenger and military hospital cars were heavily damaged. The explosion severely but only briefly hampered war-time operations at the port. The railway mobilized repair crews from across Eastern Canada to clear debris with remarkable speed and resumed its full schedule five days after the explosion, albeit it with diminished passengers cars as many were severely damaged. Wharves and freight facilities were rebuilt for wartime service within a month. Construction that had begun on a second route using a vast rock cut through the south end of the Halifax peninsula to a new "Ocean Terminal" was accelerated. The ICR repaired the North Street Station to serve for another year but switched passenger service to a new south end station near the present day VIA station in January 1919.

Herald and Reporting Marks

For most of its history the Intercolonial was abbreviated as ICR but in its last few years, reporting marks on its rolling stock were changed to IRC to prevent confusion with a number of American railroads such as Illinois Central [History of Railroad Reporting Marks] . However Intercolonial publications, newspaper reports and popular usage continued to use ICR. The railway's logo was a large bull moose herald, part of a campaign to promote hunting and fishing tourism traffic. It appeared on many promotional publications but seldom appeared on rolling stock.


The ICR was Canada's first national railway (although some might argue the case for the GTR), having pre-dated the CPR by nine years, and it was also the first significant Crown corporation. The IRC was a pervasive and ubiquitous presence in the Maritimes, with the company employing thousands of workers, purchasing millions of dollars in services, coal, and other local products annually, operating ferries to Cape Breton Island at the Strait of Canso, and carrying the Royal Mail. The IRC was the face of the federal government in many communities in a region that was still somewhat hostile to what many believed was a forced Confederation (anti-Confederation organizers remained active in Nova Scotia and particularly New Brunswick into the 1880s.

In 1915 the ICR, together with the federally-owned National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) and the Prince Edward Island Railway (PEIR), as well as several bankrupt or defunct shortlines in New Brunswick, were grouped under the collective banner of the Canadian Government Railways (CGR) for funding and administrative purposes, although each company continued to operate independently.

On September 6, 1918, the bankrupt Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was nationalized by the federal government. The CNoR's government-appointed Board of Management was directed to assume control of the CGR system at this time. On December 20, 1918, the federal government created the Canadian National Railways (CNR) through a Privy Council order to consolidate management of the various companies. Another bankrupt western railway system, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR), was nationalized by the federal government on March 7, 1919, and became part of the CNR system on July 12, 1920. GTPR's parent company, the GTR was also nationalized on May 21, 1920, before being included in the CNR system on January 30, 1923.

The ICR had been called the "People's Railway" and this socialist slogan was similarly applied to the CNR while it remained under government ownership. Despite many claims of political interference in its construction and subsequent operation, the majority of IRC from an operations viewpoint remained economically self-sufficient. This was largely because ICR balance books never had to contend with falling freight and passenger revenues as a result of post-Second World War highway construction and airline usage. During the 42-year life of the IRC from 1876 to 1918, the railway had grown to a monopoly position in land transportation.

The ICR formed the majority of CNR's Maritimes operations and CN (acronym abbreviated post-1960) maintained Moncton as its principal regional headquarters well into the 1980s. Until the late-1970s, the ICR line through northern New Brunswick and eastern Quebec continued to host a large portion of CN's freight and the majority of its passenger traffic to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

In 1976, a 30-mile "cutoff" was built from Pelletier, Quebec to a point on the former ICR main line west of Rivière-du-Loup, eliminating 200 miles of mountainous trackage on the former NTR to Quebec City. Following this development, the majority of freight traffic to the Maritimes shifted to the NTR's line through central New Brunswick, relegating the IRC line east of Rivière-du-Loup to secondary main line status.

Following CN's privatization in 1995, the company undertook a network rationalization program which made the IRC line between Moncton and Rivière-du-Loup, along with its trackage on the Gaspé Peninsula, redundant and it was sold in 1998 to short line operator Quebec Railway Corporation which now operates the New Brunswick East Coast Railway and associated subsidiaries. The ICR line from Truro to Sydney was sold to a short line operator, the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, in 1993.

The former ICR main line from Sainte-Rosalie to Charny and the east end of Lévis to Rivière-du-Loup, as well as the ICR lines from Moncton to Saint John and Moncton to Halifax remain with CN. A short section on the waterfront of Lévis was abandoned due to network rationalization, resulting in the CN main line between Charny and the east end of Levis running on former NTR trackage.

Despite the replacement or upgrading of bridges and track since the 19th century, almost the entirety of Sir Sandford Fleming's route continues to operate; its fills and rock cuts and iron bridges, once considered extravagant, remain much as they were when they were built.

VIA Rail continues to operate the "Ocean" passenger train between Halifax and Montreal following the route of the IRC the entire way except for the waterfront section in Levis.


Underwood, Jay "Built for War: Canada's Intercolonial Railway" (2005) Railfare Books.

External links

* [ "The Intercolonial Railway", "Canada By Train", Library and Archives Canada]
* [ History of Railway Companies in Nova Scotia]
* [ A Railway to Connect Nova Scotia with Canada: the complete text of sixteen official documents written during 1846, to explore the feasibility of a railway to connect Nova Scotia with Canada]

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