Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated

Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway was British North America’s first long-line railroad, and it carried the first train that successfully traveled by bridge over the St. Lawrence River.

Summary of Event

The railroad age began, famously, with engine manufacturer Robert Stephenson’s steam locomotive traveling in 1829 on the Stockton and Darlington Railway outside Manchester Manchester, England;railroads , England. The following decade saw the construction of many short lines in Europe and a few in North America. By the 1850’s the short lines were being linked together into long lines, and Canada soon followed with its proposal for a long line: The Grand Trunk Railway. The Grand Trunk Railway was designed to preserve the major transportation role of the St. Lawrence waterway, a role that the river system had played since the earliest days of exploration in North America. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, large-scale freight transportation had depended on rivers and oceans because transporting bulky, heavy goods over land was prohibitively expensive. Canals, in the first half of the nineteenth century, enlarged the area served by the rivers and oceans; but it was the development of railroads that opened up vast new areas to trade. Grand Trunk Railway
St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];and railroads[Railroads]
[kw]Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated (Nov. 10, 1852)
[kw]Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated, Canada’s (Nov. 10, 1852)
[kw]Railway Is Incorporated, Canada’s Grand Trunk (Nov. 10, 1852)
[kw]Incorporated, Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is (Nov. 10, 1852)
Grand Trunk Railway
St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];and railroads[Railroads]
[g]Canada;Nov. 10, 1852: Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated[2880]
[c]Transportation;Nov. 10, 1852: Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated[2880]
[c]Engineering;Nov. 10, 1852: Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated[2880]
[c]Trade and commerce;Nov. 10, 1852: Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated[2880]
Baring, Thomas
Brassey, Thomas
Hincks, Francis

Before 1850, however, Canada had less than two hundred miles of railroad. The Grand Trunk was designed to change that, to bring Canada into the railroad age. The motivating force behind the Grand Trunk Railway was the desire to continue the role of the St. Lawrence waterway as the major route from the central breadbasket of North America to the sea. Montreal Montreal;and railroads[railroads] was the principal port in Canada; it would need a railroad to link it to the Great Lakes if it was to continue in its role as a major transport axis for shipments of American grain to Europe.

The promoters planned, first, to link Toronto Toronto;and railroads[railroads] to Montreal Montreal;and railroads[railroads] by railroad, with the hope that shipments could then be loaded on vessels in Montreal to travel down the St. Lawrence River and then cross the Atlantic to Europe. The first section of the railroad to be built was between Montreal and Toronto; it was subsequently extended to Sarnia, on the shores of Lake Huron, thus providing a link, through the Great Lakes, with Chicago and America’s midwestern wheat fields.

Grand Trunk Railway’s tubular bridge in Montreal in 1856.

(Library of Congress)

The major problem with the Grand Trunk Railway was that it crossed large distances that were thinly populated. Slightly more than two million people lived in British North America at the middle of the nineteenth century, in a narrow swath some one thousand miles long stretching between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Thus, Canada lacked the population centers that made railroads financially feasible in Europe and along the East Coast of the United States. To find the financial resources to build the Grand Trunk was the challenge, and it involved uniting British private capital with Canadian government resources.

A series of laws passed by the Parliament of the Province of Canada provided the governmental support needed to build the Grand Trunk. An 1849 act authorized the provincial government to provide financial support for private railroad projects, normally in the form of government guarantees for the bonds issued by the railroad companies. In 1851, under the leadership of Premier Francis Hincks Hincks, Francis , the Parliament passed an act “to make provision for the construction of a main trunk line of railroad throughout the whole length of this province.” The act allowed the Grand Trunk to begin issuing bonds, which would be bought by investors with the assurance that they would be backed up by the government. In 1852, with the Municipal Loan Act, municipalities were allowed to lend money to the railroads, and the Grand Trunk Railway was incorporated on November 10.

The plan for the Grand Trunk was enhanced by legislation passed in 1853 that authorized the Grand Trunk Railway to borrow up to £1,500,000 to build a bridge Bridges;St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River]
St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];bridges across the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. The construction of such a bridge would enable railroad users to ship to Portland, Maine, over the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, which was then under construction (and subsequently incorporated into the Grand Trunk system), thus providing year-round access to an ice-free port.

Furthermore, government support was provided the Grand Trunk in 1856, when the provincial parliament voted a cash donation of £800,000. Parliament also authorized the Grand Trunk to borrow an additional £2 million through the sale of what were called “preference bonds,” beyond the £3 million the Grand Trunk Railway was allowed to raise in the authorizing legislation of 1852. Finally, when the Grand Trunk was facing bankruptcy in 1862, the Arrangements Act of that year enabled the company to reorganize and to refinance its reorganization with the issuance of £35,000,000 in preferred stock.

In addition to the government guarantees and direct contributions, however, private capital put up a large portion of the costs of construction. A deal brokered by Hincks enlisted Thomas Brassey’s Brassey, Thomas railroad construction company to build the line, and two major British financial houses, Baring Brothers and Glyn Mills & Co., provided a large portion of the initial capital. The Barings were rewarded when one family member, Thomas Baring Baring, Thomas , became the first president of the Grand Trunk Railway. Construction of the Grand Trunk proceeded throughout the 1850’s. Costs outran estimates—hence the need for continuous infusions of government money—and matters were further complicated because the Brassey Company favored wide-gauge tracks rather than the standard gauge used in the overwhelming majority of the new railroad lines. Simultaneously, the construction of the bridge Bridges;St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River] across the St. Lawrence proceeded and was completed in 1860. Called Victoria Bridge, it was formally opened by the Prince of Wales.

The timing of the Grand Trunk Railway was off, however. By the time the railway was completed, the United States already had several lines, notably the Erie and the New York Central, which provided good railroad connections between the agricultural Midwest and ports of the Atlantic Ocean. The Grand Trunk did provide the core of a Canadian national railroad system, especially when in the 1870’s lines were built connecting Montreal to Halifax, Canada’s major east coast port, and during the construction of lines crossing the prairies to the Pacific coast in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the Grand Trunk was nationalized and incorporated into the Canadian National Railway.


The Grand Trunk railroad never fulfilled the grand promises advanced for it by its promoters. It proved unable to pay dividends, and the huge construction costs were never fully repaid to those who had put up the money. However, the railroad did prove to the developed world that Canada was part of the industrialized world, and it may well have played a part in the sense of national unity that led to the creation of a self-governing Dominion of Canada in 1867.

Further Reading

  • Andreae, Christopher. Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada. Cartography by Geoffrey Matthews. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1997. A detailed atlas that locates significant railroads and canals in Canada, including the dates the lines began, their routes, and dates of abandonment. Illustrations, colored maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Boyd, John. Sir George Etienne Cartier, Bart.: His Life and Times. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. This biography of the Grand Trunk’s longtime solicitor gives a short but highly informative description of the circumstances leading to the establishment of the railroad.
  • Careless, J. M. S. The Union of the Canadas: The Growth of Canadian Institutions, 1841-1857. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967. Contains a chapter dedicated to “Prosperity, Reciprocity, and Railways, 1850-1857,” with considerable details on railroad development in the 1850’s.
  • Harris, R. Cole, and John Warkentin. Canada Before Confederation: A Study in Historical Geography. Carleton, Ont.: Carleton University Press, 1991. Contains a few details on the Grand Trunk’s role in local politics.
  • Lower, A. R. M. Colony to Nation: A History of Canada. Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1957. Contains a few details on the history of the Grand Trunk.
  • Martin, Albro. Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Makes clear from its description of U.S. railroad development why the Grand Trunk could not succeed.
  • Tulchinsky, Gerald J. J. The River Barons: Montreal Businessmen and the Growth of Industry and Transportation, 1837-1853. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1977. Focuses on the role of Montreal’s business community during these important years.

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