Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening of Canada’s first commercial railroad, the Champlain and St. Lawrence, marked the beginning of British North America’s incorporation into the industrial world.

Summary of Event

The railroad age in Canada began on July 21, 1836, when a small, wood-burning locomotive steamed between Laprairie and Saint-Jean, both in Lower Quebec, connecting by rail two riverfront towns. The locomotive pulled two passenger cars, filled with dignitaries. To ensure arrival, the railroad’s management arranged to have two more passenger cars pulled by horses. The railroad had been envisioned by individuals dedicated to the modernization of British North America. Among those who played leading roles in the railroad’s development were the Molsons, father and son both named John, who came to railroad construction through a succession of developments and who had the means to finance the project. Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Canada;railroads Railroads;Canadian Quebec;railroads Quebec;railroads Molson, John, Sr. Molson, John, Jr. St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];transportation on [kw]Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens (July 21, 1836) [kw]St. Lawrence Railroad Opens, Champlain and (July 21, 1836) [kw]Railroad Opens, Champlain and St. Lawrence (July 21, 1836) [kw]Opens, Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad (July 21, 1836) Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Canada;railroads Railroads;Canadian Quebec;railroads Quebec;railroads Molson, John, Sr. Molson, John, Jr. St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];transportation on [g]Canada;July 21, 1836: Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens[1980] [c]Transportation;July 21, 1836: Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens[1980] [c]Science and technology;July 21, 1836: Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens[1980] [c]Trade and commerce;July 21, 1836: Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens[1980] Fulton, Robert Stephenson, Robert

John Molson, Sr., emigrated to Montreal Montreal from Lincolnshire, England, in 1782. At that time, Great Britain was in the process of losing its thirteen American colonies, but it retained Canada as part of its empire. Shortly after settling in Montreal, John Molson was determined to open a brewery, in cooperation with Thomas Loid, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. After several difficult years, Molson bought out Loid and became the sole proprietor of Molson’s Brewery, which soon began producing Molson’s ale. The brewery remained prosperous, and the returns from this successful business enabled Molson to purchase numerous parcels of land in Montreal and to branch out into other lines of business.

The most significant new business for Molson was operating steamboats Steamboats;on St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River] on the St. Lawrence River St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];steamboats on , chiefly between Montreal Montreal;and transportation[Transportation] and Quebec City to the east. Quebec City was the first major point of landing for vessels crossing the Atlantic to Canada. Molson showed an early interest in the development of steam navigation. In 1810, he traveled to New York to consult with Robert Fulton Fulton, Robert , whose steamboat the Clermont had begun commercial trips on the Hudson River three years earlier. Fulton had offered to join a partnership with Molson, but Molson declined a wise decision because the Molsons would thrive commercially with steamboat navigation on the St. Lawrence.

The Molsons’ first steamboat on the St. Lawrence, the Accommodation, was not a commercial success (it was scrapped two years after its launch, in 1809, having cost the Molsons some £4,000), but its successor, the Swiftsure, was profitable, as were all of the Molsons’ subsequent St. Lawrence vessels. The Molson vessels would be operated by ever-larger and more powerful steam Steam engines;boats engines.

The Molsons wanted to make the St. Lawrence River the primary means of accessing the interior of North America by water usable to traders. For more than two hundred years the St. Lawrence was used to transport North American furs from the interior of the continent to the sea. The furs were then shipped to Europe. By the early nineteenth century, however, fur became less marketable than grain, which was being produced in ever-larger quantities in Canada. Great Britain, and its subjects in North America, sought the means to move the grain to the rising populations of Europe.

Along with the Mississippi River, the St. Lawrence River was the best way to access the interior by water. However, the St. Lawrence was problematic in significant ways. Although it was possible for oceangoing vessels to reach Montreal, rapids on the river at Montreal, followed by the falls at Niagara, Niagara Falls barred direct water transport from the interior to the Atlantic. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, canals Canals;Canadian were used to get around such obstacles. Along the St. Lawrence, Canada;canals the Lachine Canal (opened in 1826) avoided the rapids near Montreal, and the Welland Canal (opened in 1829) avoided Niagara Falls. The St. Lawrence was also clogged with ice during winters. If the products of the interior were to reach the Atlantic year round, they had to be transported by other means.

Lake Champlain, the large body of water between Vermont and New York State, was thought to be one such route. The lake emptied into the Richelieu River, which spilled into the St. Lawrence. The big obstacle was the rapids on the Richelieu just before it reached the St. Lawrence. Steam-locomotion enthusiasts such as the Molsons believed the answer to the transportation problem was the railroad.

As leading figures of the Montreal business community, the Molsons had no difficulty in persuading the assembly of Lower Canada to pass legislation in 1831 authorizing the creation of a railroad to run between Laprairie, on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence, and Saint-Jean, on the Richelieu. John Molson, Sr., had entrusted to his son management of the steamboats on the St. Lawrence. John, Jr., became the lead figure in assembling the financing, a task that took three years. By 1835 construction could begin, and by the summer of 1836 the railroad was complete.

Using the model that had worked for several decades in the British mining industry, the rails were made of wood, with a thin strap of iron Iron;and railroads[Railroads] laid on top. A locomotive was ordered from engine builder Robert Stephenson’s Stephenson, Robert plant in Newcastle. The locomotive, the Dorchester, had a wood-burning engine and had modest pulling power. Four passenger cars were ordered from a firm in Troy, New York, and ten wooden boxcars were constructed for the line in Montreal.

The first run of the Dorchester was on July 21, 1836. More than three hundred guests had gathered for the ceremony, including the governor of Lower Canada, Lord Gosford, and John Molson, Jr., the chairman of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railway Company. A Molson steamship carried the guests across the St. Lawrence to Laprairie, and some were invited into one of the larger passenger cars, two of which the Dorchester pulled to Saint-Jean in just under one hour; the remainder of the passengers traveled in two cars pulled by horses in two hours. For the return trip, all passenger cars were hitched to the Dorchester for the two-hour return trip to Laprairie.

In the 1840’s the Champlain and St. Lawrence line was extended south to the U.S. border at Rouse’s Point, New York. The line was especially popular with passengers, who, by 1848, numbered 50,993. That same year it carried 20,780 tons of goods.

In 1857, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Company merged with the Montreal and New York Railroad Montreal and New York Railroad . With the merger came a new name: the Montreal and Champlain Railroad Montreal and Champlain Railroad . Canada’s largest eastern line, the Grand Trunk Railroad Grand Trunk Railway , which opened in 1852, leased the Montreal and Champlain in 1864 and purchased it outright in 1872. As part of the Grand Trunk, the line eventually became a section of the Canadian National Railway system in the twentieth century.


As Canada’s first railroad, the Champlain and St. Lawrence showed the Canadian public that railroads were practical forms of transportation, even or perhaps especially in a country with a vast territory and a small population, such as Canada.

The railroad was a natural extension of the Molsons’ St. Lawrence River steamships. Although neither the railroad nor the steamship alone restored the St. Lawrence to its former preeminence as the route of choice to the middle of the North American continent, the two together played a major part in the industrialization of the Western world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creighton, Donald Grant. The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760-1850. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1937. This book examines the commercial history of the St. Lawrence River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dennison, Merrill. The Barley and the Stream. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955. A history of the Molson family. An essential work for understanding the development of the family’s commercial enterprises.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, H. Roger. The Railroad: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. An overview of the development of the railroad from its earliest beginnings to the twenty-first century, including the role of air brakes in making rail travel safer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ouellet, Fernand. Economic and Social History of Quebec, 1760-1850. Carleton, Ont.: Carleton University Press, 1980. Although chiefly focused on the development of French Quebec, this work contains useful detail about the railroad.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, Shirley E., Jr. The Molson Saga, 1763-1983. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1983. A detailed history of the Molson enterprises. Research conducted in the Molson archives.

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