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The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) is a historic Canadianmarker transcontinental railway. At its demise in 1923, when it was merged into the Canadian National Railway, the CNoR owned a main line between Quebec Citymarker and Vancouver via Ottawamarker, Winnipegmarker, and Edmontonmarker.

Manitoba beginnings

CNoR had its start in the independent branchlines that were being constructed in Manitobamarker in the 1880s and 1890s as a response to the monopoly exercised by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Many of these branchlines were built with the sponsorship of the provincial government, which sought to subsidize local competition to the federally subsidized CPR; however, significant competition was also provided by the encroaching Northern Pacific Railway (NPR) from the south.

Two of these branchline contractors, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, took control of the bankrupt Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company in January, 1896. Mackenzie and Mann expanded their enterprise, in 1897, by building further north into Manitoba's Interlake district as well as east and west of Winnipegmarker. They also began building and buying lines south to connect the U.S. border at Pembina, North Dakotamarker, and east to Ontariomarker.

Connecting the Prairies to the Lakehead

The Canadian Northern Railway was established, in 1899, and all railway companies owned by Mackenzie and Mann (primarily in Manitoba) were consolidated into the new entity. CNoR's first step toward competing directly with CPR came at the turn of the century with the decision to build a line linking the Prairie Provinces with Lake Superiormarker at the harbour in Port Arthurmarker-Fort Williammarker (modern Thunder Baymarker, Ontariomarker) which would permit the shipping of western grain to European markets as well as the transport of eastern Canadian goods to the West. This line incorporated an existing CNoR line to Lake of the Woodsmarker and two local Ontario railways, the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway and the Ontario and Rainy River Railway whose charters Mackenzie and Mann had acquired in 1897. To reach Port Arthur which became the lake terminus of the CNoR, the line extended south of Lake of the Woods into northern Minnesotamarker before heading northeast through Rainy River Districtmarker to the head of navigation on the Great Lakesmarker. The Winnipeg-Port Arthur line was completed on December 30, 1901 with the last spike being driven just east of Atikokan station by Ontario's Commissioner of Crown Lands, Elihu J. Davis.

Throughout this time, Mackenzie and Mann had been busy expanding their prairie branch line network to feed the connection to Port Arthur. This network expanded in subsequent years to cover most parts of the prairies.

In 1914, the Canadian Northern Railway bought a 150 acre homestead north of Winnipeg on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. They purchased the land in order to develop a resort on Grand Beachmarker.

Going it alone

In 1903, the federal government and Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) were seeking a 2nd transcontinental railway for Canada and approached Mackenzie and Mann to seek their co-operation. This effort was spurned and GTR and the federal government would go on to form a system composed of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) and the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR).

Nationwide expansion

The last of the locomotives built for the Canadian Northern was retired in 1995.
The same unit had inaugurated the tunnel in 1918.
Mackenzie and Mann began their first significant expansion outside of the prairies with the purchase of Great Lakesmarker steamships, railways into northern Quebecmarker's Saguenay region and the acquisition of branchlines in southwestern Nova Scotiamarker (the H&SW) and western Cape Breton Islandmarker. Other acquisitions were in southern Ontario and a connecting line was built from Torontomarker to Parry Soundmarker.

In 1905, CNoR reached the newly formed provincial capital at Edmontonmarker, Albertamarker. In 1908, a line was built east from a connection at Capreol, Ontariomarker on the Toronto-Parry Sound line to Ottawamarker and on to Montrealmarker. In 1910 a direct Toronto-Montreal line was built, as well as the start of construction on the line west of Edmonton through Yellowhead Passmarker to Vancouver, thanks to subsidies provided by the government of British Columbiamarker. In 1911, federal funding was made available for construction of the line from Montreal-Ottawa-Capreol-Port Arthur.

In 1912, with GTR and CPR holding the ideal southern routes around Mount Royalmarker to downtown Montreal, CNoR started building a double-tracked mainline north by building the Mount Royal Tunnel under the mountain.

Obstacles in the Rockies

CNoR's initial expansion in the 1890s and 1900s had been relatively frugal, largely by acquiring bankrupt companies or finishing failed construction projects. By the 1910s, significant expenses were adding up from the construction north of Lake Superior and the Mount Royal Tunnel, but the largest costs were from building on "the wrong side" of the Thompson and Fraser rivers in the mountains of British Columbia. CPR already had trackage on the desirable eastern side, leading to the port of Vancouvermarker, forcing CNoR to blast tunnels and ledges out of these canyons.

The most infamous construction folly on the CNoR in British Columbia happened in 1913, when blasting for a passage for the railway at Hells Gatemarker triggered an enormous landslide which partially blocked the narrow swift-flowing Fraser River. The resulting damage to Pacific salmon runs took decades to reverse by the governmental construction of fishways.

In addition to difficult construction between Jasper, Albertamarker and Vancouver, CNoR started construction west of Edmonton in 1910, fully two years later than GTPR, which had started construction east from Prince Rupertmarker in the Skeena River, leading to Yellowhead Pass.

Financial trouble and nationalization

The last spike of the CNoR transcontinental railway was driven January 23, 1915, at Basque, British Columbiamarker. Freight and passenger service north of Lake Superior also started in 1915, resulting in a system between Montreal and Vancouver, with lines in Nova Scotia, Southern Ontario, Minnesota, and on Vancouver Islandmarker. Between 1915 and 1918, CNoR tried desperately to increase profits during the height of conflict in the First World War when the majority of wartime traffic was moving on CPR. The company was also saddled with ongoing construction costs associated with the Mount Royal Tunnel project.

CNoR was heavily indebted to banks and governments, and its profitable branchlines in the prairie provinces — "Canada's breadbasket" — would not generate enough revenue to cover construction costs in other areas. Unable to repay construction costs, the company requested financial aid. In exchange for funds, the federal government gained majority control of shares and CNoR was nationalized on September 6, 1918, when the directors of CNoR, including Mackenzie and Mann, resigned. The replacement board of directors appointed by the federal government forced CNoR to assume the management of federally owned Canadian Government Railways (CGR). On December 20, 1918, a Privy Council order directed CNoR and CGR to be managed under the moniker Canadian National Railway (CNR) as a means to simplify funding and operations, although CNoR and CGR would not be formally merged and cease corporate existence until January 20, 1923, the date that CNR was formally consolidated.

Significant portions of the old CNoR system survive under CN (as the CNR has been known since 1960); for example: The majority of CN's former CNoR branchline network across Canada has either been abandoned or sold to shortline operators. An important U.S. subsidiary of CNoR, the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railway, forms part of a key CN connection between Chicagomarker and Winnipegmarker.


  1. Railway Equipment and Publication Company, The Official Railway Equipment Register, June 1917, p. 357

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