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The West is big, but this is Biggar

For the week of Monday October 23, 2006

On October 24, 1903, Charles Melville Hays was granted the charter to build the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR). Appointed as general manager of the Grand Trunk in 1896 after having proven his talent in the American railroad business, Hays’ purpose was to build a new western line to compete with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Charles Melville Hays
Charles Melville Hays
© Library and Archives Canada / 27200-1
Hays, acting on behalf of the British-based Grand Trunk Railway, saw the investment potential of the newly opened west. A new railway, which would be shorter than the others at that time, would become immensely prosperous given the high traffic that would come from commerce. The GTPR was indeed the shortest line between the North American production centres and the Asian markets but its cost would be too great to gain any profits.

The GTPR was combined with the National Transcontinental Railway that was built by the Government of Canada between Moncton, New Brunswick, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The GTPR’s portion, from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, was built using federal bond guarantees that led Hays to choose the highest railway standards at an extravagant cost. From the beginning of construction in 1905, the GTPR accumulated an enormous debt, but Hays was still confident that the benefits of economic trade would soon repay the bonds.

Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station at Biggar, Saskatchewan
Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station at Biggar, Saskatchewan
© Glenbow Museum Archives / NA-2256-51
The GTPR did have a positive effect on the colonization of the west. The company strongly advertised the agricultural potential of the area and many towns, such as Biggar, Saskatchewan, owe their existence to the GTPR. The construction of a railway station in the town brought prosperity along with trade traffic. Like many other railway companies, the GTPR sold lots to prospective businesses near the railway lines as an extra source of income. This encouraged other industry which brought hundreds of Canadians and newly arrived immigrants who had ‘wheat fever’ to settle and farm on the prairies.

The GTPR venture, unfortunately, was not successful. The traffic did not appear in as great numbers as anticipated and Hays did not beat the competition. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 coincided with the GTPR’s opening to traffic, accelerating its’ decline. It was subsequently nationalized in 1919 and became a small part of the Canadian National Railway. The Biggar Railway Station was designated a Heritage Railway Station in 1995. Thanks to Hays’ high standards of construction, the GTPR’s route, now part of the CN, grew to become a very advantageous route adapted to carry trade between Canada and Asia.

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