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Sir William Van Horne – Our Railway King

For the week of Monday January 30, 2012

On February 3, 1843, William Van Horne was born in Chelsea, Illinois. Though he was an American citizen for most of his life, Van Horne is remembered by Canadians for his involvement in a crucial element of Canadian history: our national railway.

W.C. Van Horne (earlier years)
© Library and Archives Canada / C-008549
William Van Horne began his railway career at the young age of 14, becoming a telegrapher with the Illinois Central Railroad and learning everything he could about the railroad by switching jobs frequently. He worked his way up to management positions in several other railway companies and gained a reputation for success. When Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) needed a new manager, Van Horne was hired as the manager of railway construction in 1882. With Van Horne in charge, the lagging pace of construction was soon improved, resulting in a cross-prairie rail line being completed by the next year. Van Horne became a member of the CPR’s board of directors, the vice-president, and then the president in a matter of years.

Van Horne’s involvement with the CPR left a lasting imprint on the railway itself. Van Horne was adamant that the Company develop a telegraph service and become an express service. He also planned the main rail line so that it received steady, profitable traffic. When the rest of his colleagues argued that building a rail line north of Lake Superior was impractical, Van Horne insisted upon its completion, as without this line, Canada would remain dependent on traffic routed through the United States. Van Horne saw Canada as an ideal tourist destination and created the transportation system accordingly. He envisioned visitors travelling across the Pacific Ocean on his Empress line of luxury steamships, and staying in fine hotels along the main CPR line. His dreams resulted in one the largest transportation companies in the world. 

Sir William Van Horne, builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-182603

In 1894, Van Horne received honorary status as a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (K.C.M.G.). William Van Horne died on September 11, 1915, and his body was transported by CPR train back to the United States for burial. Sir William Van Horne was designated a national historic person in 1954. His house in Montréal, the Van Horne/Shaughnessy House (also occupied by T.G. Shaughnessy, another CPR president) was designated a national historic site in 1973. He was also involved in designing the “railway hotels” located along the CPR line, including the Banff Springs Hotel and the Château Frontenac, which are both national historic sites.

For more information on the Canadian Pacific Railway, please read the stories A Band of Steel: the CPR links Canada from Coast to Coast, A Gateway to Canada for Many Newcomers, Ottawa’s Own Chateau, and Castle Life from our This Week in History archives.

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