This Week in History


Sherbrooke’s Rail Baron becomes Canada’s Visionary

For the week of Monday, September 4, 2017

On September 6, 1817, Alexander Tilloch Galt was born in London, England. An influential businessman and Canadian politician, Galt worked tirelessly to promote the town of Sherbrooke, Quebec, establish rail lines across Canada, and steer the colonies of British North America toward union through Confederation.

As inspector general, Galt greatly reduced the province’s debt, protected Canadian industry, and even met with American President Abraham Lincoln while re-negotiating the Treaty of Reciprocity (a trade agreement) in 1861
© William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-013008

In 1835, Galt settled at Sherbrooke in Lower Canada’s eastern townships. There, he worked as a clerk with the British American Land Company, before being promoted to Canadian head of operations in 1844. Galt increased the company’s investments in railways, factories, and businesses in Sherbrooke, furthering the town’s industrialization.

He later became director of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad (SLR), which built a railway between Montréal, Canada East, and Portland, Maine, through Sherbrooke. Galt and his associates expanded the SLR in 1851 by incorporating the Montreal-Kingston Railway. In 1853, after partnering with fellow railway promoter Francis Hincks, the SLR merged with four other railway companies to form the Grand Trunk Company of Canada. By the 1860s, the Grand Trunk operated rail lines from Portland to Sarnia.

Locomotive 209 `Trevithick' in the Grand Trunk Railway erecting shops in Pointe-Saint-Charles, Québec
© William Notman / Library and Archives Canada / PA-181359

Galt entered politics in 1849, representing Sherbrooke as an independent member of the legislative assembly. In 1850, after endorsing the annexation of the Province of Canada by the United States, which had strong support in Sherbrooke, but not with the British American Land Company in London, Galt resigned his seat. He was re-elected in 1853 and remained in the legislature until Confederation. Initially close to the Rouge party, Galt became a pillar of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in the late 1850s.

At the request of George-Étienne Cartier and John A. Macdonald, who were co-premiers of the Province of Canada, Galt became inspector general (finance minister) in 1858. He accepted on the condition that the government seriously consider the federal union of the British North American colonies. A champion of Confederation, who argued its financial benefits, Galt played an important role in the Charlottetown, Québec, and London conferences. On July 1, 1867, he became Canada’s first finance minister, later serving as a diplomat and as the first Canadian High Commissioner to London in 1880.

Alexander Tilloch Galt, Francis Hincks, John A. Macdonald, and George-Étienne Cartier are designated national historic persons. Read Francis Hincks and Partners in Confederation in the This Week in History archives to learn more.

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