Intercolonial Railway of Canada

From Academic Kids

Template:Infobox Railroad

The Intercolonial Railway of Canada (IRC or ICR), also referred to as the Intercolonial Railway, was a historic Canadian railway.



The idea of a railway connecting Britain's North American colonies arose as soon as the railway age began in the 1830s. In the decades following the War of 1812 and ever-mindful of the issue of security, the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and to a lesser extent Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, wished to improve land-based transportation with Upper and Lower Canada (later the Province of Canada after 1840). A railway connection among the colonies would serve both economic and military purposes during the winter months when the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River were frozen and shipping was impassable.

Significant surveys were conducted throughout the 1830s-1850s and funding talks were established between the various colonial administrations and the British government, however progress remained slow and little was accomplished beyond talk. Railway construction came to the Maritime provinces as early as the mid-1830s with the opening of the Albion Railway, a coal mining railway in Nova Scotia's Pictou County and the second railway to open in British North America. Construction in the 1850s saw two important rail lines opened in the Maritimes to connect cities on the Atlantic coast with steamship routes in the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence:

  • The European and North American Railway (E&NA) was a line that was envisioned to extend the New England rail network eastward through the Maritimes to an ice free harbour closer to the shipping routes to Europe. The first portion of the E&NA built was between the Bay of Fundy port city of Saint John, via "The Bend" (of the Petitcodiac River, this area is today known as the city of Moncton) to the Northumberland Strait port town of Shediac. The Saint John-Shediac line opened on August 20, 1857 and eventually other companies built separate sections of railway linking Saint John west through Maine to the New England network, however the E&NA remained solely a Saint John-Shediac connection and never reached a port in Nova Scotia.

An intercolonial rail system in the British North American colonies was never far from the minds of government and civic leaders and in an 1851 speech at a Mason's Hall in Halifax, local editor of the Nova Scotian newspaper, Joseph Howe spoke these words:

I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, yet I will venture to predict that in five years we shall make the journey hence to Quebec and Montreal, and home through Portland and St. John, by rail; and I believe that many in this room will live to hear the whistle of the steam engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and to make the journey from Halifax to the Pacific in five or six days.

But a rail connection between the Maritime colonies and the Province of Canada was not to be for another quarter century. Central Canada's dominant railway player in the 1850s was the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and its profit-driven business model chose the U.S. Atlantic port of Portland, Maine over a much longer journey to a Maritime port. As a result, Portland boomed during the winter months when Montreal's shipping season was closed.

Nevertheless, the geopolitical instability in North America resulting from the American Civil War led to increased nervousness on the part of British North American colonies, particularly wary of the large Union Army operating south of their borders. The demands for closer political and economic ties between colonies led to further calls for an "Intercolonial Railway". An 1862 conference in Quebec City led to an agreement on financing the railway with the Maritime colonies and Canada splitting construction costs and Britain assuming any debts, however the deal fell through within months.

It is speculated that this failure to achieve a deal on the Intercolonial in 1862, combined with the ongoing concerns over the American Civil War, led to the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, and eventually to Confederation of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (Ontario and Quebec) in 1867.

The British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 formally established an agreement calling for the construction of the Intercolonial Railway in Section 145:

145. Inasmuch as the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have joined in a Declaration that the Construction of the Intercolonial Railway is essential to the Consolidation of the Union of British North America, and to the Assent thereto of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and have consequently agreed that Provision should be made for its immediate Construction by the Government of Canada; Therefore, in order to give effect to that Agreement, it shall be the Duty of the Government and Parliament of Canada to provide for the commencement, within Six Months after the Union, of a Railway connecting the River St. Lawrence with the City of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and for the Construction thereof without Intermission, and the Completion thereof with all practicable Speed.

Despite being enshrined in the BNA Act of 1867, it would still be another decade before a route was finally selected and construction was completed, however as a start, the federal government assumed the operations of the NSR and E&NA which were to be wholly absorbed into the IRC. The route connecting the NSR and the E&NA was not contestable as the line had to cross the Cobequid Mountain range and the Isthmus of Chignecto where options were limited by the local topography. In New Brunswick, it was a different story, as the choice was narrowed to three options. A commission of engineers, headed by Sandford Fleming had been unanimously appointed in 1863 to consider the following:

Despite pressure from commercial interests in the Maritimes and New England who wanted a rail connection closer to the border, the Chaleur Bay routing was chosen, amid the backdrop of the American Civil War, as it would keep the Intercolonial far from the boundary with Maine.


Fleming was appointed "Engineer in Chief" of the IRC project by the federal government. The majority of the construction was to be tendered to local contractors, with engineering oversight to be provided by Fleming's staff, however political interference and contractor negligence (or incompetence) led to escalating costs on some of the contracts, forcing Fleming to assume some of the direct contractor duties as violators were discovered and purged from the project.

Perhaps the greatest case of cost overruns was caused by political interference during construction of the section of new line between the NSR trackage at Truro and the E&NA trackage near Moncton. The section running from the interprovincial boundary near the towns of Amherst and Sackville northwest to Moncton was diverted further west to run into the Memramcook River valley to service the village of Dorchester at the insistence of a politically influential local senator and former Father of Confederation. A less-severe case of interference also occurred at Londonderry (west of Truro) where the line was diverted for several miles to run near a local iron ore mine at the foot of the Cobequid Mountains.

To Fleming's credit, he insisted upon a high quality of workmanship in designing the route, using fills several metres higher than the surrounding landscape, where possible, to prevent snow accumulation, and mandated the installation of iron bridges over streams and rivers rather than the cheaper wooden structures that many railways of the time favoured. This latter decision proved extremely far-sighted as the strength of the bridges and their material saved the line from lengthy closures on numerous occasions in the early years during forest fire seasons.

Sections of the railway opened as follows:

  • Truro to Moncton in November 1872. A major obstacle involved crossing the Cobequid Mountains with the Intercolonial's route running through the Wentworth Valley.
  • Rivière-du-Loup to Ste-Flavie (now Mont-Joli) in August 1874. This portion of the route is entirely in the lower St. Lawrence River valley.
  • Campbellton to Ste-Flavie on July 1, 1876. The main obstacle involved running the line through the Matapedia River valley where deep cuts would prove to be a problem for years during the winter months. Problems with clearing snow in some of these areas were resolved with the construction of extensive snow sheds - the only ones in eastern Canada.

The IRC was initially built to broad gauge of 1,676 mm (5 feet 6 inches) to be compatible with other railways in British North America, namely its component systems, the NSR and the E&NA, as well as its western connection at Rivière-du-Loup, the GTR. Before the construction was even complete, Fleming had the IRC re-gauged to standard gauge in 1875, following the trend of standardization sweeping U.S. and Canadian railways at the time.

Operation and Expansion

In 1879, the IRC purchased the GTR line between Rivière-du-Loup and Levis, opposite from Quebec City.

In 1884, the IRC built a branch from its mainline east of Campbellton to service the port and forest industry town of Dalhousie.

In the late 1880s, the IRC received running rights over the GTR main line between Levis and Montreal, allowing passengers and cargo from the Maritimes to Canada's then-largest city to transit without interchanging.

In 1890, the IRC completed construction of what had begun as the Cape Breton Eastern Extension, with a line running from its former NSR terminus at New Glasgow eastward to the Strait of Canso at the port of Mulgrave where railcar ferries operated a 1-mile route across the deep waters to Point Tupper and thence onward to the port of North Sydney (with ferry and steamship connections to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland) and terminating in the port of Sydney itself.

Moncton became the headquarters for the company and extensive shops and yard facilities were built, as well as a grand station, built to rival the Canadian Pacific Railway station in McAdam. Following a February 24, 1906 fire, the Moncton shops were relocated to a new facility northwest of downtown and the former shops location was converted into yard facilities.

As a result of the IRC with its subsidized freight-rate agreements, as well as the National Policy of prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald, the industrial revolution struck Maritime towns quickly. The IRC was the perfect vehicle for transporting raw ore such as iron ore and coal to steel plants in Trenton, Sydney Mines and Sydney, as well as finished and semi-finished products to other Maritime and central Canadian locations. This led to foundries and factories of various industries springing up throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick along the IRC main line and branch lines.

Passenger Trains

Passenger trains on the IRC operated between all points on the system which included the following major sections:

  • Halifax - Truro
  • Truro - Pictou County - Sydney
  • Truro - Moncton
  • Saint John - Moncton
  • Moncton - Newcastle - Bathurst - Campbellton - Rivière-du-Loup - Levis - Montreal

Several "name trains" were started by the IRC, including the Scotian, Maritime Express, and the longest-enduring "name" passenger train in Canada to this very day, the Ocean Limited.

First World War

As a government-owned railway and the only operator of a rail connection to the port of Halifax and the extensive defence establishment there, the IRC became a lifeline for the Canadian and British war effort throughout the First World War, particularly since the CPR line to Saint John ran through the state of Maine on its eastward route from Montreal, thereby any war shipments on CPR would violate the United States' neutrality.

Halifax grew in importance, particularly as Germany introduced use of submarines for the first time to a large-scale conflict, requiring the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy to institute the use of convoys for protecting ships. Halifax's protected harbour allowed ships to load and form up into convoy formations under protection due to torpedo nets strung across the harbour entrance. The IRC swelled in its ranks of employees and equipment as it struggled to carry the burden of war materiel from Central Canada to the Atlantic Coast. An equally important connection was the line from Cape Breton where the largest private employer in Canada, the Dominion Steel and Coal Company (through its predecessors) produced vast quantities of steel and coal for the war effort, much of which was carried by the IRC westward to other industrial centres, before returning via Halifax for shipment overseas.

The tragedy of the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917 destroyed much of the IRC's infrastructure in the Richmond neighbourhood of north-end Halifax. The IRC's North Street station was heavily damaged and its Richmond Yard and shipping terminals were destroyed or rendered unusable, severely hampering war-time operations at the port and disaster recovery efforts in the city as a whole. Construction that had begun on a second route using a vast rock cut through the south end of the Halifax peninsula to a new "Ocean Terminal" was accelerated and the IRC abandoned the North Street station as a result.


The IRC was Canada's first national railway (although some might argue the case for the GTR), having pre-dated the CPR by nine years, and it was also the first significant Crown corporation. The IRC was a pervasive and ubiquitous presence in the Maritimes, with the company employing thousands of workers, purchasing millions of dollars in services, coal, and other local products annually, operating ferries to Cape Breton Island at the Strait of Canso, and carrying the Royal Mail. The IRC was the face of the federal government in many communities in a region that was still somewhat hostile to what many believed was a forced Confederation (anti-Confederation organizers remained active in Nova Scotia and particularly New Brunswick into the 1880s.

In 1915 the IRC, together with the federally-owned National Transontinental Railway (NTR) and the Prince Edward Island Railway (PEIR), as well as several bankrupt or defunct shortlines in New Brunswick, were grouped under the collective banner of the Canadian Government Railways (CGR) for funding and administrative purposes, although each company continued to operate independently.

On September 6, 1918, the bankrupt Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was nationalized by the federal government. The CNoR's government-appointed Board of Management was directed to assume control of the CGR system at this time. On December 20, 1918 the federal government created the Canadian National Railways (CNR) through a Privy Council order to consolidate management of the various companies. Another bankrupt western railway system, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR), was nationalized by the federal government on March 7, 1919 and became part of the CNR system on July 12, 1920. GTPR's parent company, the GTR was also nationalized on May 21, 1920 before being included in the CNR system on January 30, 1923.

The IRC had been called the People's Railway and this socialist slogan was similarly applied to the CNR while it remained under government ownership. Despite many claims of political interference in its construction and subsequent operation, the majority of IRC from an operations viewpoint remained economically self-sufficient. This was largely due to the fact that IRC balance books never had to contend with falling freight and passenger revenues as a result of post-Second World War highway construction and airline usage. During the 42-year life of the IRC from 1876-1918, the railway had grown to a monopoly position in land transportation.

The IRC formed the majority of CNR's Maritimes operations and CN (acronym abbreviated post-1960) maintained Moncton as its principal regional headquarters well into the 1980s. Until the late-1970s, the IRC line through northern New Brunswick and eastern Quebec continued to host a large portion of CN's freight and the majority of its passenger traffic to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In 1976, a 30-mile "cutoff" was built from Pelletier, Quebec to a point on the former IRC main line west of Rivière-du-Loup, eliminating 200 miles of mountainous trackage on the former NTR to Quebec City. Following this development, the majority of freight traffic to the Maritimes shifted to the NTR's line through central New Brunswick, relegating the IRC line to secondary main line status. Following CN's privatization in 1995, the company undertook a network rationalization program which made the IRC line between Moncton and Rivière-du-Loup redundant and it was sold to a short line operator, the New Brunswick East Coast Railway, in 1998. The former IRC main line from Levis to Rivière-du-Loup, as well as the IRC lines from Moncton to Saint John and Moncton to Halifax remain with CN, except for a short section on the waterfront of Levis which was abandoned due to network rationalization. The IRC line from Truro to Sydney was sold to a short line operator, the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, in 1993. Despite the replacement or upgrading of bridges and track since the 19th century, the majority of Sir Sandford Fleming's route works, including the fills and rock cuts remain as they were when they were built.

VIA Rail continues to operate the Ocean passenger train between Halifax and Montreal following the route of the IRC the entire Interkolonialna


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