Only a few years after Cosimo Figliomeni arrived in Canada in 1905, he settled in the booming CPR town of Schreiber, Ontario. Schreiber had become an important CPR terminal, creating many jobs on the railway lines and in the maintenance shops. New immigrants like Cosimo Figliomeni and his sons, friends and relatives, took jobs on the railroad that no one else wanted. Working on the CPR gave the security of a steady pay cheque and helped the southern Italians adapt to their harsh new homeland.
Immigrants have always been a part of the Canadian Pacific Railway's history. Porters on passenger trains were often Black immigrants who had settled in Maritime communities. And approximately 15,000 Chinese immigrants endured exploitative wages and dangerous conditions in constructing the final leg of the railway through the Rockies and into British Columbia.
The construction of a transcontinental railway had been one of the conditions of British Columbia's entry into Canadian Confederation in 1871(1). In order to reach Ottawa, the delegates from the Pacific coast colony had to travel by train through the United States. Understandably, one of their demands in becoming a part of Canada was that there be a more direct means of land communication with the other provinces. They asked for a coach road linking British Columbia to Manitoba and a commitment to begin railway construction within three years. Canada desperately wanted British Columbia to join the Dominion(2). So Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald promised that construction would begin in two years and be completed by 1881(3).
Progress, however, was slow; far too slow to satisfy British Columbia. The province threatened to leave Confederation. By 1878, after three years of construction, only a few short sections had been built. One problem was that Sir John A. Macdonald had been forced to resign in the Pacific Scandal of 1873. And with him went the government's commitment to the railway(4). The new prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie, thought the idea of a transcontinental railway was crazy and impossible. But the general election of 1878 brought Macdonald back into power. And from then, the construction of the railway was back on track(5).
A private syndicate of businessmen who backed the dream of the railroad was formed, later known as the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The government granted the CPR its charter for construction in 1881. The terms included $25 million in cash, ten million hectares of fertile land, exemption from taxes and a promise that, in the territory west of Lake Superior, no other railways could be built for twenty years. The company would also be given all sections of line already completed. In return, the CPR agreed to complete the railway by 1891(6).
Under the supervision of experienced railway superintendent William Van Horn - to be nicknamed the Czar of the CPR- a determined second attempt to finish the CPR was underway. But again there were obstacles, this time pitting the logistics of engineering against Canada's impossible geography. The Rockies had to be blasted through and the swampy muskeg along the northern shore of Lake Superior had to be filled in(7). Despite these problems, the railway was completed long before the deadline(8). The symbolic "Last Spike" on the line through to the Pacific coast was driven at Craigellachie in Eagle Pass, British Columbia on November 7, 1885. The first through passenger train left Montreal on June 28, 1886 and arrived in Port Moody, British Columbia, on July 4th(9).
The CPR now faced the challenge of developing a self-sustaining business. Western Canada's population wouldn't be large enough to maintain a passenger line fully for several years. To increase business, the corporation became very active in promoting trade on the Pacific. Within days of the arrival of the first train on the West coast in 1886, sailing vessels chartered by the CPR began to arrive from Japan, bringing teas, silk and curios. By 1891 the company had secured a contract from the British government to carry the imperial mails from Hong Kong to Britain via Canada. The result was the purchase of 3 ocean passenger-cargo vessels, forerunners of the present day fleet. This also foreshadowed the company's continual expansion into the transportation field; in 1942 CP Air was created(10).
During construction, the CPR had became involved in the sale and resettlement of land. It had also taken up the transmitting of commercial telegraph messages. And CPR travel not only provided sleeping and dining facilities to its passengers on trains, it began constructing tourist hotels and restaurants along the route in the western mountains. By 1900 the mountain hotel system had expanded from its first holding at Lake Louise, Alberta, to include all the major cities: Hotel Vancouver, Quebec's Chateau Frontenac, and Montreal's Place Viger(11).
Consolidation and expansion of CPR's ever-expanding routes in the 1920s and the Depression in the 1930s were major challenges, as was competition from Canadian National Railway, formed by the government of Canada between 1917 and 1923. The CNR took over a number of rail lines including the Grand Trunk Pacific and provided competition for the CPR's cross-Canada monopoly on transportation and communications(12).
Until the late 1950s CPR's diverse interests had been looked upon as ancillary to the rail system. But since then each distinctive operation increasingly became a self-supporting enterprise. In 1971, the company's original name was changed to Canadian Pacific Ltd, to reflect the new and broader orientation(13).
The impact of the CPR in Canadian history was tremendous, especially on people. Its construction, operation and maintenance has provided thousands of jobs, although in the early days and through to the mid-twentieth century workers were badly paid and poorly treated. In constructing the last leg of the CPR through the Rockies up until 1885, the Chinese labourers' meagre wage of $1 a day was half that of other workers, and saved the CPR an estimate $3-5 million in construction costs. The loss to Chinese Canadians over those years, however, was immeasurable. It's said that one Chinese worker was killed during construction for every mile of the railway, although recent research puts the number closer to three for every mile. The railway also had a tremendous impact on the native peoples of western Canada. The coming of the railway signalled the end of their traditional ways of life, bringing settlers building homesteads, and ultimately forcing natives onto reserves. While the CPR was effectively built over the home lands of Natives, it's route also determined the location of new homes and hometowns. With no other means of cross-country communication and transportation, the course of the railway line often determined which communities would grow and which would die(14).
Even today the residents of the CPR town of Schreiber consider that the railway is the lifeblood of their town. There's been talk of run-throughs; that the CPR will soon go right through the town without stopping. But folks in Schreiber have heard that kind of talk since the 1950s. Fathers have always been telling their sons that they shouldn't go into work on railroad because it would soon disappear and that without the rail, Schreiber won't be much of a town. Nevertheless, year after year, another wave of Schreiber railmen retire after a lifetime devoted to the railway. And so far, after years and years, the trains are still stopping.
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