“Champlain and St. Lawrence,” Canada’s First Railroad
Financed by prominent businessmen, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad was built in 1836 as a portage to enhance transportation from Quebec to New York.
Growing commerce and expanding business, colonists in British North America risked the rapids of the Lower Richelieu River to carry goods and people from Quebec to New York. There had to be a safer, easier way, perhaps a portage that would go around the roiling waters. A sturdy railway would solve the dilemma; new rail lines in Europe were enhancing the modern life there. But there were no rail lines in eastern Canada and the United States. No rail lines at all.
Incorporation of Railroad in 1832
In 1832, a company was incorporated under a statute: The Company of Proprietors of the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad. “The legislation required the company to produce a plan of the line by December 1834,” said John Beswarick Thompson in “Casey, William Redmond” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol 7, 1988. Months passed. Not only was the plan not yet submitted, it was not even underway. Weeks before the deadline, engineer William Casey was hired to prepare the required survey. Within a month, the survey was complete and the railway ready to move ahead.
Prominent politician and businessman John Molson provided financing for the venture, along with Bank of Montreal’s president Peter McGill, St-Jean merchant-forwarder Jason Pierce and George Simpson of Hudson Bay Company fame. Casey organized the acquisition of equipment and supplies, and arranged the labour force. Ground was broken for the daunting task in April 1835, said Thompson, and “by December Casey reported ‘the completion of the fencing, graduation, masonry, bridges, the large wharf at La Prairie, and the frames of the station houses.’” Casey was proud of the accomplishment and the unusual collaboration of his mainly-Canadian workers.
Tracks Laid, the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad Opened 1836
Track was laid down in early 1836. “The rails consisted of 6” (14 cm)-wide pine timbers joined by iron plates and bolts,” noted John Marsh in The Canadian Encyclopedia entry, “Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad.” Within 20 years, the squared timbers were replaced by iron rails. The tracks ran from La Prairie, Quebec to St-Jean on the Richelieu River, in easy access of the Lake Champlain and on to the New York canals.
In a grand ceremony, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad opened on July 21, 1836. The 16 mile (26 Km) line of the C & SL “was officially opened by Lord Gosford, the Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada,” according to the Canadian History Portal. “Over 300 guests, including Louis-Joseph Papineau, took the first run in passenger cars.” (Papineau was a reformist leader of the Patriote group.) Distinguished guests rode in cars pulled by the locomotive, teams of horses pulled other excited guests in train cars along the tracks.
Dorchester, Canada’s First Locomotive
Leading the train cars was the engine “Dorchester,” the first locomotive in British North America. The wood-fired locomotive was built in England by Robert Stephenson and Company, a 0-4-0 arrangement, meaning the machine had four main wheels and no front or rear trucks. “In working order,” said Jeffrey Young in “Locomotives and Rolling Stock” on the Canadian Encyclopedia, “it weighed 5 ½ t and ran an average speed of 23 km/h.”
On July 25, the regular train schedule commenced, carrying passengers and offering excursions. It took several years of operation before the freight business caught on. The railroad produced its own version of currency in the mid-1800s, printing bills in various denominations with etched artwork featuring the “Dorchester” and manufacturing companies.
Railroad Merged With National Company
The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad was extended along the Richelieu Valley to Rouses Point in New York in 1851. Six years later, the historic rail line merged with the Montreal and New York Railroad. As decades passed, the firstroad line in British North America became part of the Grand Trunk Railway, then merged with the Canadian National Railway in 1923.
- Thompson, John Beswarick, “Casey, William Redmond,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Accessed September 6, 2011
- Marsh, John, “Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed September 8, 2011
- “1836 – Canada’s First Railway – The Champlain and St. Lawrence,” Canadian History Portal Accessed September 6, 2011 (2023–link no longer available)
- Young, Jeffrey, “Locomotives and Rolling Stock,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed September 8, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in September 2011. (C) Susanna McLeod