The Intercolonial Railway of Canada (IRC or ICR), also referred to as the Intercolonial Railway, was a historic Canadian railway that operated from 1872 to 1918, when it became part of Canadian National Railways. As the railway was also completely owned and controlled by the federal government, the Intercolonial was also one of Canada's first Crown corporations.
Significant surveys were conducted throughout the 1830s–1850s. Several rival routes emerged, a southern, central and northern route. In 1849, Major William Robinson recommended the Northern route as most secure from American attack. Funding talks were established between the various colonial administrations and the British government, however progress remained slow and little was accomplished beyond talk.
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 Novascotian, Joseph Howe spoke these words:
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.
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:
Some researchers have suggested that the Intercolonial railway was used in the British North America Act to consolidate the 1862 railway debts created by the Duke of Newcastle into a consolidated revenue fund that absorbed the pre 1867 Indian Fund which supported native bands, thus forming a money laundering scheme intended to cheat Canada's First Nations peoples out of their Royalties.. However it is unclear what sources support this claim.
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 ICR. 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.
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. This resulted in several diversions from the most direct route:
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. The scale of construction on the Intercolonial made it the biggest Canadian public works project of the 19th century.
Sections of the railway opened as follows:
The ICR 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 ICR re-gauged to standard gauge in 1875, following the trend of standardization sweeping U.S. and Canadian railways at the time.
In 1879, the ICR purchased the GTR line between Rivière-du-Loup and Levis, opposite from Quebec City.
In 1884, the ICR built a branch from its mainline east of Campbellton to service the port and forest industry town of Dalhousie.
In the late 1880s, the ICR received running rights over the GTR main line between Levis and Montreal (via Richmond), allowing passengers and cargo from the Maritimes to Canada's then-largest city to transit without interchanging.
In 1887 the ICR took over and completed construction of a line running from Oxford Junction to Stellarton, along Nova Scotia shores of the Northumberland Strait. This line was known as the "Short Line" and it provided an alternate route for ICR trains heading to Pictou County and Cape Breton from New Brunswick.
In 1890, the ICR 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.
In 1897, the Department of Public Works purchased the Drummond County Railway from James Naismith Greenshields and folded it into the ICR to provide the railway with a direct route from Sainte-Rosalie (east of Saint-Hyacinthe where it met the GTR main line) to Lévis. After this purchase was complete, the ICR stopped using the GTR's route via Richmond.
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 rebuilt at a new location at the insistence of the local MP (who was Minister of Public Works and lobbied Prime Minister Laurier) northwest of downtown and the former shops location was converted into yard facilities; both Rivière-du-Loup and Campbellton had been lobbying to become the new headquarters of the ICR following the Moncton fire.
As a result of the ICR 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 ICR 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 ICR main line and branch lines.
Passenger trains on the ICR operated between all points on the system which included the following major sections:
ICR passenger trains also connected with steamship services to Prince Edward Island at Shediac and Pictou, provided railcar ferries to Cape Breton Island, and steamship services to Newfoundland at North Sydney.
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 ICR 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. After 1915, the busy wartime railway officially operated under the name Canadian Government Railways but continued to be widely known as the Intercolonial. 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 ICR westward to other industrial centres, before returning via Halifax for shipment overseas.
The tragedy of the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917, played havoc with much of the ICR's infrastructure in the Richmond neighbourhood of north-end Halifax. The ICR's North Street station was heavily damaged and its Richmond Yard and shipping terminals were destroyed or rendered unusable. Hundreds of freight cars were destroyed and dozens of passenger and military hospital cars were heavily damaged. The explosion severely but only briefly hampered war-time operations at the port. The railway mobilized repair crews from across Eastern Canada to clear debris with remarkable speed and resumed its full schedule five days after the explosion, albeit it with diminished passengers cars as many were severely damaged. Wharves and freight facilities were rebuilt for wartime service within a month. 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. The ICR repaired the North Street Station to serve for another year but switched passenger service to a new south end station near the present day VIA station in January 1919.
In 1915 the ICR, together with the federally-owned National Transcontinental 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 ICR 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 because ICR 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 to 1918, the railway had grown to a monopoly position in land transportation.
The ICR 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 ICR 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 ICR 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 east of Rivière-du-Loup 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, along with its trackage on the Gaspé Peninsula, redundant and it was sold in 1998 to short line operator Quebec Railway Corporation which now operates the New Brunswick East Coast Railway and associated subsidiaries. The ICR line from Truro to Sydney was sold to a short line operator, the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, in 1993.
The former ICR main line from Sainte-Rosalie to Charny and the east end of Lévis to Rivière-du-Loup, as well as the ICR lines from Moncton to Saint John and Moncton to Halifax remain with CN. A short section on the waterfront of Lévis was abandoned due to network rationalization, resulting in the CN main line between Charny and the east end of Levis running on former NTR trackage.
Despite the replacement or upgrading of bridges and track since the 19th century, almost the entirety of Sir Sandford Fleming's route continues to operate; its fills and rock cuts and iron bridges, once considered extravagant, remain much as they were when they were built.
Underwood, Jay Built for War: Canada's Intercolonial Railway (2005) Railfare Books.