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Railway Giants: He Wrote the Language of the Indians and Connected Vancouver to Montreal. Who Was Albert Lacombe?

Railway Giants: He Wrote the Language of the Indians and Connected Vancouver to Montreal. Who Was Albert Lacombe?
photo: WinterE229 / CC0 / Wikimedia commons/More details Statue commemorating Father Lacombe in St. Albert, Alberta
08 / 03 / 2024

In today's episode of the Railway Giants series, we travel to far-off Canada to look at the fate of one of the most important men in its history. We examine the life journey of the man behind the creation of one of the most significant lines in railway history.

It is the last day of February 1827, and we are in the Canadian village of Saint-Sulpice in the province of Québec. Here, a boy is born into the farming family of Albert Lacombe and his partner Agatha, who will bear the same name as his father, Albert. At this time, the entire North American region is slowly emerging from the chaos caused by the American War of Independence at the end of the 18th century. Canada, like its southern neighbor, is trying to settle territory deeper inland that has hitherto belonged to Indian tribes. But this is very difficult; the landscape is inhospitable, and the people who live on the prosperous coast do not want to move. The vast majority of new immigrants choose the more southerly United States over Canada. Add to this the industrial revolution that is gathering momentum, and it is clear that Canada is in for turbulent times.

But let's get back to our story. Since Albert's parents were farmers, he spent most of his time on the family farm. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Albert appears to have been a very strongly religious boy from an early age. He therefore goes to a religious school, completes his studies, and is ordained a priest at the age of 22 in the village of L'Assomption near Montreal.

Wikimedia commons / Public domain

He is sent on his first journey to Minnesota, where he works for two years with the Jesuit priest P. George Belcourt, then returns briefly to eastern Canada, but due to disagreements, he is sent west again in 1852, specifically to the Red River Colony. Here he will carry out missionary work among the Cree and Métis Indian tribes. Albert proves to be a very bright man, for he not only begins to study the language of the Crees but also creates a written form of it, gives it rules, and translates into it part of the most widely read book in world history, the New Testament. Although Albert will subsequently reside in the settler village of Lac Ste. Anne, he will continue to maintain close relations with the Indian tribes and will try to convert them to the faith in one God, which he believes is not only the only true one.

Despite all his efforts and persuasion, Albert will not succeed in convincing the Indians to abandon the nomadic way of life that their ancestors have practiced since time immemorial. So in 1861, he decides to try his luck elsewhere. He travels to the Sturgeon River region of Alberta, where, among other places, is the settlement of Saint Albert, which will be his home for the next few years.

But Albert's most important task is yet to come. It is 1872, and Albert is sent to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) to promote the colonization of the area. He is forced to travel across the United States and Canada to find the people who will create a population there. For this reason, too, he establishes a partnership with the Canadian Pacific Railway. This company was building rail links across Canada. Its main objective was to connect the Canadian centers of Montreal on the east coast and Vancouver on the west coast. This railway, to be completed in 1885, will be an astronomical 4,633 km long (for perspective, that's a bit more distance than separates the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and Ankara, Turkey). For many decades, it will be the only possible overland link between Canada's west and east coasts, without which the country could hardly achieve its position as one of the most developed nations in the world.

Morgan-Grampian / Wikimedia commons

Albert would not only provide primarily spiritual support to the hard-working builders of this railroad but most importantly, he would negotiate with Indian chiefs to run the railroad through their territory. For much of the Canadian interior is still controlled by Indian tribes, and without their consent, it is virtually impossible to build the railway. For one thing, it would be built on territory belonging to the Indians, but above all, there would be the risk of retaliatory attacks by the Indians on the workers, who could hardly defend themselves. Albert's help is thus more than welcome.

Wikimedia commons / Public domain

In spite of his efforts, in 1885 several Indian tribes revolt, and it is only to Albert's credit that many tribes do not join the uprising, for Albert convinces them of the imprudence of such action. The rebellion is thus repelled, and nothing stands in the way of the completion of one of the greatest railway projects of all time.

Albert lives out the rest of his life as a missionary in Calgary, where he is instrumental in establishing several schools. His last two trips are to Europe in the early 20th century, specifically to Austria-Hungary where he meets Emperor Franz Joseph I. Father Lacombe leaves the earthly world in 1916 when he breathes his last.

This marks the end of the earthly journey of a man who contributed significantly to the creation of modern Canada, was behind the founding of several Canadian settlements, and most importantly, played a pivotal role in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the most vital railway lines in Canadian history. His contributions to Canada were officially recognized in 1932 when the Canadian government designated him a National Historic Person.

David R. Spencer. / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons