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Railway Giants: Transcontinental Railways as a Defense Against American Incursions

Railway Giants: Transcontinental Railways as a Defense Against American Incursions
photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/William Van Horne
14 / 06 / 2024

William Van Horne, an American by birth, became a significant figure in the Canadian railway industry. His life was dedicated to building transcontinental railways and developing transportation. Read about his pioneering steps and the legacy he left behind.

Early Steps

It’s February 1843, and we find ourselves in a remote area near the village of Frankfort in Illinois, USA. William, the firstborn child of a lawyer and farmer, Cornelius Covenhoven Van Horne, and his second wife, Mary Minier Richards, is born into a truly turbulent time. Both future North American powers, Canada and the USA, are successfully concluding the long-term process of settling uninhabited territories and forming their borders. A new British invention, the steam engine, has already arrived in North America, transforming both countries beyond recognition. The quality of life for Americans and Canadians is improving daily. Few can foresee that this period of prosperity will be interrupted by the Civil War in less than 20 years, lasting for four long years.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Public domain

But let’s return to William. From the age of 14, he will be fascinated by the railway. He will work on it from the age of 14. His employer will be Illinois Central Railroad, where he will serve in various positions until 1864. William will excel in his work, so it will be no surprise when a new employer notices him shortly after he leaves Illinois Central Railroad. This will be another railway company, Chicago and Alton Railway.

Era of Growth

In 1867, he marries Lucy Hurd, with whom he will have three children. Their older son, William Cornelius Van Horne Jr., will tragically die at the age of five. Their remaining two children, daughter Lucy Adeline "Addie" Van Horne and younger son Richard Benedict "Benny" Van Horne, will fortunately reach adulthood. Benny will marry Edith Molson from the Molson family of Montreal, with whom he will have a son named William after his grandfather.

William reaches the peak of his career in the 1880s and 1890s. Between 1878 and 1879, he will serve as the General Inspector at Chicago and Alton Railroad. This will be followed by a rapid rise. Consider this: in 1884, he is appointed Vice President of the company, in 1888, its President, and finally, in 1899, the Chairman of the Board of Chicago and Alton Railway. A key project that William will lead is the construction of the transcontinental railway in Canada, a project of utmost importance for the country.

Between 1881 and 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), with which William will closely collaborate, completes the line stretching from the port of Montreal to the Pacific Ocean. The western terminus of the line will be the newly established city of Vancouver.

The construction of the transcontinental railway strengthened the connection between British Columbia and the Northwest Territories with the country they had recently joined, which also has strategic significance. It acts as a barrier against potential incursions by the United States. Subsequently, two more transcontinental lines will be opened in Canada, but that is another story.

Cuba or Canada

Due to his work commitments in Canada, William decides to buy a house in Montreal. From 1895 to 1915, he will serve as a governor of McGill University and will be one of the first in Canada to acquire artworks by members of the French Impressionist movement. He himself is a painter and simply adores art. His surviving works are now housed in museums, such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Source: Wikimedia commons / G. C. Hood / CC BY 2.5

Born an American, he will gradually complete his transformation into a Canadian. This will be evidenced by his increasing involvement in all sectors of Canadian business and financial life. As a publicist, he will express his views on political and economic issues. Among other things, he will initiate the establishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway's maritime division, which in 1891 will launch a regular service between Vancouver and Hong Kong on luxurious steamships, the Empress. He will also lead CPR's expansion into the luxury hotel industry, personally contributing to the design of two of them: Château Frontenac in Quebec and Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta.

In the railway sector, he will distinguish himself from many of his contemporaries by his view of it as an integrated communication and transportation system. He will convince directors and shareholders to create telegraph service and express freight as complements to the railway. William will become, without exaggeration, the Leonardo da Vinci of railways, familiar with almost all aspects of the railway industry, including locomotive operation. As a wealthy man, he will become an investor in the Cuba Railroad Company, which in 1901 will build the first railway connecting Havana with two eastern provinces (Camagüey and Oriente) and the city of Santiago de Cuba.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Munson Steamship Lin / Public domain

William will die at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, in 1915 at the age of 72. His remains will be interred at Oakwood Cemetery in Joliet, Illinois.

Source: RAILTARGET, The Canadian Encyclopedia