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Canada and the States By Sir E. W. Watkin Characters: 16585

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


A British Railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

("ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS," 1861.)

My letter of the 15th November, 1860, to a friend of Mr. Thomas Baring, then President of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, gives concisely my general notions of opening up the British portion of the Great Continent of America. A while later a leading article written by me appeared in the "Illustrated London News" of the 16th February, 1861. The article was headed, "A British Railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific." I will here quote a portion of it:-

"'I hope,' said her Majesty, on proroguing Parliament in 1858, 'that the new Colony on the Pacific (British Columbia) may be but one step in the career of steady progress by which my dominions in North America may be ultimately peopled in an unbroken chain, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, by a loyal and industrious population.' The aspiration, so strikingly expressed, found a fervent echo in the national heart, and it continues to engage the earnest attention of England; for it speaks of a great outspread of solid prosperity and of rational liberty, of the diffusion of our civilization, and of the extension of our moral empire.

"Since the Royal Speech, Governments have done something, and events have done more, to ripen public opinion into action. The Governments at home and in Canada have organized and explored. The more perfect discoveries of our new gold fields on the Pacific, the Indian Mutiny, the completion of great works in Canada, the treaties with Japan and with China, the visit of the Prince of Wales to the American Continent, and, at the moment, the sad dissensions in the United States, combine to interest us in the question, and to make us ask, 'How is this hope to be realized; not a century hence, but in our time?'

"Our augmenting interests in the East, demand, for reasons both of Empire and of trade, access to Asia less dangerous than by Cape Horn, less circuitous even than by Panama, less dependent than by Suez and the Red Sea. Our emigration, imperilled by the dissensions of the United States, must fall back upon colonization. And, commercially, the countries of the East must supply the raw materials and provide the markets, which probable contests between the free man and the slave may diminish, or may close, elsewhere. Again, a great nation like ours cannot stand still. It must either march on triumphantly in the van, or fall hopelessly into the rear. The measure of its accomplishment must, century by century, rise higher and higher in the competition of nations. Its great works in this generation can alone perpetuate its greatness in the next.

"Let us look at the map: there we see, coloured as 'British America,' a tract washed by the great Atlantic on the East, and by the Pacific Ocean on the West, and containing 4,000,000 square miles, or one-ninth of the whole terrestrial surface of the globe. Part of this vast domain, upon the East, is Upper and Lower Canada; part, upon the West, is the new Colony of British Columbia, with Vancouver's Island (the Madeira of the Pacific); while the largest portion is held, as one great preserve, by the fur-trading Hudson's Bay Company, who, in right of a charter given by Charles II., in 1670, kill vermin for skins, and monopolise the trade with the Native Indians over a surface many times as big again as Great Britain and Ireland. Still, all this land is ours, for it owes allegiance to the sceptre of Victoria. Between the magnificent harbour of Halifax, on the Atlantic, open throughout the year for ships of the largest class, to the Straits of Fuca, opposite Vancouver's Island, with its noble Esquimault inlet, intervene some 3,200 miles of road line. For 1,400 or 1,500 miles of this distance, the Nova Scotian, the Habitan, and the Upper Canadian have spread, more or less in lines and patches over the ground, until the population of 60,000 of 1759 amounts to 2,500,000 in 1860. The remainder is peopled only by the Indian and the hunter, save that at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg there still exists the hardy and struggling Red River Settlement, now called 'Fort Garry:' and dotted all over the Continent, as lights of progress, are trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company.

"The combination of recent discoveries places it at least beyond all doubt that the best, though, perhaps, not the only, thoroughly efficient route for a great highway for peoples and for commerce, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is to be found through this British territory. Beyond that, it is alleged that while few, if any, practicable passes for a wagon-road, still less for a railway, can be found through the Rocky Mountains across the United States' territory, north-west of the Missouri, there have been discovered already no less than three eligible openings in the British ranges of these mountains, once considered as inaccessible to man. While Captain Palliser prefers the 'Kananaskakis,' Captain Blakiston and Governor Douglas, the 'Kootanie,' and Dr. Hector the 'Vermilion' Pass, all agree that each is perfectly practicable, if not easy, and that even better openings may probably yet be found as exploration progresses. Again, while British Columbia, on the Pacific, possesses a fine climate, an open country, and every natural advantage of soil and mineral, it has been also discovered that the doubtful region from the Rocky Mountains eastward up to the Lake of the Woods, contains, with here and there some exceptions, a 'continuous belt' of the finest land.

"Professor Hind says:-

"'It is a physical reality of the highest importance to the interests of British North America that this continuous belt can be settled and cultivated from a few miles west of the Lake of the Woods, to the passes of the Rocky Mountains; and any line of communication, whether by wagon, road, or railroad, passing through it, will eventually enjoy the great advantage of being fed by an agricultural population from one extremity to the other.'

"Although the lakes and the St. Lawrence give an unbroken navigation of 2,000 miles, right to the sea, for ships of 300 tons burden, yet if there is to be a continuous line, along which, and all the year round, the travel and the traffic of the Western and Eastern worlds can pass without interruption, railway communication with Halifax must be perfected, and a new line of iron road, passing through Ottawa, the Red River Settlement, and this 'continuous belt,' must be constructed. This new line is a work of above 2,300 miles, and would cost probably 20,000,000_l_., if not 25,000,000_l_., sterling.

"The sum, though so large, is still little more than we voluntarily paid to extinguish slavery in our West Indian dominions; it does not much exceed the amount which a Royal Commission, some little time ago, proposed to expend in erecting fortifications and sea-works to defend our shores. It is but six per cent, of the amount we have laid out on completing our own railway system in this little country at home. It is equal to but two and a-half per cent. of our National Debt, and the annual interest upon it is much less than the British Pension List.

"We say, then, 'Establish an unbroken line of road and railway from the

Atlantic to the Pacific through British territory.'

"Such a great highway would give shorter distances by both sea and land, with an immense saving of time.

"As regards the great bugbear of the general traveller-sea distance- it would, to and from Liverpool, save, as compared with the Panama route, a tossing, wearying navigation of 6,000 miles to Japan, of 5,000 miles to Canton, and of 3,000 miles to Sydney. For Japan, for China, for the whole Asiatic Archipelago, and for Australia, such a route must become the great highway to and from Europe; and whatever nation possesses that highway, must wield of necessity the commercial sceptre of the world.

"In the United States, the project of a Railway to the Pacific to cross the Rocky Mountains has ebbed and flowed in public opinion, and has been made the battle-cry of parties for years past, but nothing has yet been done. Such a project, in order to answer its purpose, requires something more than a practicable surface, or convenient mountain passes. Fine ha

rbours on both Oceans, facilities for colonization on the route, and the authority of one single Power over the whole of the wild regions traversed, are all essential to success. As regards the United States, these conditions are wanting. While there are harbours enough on the Atlantic, though none equal to Halifax, there is no available harbour at all fit for the great Pacific trade, from Acapulco to our harbour of Esquimault, on Vancouver's Island, except San Francisco-and that is in the wrong place, and is, in many states of the wind, unsafe and inconvenient. The country north-west of the Missouri is found to be sterile, and at least one-third of the whole United States territory, and situated in this region, is now known as the 'Great American Desert.' Again, the conflicting interests of separate and sovereign States present an almost insuperable bar to agreement as to route, or as to future 'operations' or control. It is true that Mr. Seward, possibly as the exponent of the policy of the new President, promises to support two Pacific Railways-one for the South, another for the North. But these promises are little better than political baits, and were they carried out into Acts of Congress, financial disturbance would delay, if not prevent, their final realization; and, even if realized, they would not serve the great wants of the East and the West, still less would they satisfy England and Europe. We, therefore, cannot look for the early execution of this gigantic work at the hands of the United States.

"Such a work, however, is too costly and too difficult for the grasp of unaided private enterprise. To accomplish it out of hand, the whole help of both the Local and Imperial Parliaments must be given. That help once offered, by guarantee or by grant, private enterprise would flock to the undertaking, and people would go to colonise on the broad tracts laid open to their industry."

My subsequent and semi-official inquiries induced me to modify many of the conclusions of the article quoted above. On the essential question of the pass in the Rocky Mountains, in British territory, most adapted by Nature for the passage of a road or a railway, all the evidence which I collected tended to show that the passage by the "Tete-jaune Cache," or "Yellow-head," Pass, was the best. The Canadian Pacific Company have adopted the "Kicking Horse" Pass, much to the southward of the "Yellow-head" Pass. Again, it became clear to me that the whole Rocky Mountain range was rather a series of high mountain peaks, standing on the summit of gradual slopes, rising almost imperceptibly from the plains and prairies on the eastern side, and dropping suddenly, in most cases, towards the sea-level on the western or Pacific side, than a great wall barring the country for hundreds of miles, as some had dreamed. Every inquiry from trappers, traders, Indian voyageurs, missionary priests of the Jesuits, and from all sorts and conditions of men and women, made difficulty after difficulty disappear. The great work began to appear to me comparatively easy of execution between Fort Garry, or the lower town of Selkirk and British Columbia; the cost less; and, owing to facilities of transport, especially in winter, the time of execution much shorter than had been previously assumed. In addition, an examination into the physical conditions of the various routes proposed through the United States, convinced me that here again the difficulties were less, and facilities for construction greater, than I and others had first imagined. In fact, I came rightly to the conclusion that the more southerly the United States route, and the more northerly the British route-while always, in the latter case, keeping within cultivable range-the better. Still, at this time there was much to find out. As respects real knowledge of the country to be traversed, the factors of the Hudson's Bay Company knew every fact worth divulging, but they were afraid to speak; while the Catholic missionaries, accustomed to travel on foot in their sacred cause over the most distant regions, possessed a mine of personal knowledge, never, so far as I could learn, closed to the Government of Canada or to any authorized inquirer.

Prior to my sailing to New York, en route for Canada, to fulfil my mission for the Grand Trunk, in 1861, I had a long interview with the Duke of Newcastle, as Colonial Minister. He had seen, and we had often previously discussed, the questions raised in the article above quoted, and which he had carefully read. The interview took place on the 17th July, 1861. Every point connected with the British Provinces in America, as affected by the then declared warlike separation of the northern and southern portions of the United States, was carefully discussed. The Duke had the case at his fingers ends. His visit to America with the Prince of Wales, already alluded to more than once, had rendered him familiar with the Northern Continent, and its many interests, in a way which a personal study on the spot can alone bring about; and he declared his conviction that the impression made upon the mind of the Prince was so deep and grateful, that in anything great and out of the ordinary rut of our rule at home, he would always find an earnest advocate and helper in the Prince, to whom he said he "felt endeared with the affection of a father to a son." I called the Duke's special attention to the position and attitude of the Hudson's Bay authorities. How they were always crying down their territory as unfit for settlement; repelling all attempts from the other side to open up the land by roads, and use steamers on such grand rivers as, for instance, the Assiniboin and the Saskatchewan. He said Sir Frederick Rogers, the chief permanent official at the Colonial Office, whose wife's settlement was in Hudson's Bay shares, and who, in consequence, was expected to be well informed, had expressed to him grave doubts of the vast territory in question being ever settled, unless in small spots here and there. The Duke fully recognized, however, the difficulty I had put my finger upon. I never spent an hour with a man who more impressed me with his full knowledge of a great imperial question, and his earnest determination to carry it out successfully and speedily. The Intercolonial Railway, to connect Halifax on the Atlantic with the Grand Trunk Railway at Riviere du Loup, 106 miles below Quebec, he described as "the preliminary necessity." The completion of an iron-road, onwards to the Pacific, was, "to his mind, a grand conception." The union of all the provinces and territories into "one great British America," was the necessary, the logical, result of completing the Intercolonial Railway and laying broad foundations for the completion, as a condition of such union, of a railway to the Pacific. He authorized me to say; in Canada, that the Colonial Office would pay part of the cost of surveys; that these works must be carried out in the greatest interests of the nation, and that he would give his cordial help. This he did throughout.

In bidding me good-bye, and with the greatest kindness of manner, he added: "Well, my dear Watkin, go out and inquire. Master these questions, and, as soon as you return, come to me, and impart to me the information you have gained for me." Just as I was leaving, he added, "By the way, I have heard that the State of Maine wants to be annexed to our territory." I made no reply, but I doubted the correctness of the Duke's information. Still, with civil war just commencing, who could tell? "Sir," said old Gordon Bennett to me one day, while walking in his garden, beyond New York, "here everything is new, and nothing is settled." Failing health, brought on by grievous troubles, compelled the Duke to retire from office in the course of 1864, and on the 18th of October of that year he died; on the 18th October, 1865, he was followed by his friend, staunch and true, Lord Palmerston, who left his work and the world, with equal suddenness, on that day.

But from that 17th July, 1861, I regarded myself as the Duke's unofficial, unpaid, never-tiring agent in these great enterprises, and, undoubtedly, in these three years, ending by his retirement and death, the seeds were sown.

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