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Topic – Building a Transcontinental Railway

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Building a Transcontinental Railway

Why Build a Railway?

The Canadian Pacific Railway today

In 1871, British Columbia joined Confederation and became Canada’s sixth province. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had to convince British Columbia to join Confederation. He promised to build a railway that would link the province to the rest of Canada. This transcontinental railway would connect Canada’s west and east coasts.

Who Built the Railway?

Canadian Pacific Railway Crew laying tracks, 1881

In 1881, two large groups of workers started building the railway. One group, made up mostly of workers from Europe, started building on the east coast. At the same time, another group of workers started building on the west coast. Most of these workers were Chinese people who came from China or California. The railway was finally completed when the east and west sections were joined together in 1885.

Dangers on the Job

Canadian Pacific Railway bridge over Fraser River, British Columbia, 1901

Chinese workers were hired to build the most difficult section of the railway, which was in the west. The most dangerous jobs, such as using explosives to blow up rock, were given to Chinese workers.

Many Chinese workers were injured during construction. Hundreds of Chinese workers died while building the railroad. They died from accidents while working, extreme cold in the winter, various illnesses, and not enough nutritious food. Often, the family members of a Chinese worker who died were not informed of the death.

Unequal Pay

The first load of people to cross the CPR High Level Bridge, 1909

Even though the Chinese workers often had more difficult and dangerous jobs, they were usually paid less than European workers. A European worker made from $1.00 to $2.50 each day. A Chinese worker made from $0.75 to $1.25 each day. European workers did not have to pay for their food and equipment, but Chinese workers did. After paying these expenses, Chinese workers had little or no money left to send home to support their families.

No Thanks

The last spike of the CPR, 1885

When the railway was finally completed, there was a national celebration. Chinese workers were not thanked for their important contribution to building the railway, even though thousands of the railway builders were Chinese.

A famous photo shows a railway executive driving the last spike into the section of track that connected the east and west sections of the railway. Looking on are dozens of railway workers. Not one Chinese worker is shown in the photograph. All Chinese workers were moved away when the photo was taken.

Life After the Railway

After the construction of the railway was completed, many Chinese workers did not have enough money to return to their families. They stayed in Canada, often living in poverty and loneliness, far from their families and friends back home.


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