Many Words But Little Sparkle, Published 11 March 1961Canadian National Railways Sixty years of Trial and Error. By G. R. Stevens. Clarke, Irwin and Company. 514 pp.
Reviewed by Austin Cross
For the real rail fans, this is a most unsatisfactory volume. There are so many words - so little sparkle. Chances are that Donald Gordon, CNR President, will love these dreary pages, but then Big Donald is not a railroader but a financier, at heart. So if you care to struggle through balance sheets, and see trains only through dully but accurately told statistics, help yourself. Who indeed can get thrilled over the Whitby, Port Perry and Lindsay Railway; the Omemee, Bobcaygeon and North Peterboro Railway, or even the Prince Edward Island Railway?
Early in the book, there is a reference to Senator Georges Desaulles, often in Ottawa, who died at 102, and who accurately recalled the running of the first train in Canada, back on July 21, 1936, in the presence of Louis Joseph Papineau. Not a few local people still recall the centenarian senator Dusaulles This railway must have been unique. It made a profit every year.
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Canada more or less flirted with a trunk line over the years, eagerly nurtured by the Imperial Government.
Yet later on we find that the allegedly imperialist Grand Trunk was far keener to get to Chicago than to push across Ontario efficiently. The G.T.R. made at least two mistakes. It could have tied up with the Intercolonial Railway. It also looked down its nose at the upstart Canadian Pacific. This latter ultimately sank the old Trunk.
You get a good account of the Great Western, which when bought in by the GTR, proved to be the very backbone of that line across Ontario. - it made money too.
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Canadians wanted railways, and wanted them desperately, but they wanted no fiscal part in them. Thus we find in 1862, Canadians had only 3,699 shares of the Great Western out of 166,101 held in England, so the head office was moved to London.
Joseph Howe, with his prophecy that many would "live to hear the whistle of the steam engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains" is duly recorded.
Author Stevens takes issue with the late Dr. O. D. Skelton, and his book The Railway Builders. Dean Skelton alleged that absentee ownership of Canadian railways in Britain was bad, whereas Stevens says bluntly: "There is no truth in this".
Worth noting is that Jenny Lind, Swedish nightingale, appeared at the opening ceremonies of the Toronto, Lake Simcoe and Lake Huron Railway. Sandford Fleming, who later gave us Standard Time, saved the sod turning. Perhaps that is a good place to leave the old Grand Trunk.