Building the World

Canadian-Pacific Railway, Canada

Canadian-Pacific railcar, from the British Columbia Archives at

America’s Transcontinental Railroad may have opened a new era of transportation but Canada needed a continent-connecting route as much as the U.S., so it was not long until workers from one side of Niagara Falls found work just north. Canada saw the many possibilities. Territories would be linked; commerce opened up; educational and medical resources shared. Canada could hire experienced workers who had just built the Transcontinental. Because of the construction of their railway, Canada contributed what may be one of the first global agreements, an innovation that truly changed the world.


In the case of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, conductors waited for telegraphed information, noting the times of other trains on the line on small pieces of paper called flimsies, an alarming term.The American railroad had wisely laid trenches for the telegraph when its route was built, yet there still were dark spots where no telegraph signals could be received and therefore train times recorded. Consequently accidents posed a recurrent danger. It was this problem that vexed Sandford Fleming, a surveyor on the route of the Canadian Pacific. Fleming concluded that trains could never run dependably unless something was done to standardize time schedules. He proposed a system of international time zones resulting in the worldwide agreement of the International Meridian Conference.

The Canadian Pacific and the U.S. transcontinental railroads came together in 1883 (even before the Canadian Pacific was completed) and agreed jointly on a system of time zones. Eventually the idea gathered such force that the entire world came together (perhaps for the first time). In 1884, the International Prime Meridian Conference held in Washington, DC, endorsed and inaugurated a worldwide system of time zones.


The Canadian Pacific Railway employed more than 3.5 million people. And once the route was operational, business boomed in towns along the route. The effect of so many working people stimulated growth in Canada. And many of the workers came with experience on canals as well as on the American rails where laborers from the Erie Canal flocked to work on the railroad.

Navvies: Building the railroad across Canada required a certain kind of worker who could live onsite as the route expands into remote areas. On the east coast, workers who’d done just that – lived in the field and ate around a campfire – on the Canadian canals showed up to get jobs on the railroad. “Navvies” as they were called on the canal now became a nickname for rail workers. In fact, even today in Australia, rail workers are still called “navvies.”

“They Built the Great Wall!”: Another kind of worker featured different skills on the Canadian West Coast:Chinese immigrants. Some were already experienced because twenty years earlier, on the United States’ West Coast, nary a navvy answered Central Pacific’s recruitment call. Recruiters for the Central Pacific distributed handbills to attract workers. They needed 5,000; only 200 showed up. So the company looked around and saw a whole new workforce. Chinese people were arriving in California in large numbers to escape a famine in the Kwangtung region of China. When labor boss James Harvey Strobridge was reluctant, his boss, Charlie Crocker, replied: “They can do it. They built the Great Wall.”  Crocker convinced Strobridge to try 50 Chinese workers. They were superb. The next week, another 100 were hired. Finally, the company recruited only Chinese workers. By the height of the building , Central Pacific had 6,000 Chinese workers — 80% of the total workforce.

Many Chinese workers were extremely skilled in the art of explosives, having blasted through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Acrobatic and highly versed in aerial engineering, the Chinese builders were legendary. As a result, Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world for fine Asian cuisine.

Map of the CPR lines 1893, from Canadian Pacific Railway at


In a vast land with few roads, trains could also serve as movable schoolrooms. As settlers began to move into western Canada, families quickly formed, but there was no system in place for educating the children. The solution was to hire teachers who traveled on specially designed rail cars – rolling one-room schoolhouses, complete with desks, blackboards, and a modest library. The rail cars would pull into a district and children would come for several days of teaching, then be sent home with plenty of homework. Meanwhile, the teacher and train moved on to the next district.


If there is a railroad that has become known for specialized use of cars, it might be the Canadian Pacific. During wartime, there were troop cars. At the conclusion of the war, bridal cars transported newly married wives to join their husbands. Later, the British monarchy enthralled loyal subjects with the pomp and circumstance of processions by visiting Canada making use of Royal Railcars. Newlyweds William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, again thrilled Canadians.

Document of Authorization

International Prime Meridian Conference, Washington, DC, 1884.

That the Conference proposes to the Governments here represented the adoption of the meridian passing through the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude. The above resolution was adopted by the following vote:

In the affirmative:

Austria-Hungary             Mexico
Chile                               Netherlands
Colombia                        Paraguay
Costa Rica                      Russia
Germany                        Salavador
Great Britain                  Spain
Guatemala                     Sweden
Hawaii                           Switzerland
Italy                               Turkey
Japan                             United States
Liberia                            Venezuela

In the negative:
San Domingo

Abstaining from voting:
Brazil, France.

Ayes 22; noes, 1; abstaining, 2.

– From, and see also Davidson and Lusk Brooke, p. 287.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

It’s About Time: AM or PM, the world shared a single time standard (ante/post meridian) in 1884. What other global agreements and standards are needed? When will the United States yield to global adoption of the metric system?

Trains of the future — NaftaWay?: During the Canadian Pacific planning process, it was proposed the railway pass through Chicago (and therefore avoid some mountain areas) but a decision to keep the project totally national was taken at the time.  Now, Canada, the United States, and Mexico are partners in NAFTA. Is the time right for a NaftaWay? Will current technology suggest a North American maglev tubetrain? Perhaps with an adjacent Sportsway offering bicycle and other parallel paths? With Chicago as center?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. New York: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Books, 2000.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Random House, 1965.

Haney, Louis H. A Congressional History of Railways. 2 vols. 1908-10. Reprint, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968.

McDonnell, Greg. Canadian Pacific: Stand Fast, Craigellachie! Erin, Canada: Boston Mills Press, 1954.

Poor, Henry Varnum. Manual of the Railroads of the United States for 1870-71. New York: H.V. and J.W. Poor, 1870.

Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Online Study Center.

Thompson, Slason. A Short History of the American Railways. Chicago: Bureau of Railway News and Statistics, 1925.

Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1892. Reprint, New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.For a free digital download, please visit:

Whitney, Asa. A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific. New York: George Ward, 1849.


For international time zones:,

For history and a select bibliography of mapmaking and the railroads, see Select “Railroad Maps.”

For a complete transcript of the Public Broadcasting System’s American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad, see: http:/

For the complete text of the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives Appointed under the Resolution of January 6, 1873, to Make Inquiry in Relation to the Affairs of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, the Credit Mobilier of America, and Other Matters Specified in Said Resolution and in Other Resolutions Referred to Said Committee, see:

For a summary time line from 1769 to 1889, see:

For western railroad songs with historical narration, including “Hell on Wheels,” see:

For Greg Schindel, official singer on California Western Railroad’s “Skunk Train,” including a list of songs and CD, see:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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