Our expert helps you learn about the experiences of workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Q. My great-grandfather supposedly helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Is there any way to find out more about that part of his life?
A. Canada was still a sparsely populated country when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) incorporated in 1881. Building that first cross-country rail link took thousands of workers and a massive effort.
In 1885, CPR worker Donald A. Smith altered the course of the country’s history by driving the final spike into the transcontinental railroad, which ultimately opened up the Canadian West to settlement. You can read a brief history on the CPR archives website. You also can read about the CPR on the Atlas of Alberta Railways site.
If your ancestor worked on the railroad, you’ll be especially interested in the archives’ collection of historical images, documents, publications and artifacts, plus materials on topics such as tourism, immigration and colonization.
Although it’s a private collection, the CPR archives in Montreal provides researchers with fee-based services or on-site access on a case-by-case basis. You’ll need to submit a written request to arrange a visit.
You’ll find more online resources for researching rail workers at RootsWeb and on Cyndi’s List. For example here's an 1885 statement of various CPR workers' names, salaries and periods of service in British Columbia, from the Government of Canada Sessional Papers.
We also recommend a couple of books: Canadian Railway Records: A Guide for Genealogists by Althea Douglas and J. Creighton Douglas (Ontario Genealogical Society) offers a glossary, chronology, and an introduction to online sources. See more history in Canadian Pacific Railway (MBI Railroad Color History) by Tom Murray (Voyageur Press).