Early Plans and Planners
Millington Henry Synge
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Millington Henry Synge

Millington H. Synge’s Transcontinental Railway
Millington H. Synge’s Transcontinental Railway
ay more; we shall yet place an iron belt from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a railroad from Halifax to Nootka Sound, and thus reach China in a pleasure voyage.” So declared Sir Henry Bonnycastle in his work, Canada in 1846. This was one of many publications between 1846 and 1871 that promoted the concept of a transcontinental railway. While routes, financing, and particulars differed, common themes such as the opening of the vast resources of the interior, the alleviation of the problems of overpopulation and unemployment in Britain, the settling of the land, the fear of expansionism of the United States, and the opening of a commercial route to the Far East were evident. All of the issues were considered in the proposals put forward.

Millington Henry Synge, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, stationed in Canada, promoted the concept of a transcontinental communications system in a pamphlet with the lengthy title Canada in 1848: “Being an examination of the existing resources of British North America. With considerations for their further and more perfect development as a practical remedy, by means of colonization, for the prevailing distress in the United Empire, and for the defense of the colony.” Four years later, in 1852, Synge, by now a Captain, enlarged upon his earlier thoughts by publishing the pamphlet “Great Britain, One Empire. On the union of the Dominions of Great Britain by inter-communication with the Pacific and the East via British North America with suggestions for the profitable colonization of that wealthy territory.” In the preface, the author acknowledged the works of Carmichael-Smyth, Wilson and Richards and others who, no doubt, had an influence on his thinking about this subject.

Critical of what appeared to be indifference, if not ignorance, on the part of the British government towards British North America and citing the treaties that led to the surrendering of territory to the United States, Synge wrote that only by a secure, rapid, complete and independent transportation system could the resources of British North America be developed and the territory strengthened against the aggressive tendencies of the United States. Synge felt that by building such a transportation system the British government could help alleviate the problem of unemployment in Great Britain and also provide a means of defense against external aggression. Building such a system would provide relief for the poor, employment for the surplus population of Great Britain, inter-provincial communication, and aid in the building up of a trained labour force and capital. In addition it would provide knowledge about the country, open up vast areas suitable for agriculture and the exploitation of the abundant mineral resource, substitute organized and directed colonization for spontaneous and haphazard immigration, and finally strengthen the ties between colonies and the mother country.

In the initial pamphlet Synge designed a mixed route in ten sections, utilizing both water (river and canal) and land (railway), and he describes the route. Although he proposed an eventual transcontinental railway, Synge felt that given the economic situation of the colony, the continuous railway would have to be preceded by a water-land route, using what rivers and canals were available and adding portage railways. This would be a system initially easier to utilize and cheaper to build and operate. The water-land system was only a temporary expedient as it did not take an engineer to realize that the severity of Canada’s winters made navigation on rivers and lakes an impossibility for a good portion of the year. The transcontinental railway would be realized once the country had been colonized and the resulting economy could justify building a system of such magnitude.

In 1852, Millington Synge reiterated what he had written in 1848, but emphasizing the desirability of a route across British North America as being the shortest and strategically the most secure. Politically and economically the route would strengthen the colonies and forestall a United States monopoly in trade.

Captain Synge’s ultimate plan was a continuous transcontinental railway, but this could be achieved only when the territory over which it was to be built was minutely and accurately mapped. As he wrote, “but the great trunk line railway should be laid down from ocean to ocean, where it would most perfectly realize the utmost benefits to be derived from the intra-oceanic connexion of the distant extremities in opposite hemispheres.”