Early Plans and Planners
Major Robert Carmichael-Smyth
A “great link required to unite in one physical chain the whole English race”
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Major Robert Carmichael-Smyth

A “great link required to unite in one physical chain the whole English race”

Robert Carmichael Smyth Proposed Railway Route
Robert Carmichael Smyth Proposed Railway Route
etween the publication of Millington Synge’s two monographs, Major Robert Carmichael-Smyth had his own pamphlet published in 1849: “A letter from Major Carmichael-Smyth to his friend the author of ‘The Clockmaker’1 containing thoughts on the subject of a British colonial railway communication between the Atlantic and the Pacific from the magnificent harbour of Halifax, in Nova the mouth of the Frazer’s River, in New Caledonia...or such other port as may be determined upon”.

This transcontinental railway would engage:

the employment of the people and the capital of Great Britain in her own colonies, at the same time assisting emigration and penal arrangements by undertaking a great national work; and thus opening the shortest road to the most extensive regions of wealth ever before at the command of any nation in the world (not regions of gold, but for commerce and industry), so thus at no future period (within at least the imagination of man) will Great Britain have to complain either of too great a population on her soil or too small a market for her labour.

It would appear that this work was done without knowledge of Captain Synge’s treatise, for in the conclusion Major Carmichael-Smyth states,

The last collection for the press was scarcely finished, when “Canada in 1848” was put into my hands. Had I, a month ago, seen that little pamphlet, written as it is with so much spirit and ability, I should hardly, perhaps, have felt sufficiently inclined to have suggested one line of railway, in opposition to the views of its talented author. I trust I need scarcely assure Lieut. Synge in any observations I have made about canals. I had no reference whatever to his grand scheme, — nor the least intention of treating lightly his magnificent project, of which, until a day or two ago, I did not even know the existence.

From the outset, Carmichael-Smyth proposed a railway across the continent, the building of which would encourage the “opening (of) the shortest road to the most extensive regions of wealth” and provide “the great link required to unite in one physical chain the whole English race.” The author was convinced that neither the expenditure of vast sums of money nor such topographical barriers as the Rocky Mountains should deter Britain from such noble work. If Britain was willing to spend millions of pounds on destructive wars, surely monies could be found for so constructive a project as a railway which could not have but beneficial effects on societies around the world.

The railway would serve to achieve several ends, the use of the surplus labour of Britain (including many convicts made so by unemployment and poverty), the exploitation of the resources of British North America, the opening up of markets as the result of emigration and settlement, provision of a shorter and more secure route to the Orient, and the means by which the aggrandizing tendencies of the United States would be thwarted.

The railway was initially to be financed and guaranteed by a loan from the government of Great Britain in the amount of 150,000,000 pounds Sterling (the estimated cost being 24,000 pounds per mile). A board of General Arrangement and Control would be established to build and manage the Atlantic and Pacific Railway, made up of fifteen directors, three each from Great Britain, The Hudson’s Bay Company (whose best interests would be served by cooperating in the realization of the scheme), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Canadas. The Board would be responsible in negotiating with the several parties involved for the retiring of the debt. Carmichael-Smyth was aware of the scale of the economies involved.

The line was to be built with convict labour in the more isolated and difficult areas, and by emigrant (sic) labour in the settled areas. The convicts were to be guarded by soldiers induced to serve with the promise of freehold land at the completion of their tour of duty. It was also suggested that Native Peoples might profitably be employed as guards. Also, it was suggested that, in populated areas, “all local towns and districts that have sufficient capital and labour to undertake any part of the line, have the benefit of the profits of the whole line, in proportion to the parts they may finish.” Active, intelligent and scientific young men were to be sent to find a suitable pass through the mountains, and a port, should the mouth of Frazer’s River not be suitable. The work was to commence at both extremities of the railway and at suitable intermediate points. Montreal and Toronto would be by-passed, but served by means of branch lines.

In answer to the criticism that the railway should be a private enterprise and not involve the governments, Carmichael-Smyth made a distinction at the outset between economic viability and social need. The former would be vindicated once the railway was built, the latter expressed “one of the most important lessons in Canadian transport history, which is that government...cannot be a mere bystander in the transportation process.” The railway was to be “a grand national work....the great high road between the Atlantic and the Pacific.”

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1796–1865. Writer, lawyer, businessman, politician and judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.