Laurier responded positively to this proposal since it gave him an opportunity to escape from an earlier commitment to support another railway to be built across the desolation of the Canadian Shield.2 The Trans-Canada Railway had been conceived by Colonel Church to serve the needs of the British Empire by linking its various parts in an All Red-Route. Despite its origins, support for this project had come from Quebec nationalists and the Roman Catholic Church who saw it as a way of settling the Canadian Shield and exploiting its mineral wealth.
While supporting the Grand Trunk Railway in its efforts to extend its activities to the West, Laurier, having failed to insist on cooperation between the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk, countered with another proposal, that of constructing a "National Transcontinental Railway." This new entity would consist of two divisions: the Western, from Winnipeg to the Pacific coast, would be built by the Grand Trunk Pacific, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Grand Trunk; and the Eastern, from Muncton to Winnipeg, would be built by the government (generally known as the National Transcontinental) and upon its completion would be leased to the Grand Trunk Pacific to operate. After a contentious debate in Parliament, the National Transcontinental Railway Act was proposed on September 2, 1903 and the Grand Trunk Pacific was incorporated on October 24, 1903. At the same time that the incorporation of the GTP was taking place in Ottawa, Hays was making contact with its potential supporters in the west. As a sample, the town council of Edmonton was approached by him for their support for the GTP, with the result that an agreement regarding terminal facilities was signed.
The GTP from Winnipeg to the Pacific Coast (Kaien Island, on which Prince Rupert was built was chosen as the terminus) was directed into two divisions--the Prairie from Winnipeg to Wolf Creek in Alberta, and the Mountain from Wolf Creek to the Coast.
The mainline was constructed to a high standard from the outset so that it would not be "inferior to the main line of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (parent company of the GTP) between Montreal and Toronto, so far as may be practicable in the case of a newly constructed line of railway."3 This required a well-constructed roadbed with grades not to exceed four-tenths of one percent, and curves to be four degrees or greater.4 To further enhance the standards of construction, the use of 85 pound rail to the yard on the prairies was mandated.5 But as Currie points out, "the proposed standard of construction was suited to a busy railway in a thickly populated area...it was ill-fitted for a pioneer road on the sparsely settled Prairies: it was quite unrealistic for a railway through the mountains to the undeveloped port of Prince Rupert...."6
The first sod for the GTP was turned near Carberry, Manitoba on August 29, 1905 with steel reaching Edmonton in 1909, while the first train entered the city on August 13.7 Passenger service was inaugurated in 1910.
After several surveys, GTP engineers had eliminated all but three possible passes--the Peace, Pine and Yellowhead, the latter being the most favoured.8 But the choice generated controversy with the Canadian Northern, which had a prior claim to that route, through its ownership of the charter of the Edmonton, Yukon and Pacific. However, the protests of the CNoR disallowing the use of the pass by the GTP were dismissed by the government, with the result that both companies ran their respective lines through it.
Two subsidiary companies of the GTP had an impact on the landscape of Alberta. In 1906 the Grand Trunk Pacific Branch Lines Company9 and the Grand Trunk Pacific Town and Development Company were incorporated. The Branch Line Company built a line from Tofield to Calgary, and opened up the country for the exploration of coal reserves by building a line from Bickerduke to Lovett, an area which became known as the Coal Branch. Both were in operation by 1913.10 Lacking land grants the GTP, through the Town and Development Company, purchased land along the main line and developed "towns in precise patterns, at a distance of not under seven miles or more than fifteen miles from each other."11
Geoffrey Taylor, writing about the building of the GTP states that technology “had changed little in its essentials since Langdon and Shepard laid the roadbed for the Canadian Pacific in the 1880s... the pick and shovel gang, the horse and dump wagon, and the scraper were still the mainstay of the contractor.”12