Early Plans and Planners
Alexander Doull
The “Intercolonial” and Transcontinental Railway
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Alexander Doull

The “Intercolonial” and Transcontinental Railway

Alexander Doull
Alexander Doull
mmediately following the publication of Wilson and Richards’s book there appeared a pamphlet by the civil engineer Alexander Doull comprising a plan for a railway from Halifax to Quebec with letters to the Morning Chronicle enlarging upon the scheme and envisioning an extension of the line from Quebec to the Pacific coast.

Published by the Canadian Land and Railway Association, the pamphlet carried the impressive title, “Report and Outline of a plan by which an extensive railway may be constructed in the British North American colonies, combining its execution with an enlarged scheme of colonization and reclamation of waste land, and executing the works so that the company and emigrants shall be mutually benefited. With map and plan.”

The primary purpose of the Association was “to open an extensive field on which to employ the surplus labour of the United Kingdom and thereby to promote the social elevation of the industrious classes.” It was the aim of the Association to obtain a charter to build the Halifax and Quebec Railway, with the backing of the colonies based on the report (to which Doull makes ample reference) of Major Robinson, Royal Engineers, who had been engaged to find the most practicable route (based on political and military necessities) for an intercolonial railway.

Doull’s pamphlet concludes with a few remarks on the “Continuation of the Railway from Quebec to near Vancouver’s Island, in the Pacific” as a logical extension to the Halifax and Quebec line. Though avoiding details, Doull nevertheless proposed a nearly direct line from Quebec City to the Rockies with branches to Montreal, Kingston and Toronto. The line would be built simultaneously in sections and the use of convict labour, proposed by others, would be eschewed as “absurd, impolitic and cruel.” Payment for the railway would be based on a land grant extending ten miles on each side of the right-of-way. The prospective value of the land and the mineral wealth would be the basis for the issuing of paper money endorsed by the governments involved! The cost per mile would, presumably, equal that of the line between Halifax and Quebec, estimated at 7,000 pounds.

Following his pamphlet of 1850, Alexander Doull in 1852 once again, and in more detail, published some more thoughts on a transcontinental railway in “A Project for opening a North-West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, by means of a Railway on British Territory.” Although acknowledging the plans of Carmichael-Smyth, Synge and others, Doull felt these had not been “professionally or practically treated,” since these writings were deficient in full comprehending the physical characteristics and resources of British North America. Nevertheless he did borrow ideas from those he criticized.

Citing the preoccupation with canals as being detrimental to the progress of railway building in the provinces, Doull referred to the survey of Major Robinson for the “Intercolonial” railway from Halifax to Quebec City, and, in anticipation of its early construction, used it as part of his scheme for the transcontinental railway. As to the rest of the line from Quebec to the Pacific coast, Doull suggested four matters had to be considered—the direction of the line, the mode of exploring the country for the purpose of selecting the line, various means by which the expenses of construction could be met, and the resources of the country proposed to be traversed.

His railway was to take as direct a line as feasible, from Quebec City to north of Lake Superior, with little deviation across the prairies, penetrating the Rockies through a suitable pass, if one could be found, about the 50 degree north latitude, though, because of the nature of the country, an easier route would be for the railway to cross the mountains at the 54 degree north latitude. The southerly location of the line would then curve gently to the Pacific coast opposite the southern tip of Vancouver’s Island. The mode of selecting the line would be determined by the physical nature of the country. The arduous nature of the survey would be compensated by the knowledge that such an enterprise would be serving not only “the interests of one country...but the cause of universal man.”


The operation being rather an extensive one, the most judicious plan would be to divide the distance into numerous sections, by ascertaining and fixing the points at which the principal obstacles, such as rivers and mountain ranges, would be most easily crossed. These sections would then be treated as integral lines, although forming portions of the whole, and thus the undertaking would be much simplified...the points selected would be the most suitable for railway stations, and would become the nuclei of more extensive settlements.

A portion of those settling at the points would put in crops and put up permanent buildings, while the remainder would be employed in tracing out the line of railway east and west of each settlement. The building of the railway would then follow.

Feeling that the prospects for an early and adequate return on investment were not realistic, and unless there was the inducement of a land grant or guarantee by the government, Doull predicted that no private company could be enticed to build the railway. He therefore suggested that it should be a joint undertaking of the Imperial government and the Colonial governments, both realizing benefits from such cooperation. The Colonies would benefit because they would be the recipients of the surplus population of industrious workers of the British Isles who would prove to be exemplary and productive settlers who would contribute to the internal prosperity of the country. The homeland would also benefit because the colonies, with their increased population and prosperity, would become a fruitful market for Britain’s exports.

Doull proposed that a Commission be formed “empowered to select and construct the line,” and that a land grant be established, the width of the line varying in accordance with its value. The land grant would be used to help pay the costs of construction. In addition, a 1,000,000 pound low-interest loan was to be advanced, to be repaid upon completion of the railway. With this loan and the land grant, the Commissioners would be allowed “to increase their working capital by an issue of paper currency, or land notes, convertible at any time into land at a fair valuation, amounting to 2,000,000 pounds, which shall be constituted as legal tender, and be issued in payment of all transactions or claims connected with the operation of the Commission in the execution of the works, the scale of land, timber, minerals &c.”

The line having been staked out, the Commission could then enter into agreements with individuals or associations whereby these would be granted blocks of land provided they brought in settlers and provided labour for building portions of the railway. Others would come as individuals who, having repaid their passage, would be allotted freeholds to be purchased on annual installments.

Those with capital would be encouraged to purchase ready-made farms, cleared town sites and mining ventures. Finally, the resources of the country were more than adequate, even if only partially exploited, to meet the needs of building the transcontinental railway. Failure to exploit the resources of the country and settle it would only tempt the United States to take it over and do these very things. As Doull pointed out:

in a political and social point of view, it would be difficult to over-rate the importance of the proposed undertaking. Every aspect under which the subject can be tends to show that British power should not only be maintained, but consolidated by every legitimate and constitutional means, upon the continent of America, as the only means of preventing the whole of that immense continent from being absorbed by the United States.

Proposals, petitions and speeches continued to be put forward as to the necessity and advantages of a transcontinental railway. Failing to get the Lake Superior and Pacific Railway Company incorporated by the Legislature of the Province of Canada in 1851, Allan MacDonnel and his associates were later successful in having their North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company incorporated in 1858, but with no further results.

In 1862, “A Sketch of an Overland Route to British Columbia” was published by Henry Youle Hind to which was added a letter to him from Sandford Fleming on the “Practical observations on the construction of a continuous line of railway from Canada to the Pacific Ocean on British Territory.” Sandford Fleming cautioned against impatience and proposed a plan of gradual development from a road to a railway system on a growing population and an economy able to sustain them.