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    Rupert’s Land great folly

    When in 1867 the United States paid two cents an acre to buy Alaska from Russia, it became known as “Seward’s folly.” Three years later, Canada paid little more than one-tenth of a cent to buy Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company—$1.5 million for about four million square kilometers, embracing much of what are now the prairie provinces and northern Ontario and Quebec. Some critics thought this was as great a folly as Seward’s.


    Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, was the hub of the vast Ruperts Land when it was purchased by Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870. Seen in this 1884 painting by H.A. Strong, it was the only substantial settlement between Ontario and the Rockies. McCord Museum M15677.

    Rupert’s land “is only an outlet to make places for a few professional politicians of Canada,” complained the Halifax Chronicle, October 18, 1870.

    Fort Garry, the only substantial settlement in Rupert’s Land, was separated from Ontario by 2,000 kilometres of Precambrian rock and lakes said to offer only “a mongrel mode of transit.” The Chronicle predicted that Canada’s projected railway “will not get a dollar” from English investors.

    Construction of two American railroads to the Pacific was forecast to “kill this airy British Railroad,” and pull the trade of the West across the United States.

    These were the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and the Great Northern Railway. The Great Northern was backed by Jay Cooke, “whose name in a monetary point of view is a tower of strength.”

    Three years later, both American railroads were bankrupt. The SP&P rails never extended more than 300 miles west of St. Paul. Jay Cooke & Company could not complete financing Great Northern before it was bankrupt. The collapse of the “tower of strength” on September 18, 1873 triggered the worst global recession of the century. Before it was over, there were food riots in Ottawa, Montreal and Kingston.

    Others later took over the Great Northern and completed the line to the Pacific in 1883. Two years later, the last spike was driven on the “airy” railroad that tied Canada together, the Canadian Pacific Railway. As for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, after a series of mergers, this tiny system was eventually acquired by the CPR, the line that was supposed to be killed.

    About Canada, my latest book, is crammed with more “Amazing stuff” about our great nation, says popular historian Christopher Moore. “I’m a fan,” he adds. For a free sampler copy, more information and accolades, or to order your copy, click here.

    TAGS: Railways, Confederation, Canada and the United States, Canadian Pacific Railway, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, Great Northern Railway, Jay Cooke & Company, Economic depression.

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