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Travel Through Time

Few countries in the world owe as much to transportation and travel as Canada. Point and click to travel from early times when our First peoples trained animals to carry people and goods, to the era of the steam engine, the motor car and beyond.




The period of time between the era of the horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach and that of the automobile is barely two generations. Yet, in the 100 years since the first car appeared, Canadians have built perhaps 350,000 km of paved roads.

  For thousands of years, travel in Canada was a matter of moving from place to place on foot or assisted by domesticated animals. In the North, sleds were designed for many different uses, all of them well adapted for winter travel. Special dog teams were trained to work even in the harshest conditions. The Siberian husky, the Canadian Eskimo dog and the Alaskan malamute were more than "man’s best friend" when motorized travel had yet to be invented.

Did You Know?

Joseph Bombardier of Valcourt, Quebec, was an early pioneer of the snowmobile. In fact, Mr. Bombardier took out his first patent for snowmobiles in 1936. By 1959, the production of ski-doos was in full swing, transforming life in the North and creating a large recreational snowmobile industry as well.

With the introduction of the automobile in the late 1800s and early 1900s came dramatic changes in our way of life. Long before the standardization of road construction, speed limits, traffic laws and safety features, Canadians were taking to the road for fun and adventure. In this photo taken in Ottawa in 1925, a group of campers can be seen admiring the Parliament Buildings.

Between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century the urban landscape was quickly transformed to accommodate new forms of transportation. During this era many urban centres introduced streetcar systems for public transportation. An electric tramline operated in Saint John, New Brunswick, until 1948.

An early and reliable form of mass transportation, streetcars disappeared from many cities in the post-Second World War period as autos became popular and cities adopted gasoline and diesel buses as the preferred system of urban transport. Toronto, however, continues to operate a successful streetcar system in its urban core, and in recent years a number of Canadian cities have brought back light rail.

Did You Know?

The Canadian Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) was the first company in Canada to mass-produce a car for the home market. The Russell, available with a 50 hp engine, was the last word in luxury from 1905-15 when it was manufactured in Canada.

When Car Was King
Mass-production techniques made motorized transportation popular and affordable. By the 1930s a palatial exhibition space, the Automotive Building, was built at the Canadian National Exhibition site in Toronto to market cars to a growing middle class. With their promise of independence and freedom of movement, cars had the potential to move everyone around like royalty.

Canadian Milestones
1861 The first streetcar systems in Canada are established in Toronto and Montréal.
1899 CCM produces 40,000 bicycles for market.


Canada’s first gas station opens in Vancouver.


His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth open Canada’s first superhighway, the Queen Elizabeth Way, which continues today as an important route between Toronto and Niagara Falls.


Based on the Canadian Good Road Association’s recommendation, Canada standardizes signs, signals and pavement markings.


HWY#1, the TransCanada Highway, is officially opened; at 7,821 km in length, it is the longest national highway in the world.


There are an estimated one million kilometres of roads in Canada. Highway 401, North America’s second busiest highway, linking sections of southern and western Ontario, reaches 14 lanes in width near Toronto.

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Canada may well be the only country in the world that was created on the promise to build and maintain a national railway. In fact, although Canada was born in 1867, it was largely the development of the railways during the mid- to late 19th century that brought Canada a national vision.

Driving the Golden Spike

When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, it did so only on the condition that a transportation link be built between the East and West.

This photo was taken on November 7, 1885, at 9:22 a.m. as Donald Smith, the chairman of Canadian Pacific Railway, drove the last spike on the new transcontinental line linking British Columbia and the East. It wasn’t until nearly a year later, however, that the first through train would arrive at the seaboard of British Columbia.

The train took a week to transport 150 people 4,655 km across the country. When it arrived at the western terminus, Port Moody had a population of about 250 people and looked forward to the development that the railway would bring. Soon, however, Sir William Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, would decide to move the western terminus to the new settlement of Vancouver, much to the disappointment of Port Moody’s residents.

Some Rail Facts

During the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s rail construction contributed to a large economic boom. Tens of thousands of men, mostly immigrants, were employed as construction labourers, often working in difficult conditions for little compensation.

The largest wave of immigration to the Canadian West occurred between 1897-1929, following the development of a hardy wheat that was well suited to the Prairies and in worldwide demand. Although some arrived from the United States, immigrants usually arrived by ship at Halifax or Québec and would then depart by train for the West. In this photo a group of settlers can be seen having arrived at their destination of Bassano, Alberta, in 1914.

It was all done by rail!

A sophisticated grain handling system developed with the Prairie economy. As the population grew, grain elevators were distributed across the Prairies. Communities typically developed near the rail yards. In many towns and villages, a grain elevator could be found on one side of the rail tracks and a train station on the other. Note the grain elevators, the warehouses, and the train station, as well as the freight and passenger trains in this remarkable photograph. Taken at the Canadian Pacific Railway yard in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1906, this photo shows the vital importance of rail to the Prairies at the turn of the last century.

For a generation, the Lakehead on the western shore of Lake Superior was the Prairie gateway to the world as the trains brought grain to Thunder Bay for shipment. The first grain elevator was built here in 1884 to house the grain waiting to be shipped east by freighter. Soon, there would be over a dozen of these structures collected along the waterfront.

Rail was the main mode of transportation until the end of the Second World War when other methods of transport and travel were developed. Steam-powered locomotives were used in Canada until the 1960s when CN and CP began to use diesel engines. By 1965, the last coal burners were finally retired from service. For generations, the main Canadian railways moved freight and carried passengers. In 1978, VIA Rail was founded to strengthen and improve intercity passenger travel services. By 1999, about four million passengers were using VIA Rail yearly.

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One of the oldest and most efficient ways to travel was by water. Early inhabitants of Canada used watercraft on ocean and river systems for trade, travel and pleasure.

The kayak, made of seal or caribou hide stretched over a frame of driftwood and willow branches, is perfectly adapted to the northern environment. Moving quickly and easily around ice pans and through cold arctic waters without swamping, this small craft could be used for fishing, hunting and travelling.

By 1820, steamboat travel had started in Canadian waters. Steamboats with flat bottoms negotiated shallow rivers and canals, while ocean-going ships had deep keels to withstand high seas. Immigrants of the 19th century often arrived by steamship at Québec City or at Pier 21 in Halifax.

Canada’s First peoples and settlers made good use of the country’s rivers and shorelines. Long before the development of roads and railways, watercraft were used for the transportation of people and freight.

The birch bark canoe, a lightweight but durable craft, was used in the eastern woodlands and Canadian Shield region by Canada’s First peoples for generations.

Early fur-trading voyageurs adapted this canoe into a freight vessel, 11 or 12 metres in length, which was called the canot de maitre or ‘Montreal canoe’. Capable of transporting up to three tons of freight, it was also light enough be carried over frequent portages, and quickly became essential for trade in the young colonies.

Later, canoes built of cedar strips, canvas, fibreglass and aluminium became popular. Today, the canoe is a favourite craft for Canadians who retreat to the country’s lakes and rivers for recreation and sport.

As Canada grew as a nation, the landscape was changed dramatically as resources were developed to suit industry, travel and trade. The development of the St. Lawrence River as one of Canada’s great commercial arteries has been an enduring challenge
The longest Cantilevered Bridge Ever Built!

The Québec Bridge was designed to carry trains above the navigation channel of the St. Lawrence River. When it was built in 1917 it was the longest cantilevered iron bridge in the world. Famous for its length, but also for the tragic failure of its design, the bridge claimed the lives of 88 people during its construction. To this day, many Canadian engineers wear an iron ring to remind them of the lessons of the Québec Bridge.

The Welland Canal

The Niagara Falls and rapids were early obstacles to an uninterrupted waterway to the Canadian west. Over the past 160 years, the Welland Canal has been reconstructed four times to ease shipping between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Governor General the Rt. Hon. Earl of Bessborough officially opened the current canal in 1932.

Seaway Timeline
1680 Efforts to build a canal link between Lake St. Louise and Montréal begin. The canal is completed 164 years later in 1824.
1833 The first Welland Canal linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie opens. It is 43.5 km in length.
1917 The Québec Bridge is completed.
1954 Work on the Canadian-American venture to deepen and modernize the St. Lawrence Seaway begins. Some 6,500 people are resettled. 550 homes are relocated.
1999 The St. Lawrence Seaway celebrates its 40th birthday. In 40 years over two billion tons of cargo have travelled her length.

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The 20th century witnessed the birth of an air transportation industry; while flying began as a daring sport, in Canada it immediately became the preferred mode of travel for explorers in the remote reaches of our country and, later, as a vitally important mode of transportation for all Canadians.

The Silver Dart was Canada’s first successful airplane and made a historic first flight from an ice-covered surface near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in February 1909. Measuring 39 feet 4 inches in length, 9 feet 7 inches in height and 49 feet and 1 inch across the length of its wing, the Silver Dart weighed in at 860 lbs. and managed, on its maiden flight, to remain aloft for about a quarter of a mile. The Silver Dart made nearly 300 flights before being retired.

Bush Flight

During the 1920s and 1930s much of Canada’s North remained uncharted. Bush flying provided an important means of exploration.

Soon bush planes such as the Beaver were custom manufactured for flying in the North, the Twin Otter and the Ntoorduyn Norseman would gain legendary status for their strength and dependability.

Early Canadian aviators lured to the North by the promise of freedom and adventure were renowned for their ingenuity and courage. Names like Max Ward, Punch Dickens and Stuart Graham created an important chapter in Canadian aviation history.

With the onset of the Second World War in 1939, many bush pilots joined the Royal Air Force and saw active service or worked in the training of recruits. By the end of the war, as many as 20,000 airmen, pilots and crew had been trained in the air force and went on to form the backbone of a new, civilian air industry.

Only gradually did air travel become commonplace.

Runway configuration, boundary lighting, radio communication, luggage handling, ticketing procedures, air traffic control, flight plans, flight routes, weather forecasting, designated flight levels, and instrumentation all needed to be developed and regulated before the industry could take off.

In 1927, only a few Canadian airports were equipped with night-time lighting!
As the aeronautical industry grew, Toronto emerged as a centre for aero-engine design. DeHavilland of Canada was incorporated in Toronto in 1928, and made an important contribution to both Canada’s war effort and the exploration of the North.

Today, deHavilland is a subsidiary of Bombardier, a Canadian company that has become the world’s third largest manufacturer of civilian aircraft.

In the early years of aviation women pilots were quite rare. Initially women were restricted to recreational flying. Later, during WWII, many women who were pilots trained RCAF recruits.

In the post-war era there was a growing demand for women to work in the aeronautical industry as stewardesses. These women were required to be registered nurses.

Jessica Jarvis of Toronto, Ontario, pictured here, was the first woman in Canada to earn her commercial pilot’s licence (photo dates to about 1932).

Did You Know?

By 1950 about 30 million Canadians were travelling by train annually while fewer than 5 million people would travel by air. Forty-five years later, in 1995, 36.5 million people were travelling annually by air while only 4.1 million passengers used the train.

In 1929 James A. Richardson, a financier from Winnipeg, Manitoba, invested $200,000 into a new venture — Western Canadian Airways. WCA provided a service that expanded quickly to bring regular transportation into areas that had previously only seen aircraft from time to time or not at all. WCA became a cornerstone of the Canadian airline industry, eventually merging with Canadian Airways (1930), then Canadian Pacific Air Lines (1942). It became Canadian Airlines International Limited in 1988 and, finally, was acquired by Air Canada in 1999.

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