Manitoba History: Commemorating the First Railway in Western Canada

by Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 58, June 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

The Dominion of Canada was still quite young when it spread its wings and reached for the Pacific. But purchasing the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories and bringing Manitoba and British Columbia into Confederation were only the first steps to becoming a transcontinental nation. An effective communication and transportation route needed to be established between the eastern and western portions of the expanding country—indeed, such a route had been promised to British Columbia. While Sir John A. Macdonald proposed building the now-famous transcontinental railroad, Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie preferred a combination of rail and water routes to connect east and west. Macdonald’s eagerness to realize his vision led to the Pacific Scandal and the downfall of his Conservative government in 1873, giving Mackenzie’s Liberal coalition an opportunity to implement their own vision of a Canada stretching from sea to shining sea.

First railway commemorated

First railway commemorated.
Attending the plaque unveiling at Dominion City on 5 July 2008 were (L-R): Bryan Nichols (Councillor, RM Franklin), the Honourable Vic Toews (Treasury Board President and MP, Provencher), Dr. Robert O’Kell (Manitoba Member, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada), Dr. Lloyd Penner (University of Winnipeg), Archie Hunter (Reeve, RM Franklin), Maureen Sullivan (great-great-granddaughter of Sam Sullivan, a section boss at the time of railway construction who oversaw the driving of the last spike in 1878), Cliff Graydon (MLA, Emerson), and Peter Friesen (Councillor, RM Franklin).
Source: Parks Canada.

An integral part of this vision was a railway from St. Boniface, Manitoba (across the Red River from Winnipeg) to St. Paul, Minnesota, via Emerson, Manitoba and Pembina, North Dakota; this became known as the Pembina Branch. The line was built by the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway. Following both the Red River and generations-old cart paths, the first spikes were driven on 29 September 1877 by Governor-General Lord Dufferin and the Countess of Dufferin. It officially opened on 3 December 1878, when the Countess of Dufferin (the first locomotive in western Canada) met an American train at Dominion City, Manitoba where the last spike was driven. Both trains were carrying railway officials, dignitaries, and prominent citizens, to attend the event.

The significance of the arrival of the railway in western Canada cannot be overstated. In a practical sense, the rail connection between Winnipeg and eastern Canada (via American lines) allowed for the cost-effective import of both settlers and manufactured goods to the west, and the export of grain and other agricultural produce to the east. This not only provided an invaluable boost to the fledgling western economy, but encouraged capital investment in eastern centres as well.

Railway mania.
In the 1880s, numerous railways were proposed to join the Pembina Branch in carrying traffic between Winnipeg and the United States. Shown in this 1887 map as the “Emerson Branch” of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the first railway ran northward from Emerson on the east side of the Red River.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation-Railway 77.

Railroads embodied late nineteenth century concepts of progress and modernity, and were generally key to contemporary ideas of political and economic expansion. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had both made an intercolonial railway one of their few conditions for entering Confederation in 1867, and British Columbia had joined Confederation in 1871 on the promise of a transcontinental railway to be built. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growing network of railways connecting far-flung domestic markets emerged as one of the strongest pillars of the Canadian economy.

More importantly, though, the railway increased the feeling of connection with the east that was so necessary to making the west Canadian in spirit as well as in legal fact. Railways were the rivers of the new industrial age, connecting people and places to each other. The Pembina Branch was the first step in overcoming the sense of physical isolation imposed by vast distances and by geographical barriers like the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains. Even the most fiscally cautious federal government of the period was willing to invest heavily in this venture, knowing how important it was to Canada’s commercial and cultural development.

The Crew of Locomotive #2 “Joseph Whitehead”, strike a pose, circa 1877.

The Crew of Locomotive #2 “Joseph Whitehead”, strike a pose, circa 1877. They may have been present at the driving of the last spike for the Pembina Branch. Left-right: John Cardell (engineer), George Charles Swinbank (fireman), George Swinbank (foreman), John Lumley (timekeeper), John Clark (assistant foreman), and Alexander McCloy (roadmaster).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation-Railway 111, N9460.

National Designation

In 1954, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended that “the construction of the first railroad in Manitoba connecting that part of the country with the United States and Canada be declared of national historic importance and that a standard tablet be erected.” The next year, the Board clarified this recommendation, describing it as the construction during 1877 and 1878 of a railway from St. Boniface to the United States, through Emerson, Manitoba, on the American border, and Pembina, just to the south, in the northeast corner of North Dakota. The Board stated that this was the first railroad in the Canadian West, as well as the first section built of the water and rail route to British Columbia proposed by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1874, as an alternative to Sir John A. Macdonald’s projected complete rail route. Mackenzie’s proposal fanned the flame of the secession movement in British Columbia and so was an indirect cause of Lord Dufferin’s visit to that province.

An inscription was approved for the plaque in 1955. Entitled THE FIRST RAILROAD IN WESTERN CANADA, the text read: “In 1874 the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie proposed to link the West with Eastern Canada by a water and rail route. A first section of railroad was built from St. Boniface to the International Boundary, 1877-78. From nearby, on 3rd December, 1878, ran the first train en route to Emerson.” The plaque was not installed, and it was 53 years later that a plaque commemorating the Pembina Branch was finally unveiled at Dominion City, at a ceremony held on 5 July 2008.

Plaque text


On December 3, 1878, the last spike was driven here to complete the first railway line built in the Canadian West. Known as the Pembina Branch, it ran some 100 kilometres from St. Boniface to the international boundary at Emerson, connecting Manitoba to eastern Canada by rail through the United States. Proposed in the 1860s, this line was ultimately endorsed by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1874 as an alternative to a more expensive all- Canadian railway line. The route brought prosperity to the region, serving as an important link with eastern Canada until the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Winnipeg in 1883.


Ici eut lieu, le 3 décembre 1878, l’inauguration du premier chemin de fer de l’Ouest canadien. Connue sous le nom de Pembina, cette voie ferrée de quelque 100 kilomètres entre Saint-Boniface et la frontière internationale, à Emerson, reliait par le réseau américain le Manitoba à l’Est canadien. Ce projet, proposé dans les années 1860, fut adopté en 1874 par le premier ministre Alexander Mackenzie comme solution de rechange à une ligne transcanadienne plus coûteuse. Ce chemin de fer contribua à la prospérité de la région, assurant un lien important avec l’Est du pays jusqu’à ce que le Canadien Pacifique atteigne Winnipeg en 1883.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: First Railway in Western Canada Monument (Dominion City, RM of Franklin)

Page revised: 11 June 2014