The Intercolonial was an historic Canadian railway that operated from 1872 to 1918. It predated the Canadian Pacific Railway by nine years and in a sense was Canada’s first national railway. It was the first significant Crown corporation, and served as one of the technological means of connecting Britain’s North American colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Upper and Lower Canada for both defence and economic development. The construction of the Intercolonial was Canada’s biggest public works project of the 19th century. The railway employed thousands of workers, operated ferry services to Cape Breton, carried the mail and provided freight and passenger services throughout the maritime provinces, connecting to other lines at Levis, Quebec. In 1918 it became part of the Canadian National Railway.

Surveys of potential routes began in the 1830s. Future Father of Confederation Joseph Howe said in 1851: “I am neither a prophet, or the son of a prophet, yet I will venture to predict that in five years we shall make the journey hence to Quebec and Montreal, and home through Portland and St. John, by rail; and I believe that many in the room will live to hear the whistle of the steam engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and to make the journey from Halifax to the Pacific in five or six days.”[i]

This dream was not to be realized politically until agreement on the British North America Act in 1867:

Inasmuch as the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have joined in a Declaration that the Construction of the Intercolonial Railway is essential to the Consolidation of the Union of British North America, and the Assent thereto of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and have consequently agreed that Provision should be made for its immediate Construction by the Government of Canada; Therefore, in order to give effect to that Agreement, it shall be the Duty of the Government and Parliament of Canada to provide for the commencement, within Six Months after the Union, of a Railway connecting the River St. Lawrence with the City of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and for the Construction thereof without Intermission, and the Completion thereof with all practicable Speed.

The federal government took over control of two existing railways – the Nova Scotia Railway the European and North American Railway – as first steps. Sandford Fleming was appointed chief engineer of the project, and Fleming insisted on a high quality of construction, including raised rail beds which assisted with winter snow accumulations, and iron bridges over cheaper wooden ones. Technologically, the dream was not realized until 1876.

Moncton, New Brunswick became the headquarters of the company and the location of a passenger station and yards and rail shops.

Historic passenger service included such named trains as the Scotian and the Ocean Limited.