In addition to being a well-know television personality (Close-Up, 1957-63, Front Page Challenge, 1957-95, the Pierre Berton Show, 1962-73), Pierre Berton had a fascination with Canadian Rail History, and was the author of The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 (1970), The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 (1972), The Impossible Railway: The Building of the Canadian Pacific (1972), The National Dream (1970) and history books aimed at youth, The Railway Pathfinders, Steel Across the Plains and Steel Across the Shield.
His main achievement with respect to rail history was its popularization, producing works that were well researched and of wide appeal to both adults and youth. His books The National Dream and The Last Spike, were used to produce a CBC eight part docu-drama called “The National Dream (1974), concerning the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which attracted over three million viewers per episode. Berton wrote the outline for the series and served as narrator.
His life spanned 84 years (1920-2004) and has been described as one of Canada’s “most prolific and popular authors”.[i] He was also known as a Canadian cultural nationalist at a time of increasing American domination of television and film.
For his body of work, Berton receive over 30 literary awards. These included the Governor-General’s Award for Creative Non-Fiction (three times), the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, and the Gabrielle Leger National Heritage Award. He was also the recipient of the National History Society’s first award for “distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian History.”[ii]
Following his death in 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail (December 1, 2004) “His passing silences a great Canadian voice, but his work will live on to enrich the lives of Canadians for generations to come. His ability to chronicle the life and times of our great nation was without peer. His love of Canada, its people and its history, and his personal attachment to the North [were] vividly expressed in his numerous books and writings as a journalist.”