Trains September 1839. The railway connected the growing industrial

Trains originated in
Europe, and were first used in coal mines in England in the early 17th century.
With the arrival in the 19th century of steam as an important energy source,
trains, which until then had been simple machines, began a period of rapid
development. On the forefront of advances in modern transportation and
commerce, the railways were a catalyst in the growth and unification of Canada.
The construction of the railways created a huge demand for wood, as well as for
coal, fuel oil, iron, steel, and locomotives. It also stimulated heavy
industry, and the growth of engineering, essential in the construction of
bridges and tunnels. Canada’s first railway opened in 1836: The Champlain and
St. Lawrence Railroad linked the cities of La Prairie and
Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. In the Maritimes, “the first railway built in Nova Scotia (and the second in
British North America) had its first public run in September 1839. The railway
connected the growing industrial town of Albion Mines with the shipping
facilities at nearby New Glasgow” (Mechanic and Farmer). This paper will argue
and discuss the history of railways in Nova Scotia, the positive economic
impact it had, and any problems that may have caused the short life of railways
in Nova Scotia.

            During the 19th century, many communities in Canada
sprang up around railways and this was their link to the rest of the country and
the world. Combined with
tariff protection for Canadian industries, the growth of the railways was a
major catalyst in Canadian Confederation. When Nova Scotia received its first
railway, “its job was merely to cart coal from Albion Mines to Picou Harbour, a
distance of nine kilometres, but its owners celebrated the opening with free
rides, a ball, and a banquet, and ‘there was not an unemployed bagpipe’ in the
entire county” (Bruce). This was considered a huge achievement for the town at
the time. As time passed, the period of Responsible Government, from 1849 to
1867, was one of crucial importance in the development of public policy. As
Nova Scotian politicians recognized, accepted and explored the control they
could now exercise over the province’s economic future, priorities shifted. Of
central importance to this shift was a change in attitudes with respect to the
role the state should play in society. The Nova Scotia government’s railway
enterprise was one of the first large scale efforts at state capitalism on the
North American continent. The growth in the directive function of state, which
public railways were eventually revealed to imply, was a necessary precursor to
the development of an industrial capitalism that consistently declined to take
the laissez-faire ethic to heart. The creation of railways “describes the
colony’s early railway expansion as a kind of state-capitalist project driven
by the ideas of a few key figures in the capital” (Samson).

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            On the other hand, while government railways predated the
advent of indigenous industrial capitalism in Nova Scotia, it would be
misleading to assume that from the outset the connection between the two was
widely recognized. Nova Scotia’s railway was initially promoted as a commercial
railway, one that would enhance the colony’s trading capabilities by controlling
overland trade through her territory and building up population along its
route. Only under the financial pressures railways created did the dream change
from one of commercial empire to one of internal development led by
industrialism. The railroad was designed to greatly facilitate the internal trade
of Nova Scotia, developing resources, and opening up communications with its
neighbours. The railroad was expected to bolster the traditional commercial
economy through the improvement of transportation and communication links and
the concentration of trade. At this point, the state’s developmental role was
still seen as a limited one, for it was believed that once railroads were
initiated and nurtured by the state, they would generate their own internal
growth imperative, and fairly rapidly become self-supporting. The early
railroad phase saw government take a firm interventionist stance with its
decision to build railways as public works. As a result of this decision, the
scale upon which the state operated in Nova Scotia expanded. It is hardly
surprising that no financial innovation was attempted in Nova Scotia during the
early days of Responsible Government.

            During the time when coal was discovered in northern Nova
Scotia’s Pictou County shortly before 1800 and mining began by 1807, “the
development of steam-powered railways in the 19th century revolutionized
transportation in Canada and was integral to the very act of nation building. Railways
played an integral role in the process of industrialization, opening up new
markets and tying regions together, while at the same time creating a demand
for resources and technology” (Marsh). The railways not only carried people and
goods from one side of the country to the other, they also fostered economic
exchanges with the United States, the Orient and Europe. As veritable engines
of industrialization, they linked existing markets, opened new markets,
stimulated industry and created employment. Also, “not only had there been a
quantum leap in motive power from horse power to steam, but the innovative GMA
(General Mining Association) also introduced the revolutionary idea of using
iron rails in lieu of wooden rails surmounted with straps of iron on the
running surface” (Candow). This allowed for more efficiency of energy and use
of railways. Even though it was not directly related with Nova Scotia, with the
advent of the railways, cities such as Halifax, St. John, Montreal, Toronto,
Winnipeg and Vancouver were able to dominate the area surrounding them. The
railways also helped shape the urban landscape in many cities. Unlike canals,
railways were able to extend into new territories and pushed the agricultural
and timber frontiers westward and northward. As a result, entrepreneurs
invested in the manufacture of almost everything that went into the operation
of the railway, and consequently railways had a positive effect on levels of
employment. Some small towns such as Nova Scotia, became railway service and
maintenance centres as well as a place of resource transport.

            Even though there were many benefits to having railways
being built, there were many who criticized the involvement of governments in
railway construction and the extent of government subsidies to railway
companies. Nova Scotia’s revenues and expenditures were generally declining
between 1855 and 1859. Railway-building produced new and unfamiliar policy
problems. Government was not long involved with railroad construction before it
lost the security of current account surpluses. The first deficit experienced
in Nova Scotia occurred during the time of Responsible Government. The 1854
decision to carry out railway construction as public works had been both
substantial and irrevocable. Railway-building had increased per capita debt and
it also left the lion’s share of public debt held outside of the colony, rather
than within it. Together, these factors concentrated public debate upon the
value of debt financing. The government began developing different assumptions
about the best ways of raising and spending money. By the end of the period of
Responsible Government, opposing attitudes toward debt financing had adjusted
and accentuated the previously existing political divisions within the colony.
The time lag between the start of railway construction, and the definition of
political groupings in terms of their attitude toward debt financing, is
largely explained by the fact that the major financial burden of the government’s
railway policy was endured only in the years after 1860.

            The figure of debt was not a particularly high one in comparison
to the contemporary Canadian situation, but it represented a quantum change in
the structure of government financing in Nova Scotia. The way in which Nova
Scotian administrations coped with the weight of railway debt provides a useful
perspective from which to observe their changing and diverging opinions with
respect to the role of the state in Nova Scotia. Reformers emphasized
retrenchment to protect Nova Scotia’s trade and commerce, for they had lost
faith in railroads as agents of commercial growth, and feared that any increase
in the level of the colony’s debts, to fund expansion of the system, would
place an unconscionable burden on the colony’s citizens. Though they were still
concerned about the possibility of wider communications which could enhance the
colony’s trade, Nova Scotian Reformers were more committed to limited,
efficient government especially considering what they viewed as the disturbing
proposals for British North American federation. Nova Scotian Conservatives, on
the other hand, had by the 1860s accepted the industrial potential of railways.

            During the 1850s and 1860s, successive Nova Scotian
administrations had to deal with changed policy imperatives on both the revenue
and expenditure sides of the public accounts ledger, as reciprocity and
railroads posed new and unfamiliar financial problems. Railway construction
expenses incurred in the mid-1850s led to growing public skepticism as to the
value of burdening the future revenues of the colony to the extent that the
completion of all planned railroads would require. The hesitancy with which
railway construction was pushed forward during the late 1850s and early 1860s
illustrated, in concrete terms, the concurrent uncertainty in the political
arena. These times of depression proved to be an incubation period for the
dichotomy that subsequently developed in Nova Scotian politics. In the decline
of faith in railway-generated commercial growth were the seeds of the public
debate which was ultimately settled only by Confederation. Tempered hopes from
railways had precipitated the depression, and railways and their implications
for the state were central to the ideological split which subsequently erupted
over the future of Nova Scotia. The financial burden of state capitalism had as
its inevitable concomitant centralized financial control. Once the
industrializing potential of railways was accepted, the importance of
consolidated financial authority was easily recognizable. It was, therefore, no
coincidence that financial control was drawn from the assembly to the executive
even as negotiations to finance an expansion of the provincial railway system
took place. Nova Scotia had pursued a financial policy comparable to that of
Canada, though on the smaller scale befitting her smaller population. In their
use of this strategy, Nova Scotians, appear largely to have shared their values
and objectives. In effect, Nova Scotia travelled much the same road as her
continental sister colony, a fact somewhat obscured by the contemporary
political debate. The Canadian government, already deeply in debt for canals,
could not afford a direct role in railway development, and instead encouraged
private enterprise to act as its surrogate. In Nova Scotia, however, state
capitalism provided the answer to the development problem. A significant group
of Nova Scotian politicians, once they had been seduced by the possibility that
the state could manipulate the speed of development, came to the conclusion
that it was within the legitimate purview of the state to shape the nature of
the province’s development.

            The effect of railways on emerging urban centres was
crucial and dramatic. The railways played an integral role in the process
of industrialization, tying together and opening up new markets while, at
the same time creating a demand for fuel, iron and steel, and locomotives.
The railway greatly stimulated engineering, particularly with the demand
for bridges and tunnels. In Nova Scotia, it was a successful
endeavor for a short period of time. The railways fashioned a fundamental
alteration in that role during the period of Responsible Government, even as
they provided a basis for industrial development. By implementing a policy of
debt-financed improvements in transportation infrastructure in the 1850s, the government
committed the state to a formidable restructuring of its financial operations.
They had genuinely expected that the public debt would melt away in the face of
railway revenues, rising land values, and an increasing population. When this
happy outcome did not materialize by the late 1850s, they were left
disillusioned with the possibilities of railway development and anxious to back
away from policies designed to enhance the power of the state. This outcome
could explain the short-lived life of railways in Nova Scotia. Looking into
other factors in Nova Scotia during this time, it can be said that “there are
major gaps in our knowledge about construction activity or those who built the
line. There are fragmentary details about the provision of public freight and
passenger service but without the scope to assess the social and economic
impacts of the railway on the community. It is equally difficult to assess the
extent to which the line influenced the development of later railways in Nova
Scotia” (MacDonald).


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