The role of the railways in naming Canadian communities cannot be downplayed. Steam-powered locomotives needed frequent stops so water and fuel could be on-loaded. Rail workers named many such places.
Then, as the west became settled, stations were established at 10-kilometre (six-mile) intervals, 10 kilometres there and back being considered an adequate daily journey for horses. Such stops were usually named by railroaders.
Train workers often called stations after themselves, their wives, their home towns in another country, or for some original settler. In fact, such stations were frequently set up on that settler’s land.
Fulton, a former CNR stop near Portage la Prairie, was named for an early settler. Caddy Lake is named after a CPR construction engineer. Cowan (near Swan River) takes its name from a contractor who helped build the area’s rail line. Fort Whyte is called after a CPR vice-president. Garland (near Dauphin) is named for a railway superintendent’s wife. Lavenham (near Portage la Prairie) honours a village in Suffolk, England.
Winnipeg, not named by the railway, is Manitoba’s capital only because the CPR crossed the river here rather than at Selkirk.
Current events were influential in all this naming. Mafeking, Baden, and Powell, three communities that lie in sequence on the CNR line north of Swan River, are perfect examples. All three were named in 1901 during the Boer War. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was an esteemed war hero known as, “The Hero of Mafeking,” because he defended Mafeking, South Africa, the target of a 217-day siege.
In Ontario, Berlin was re-christened Kitchener via order-in-council during the First World War. This New-world Berlin was settled by Germans and became the focus of anti-German activism even though most residents were probably not pro-German.
Again, in 1996, during the Cold War, Ontario’s Stalin Township underwent a name change to become Hansen Township by legislative edict. It now commemorates Canada’s “Man-in-Motion,” Rick Hansen.
Let’s get back to railways.
Just as in England, some station names were simple descriptions of surroundings, or they noted phenomena peculiar to the locale, for example, Big Grass Marsh near Neepawa. Canoe Lake got its name because of its shape. Elkhorn is so named because a CPR survey crew working in the vicinity found a big rack of elk antlers there.
Post offices were established at rail stops and, in many cases, communities wound up adopting the postmaster’s name even though Post office names had to be ratified by Ottawa. In Manitoba, the towns of Hartney, Hodgson and Roland are examples of towns named for their first postmasters.
Of course, not every location the train stopped at was named by a railroader. Many places where stations were set up already had names and both the CNR and CPR accepted these. Nevertheless, Canada’s railways had a huge influence in the naming of places, especially in the West.
(Sources for all place-name articles: Geographical Names of Manitoba, Wheatfields and Wildflowers, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Rand McNally Road Atlas, provincial tourism departments, Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Oxford Companion to the English Language.)