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Manitoba’s first locomotive — the Countess of Dufferin arrived to bells, whistles and cheers
Sep 22, 2006

by Bruce Cherney

Miss Racine pulled enthusiastically upon the ropes and St. Boniface Cathedral’s bells rang out, joining the of shrill of mill whistles and cheers of people lining the riverbanks as the steamer Selkirk chugged down the Red toward its mooring below Lombard Street and a date with history. 

The enthusiastic welcome was for the steam locomotive “Countess of Dufferin,” named after the wife of Lord Dufferin, Canada’s  governor- general. The couple had left Winnipeg just days before the arrival of the “iron horse,” but in a moment of inspiration, Joseph Whitehead decided the first locomotive to grace the Canadian prairies needed a vice-regal name, befitting her rank as the “First Lady” of Manitoba’s rails.

The naming of the engine occurred on Tuesday, October 2, when the southbound vice-regal couple chanced to meet the future “Countess” as she made her way northward.

“We went ashore (at Fisher’s Landing) and saw the engine No. 2 of the Canadian Pacific Railway; it was going to Winnipeg with a train of railway-trucks,” wrote Lady Dufferin in her diary, “and it is to be called the ‘Lady Dufferin.’”

Whitehead also came to the conclusion that the locomotive should also bear the designation CPR No. 1 because of its place in local history.

Fisher’s Landing, 16 kilometres east of present-day Grand Forks on the Minnesota side of the Red River, was railway’s end, where travellers from St. Paul had to change over to a steamboat to continue northward to Winnipeg. In the case of Lord and Lady Dufferin, they were to met the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad connection on their journey back to Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the engine Countess of  Dufferin, tender, caboose and six platform cars were loaded onto three barges to be towed by the steamer Selkirk for the trip up the Red to Winnipeg.

The Manitoba Free Press correspondent at Pembina wrote that as the flotilla, “handsomely decorated with flags and bunting,” passed Fort Pembina it was greeted by an artillery salute.

The great irony, amid all the hoopla surrounding the event, was that the steamboat was towing the very instrument of its evnetual demise. When the Countess was making its way to Winnipeg, there were 15 steamboats plying the Red. In the coming years, steamboat numbers operating on route from the U.S. to Winnipeg, steadily diminished until there were none.

“At an early hour Tuesday morning, wild, unearthly shrieks, from up the river, announced the coming of the steamer Selkirk (at nine o’clock in the morning of October 8, 1877),” reported the Free Press, “with the first locomotive ever brought into Manitoba ... Shortly after landing (at No. 6 warehouse at the foot of what is now Lombard Street) three cheers were given for Mr. Jos. Whitehead; and in a few minutes a crowd swarmed on board and examined the engine most minutely. The caboose and flatcars, which also came in for their share of attention, each bear the name Canadian Pacific in white letters.”

Once the “many hundreds” had been satisfied that a new era of transportation had indeed arrived, the steamer and flotilla proceeded to below the Point Douglas ferry crossing where a track had been laid to the water’s edge on the St. Boniface side.

An editorial in the Free Press said: “The arrival of the first locomotive engine in Manitoba certainly marks an epoch of great importance in the history of the Canadian North-West, and the occasion is undoubtedly one that is deserving of commemoration ...”

Journalist George Ham, who arrived in Winnipeg in 1875 from the East and witnessed the arrival of the Countess, wrote in his autobiography, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, that not everyone was as enthusiastic.

“A lone, blanketed Indian standing on the upper bank of the river looked rather disdainfully upon the strange iron thing and the interested crowd of spectators who hailed its coming. He evinced no enthusiasm but stoically gazed at the novel thing. What did it portend? To him it might be the dread thought of the passing of the old life of his race, the alienation of the stamping grounds of his forefathers, the early extinction of their God-given provider, the buffalo, which for generations past had furnished ... all the necessities of life ... Whatever he may have thought, this iron  horse actually meant that the wild, free, unrestrained life of the Indian was nearing its end.”

On the other hand, local officials were enthusiastic about a “steam” railway well before its actual arrival in Manitoba. In the years prior to 1877, city council passed many resolutions favouring a railway link with the East and sent these to officials in Ottawa. To further make their case, they also cited growing immigration and increased agricultural production.

Manitoba had already attracted large contingents of Mennonite (first group in 1874) and Icelandic (first group in 1875) settlers. It was reported that 4,000 people settled in Manitoba in 1876 and the number was expected to double in 1877.

“Situated as we are with no railway within 150 miles of us, and with the Red River ... open but six months in the year (for steamboats) ... (it is) almost impracticable for us to raise grain for export at a profit, until our transportation facilities are increased.

“Without a doubt, the speedy construction and completion of a railway from Red River to Lake Superior, within our territory, is desirable in the last degree ...,” according to a September 8, 1877, Free Press editorial.

Winnipeg city council recognized that the connection between Thunder Bay and their city was years in the future, so a resolution was passed calling for the Canadian government to commence the construction of the Pembina Branch as soon as possible.

A Free Press special editorial, just hours after the Countess of Dufferin had arrived,  pointed out that Whitehead had fittingly been part of another historic event. He had been the fireman on the “Rocket” built by George Stephenson, when in 1825 it became the first engine to run the first railway route between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington in Yorkshire, England.

“Surely the event of to-day is not a whit less important to Canadians in Manitoba than was that in which Mr. Whitehead figured so many years ago to Englishmen in Yorkshire!” proclaimed editor W.F. Luxton.

“Knowing how important to the rapid development and future prosperity of the country is the opening up of railway communication with the rest of Canada, we can all sympathize with the exuberance of spirit which they showed, and also eagerly look forward to the time when the first through passenger train will run between here and St. Paul.”

Manitobans would have to wait another year before such an event occurred as the rail line to the American border had not been completed.

Actually, the first spike in the Pembina Branch had only been driven home by Lady Dufferin a few days before her namesake engine arrived in Winnipeg. 

Whitehead, who had been a railway fireman and engineer in Great Britain prior to arriving in Canada in 1850, had been awarded the contract to build the Pembina Branch of the CPR by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal government. It helped that Whitehead had been a Liberal MP in Canada’s first parliament, representing Huron North in Ontario until 1872.

The CPR had started out as the 

national dream of Prime Minister Macdonald’s Conservative government, but the “Pacific Scandal” intervened. Newspapers publicized telegrams revealing that the prime minister and other cabinet members had received under-the-table 1872 election campaign bribes from American railway interests through Canadian Sir Hugh Allan. The resulting scandal forced the Macdonald government to resign. 

The Liberals came to power and Mackenzie initiated a less ambitious railway scheme— only as money was available would contracts be awarded to build the CPR. 

Whitehead was contracted to complete the Pembina Branch and link it with the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (later the St. Paul and Manitoba Railroad). 

By October 11, work on the new line commenced, and 11 days later, the Selkirk had returned from St. Paul to Winnipeg, carrying another 12 flatcars to aid in the construction.

It was the Countess of Dufferin that pulled the first excursion train in the West on a run from St. Boniface to Selkirk on December 19, 1877.

The Countess of Dufferin was a relatively new engine, built just five years earlier by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia for $9,850 plus a delivery charge of $400. The Northern Pacific used the engine in Minnesota and the Dakota Territories.

By 1877, the Northern Pacific was in financial difficulties and the engine was offered for sale. Whitehead purchased the engine, tender, caboose and some flatcars. The cost for the locomotive was $5,300 out of a total purchase price for the rail equipment of about $6,000.

Whitehead used the locomotive for construction of the Pembina Branch and the CPR mainline east of Winnipeg, starting with a section running from St. Boniface to East Selkirk during the winter of 1877-78. At the time, the decision had been made for the trans-Canada railway to cross the Red at Selkirk rather than Winnipeg — that’s why the locomotive operated from the St. Boniface side of the Red rather than the Winnipeg side of the river. 

The Selkirk crossing was favoured because it would be on higher and firmer ground that wasn’t prone to flooding. Because of its natural advantages, the Canadian government’s chief engineer, Sanford Fleming, promoted the Selkirk crossing.

Dismayed by this intent, city council  members persuaded Winnipeggers to approve a cash subsidy of $200,000, land for a station and an exemption from civic taxation into perpetuity. Upon its completion on May 26, 1881, the city-built Louise Bridge was used by CPR trains.

Selkirk simply did not have the population nor the business interests to compete with the incentives offered by Winnipeg.

The Countess was not the only engine used to transport materials for the completion of Whitehead’s Manitoba contracts. The Free Press reported on June 15, 1878, that a second locomotive, directly from the shops at Philadelphia, had arrived a day earlier aboard the steamer Cheyenne. “The cost laid down here was around  $12,000 ... The Cheyenne also brought in for Mr. Whitehead some 25 flatcars manufactured in London, Ont., part of a large order filled by the car works of that place for the use of the Pembina Branch ...”

This second engine was named after Whitehead. Others that followed in the autumn of 1878 and the summer of 1879 were called the James McKay, named for a Manitoba pioneer; the James H. Rowan, named for a divisional engineer; the Empress of India, named for Queen Victoria; and the Joseph Upper, named for a subcontractor on the Pembina Branch. The Sitting Bull was named after the Sioux chief who fled to Canada after the annihilation of U.S. troops under Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn.

The Pembina Branch wasn’t completed until November 1878. When it couldn’t be decided which lady should drive home the last spike, James Wickes Taylor, the U.S. consul in Winnipeg, suggested that all the ladies present have a go. Each tried with little success until Mary Sullivan, the daughter of a section boss, took her turn. With just a single mighty blow, the strapping lass drove home the spike to thunderous cheers.

“The last rail is laid. The last spike driven,” proclaimed the Free Press. “Manitoba ... is now connected by rail with the outside world.

On December 3, 1878, a number of prominent Winnipeggers took an excursion on the train. Unfortunately for the passengers, all the creature comforts of a passenger express were lacking as it was a work train. Although there is no indication of the locomotive used, it was presumed to be the Countess of Dufferin. Women rode in a caboose, but men had to withstand the chill of the day travelling on a flatcar. At a workcamp, the party celebrated with a meal of chicken and oysters downed with champagne.

It was not until later that regular passenger service was established. Passengers could leave in the morning one day and reach St. Paul the following morning. “Regular trains run through to St. Paul every day and make good connections,” reported the Manitoba Gazette on December 14, 1878. “Only three days to Toronto.”

While people rejoiced that rail travel had finally arrived, what they received wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art. It was reported that the Pembina line was so rough that a correspondent for The Times of London said he had been more seasick on the railway than he had been crossing the Atlantic.

The line had been so improperly ballasted that only a maximum speed of about 18 km/h could be safely attained. Even at that slow speed, the train cars pitched awkwardly back and forth.

There was only one water tank on the 101-kilometre stretch before joining with the St. Paul and Manitoba Railroad at St. Vincent, Minnesota, so when the boiler became dry,  the crew got water from nearby streams. The only fuel was green poplar, piled along the track at intervals. Burning green wood meant that it took a long time to generate enough steam to get underway and that great clouds of smoke bellowed out of the locomotive’s stack.

“The trip to Winnipeg was best described — and in an understatement — as ‘leisurely,’” wrote Canadian author Pierre Burton in his book on the construction of the trans-Canada railway, The National Dream. “Passengers were in the habit of alighting to watch the perspiring crew hurling poplar logs aboard the tender. Sometimes they would wander into the woods and go to sleep in the shade ... it became necessary to make a head count and beat the bushes, literally, for missing ticket holders.

“An even more ludicrous spectacle was caused by the lack of a turntable at St. Boniface. When the engine reached that point, it could not turn about but had to make the entire trip back to the border with tender foremost.”

Whitehead’s days of railway glory didn’t last. In 1880, the Conservatives under Macdonald were returned to power and Whitehead was forced to give up his CPR contract.

The  man who brought the Countess  of Dufferin to Manitoba turned his attention to timber. In 1881, he received a timber concession of 24,848 hectares (61,440 acres) along the Whitemouth River where he operated a sawmill. Two years later, he gave up this enterprise and retired to Clinton, Ontario.

Meanwhile, the Countess of Dufferin continued to run on various local and mainlines, but by 1897 it was taken out of service by the CPR beause wood-burning locomotives such as the Countess were being replaced by coal-burning engines.

The Countess was sold to the Columbia River Lumber Co. of Golden, B.C., for $1,000.

By accident in 1909, the locomotive was found languishing and disassembled at the lumber company’s railyard. The city expressed its desire to purchase the locomotive and have it transported back to Winnipeg. The owner of the engine and sawmill was Sir William Mackenzie, a partner in the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway — the railway that ran north of the CPR and later became Canada’s second transcontinental line. Mackenzie readily donated the Countess to the city and with the co-operation of the CPR it was brought to its Weston Shops to be reconditioned.

The Countess’ first home after its return was Sir William Whyte Park across from the CPR Station on Higgins Avenue. In 1944, she was moved to a location between the station and the Royal Alexandra Hotel (now demolished).

With the financial help of George Richardson, the  Countess was then restored and put on show in a small park near the the Manitoba Museum. 

In 1977, the locomotive was taken to the Weston Shops to await a new home away from the dangers of vandalism. In 1994, the Countess became part of the Winnipeg Railway Museum, operated by the Midwestern Railway Association. Manitoba’s first locomotive is now on display on Track 1 at the VIA Rail Depot, 123 Main St.