|Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (2002)
The aristocratic railway builder of the Canadian Pacific
Born 1843, Chelsea, Illinois
Began his railway career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railway in 1857. Between 1858 and 1864 he served in various capacities for the Michigan Central Railway. He joined the Chicago & Alton Railway in 1864 and within eight years had worked his way from ticket agent to train dispatcher, then Superintendent of Telegraphs and finally to Division Superintendent. Subsequently, he showed a remarkable aptitude for rebuilding faltering American lines into paying propositions; his consolidation of the Milwaukee Road (1879) being the most notable example. He was lured to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) by J. J. Hill, assuming the position of General Manager on 31 December 1881. In September 1885 Van Horne became CPR Vice-President. Within four years he was elevated to the position of President. He became Chairman of the CPR Board in 1899. He resigned in 1910.
Van Horne was flamboyant, outspoken and multi-talented. His appetites were legend as was his sophistication. He had a passion for art and he dabbled in architecture. Incredibly, while the CPR’s contract with the government dictated completion of the road within a decade, Van Horne — through sheer determination — found ways to finish it in five. Even more remarkably, once Van Horne had completed the CPR, he operated it and, despite the economic malaise for most of the 1880s and 1890s, made it into a paying proposition. Surely, the Canadian Pacific’s role as an instrument of Canadian nationalism would have followed a different course, had Van Horne not been at the helm.