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CN - A Capsule History

Unwarranted optimism by Canadian railway builders left too many track miles chasing too little traffic by the early 1900s. The decline of immigration during the First World War, followed by an economic slump, forced several major Canadian railways into shaky financial straits. The federal government came to the rescue of these companies, in large part to protect its reputation on international financial markets. Between 1919 and 1923 these struggling lines, along with the existing Canadian Government Railways, were folded into a new Crown corporation, Canadian National Railways.

It took time to make sense of this jumble of lines, services and equipment, but by the late 1920s the national railway was humming with new-found pride and prestige. Sadly, the depression took much of its traffic away, and the demands of moving unprecedented numbers of people and volumes of material during the Second World War depleted its infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Canadian government was covering the railway's substantial annual operating deficits.

However, the period following the Second World War was one of renewal, re-financing and re-organizing with the goal of making the CNR a viable corporation in the private sector mold. In 1978, with the creation of Via Rail Canada, CN ceased providing passenger rail service, to concentrate on what it does best - provide land-based cargo transportation and related services.

In 1995, CN went through another transformation through privatization. Improved profit levels, investor confidence, and an enviable standard of operating efficiency have put CN in the front rank among North American railways.

A Collection of Canada

The CN Photo Collection dates from well before the 1919-23 formation of the CNR, in fact a number of images date from the early years of photography in the 1850s. The 750,000 images in the collection record the development of CN as a Crown corporation from 1920 onwards, operating freight and passenger trains, hotels and resorts, ferry services and ocean steamships, telegraphs and telecommunications.

The photographers captured thousands of images documenting a rapidly developing Canada, as seen from a great variety of social perspectives - wilderness trekking, cities rising from the empty prairie, travel by land and by sea, industries in the making, Canadians marching to war, and opening up northern mineral wealth, to name just a few. The images record a unique portrait of Canada and Canadians over time and across North America.

While many of the images in the collection are visually striking, almost every one can be classified as having had a direct commercial purpose, whether to promote or sell a travel product, document a technological development, record an event, provide material for articles or boost employee morale. Most of the black and white negatives are large format, at 4 by 5 inches (10 by 12.5 cm) or larger. Most of the colour transparencies are 35 mm, with several in larger formats.

Canadian National, conscious of the historic value of these images, donated the CN Photo Collection to the National Museum of Science and Technology in October 1999. The collection was officially transferred to the people of Canada at a ceremony at the Museum on May 10, 2000. The Museum is committed to providing intellectual access to the collection while ensuring the long-term preservation of this unique visual resource for future generations of Canadians.


CSTM gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian Culture Online Program.

 

 

 

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