Chapter 3:   The Iron Horse

Of all of man's inventions, none seems so iconic, recognizable and endearing as the steam locomotive.  For nearly eighty years its haunting whistle in the prairie landscape seemed as natural and comforting as bird song.

At the turn of the century when horse or ox cart were the norm, there was something special about locomotives:  the look, the sound and power. They just seemed to immediately belong on the open prairie.

People marveled at the speed. While oxcart travel was slower than walking, these Iron horses rocketed down their rails at 40 – 60 kilometres an hour.  It was a stunning leap in transportation technology. In fact, there were those who feared it to be an act against God and nature.

It fostered the coming population boom on the prairies.

Steam locomotives were first developed in Great Britain during the early 19th century. The invention and widespread use of train travel facilitated the industrial revolution and transformed both the economy and lifestyle of the era.

Designs improved, and the technology quickly spread to the United States where it was responsible for the amazing speed by which they accomplished their continent-wide expansion.

There is perhaps a little irony in the fact in Manitoba our first CPR steam arrived here not on rails, but as a passenger on its predecessor … the steamboat!

In 1877, CPR Contractor Joseph Whitehead purchased an engine, had it loaded on a barge towed by the SS Selkirk,

On October 9 the steamer continued the historic journey towards Winnipeg. It was a gala affair, with hundreds of settlers lining the riverbanks.

It was the first locomotive to arrive in the Canadian west. 


The Countess in the Railway Museum


Photo – Archives of Manitoba

Winnipeg Free Press Oct. 8, 1877

The welcome at Winnipeg was vociferous and filled with excitement, as reported, in part, by the Manitoba Free Press on October 9, 1877:

“The locomotive was unloaded from the barge at St. Boniface on October 10 with much fanfare and was put to work the following day.”

She was only the first of hundreds of locomotives that would come to the prairie in future years and the only one to arrive by boat.

The Countess of Dufferin is one of the few remaining steam locomotives from this era remaining in Manitoba. Its place of honor today is the Winnipeg Rail Museum.  

The earliest Canadian locomotives burned wood. They had the distinctive funnel stacks to allow the ash to cool so as to eliminate fires on the dry open grasses of the prairies.

The necessary wood was stocked at the side of the rail at specific intervals.

In the early days the passengers had to help load the wood into the tender so they could carry on down the track. For this they received a few pennies off their next trip. Eventually coal was found to be available and more efficient without the need to retrofit the engines fireboxes.

Steam locomotives of the era had several common traits. The tender, linked behind the engine stored both the necessary water for the steam and coal for the firebox.  The firebox was surrounded by a long round boiler in which created steam. The steam was transferred by hoses to a reciprocating pistons on both the sides of the largest wheels called "drivers".  These drivers transfer the steam power from the pistons to the push rod to wheels onto the track.  

There were many variation of brands and styles over the years, but the basic, simple and efficient design of the steam locomotive  for the most part didn't change for nearly 150 years. 

The Northern Pacific / Manitoba’s #5 was photographed at the 6th street Brandon Station around 1905.