Sir William Cornelius Van Horne

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne




Class of 1988

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne pushed the Canadian Pacific Railway lines through to the west coast, and also developed the plans for its national hotel system.

Van Horne was born in Chicago, and began his railway career as a telegrapher at the age of 14, but his innate management skills soon led to rapid progression within U.S. regional railroads, and his hard-driving reputation brought him to the attention of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, at a time when it was building a railway from Montreal to the Pacific Coast. Persuaded by CPR to move north, the 38-year-old Van Horne arrived in Winnipeg in 1881, and was hired on as General Manager.

He had a natural genius for construction, and an intuitive grasp of engineering. Working in a state of constant financial crisis, he pushed the line westward, while at the same time developing plans for a chain of chateau-style hotels, as well as an ocean steamship line for Canadian Pacific.

However, completion of the railroad was his first priority.  Disregarding warnings that the mountains were impenetrable, Van Horne chose the entrance to Burrard Inlet as the railway’s Pacific terminus, and named it Vancouver. In November 1885 CPR’s last spike was driven home.

Van Horne was appointed President of CPR in 1888. Failing health dictated his retirement in 1899, although he assumed the titular role of Chairman of the Board and member of the Executive Committee until his full withdrawal in 1910, and retirement to his estate in New Brunswick. Even in retirement, he characteristically built a railroad in eastern Cuba and a Guatemalan line.

He was a trustee of McGill University and a Director or Officer of many trusts, urban transport companies, and industries in Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Brazil.

In 1894 he was awarded the title of Honorary Knight Commander.

He has best been described as: “body and soul a Canadian Pacific man, a genius of transportation”.

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