Before the first passenger trains in British North America, transport across land was extremely difficult. Contemporary accounts detail long, and difficult trips on foot, and by wagon, coach, and sleigh. There were very few roads, and where they existed, the dirt became mud in the spring and the addition of planks and logs damaged wagon wheels. "Macadamized" roads (layers of small, broken stones mixed with tar or asphalt) improved the situation, but were very expensive to maintain.
To travel between Montreal and Toronto by stagecoach would take thirty six hours, the remote areas of Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Arctic areas were almost impossible to get to.
The first railway opened in 1836, and construction boomed from thereon bringing employment, progress and development across the Country. Many of the smaller Companies were over ambitious, and over 2500 companies were chartered, and although many were partially funded by the Government a good number failed, only to be absorbed by the “giant” companies.
Townships across the nation all wanted to have a line through their area, nobody wanted to be left out, leading to fierce competition. Those towns that did benefit from a train line generally boomed, and the railway changed the lives of most Canadians, together with the birth of tourism in the country.
By about 1914, there were just four large companies dominating the network, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP), and due to financial difficulties, the Government acted and amalgamated them into the Canadian National Railways.
As road and air networks increased, the railways declined, and by the 1960’s a large number of the smaller branch lines closed.
The legacy for philatelists, is the huge range of Railway postal markings, these have been extensively studied over the years. Several important catalogues and handbooks have been written on the subject. Different markings were employed by the Companies for the railway post offices, and Registered mail was also separately cancelled. Clerks operating the mail coaches often had personalised cancels with their names incorporated into the marking. The different routes across the country had named or abbreviated circular date stamps, often in random shape and size particularly in the pioneering days of the 1860’s-70’s, later to be standardised in their design and size. Railway Stations, stock Depots, Offices and a whole host of related markings form an interesting study on their own. The former Maritime Provinces of Newfoundland, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island again are a popular area for study in their own right.
The appeal of the Travelling Post Office conjures up images of the steam locomotives thundering across forests and mountain passes, collecting mail along the way, from isolated towns, the clerks sorting the mail in their special carriages, cancelling the letters as they continue on their journey, the railways really did revolutionize communication for the masses.