Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Cariboo Region: Railway Mail Service, Prince George to Prince Rupert

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the extension of rail service to the province allowed the freer movement of people and goods within B.C. and to other parts of Canada. This included the transport of mail for individuals, organizations and businesses. Trains have carried mail since their invention, but in 1897, the federal government officially formed the Railway Mail Service within the Post Office Department.

Departmental order from Deputy Postmaster General William White, dated February 22, 1897, announcing the establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch. The announcement includes the initial locations and other details regarding the service.

Department Order, No. 38 [Establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch] (e002151860)

This service used a system of travelling post offices aboard trains, staffed by crews of specialized railway mail clerks. These clerks performed the regular work of receiving, sorting, cancelling and distributing mail, all done while on board trains travelling from town to town. Clerks needed to be speedy, accurate, strong and trustworthy as they prepared often-valuable items for the mail service. Especially tricky was the pickup of mailbags on the fly. The clerk would swing out a catch arm on the side of the rail car to pick up the waiting bag, while simultaneously kicking out a delivery mailbag for that location. The manoeuvre was particularly challenging if the train was running late and going by a station at full speed.

Railway mail cars had various configurations, but all were fitted with dumping tables, sorting cases and other furniture for preparing mail, as well as stoves, toilets and sinks. Although this made for cramped quarters, such equipment was an absolute necessity for crews who often lived on board the cars for long runs.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man beside tables and mailbags in a railway mail car.

Portrait of railway mail clerk A.L. Robinson on the Grand Trunk line’s first Prince George–Prince Rupert run, 1914 (s002386)

In B.C.’s Cariboo region, railways and the accompanying railway mail service arrived somewhat later than in other parts of the province. In 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway completed a line from Prince George to Prince Rupert as part of its larger network. The company located the terminus of the line on the traditional lands of the Ts’msyen at Prince Rupert, and it purchased 553 hectares of Lheidi T’enneh land to form the new town site of Prince George. However, by 1915, the company was in financial trouble, and the federal government nationalized the railway and integrated it into Canadian National Railways in 1920.

Colour map of Canada and the northern portion of the United States, showing various railway lines across the continent.

Map showing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the lines of the Grand Trunk Railway system in Canada; also the relative position of the Grand Trunk Pacific to the three northern transcontinental lines now completed: Canadian Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway, 1903 (e01751895-v6)

The Railway Mail Service reached its peak in 1950, when it employed 1,385 railway clerks on lines all across the country. However, the service was in decline by the mid-1960s, and while some mail was still carried by rail up to the 1980s, the Railway Mail Service officially ended in 1971.

To learn more about the Railway Mail Service, railways in B.C., and the purchase of the Lheidi T’enneh land for the Prince George town site, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada

The Story of the Canadian National Land Settlement Association: A Co-lab challenge

By Andrew Elliott

More than a century ago, on June 6, 1919, the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) was born. Its incorporation consolidated private and public railway systems into one public organization. The intention was for the new rail company to provide stable rail service to all parts of Canada. There are many aspects to the history of CN and the vast and rich archival collection—nearly 16,000 containers of archival material—in the Canadian National Railways fonds at Library and Archives Canada reflects this sprawl. The fonds, like the company itself, resembles a many-headed hydra. The myriad company functions reflected the perceived need for the company to be all things to all people.

To this archivist, two very interesting sub-sections of CN were the Colonization and Agriculture Department and the Canadian National Land Settlement Association (CNLSA). The Colonization and Agriculture Department existed from 1919 to 1963 and was run by T.P. Devlin for most of this time. In 1925, the federal government’s Department of Immigration and Colonization enacted regulations that remained in effect until 1951. These regulations stated that, where possible, immigrant land settlers from continental Europe should deposit money in trust with a government-approved land settlement agency.

Thus a land settlement division, called the CNLSA, was established within CN’s Colonization and Agriculture Department on March 9, 1925, as part of their program to promote immigration and land settlement in Canada, which had significant negative impacts on First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation. This both increased rail traffic and assisted the railway in disposing of some of its land grants. Over 27,000 immigrants were assisted by the CNLSA. Land was located and money released to immigrants to purchase land, equipment and livestock. This continued until 1963. As both the Colonization and Agriculture Department and the CNLSA were closely associated in this work, the CNLSA being virtually part of the Department, the records are often intermingled. It is also worth noting that the CNLSA competed with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s own association, the Canadian Colonization Association, which operated from 1923 onwards. Further information about that organization can be found at the Glenbow Archives in Calgary, Alberta.

Much of the administrative and operational records created by the Office of the Director of Colonization and Agriculture (and the CNLSA) help document CN’s efforts to obtain settlers, and the latter’s placement on the land and progress. These records include reports, policy and correspondence files, files concerning individuals and organizations (usually identified by ethnic origins), community progress reports, settlement proposals, shipping files, relations with various governments, and copies of annual reports and other publications. Of particular interest are the specific immigrant files, which include an application questionnaire indicating nationality, language, religion, age and family members; identification cards; record of service, including name of the shipping line and ship used for passage to Canada; receipts; documentation on location of settlement in Canada; and various correspondence. In the 1920s and 1930s, many immigrants brought over to Canada were from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.

The series is split into the following sub-sections:

Since these records first arrived at LAC back in the 1960s, the way to search the collection has been through a number of finding aids, including a 194-page paper finding aid (FA 30–39).These finding aids are now searchable online.

There are numerous CNLSA photographic reports, found in a sub-series attached to the main CN photograph collection. Additional records can be found in the Canadian National Land Settlement Association reports and photographs sub-series, which document the settlement of immigrant families, particularly in Western Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Many reports provide lists with interesting information, such as the following list of immigrants settled in Western Canada in 1934–35.

Typed list indicating the names, origins and location of settlement for some families directed by the Western offices.

List from report entitled Brief notes on the settlement of some of the families directed by the Western offices during the years 1934 and 1935, (e011000601)

Many European immigrants heading for farms in Western Canada stopped at the Winnipeg immigration sheds attached to the CN railway station, as seen in this photograph.

Black and white photograph of a group of immigrants who had arrived at Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Immigrants from Central Europe arriving in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 1920s (c036148)

The CNLSA reports are invaluable resources for researchers who would wish to find out more about their ancestors and about farm settlement patterns. Since the censuses for the 1930s have not yet been released, the information provided in the CNSLA reports will be, for some years to come, the only information available as to where the immigrants came from and where they settled. Here are a few examples:

Page from an album with two black and white photographs; one of a family standing in front of a house surrounded by farmland, and the other a close-up of the same scene. Page also includes typed information about the family’s identity and their immigration details.

The Kretchnear family and farm. A German settlement. (e011000044)

Page from an album with two black and white photographs; one showing a family standing in front of a house and the other showing a team of horses pulling a plough. Photos are captioned with typed text.

German Romanian Settlement, the Mehle Family, 1928. (e011000523)

Page from an album with two black and white photographs; one showing a family standing in front of a house and the other showing a view of farmland. The photos are captioned with typed text.

Swiss Settlement, The Buff family in British Columbia, 1937 (e011000585)

Page from an album with two black and white photographs. One showing a team of horses pulling a plough, and the other shows a man standing with his team of horses. The photos are captioned with typed text.

Yugosalvian Setttlement, The Silobodec family in Saskatchewan, 1937 (e011000581)

Many of these photographic reports were recently digitized. You can help tag and transcribe these reports using LAC’s Co-Lab tool. Maybe you will see where your ancestors came from, or maybe you will spot the first farm they purchased! These CNLSA archival records are a treasure trove of information, particularly for Western Canadian farm settlement, and we hope this will excite new and long-term genealogists alike.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.