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The Grand Trunk Pacific/National Transcontinental Railway had been created by Act of Parliament in September 1903 as part of Prime Minister Laurier's push to create a transcontinental railway to compete with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), built two decades before. The new line would consist of a publicly funded line from Winnipeg to Moncton, New Brunswick (3,250 kilometres) known as the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) and western portion, Winnipeg to the West Coast (2,800 kilometres), to be known as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) funded by a British railroad operating in Eastern Canada.

It was part of Laurier's Liberal government's incredibly ambitious plan to populate the West with European immigrants, create a prairie agricultural economy, and create population centres and markets for the established manufacturing concerns in Eastern Canada. By the early 1910s, Canada had two new transcontinental railways, hundreds of thousands of settlers spread out across the West and its two new provinces, burgeoning population centres and cultivated land as far as the eye could see. Winnipeg, as the region's premier city, was the centre of all of this growth. [1]

In 1906, real estate broker John Henry Kern sold two sections of his land in the Municipality of Springfield, east of Winnipeg, 324 hectares in all, to the GTPR for $138,000. [2] It consisted of scattered agricultural holdings and homes, and a few businesses north of present-day Regent Avenue. Development was rapid, however, after plans for the massive service and maintenance shops were finalized in 1908.

The site had many features which made it suitable for this development. The shops required a large parcel of flat land, something the area could easily supply. The complex would also require a reliable source of fresh water and hydro-electric power, and the railway was able to tap in to both the power and water sources of Winnipeg. [3] The site was close enough top Winnipeg to benefit from its large population base, its varied labour pool and its service industries. Because the areas to the west, north and south of the provincial capital had been developed and settled for many decades, it led to the purchase of this large block of land in the Springfield Municipality. And as Winnipeg had done previously, the shop site was able to capitalize on its central location in Canada; it was the perfect place in which to service and maintain the rolling stock of the entire GTPR/NTR system.

A tent community quickly developed as construction began on the shops, housing the workers from across Canada who poured into the area. On February 10, 1911, with work on the shops progressing well, local businessmen organized a Board of Trade, a process that had been repeated throughout the West as railways spurred development. Interestingly, the Board was in place for more than a year before the town was incorporated, on April 6, 1912. [4] The name chosen, by a public contest, was Transcona, "Trans" to commemorate the transcontinental railway that signalled the town's beginning and "cona" after Lord Strathcona who drove the last spike in the CPR line. [5]

In total, $6,000,000 was spent to built the shop complex which included a forge shop, a locomotive carpentry shop, a 61-metre chimney and a 24-locomotive roundhouse. [6] The town of Transcona grew quickly, especially north of the shops. Restaurants, hotels, pool halls and other commercial establishments located along the main commercial road, Regent Avenue, while to the north grew the residential districts of small, comfortable homes housing the shop workers and their families. Transcona, on the edge of Western Canada's largest and most influential city of the early 20th century, was a quintessential railway town. The town experienced severe economic hardship during the 1920s and went bankrupt in 1921. The Mayor and Council were required to resign and the Province of Manitoba administered the Town of Transcona until 1927.

But Transcona, because of its distance from Winnipeg, was quite separate. In the early years, the railroad was the only means of transportation to and from the city; many of the town's women would board a train in the morning, arrive in Winnipeg, shop and return home in the afternoon. Treacherous dirt roads allowed for more access, although early buses were often trapped in mud. It was not until 1931 that an asphalt road was completed, a Depression-era make work project costing $135,000, heralding a new era for Transcona. [7] Growth continued and Transcona became a City with its population of 13,000 in 1961.

Transcona, despite modern connections, continued to develop very differently from Winnipeg. For many decades, life in Transcona revolved around the shop whistle. As the railway sector evolved, steam to diesel power in the 1950s and reduced traffic more recently, Transcona has also evolved. No longer simply a railway town, Transcona has seen the development of other industries and services in the area.

[1] The Canadian Encyclopedia , Second Edition, Vol. 2 (Edmonton, AL: Hurtig Publishers, 1988), p. 1183.

[2] Transcona - On the Horizon of a Great Future, 50 Years of Progress (Transcona, MB: Golden Jubilee Historical Booklet Committee, 1961), p. 38.

[3] Transcona, 1911-1986, Celebrating 75 years of community (Transcona, MB: Transcona 75th Jubilee Incorporated, 1986), p. 19. Below as Transcona, 1911-1986.

[4] Ibid., p. 20.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Railway and Marine World , No. 138 (August 1909), pp. 561, 563.

[7] Transcona, 1911-1986 , op. cit., p. 19.