William C. Van Horne: Railway Titan

William C. Van Horne: Railway Titan

William C. Van Horne was one of North America’s most accomplished men. Born in Illinois  in 1843, Van Horne started working in the railway business at a young age. In 1881 he was lured north to Canada to become general manager of the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway. The railroading general pushed through the construction of the CPR’s transcontinental line and then went on to become the company’s president. During his time with the CPR, Van Horne developed a telegraph service, launched the Empress line of Pacific steamboats in 1891, and founded CP Hotels. He capped his career by opening up Cuba’s interior with a railway.

A man of prodigious energy and many talents, he also became Canada’s foremost art collector and one of the country’s leading financiers. For all of his amazing accomplishments, Van Horne was knighted in 1894.  When he died, Cuba staged a day of mourning and the CPR ceased operations for five minutes.

To Order: William C. Van Horne: Railway Titan (ISBN 978-1-55488-702-6) is published by Dundurn Press, Toronto, Canada and is distributed by University of Toronto Press. The book can be ordered toll free in Canada and the U.S. by telephone (800) 565-9523, fax (800) 221-9985 or email utpbooks@utpress.utoronto.ca


Cuba Beckons

Van Horne’s trip to the West coast in the spring of 1899, just before he retired from the railway presidency, reinforced his view that he did not want to devote the remaining years of his life to his many hobbies. So long as he had major responsibilities, first as general manager and then as vice-president and president of the CPR. he found that painting and building up magnificent collections of art, porcelain, and model ships enthralled and delighted him. One he resigned, however, they failed to kindle the same level of interest in him. He realized that hobbies could not fill his life.

At this point, Van Horne was only fifty-six years old, but he knew that his health had been “in an uncertain state for several years.” Nevertheless, there was still too much energy churning in his massive frame to allow him to settle into a life of ease. What he needed was a major challenge, one that would tax his problem-solving abilities to the utmost and give a new edge to his life. Alternatively, he said, he wanted a project that involved “working out schemes.” Fortunately, just such a project came his way — building the Cuba Railroad.


Valerie Knowles’ competent survey of the life and times of William Van Horne is the latest volume in the highly accessible Quest series of biographies of significant Canadians.

The book tracks Van Horne’s epic career from the age of eleven, when he was a self-taught telegraph operator, to his final international business transactions in the weeks before his death at the age of seventy-two. However, it’s Knowles’ ability to bring the personality behind the legendary business magnate to life that makes the book such an enjoyable read.

She chronicles his love of family and practical jokes as well as his passionate interests in food, art, graphic design. and geology — each of which, she illustrates, informed and shaped his business development decisions for the Canadian Pacific Railway in significant ways.

– Deborah Morrison, Publisher, President and CEO of Canada’s History Society and of Canada’s History Magazine

Knowles, an historian, archivist, and journalist is an excellent choice to write this biography, having authored the award-winning From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2004). In fact, four chapter titles are identical in both biographies, and a brief comparison suggests that, in many ways, the current volume is a simplified and condensed version of her more extensive, scholarly work.

– Val Ken Kem, Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian and subject liaison for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University, Toronto