From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne

From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne
Winner of The Canadian Railroad Historical Association Book Award for 2005
Winner of the City of Ottawa Book Award 2005 for non-fiction
Winner of The University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography for 2004

William C. Van Horne was one of North America’s most accomplished men. Born in Illinois in 1843, he became a prominent railroading figure before being lured north to Canada to become general manager of the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway. The railroading general pushed through construction of the CPR’s transcontinental line and then went on to become the company’s president. A man of prodigious energy and many talents, he also became Canada’s foremost art collector and one of this country’s leading financiers. Van Horne capped his career by opening up Cuba’s interior with a railway.

To Order: From Telegrapher to Titan (ISBN 1-55002-488-4) 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 It can also be found on or


Valerie Knowles’s From Telegrapher to Titan is a well-researched and intelligently written biography about the man primarily responsible for tying Canada together with a ribbon of steel. It is an important book. But it is also hugely entertaining, providing a wealth of detail about the transplanted American who grew to love Canada. Who knew that the tough railway man stood up to Jesse James, corresponded with Rudyard Kipling, and collected oriental porcelain as a hobby?

– Jury Statement, Ottawa Book Award 2005

A historical biography should contain certain elements: It should provide historical context; it should embrace the subject’s life in a way that provides well-rounded and well-researched information; and it should provoke curiosity! Valerie Knowles’ portrayal of William C. Van Horne in From Telegrapher to Titan does all of these, and, in addition, because of Knowles’ narrative genius, it will be heralded as the definitive biography of one of Canada’s most complex and controversial figures.

Canadian Rail

The spring, Valerie Knowles published a book she suspects will amount to little more than a labour of love. If that does indeed prove to be the case with her biography of William C. Van Horne, rest assured that she will not regret “even a moment” of the 12 years “on and off” she devoted to researching and writing From Telegrapher To Titan…  What follows is some 500 captivating pages that tell the story of a truly fascinating individual — and to the author’s credit, it is conveyed through a narrative that conquers the considerable challenges posed by such a complicated and in many ways controversial man.

– Nick Millokas, The Regina Leader Post

Canadian writers have a long tradition of producing excellent historical biographies… One need only think of Donald Creighton’s monumental biography of John A. Macdonald or Roger Graham’s three-volume study of Arthur Meighen… This tradition is continued by Ottawa writer Valerie Knowles in her account of the life of 19-century railway magnate William C. Van Horne… From Telegrapher To Titan is more than a biography; it is a first-rate work of business history, covering in detail the development of railways in 19th-century North America.

– Graeme Voyer, The Winnipeg Free Press


Chapter Fifteen: Chasing the Money

“Mackenzie thinks there are ‘millions in it’ if we can get it into reasonably secure shape. It has been a long hunt and we mustn’t miss it,” wrote a jubilant Van Horne to his friend General Alger in 1898. Van Horne was writing about a scheme to electrify Havana’s tramway system, but the railway magnate could just as easily have been referring to one of numerous other overseas and Canadian projects in which he became involved at the close of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth. These were the years in which Van Horne dedicated himself to making money and savouring the excitement that so often accompanies the discovery of new money-making opportunities; however, unlike his adroit and suave financier friend Thomas Ryan, he did not find joy in stuffing securities away in a safe. For Van Horne, money was a means to an end, a way to renovate a house, perhaps, or to purchase a coveted work of art. This in itself, of course, is not remarkable. What is striking is the staggering number of companies in which he became involved before he decided to relinquish many of his directorships. By some estimates he was a director of at least forty companies and invested in countless more. After he retired from the presidency of the CPR, he not only collected directorships he also played an active role in the management of several enterprises – the Cuba Company, of course, being the most conspicuous of these.

Van Horne, a capitalist par excellence, would have subscribed to the view of capitalism expounded by that great Napoleon of the West, Clifford Sifton, who contended, “The capitalistic system has grown up and it is in use because, and only because, the experience of mankind has proven it to be the best way of doing what has to be done.” Van Horne not only venerated the business corporation, he regarded it as the very foundation of modern civilization. He once told his newspaper friend Sir John Willison that corporations “have souls – composite souls – larger and purer than any individual soul that ever was or ever will be.” He added, “I have sat at the Directors’ table in corporations for many years and have yet to hear the first deliberately mean suggestion on the part of a Director on any matter of policy, and have yet to see the first case in which, as between two lines of policy, the fair and liberal one was not adopted.” Van Horne allowed that corporations should pay “their fair proportion of taxes,” but he contended that they “should be taxed precisely the same as individuals are taxed.” He saw no valid reason “for making them pay for the privilege of being a corporation for that privilege is a public necessity and a public good.”

Much to Van Horne’s indignation, his benevolent view of corporations was not shared by everybody else, especially groups in the United States that traditionally resented state authority: labour, farmers, small businessmen, and the growing middle class. So strong was their objection to the dominion of big business they began turning to the government for protection in the opening years of the twentieth century. No president was better suited to take advantage of this political climate than the activist and moral crusader Teddy Roosevelt. As governor of New York he had advocated the regulation of big business, and after he ascended to the presidency in 1901 he moved fast. Taking direct aim at the United States’s financial oligarchy – John D. Rockefeller, Edward H. Harriman, and James Jerome Hill, to name just some of the leading lights – the president prosecuted Morgan’s Northern Securities Company under the Sherman Act as an illegal restraint of trade. Later, large railway systems bent on extending their territorial dominion became targets. They took a direct hit in 1906, when Congress passed the Hepburn Act. Designed to plug loopholes in the legislation that established the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, it gave the commission power to set maximum railway rates. Four years later, in 1910, the Mann-Elkins Act, which extended the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission over means of communication as well as transportation, restored the long-haul shorthaul clause of the original act.