05 July 2012

An Atlantic Canada Steampunk Fantasy

The Chignecto Ship Railway
H.G.C. Ketchum
Boston: Damrell & Upham, [1893]

The current Canadian edition of Reader's Digest features a piece I wrote about some of this country's great unrealized projects. Toronto's Vimy Circle, the Chateau Prince Rupert and Jean Drapeau's 325-metre-tall concrete celery stalk figure, as do Thomas Mawson's plans to recast cow town Calgary in the City Beautiful style, but the Chignecto Ship Railway ranks as my favourite.

The dream of New Brunswick engineer H.G.C. Ketchum, the whole venture seems like the work of a madman today, yet it received government backing, millions of dollars in investment from British businessmen and was once held up as a model that would be emulated the world over.

In Ketchum's dream, ocean-going ships would be raised from the Bay of Fundy, transported along a 27-kilometre double-tracked railway, then gently lowered into the Northumberland Strait.

And vice versa.

The pitch for what was to have been the world's first ship railway is all here in this booklet Ketchum wrote for the 1893 World's Columbian Water Commerce Congress. A desperate document, it was produced at a time when the project was in great jeopardy. You see, the most incredible aspect of this impossible dream is that the money ran out within weeks of completion.

It wouldn't be right to retell the whole sad, tragic story here – buy the magazine – but I spoil nothing in saying that the effort failed. The Chignecto Ship Railway died – and with it the whole idea of ship railways. Ketchum knew one could not live without the other, writing:
The safe transit of a ship in cargo across the Isthmus of Chignecto will be the signal for many other ship railway schemes to begin construction. The Tehuantepec, the Panama, the Cape Cod, the Ontario and Michigan isthmuses will be vanquished by this means; and various obstructions can be overcome and short cuts made in different parts of the world.

That passage is one of the most interesting in The Chignecto Ship Railway. The booklet is the work of an engineer doing his darndest to attract investors: bland prose is peppered with facts, figures and dollar signs. Visual aids would've helped.

Ketchum might have done well in turning to fellow New Brunswicker Charles G.D. Roberts. who had written about the project with great enthusiasm in the August 1890 edition of Cosmopolitan. The next year, Roberts painted a lovely scene in his Canadian Guide-Book:
When it is completed a line of steamers will run between St John and Charlottetown and the traveler will have the novel experience of watching from his vessel's decks a lovely landscape of meadows and orchards unroll below him as he moves slowly across the isthmus. The sensation will be unique, as this is the world's only ship railway.
I'd have paid good money to take that cruise.

Object and Access: A nondescript booklet, The Chignecto Ship Railway should not be confused with Ketchum's The Chignecto Ship Railway: Will It Pay? (1887), The Chignecto Ship Railway: The Substitute for the Baie Verte Canal (1892), Ship Transportation and the Chignecto Ship Railway (1892) and a handful of other similarly titled publications issued in support of the project. The others have been picked over by print on demand vultures, but only our old friends at Bibliolife have spotted this one. "We believe this work is culturally important and have elected to bring the book back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide", they tell us. Bibliolife will happily sell you a copy of this 12-page public domain booklet for $15.50 (postage & handling not included).

Or you could just read it gratis here.


A scale model of Jean Drapeau's 325-metre concrete celery stalk
(otherwise known as the Monument Paris-Montréal).


  1. Fascinating. I'm a great fan of mad, hare-brained, visonary schemes and wish that the money that was wasted on occupying Iraq (over $1 trillion) could have been channeled into bizarre but benign grand projects like this.

  2. Reading about this reminds me of the Herzog's film FITZCARRALDO and Klaus Kinski's mad performance of the man obsessed with getting his ship over that hill in the Peruvian jungle.

  3. Steerforth - Agreed, a much better, much safer use of funds. And who knows what might have happened had the railway been completed. Ketchum's detractors never said it couldn't be done - rather that it wouldn't be as profitable or practical as a canal. It's telling, I think, that 140 or so years later, there is still no canal linking the Bay of Fundy to Northumberland Strait.

    John - I hadn't made the connection... and am embarrassed to admit that after all these years I still haven't seen the film.

  4. So glad to see this post, Brian. I first learned of Ketchum's folly in Harry Thurston's excellent book about the salt marsh, A Place Between the Tides. Ever since, I've been telling tourists about it in my capacity as dome car host on The Ocean Ltd.--another train that seems doomed these days.

    1. Zach, I'm pleased to learn that the story is being carried through the rails. BTW - We're all fighting against cuts to service in little St Marys, Ontario. Leading the charge? The manager of the local GM dealership. Go figure.

  5. As the YA steampunk book I was working on a few years ago, "Knights of the Sea", was set in the Maritimes during the construction of the ship railway, I couldn't resist having the characters witness some of the work as they passed through the isthmus. Certainly in retrospect it seems as fantastic a project as the things invented by steampunk writers. It's a shame that it was never completed. The ruins of some parts of the project can still be seen today - modest, though impressive reminders of the scale of it, and deserving of more attention than they get currently.