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The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 [Paperback]

Pierre Berton
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 14 2001
In 1871, a tiny nation, just four years old — it's population well below the 4 million mark — determined that it would build the world's longest railroad across empty country, much of it unexplored. This decision — bold to the point of recklessness — was to change the lives of every man, woman and child in Canada and alter the shape of the nation.

Using primary sources — diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, public documents and newspapers — Pierre Berton has reconstructed the incredible decade of the 1870s, when Canadians of every stripe — contractors, politicians, financiers, surveyors, workingmen, journalists and entrepreneurs — fought for the railway, or against it.

The National Dream is above all else the story of people. It is the story of George McMullen, the brash young promoter who tried to blackmail the Prime Minister; of Marcus Smith, the crusty surveyor, so suspicious of authority he thought the Governor General was speculating in railway lands; of Sanford Fleming, the great engineer who invented Standard Time but who couldn't make up his mind about the best route for the railway. All these figures, and dozens more, including the political leaders of the era, come to life with all their human ambitions and failings.

Frequently Bought Together

The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 + The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 + Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899
Price For All Three: CDN$ 46.92


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From Amazon

Pierre Berton's The National Dream is the perfect antidote to recommend to anyone who thinks history, especially Canada's history, is boring. Canada's best-known historian takes the seemingly unexciting story of the building of a railroad and tells it with the colour and humour of a master yarn-spinner. The National Dream and its sequel, The Last Spike, published in 1970 and 1971, were two of Canada's biggest best-selling books and were turned into an eight-part series on CBC-TV watched by more people than any other dramatic program in the network's history to that date. The Last Spike won for Berton his third Governor General's Award for non-fiction.

The story he tells has no end of crazy and bizarre characters: sleazy politicians, robber baron-style railroad tycoons, corrupt newspaper publishers, many of them considered the political and economic founders of Canada. Somehow, in a few short years, this band of misfits managed to build the world's longest railway across a vast, unforgiving land, much of which was unknown to non-Natives. The project left a mixed legacy. Opposition politicians denounced it as "insane" and "reckless," accurately predicting that the massive spending would lead to a flood of corruption. It almost bankrupted the country and provoked the displacement of the Native peoples of the Prairies from their ancestral lands. The railroad became the spine of an empire, an imperial highway linking Britain with Asia, conveniently paid for by the Canadian public. On the other hand, the railway dream is also credited with binding together a fledgling nation with a steel ribbon. "The dream," wrote Berton, "would be the filling up of the empty spaces and the dawn of a new Canada." --Alex Roslin

Review

"Pierre Berton is a chronicler of the first order who has brought photographic clarity to the great and the corrupt, to the zealots and the dreamers associated with Canada's first great vision of linking steel threads to the nation's fabric."
Montreal Star

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Its political opponents pretended to believe that the Macdonald government had gone mad. Read the first page
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Most helpful customer reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic history of Canada's teething days March 25 2004
Format:Paperback
Pierre Berton is Canada's favourite historian and this book remains the definitive history of the railroad that ensured Canada would grow all the way to the Pacific coast. The National Dream is the first of two chronicles. It recounts the preparations to the actual construction work, which is covered in the second volume "The Last Spike".
We read of the political negotiations with British Columbia, which at first only wanted a wagon trail. We witness the fighting between the surveyors of different routes through the Rockies. I was surprised to discover that the greatest political difficulty was getting the railroad to go through Ontario, over the desolate granit of the Canadian shield, so that it avoid going south of the lakes, through the US. The Pacific railway had to be an all-Canadian venture. Still in politics, Berton describes the money politics of 1870's and ends by putting us in the House of Commons during the CPR debates of December 1880.
Canada today is a country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, capping the lower 48 of the United States. At Confederation in 1867, Canada ended at the Great Lakes; west of there but not part of Canada was the Hudson's Bay Company's land, the Red River colony (today Manitoba) and British Columbia. Canadian visionaries correctly saw the railway as the only way to ensure Canada survived American expansion. The CPR was a ridiculous undertaking. Imagine a country the size of New Zealand deciding that survival meant a space program and you get the picture.
The CPR was an instance of a particularly Canadian National Policy whose purpose is to keep Canada whole. The price we had to pay then was that expensive all Canadian route.
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By NGD1948
Format:Paperback
I read this many years ago and felt then as I do now, "pretty good history-writing" for a journalist. Berton could be excused for having inherited and not grown out of the triumphalist imperial perspective. While the opposition not so much to teh railway per se but the way it was surveyed and the failure to consider prior indigenous rights was noted, it was downplayed by Berton. It does not help this that the general description of the book here, refers to the railroad crossing "empty country". It was most definitely not empty as every mile of the railroad traversed traditional First Nations land as well as the Metis homeland. I'd give Berton, a man of his time, a feee pass on such presumptions but in contemporary Canada, your "summarizer" should know better.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic history of Canada's teething days March 25 2004
By Vincent Poirier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Pierre Berton is Canada's favourite historian and this book remains the definitive history of the railroad that ensured Canada would grow all the way to the Pacific coast. The National Dream is the first of two chronicles. It recounts the preparations to the actual construction work, which is covered in the second volume "The Last Spike".

We read of the political negotiations with British Columbia, which at first only wanted a wagon trail. We witness the fighting between the surveyors of different routes through the Rockies. I was surprised to discover that the greatest political difficulty was getting the railroad to go through Ontario, over the desolate granit of the Canadian shield, so that it avoid going south of the lakes, through the US. The Pacific railway had to be an all-Canadian venture. Still in politics, Berton describes the money politics of 1870's and ends by putting us in the House of Commons during the CPR debates of December 1880.

Canada today is a country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, capping the lower 48 of the United States. At Confederation in 1867, Canada ended at the Great Lakes; west of there but not part of Canada was the Hudson's Bay Company's land, the Red River colony (today Manitoba) and British Columbia. Canadian visionaries correctly saw the railway as the only way to ensure Canada survived American expansion. The CPR was a ridiculous undertaking. Imagine a country the size of New Zealand deciding that survival meant a space program and you get the picture.

The CPR was an instance of a particularly Canadian National Policy whose purpose is to keep Canada whole. The price we had to pay then was that expensive all Canadian route. Interestingly, we still live with the legacy and expensive transportation is still a Canadian "feature". While travel between cities is cheap within the US, flights between any two large Canadian city are expensive as the money is used to subsidize transport to Canada's more remote areas. Is it worth it? Ask any Canadian, and you'll often get a mumble and grumble finally ending in a painful "yes, yes it is".
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Way to Get a Feel for a New Young Nation May 16 2014
By David Eck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Canada as a nation was only a few years old when the decision was made by the county's first prime minister - John A. Macdonald - to build a transcontinental railway. (The Canadians say "railway," not "railroad.") Macdonald's move was a way to entice British Columbia - then a British colony - to join the Canadian Confederation. At the time, it was the longest railway project in the world, one extraordinarily ambitious for Canada, a nation with one-tenth the population of the United States. Berton's book does cover political matters - those essential to the story - but I found it interesting to understand the politics of Canada vs. those of the U.S. Don't let the fact that politics are covered dissuade you from enjoying the book, not even a bit.

Pierre Berton is Canada's premiere historical writer. His style is breezy and very readable. This was a quick and easy read. In fact, parts reads like a novel. There are plenty of interesting characters in the story. It's a really good book, honest. You should be aware that this is the first part of a two-part series. "The National Dream" ends as the railway is approaching the Rockies and no one knew for sure if it was even possible to cross the Rockies (and the Selkirk mountain chain closer to the Pacific). The railway was a huge gamble and makes for a sweeping tale. So, far warning. Be prepared to end "The National Dream" anxious to read the second part of the story, "The Last Spike." I bought both at the same time and went right from one into the other.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Canadian History. March 18 2014
By John C. Gowen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Well written and incredibly well researched and insightful. Great start to "The Last Spike" Berton's next book and a great follow-up of "Klondike."
5.0 out of 5 stars Railroads built Canada! Read all about it! Aug. 3 2014
By John J. Gabner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
If you are interested in North American history, then you would love any book by Pierre Berton, whose works are eloquently presented and well-researched. It's also useful to get a perspective by a non-American regarding Canada's struggle to exist and grow next to the U.S.
1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Politics March 11 2011
By Lee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Was looking for a book that would deal with the actual construction of the RR., and the men that were out in the wilderness.

This book did not reach my expectations.

Politics, politics, and politics.

Would say that only about 20% dealt with the actual work.

The book delt with all the characters that were behind the RR;
what they could gain.
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