Amazing Feats in Canadian Construction


A great number of Canadian construction marvels can be witnessed from coast to coast. We’ve compiled a short list of 10 amazing construction feats that often tend to stand out above the rest. Consideration for ratings placement was also partly based on the era in which a particular construction project was built and by extension the technological resources available at the time, or lack thereof. No doubt many readers will have other excellent nominees they believe could have, and should have been on the CBJ short list. We’d love to hear what other construction marvels you believe warrant greater notoriety. Send an email to with some of your ideas. Here’s our list:

Canadian Pacific Railway – this goes to the top based in large part due to the era when it was built. It was without doubt, a technological marvel of its time and remains one of the key economic transportation drivers of this nation. The engineering feat of its day was nothing short of astounding with the original railway linking British Columbia to parts of eastern Canada to as far as the Ottawa Valley. Although it was Canada’s first intercontinental railway it does not extend all the way to the Atlantic Coast. Ground-breaking construction began in 1881 and took four years to complete with the very last spike being driven at Craigellachie, B.C. by Sir Donald Smith, who was a director of CPR. Incredibly, the railroad was completed about six years ahead of schedule.

The massive undertaking was part of an elaborate promise given by the ruling Conservative government of Sir John A. MacDonald to B.C. when it joined our Confederation 10 years earlier in 1871. But the project was not without its controversies and wound up being the root cause for the downfall of MacDonald’s government in 1873. By the time MacDonald was voted back in as Prime Minister in 1878, the elaborate project was far behind schedule and in danger of stalling completely.

In October of 1880 a group of Scottish Canadian businessmen formed a syndicate to build a transcontinental railway and by February of 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated.

The initial stage would cost the government $25 million for the project with 1,900 miles (3,058 km) of railway constructed between Callander, Ontario and Kamloops, B.C.

For many years CP was the most logical method of transportation, especially when crossing thousands of miles. It is also largely credited with populating settlements to the west, especially in those early decades. CP had a stranglehold on passenger rail service, but that all changed when VIA came onto the scene. Since then, CP has largely focused on commercial freight transport.

As of today, CPR’s 22,500-km rail network extends from the Port of Vancouver in the west to the Port of Montreal in the east. It also meanders its way down to several large American industrial centres including the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and New York City.

In a move that shook the very foundations of those directly and indirectly involved with the rail industry in Canada, former CN President Hunter Harrison was convinced to come out of retirement and assume the dual role of president and CEO at CPR. Harrison, 67, is considered by many to be a legendary figure for his ability to improve operational performances. He has publicly stated he wants a third major success story to his name before riding off into the retirement sunset for good.

St. Lawrence Seaway – Canada’s gateway to the world via sea transport began construction in 1954 and was completed in 1959 and is an intricate system of canals, locks and channels that provides ocean vessels the ability to travel through each of the five Great Lakes from inland U.S. and Canada out to the Atlantic coast. The Seaway is named for the St. Lawrence River, which connects Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean; it is 4,000 km long and is equipped with 14 locks used to raise and lower ships as they traverse through the elevation differences.

But getting this massive project off the ground was anything but easy. The Canadian government had been pushing hard for almost a decade to get this under way, but the U.S. Congress was not interested in being a partner. By 1951, with Ontario in a dire need for increased hydroelectricity, the federal government considered taking on the massive project alone. However, the U.S. administrations of Harry S. Truman and then Dwight D. Eisenhower considered it a national security threat to their country for Canada to control the deep waterway alone and so the Americans eventually became part of the joint venture.

The final cost of the Seaway came in at about $470 million, $336.2 million of which was paid by the Canadian government, with the majority of construction being on Canadian soil. Queen Elizabeth II and American President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally opened the Seaway with a brief cruise aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Besides Niagara Falls, the only other link joining Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was the Erie Canal in western New York, but it was antiquated and unable to accommodate larger vessels that were in need of finding a passage through the heart of Ontario and a number of U.S. states.

A major part of the Seaway is the Welland Canal, stretching 42 km from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario with about 40 million tonnes of cargo carried through the canal by some 3,000 vessels on an annual basis. Each of the eight locks along the route is 233.5 metres (766 feet) long and 24.4 metres (80 feet) wide.

CN Tower – standing 533 metres, or 1,815 feet, the iconic national symbol situated on Toronto’s waterfront is one of the world’s most recognizable buildings and one of Canada’s top tourist attractions. The architects were John Andrews and WZMH. The CN Tower held the record as the world’s tallest free-standing structure from its completion in 1976 until 2010 when Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China both surpassed it.

Canadian National Railway initiated plans to build the tower in 1968 and construction began in early 1973 and was officially opened to the public three years later. A primary incentive for building the tower was to provide a radio and television communications centre for Toronto and surrounding areas. A number of skyscrapers were being built in downtown Toronto in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notably ones such as First Canadian Place. Due to the height of these gigantic buildings, it made over-the-air broadcasting extremely difficult due to signal reflections off the large buildings. One solution would be to have the communications antennas positioned at a higher altitude than the buildings.

To construct the main support pillar, a hydraulically-raised slip-form was built at the base. It was a large metal platform that was raised on jacks as the concrete below set with a team of more than 1,500 workers doing the pouring. The tower contains 40,500 cubic metres of concrete.

In August 1974, construction of the main level began with 45 hydraulic jacks attached to cables strung from a temporary steel crown anchored to the top of the tower. There were also 12 giant steel and wooden bracket forms that were carefully raised over the course of about a week.

The antenna was so enormous it was sent up in 36 sections using a large military helicopter and assembled from there. Using the helicopter saved about five months of construction time. The final helicopter journey into the sky saw the antenna topped off on April 2, 1975 following 26 months of construction. The final tally was $63 million, which would be about $245 million in 2012 dollars.

While the structure was now complete, there was still considerable work to do on the inside to prepare and so the tower was first opened to the public just over a year later on June 26, 1976 although an official opening celebration was held on October 1, 1976.

A glass floor opened to the public in 1994 at an elevation of 342 metres and in 2011 the latest tourist attraction called EdgeWalk opened, where only the bravest of the visiting crowd walk on the main level outside roof, tethered to an overhead harness some 355 metres above the ground.

With corporate privatization looming in the mid-1990s, CN opted to transfer the tower to the Canada Lands Company in 1995, a federal Crown corporation. That same year, the CN Tower was declared one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World by the American Society of Engineers. There had initially been rumours the naming of the tower would change, but given its iconic status worldwide as the CN Tower, the name has remained intact.

Sir Adam Beck Generating Station (Niagara Power Generation) – is part of The Niagara Plant Group which operates hydroelectric generating stations on the Niagara River and at DeCew Falls in nearby St. Catharines, ON. These stations have a total capacity of 2,278 megawatts and a full-time staff of 235.

The first unit of Sir Adam Beck I was completed in 1922 with an additional nine units tagged on within the following two years. In total, it took about five years to build and was initially known as the Queenston-Chippawa Development. SABI was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. It has a generating capacity of 498 MW. Sir Adam Beck II was completed in 1954 with 16 units and boasts a capacity of 1,499 MW. There is also a 300-hectacre water reservoir, which is plainly visible while driving on Highway 405 heading in to or out of the United States at the Queenston-Lewiston international bridge.

Between 1996 and 2005 a major upgrade to Sir Adam Beck II was completed in 2005 increasing its potential capacity by 194 MW.

Ontario Power Generation is currently constructing the Niagara Tunnel with a boring machine known as “Big Becky”. It’s expected the tunnel will further increase the output from the Sir Adam Beck station by almost 15 per cent once it is up and fully operational by 2013. “Big Becky” bore a hole about 10.4 km long and about 14.4 meters in diameter some 140 metres beneath the city of Niagara Falls from the Upper Niagara River about 800 metres above the Horseshoe Falls to the Sir Adam Beck station in Queenston. The project created about 1.6 million cubic meters of rock and debris.

The infamous Northeast Blackout of 1965 was caused by a personnel error at Sir Adam Beck II when an employee accidentally set the protective too low, which caused one of the transmission lines to trip. The result was more than 30 million people were without power throughout much of Ontario and seven northeastern U.S. states for a period of about 12 hours. The nighttime power outage led to looting in many larger cities, most notably New York.

Confederation Bridge – at just less than 13 kilometres, this magnificent road transportation solution opened in 1997 linking Prince Edward Island with mainland New Brunswick. The bridge, commonly called the “Fixed Link” by those in the area, took almost four years to build over the Northumberland Strait and cost about $1 billion. It has the unofficial distinction of being the world’s longest bridge over ice (in winter).

The bridge is a two-lane highway toll bridge that carries the Trans-Canada Highway between Borden-Carleton, Prince Edward Island and Cape Jourimain, New Brunswick.

It is a multi-span beam bridge with a post-tensioned concrete box girder structure and was a construction joint venture between Ballast Nedam, GTMI, Northern Construction and Straight Crossing and required more than 5,000 workers. Most of the curved bridge is 40 metres above water, and at one point has a 60-metre high clearance span to allow shipping traffic to pass through. The bridge sits atop 62 piers and is 11 metres wide. All the components were constructed on land, in staging yards on the shoreline. Durable high-grade concrete and reinforcing steel were used throughout construction of the pre-cast components, with the expected lifespan of the bridge being in excess of 100 years.

If you plan on crossing this beautiful concrete spectacle, be sure to have some money left over as you’re leaving PEI. Upon exiting there is a toll charge of $44.25 for regular two-axle passenger vehicles. Motorcyclists face a toll of $17.75. Pedestrians and bicycles are prohibited from crossing the bridge. Swimming across the Northumberland Strait is optional.

Rideau Canal – headed by a man named John By, considered to have been one of the country’s greatest engineers of his era, By and his team successfully built the Rideau Canal system in five years. The waterway connects the Ottawa River in Ottawa to Lake Ontario in Kingston.

Work began in 1826 consisting primarily of thousands of workers of Irish and French Canadian descent who toiled long, hard hours to complete the massive project at a cost of more than £820,000. As many as 1,000 people are believed to have died, either by accident or by contracting diseases such as malaria.

The construction of the Rideau Canal was necessitated out of concern for a possible military strike by the United States. These concerns were originally fueled by reports during the War of 1812 that the U.S. was planning to invade Upper Canada along the St. Lawrence River. If successful, the Americans would have been able to sever the ties between what is now Montreal and Kingston.

Although the primary incentive was militaristic, it became clear the 202-km canal would also be able to serve commercial progress as well. The calm waters on the Rideau were much more navigable than some treacherous rapids along the main artery along the St. Lawrence.

In winter months, a 7.8-km stretch of the frozen canal passing through Ottawa officially becomes the world’s largest skating rink. The Rideau Canal was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925.

There have been reports the Ottawa Senators would like to hold an NHL Outdoor Classic regular season game on the Rideau Canal, with temporary bleachers put up along the banks.

Chateau Frontenac – the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac overlooking the shoreline of the picturesque St. Lawrence River is regarded as one of the most spectacular hotels anywhere in the world. As historians often note, it is not just a hotel in the heart of Old Quebec – it is the heart of Old Quebec.

The current hotel has 618 furnished guest rooms on 18 floors. This year the magnificent hotel is undergoing a $66 million upgrade to those furnished rooms to make visitors’ stays that much more pleasant and enjoyable. There will also be added banquet facilities. Renovations are expected to be completed in time for the 2014 Quebec Winter Carnival.

The original structural design came from an American named Bruce Price for use by the Canadian Pacific Railway with later additions designed by William Sutherland Maxwell. The Chateau was built towards the end of the 17th century near the historic Citadelle.

From a more recent modern era, the famous Quebec Conference of 1943 was held on August 17 at the Chateau with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt discussing strategy for World War II along with Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as host.

“It will be looked upon in years to come as one of the great events in our national history,” King noted at the time.

Rogers Centre – formerly known as SkyDome, the multi-faceted sports and entertainment venue opened in 1989 in downtown Toronto on 12.7 acres of land and originally came with a price tag of $150 million. Prior to the start of construction the very first preliminary figure was pegged at $75 million, but virtually nobody believed that when it first came out in the mid-1980s. Rod Robbie was the lead architect and EllisDon was the construction firm that built the “concrete convertible” as it’s sometimes called, in reference to the 11-tonne, 31-storey high retractable roof, which can be fully opened or closed in about 20 minutes.

A number of cost overruns, including a brief labourers’ walkout, resulted in the final tally ballooning to $570 million. The overspending proved to be a nightmare for David Peterson’s ruling provincial government at the time. A review in October 1990 revealed that the new stadium was already so far in debt that it would have to be booked 600 days a year to turn a profit, which of course is a slight problem when you’ve only got 365 days to work with, and 366 at the best of times every four years.

Complicating construction before building the stadium even began was the need to move a very large water pumping farther south towards the lake. It was also determined much of the soil had been contaminated following more than 100 years of industrial use, not to mention railway buildings and rail lines that also had to be removed and some rebuilt.

The stadium’s seating capacity is just more than 50,000 for baseball and about 53,000 for football. There are a total of 5,700 club seats and 161 luxury box suites along with several restaurants and a hotel, with 70 rooms overlooking the playing field.

While there are few that would dispute Rogers Centre is a construction marvel, it has been nothing short of a nightmare for taxpayers in Ontario, who wound up footing much of the bill. Making matters worse – the McGuinty government sold SkyDome to Rogers for a mere $30 million in 2005 when the company purchased the Toronto Blue Jays, and the name of the building was officially changed.

Rogers Centre is home to Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays and also the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Music concerts, conventions and monster truck rallies are examples of other types of one-off entertainment shows that also frequent the building.

Centre Block – is the main building on Parliament Hill that is most identifiable as the cornerstone of the Canadian government. Construction on the colossal structure began in July 1916 and was completed 11 years later in 1927. John Pearson and Jean-Omer Marchand were the lead architects. This was built in addition to previous buildings which had stood in the national capital dating back to Confederation in 1867, dominated by the eye-catching central Victoria Tower at the front. Construction of the original Centre Block concluded in 1876. The current structure came about following a devastating fire on February 3, 1916 that destroyed everything but the library.

From one end to another the Centre Block building stretches 145 metres in length and is six storeys high with more than 50,000 blocks of various stone around the Gothic Revival style architecture. It’s said to have a value of about $90 million.

The Centre Block includes the prime minister’s office, the office of the official opposition leader as well as other party leaders along with ministers, senators and support staff. It is also the location of several ceremonial spaces, such as the Hall of Honour, the Memorial Chamber, and Confederation Hall, Library of Parliament, the Peace Tower, restaurant and basement jail cell. This is the building that houses the Parliamentary Press Gallery where so many video clips are shown on nightly television newscasts.

On January 26, 1920 the first sitting of parliament in the new Centre Block was opened by Governor General the Duke of Devonshire. The ceremony had to be held in the House of Commons because the Senate had not yet been built.

By the 1990s, upgrades were needed to be made on Centre Block’s electrical systems. Rather than disturb the heritage facades of the building, a large underground station was built that required the removal of massive amounts of rock. Recently that have been talks about upgrades to the internal portion of Centre Block, but such amendments have not yet gone beyond the discussion stages.

Hibernia Oil Field – is the largest oil platform in the world and sits 315 km off the southeast coast of St. John’s Newfoundland in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin. The final tally for the construction cost came in at $5.8 billion but with operating costs factored in over the lifespan of the field, the grand total is expected to exceed $14 billion. The sturdy gravity base structure (GBS) has the capacity to hold 1.2 million barrels of crude oil.

Talk of development began in the 1960s with exploration drilling, which continued through the 1980s. One of the main obstacles was assumed liability. With more time passing and no resolution, the federal government was forced to assume more liability than it wanted but it was either that or remain in limbo for an indefinite period of time.

The oil field was first discovered in 1979 with development beginning in 1986, which led to the actual construction starting in 1991. During peak construction in 1995, about 5,800 people were employed at the site.

Due to the notorious harsh weather conditions in that part of the Atlantic Ocean, including rogue waves created by fierce storms and the potential for breakaway icebergs in the region, engineers opted for the ultra-strong gravity base structure model, which sits on the ocean floor about 80 metres below the surface of the water while the main platform is about 50 metres above the water. The topside of the drilling platform can comfortably accommodate up to 185 workers. To quantify the strength of the structural design, it was built to withstand a collision with a 1-million ton iceberg. The odds of such a collision occurring are said to be about one every 500 years.

Below the surface, two drill shafts each comprise 32 drill slots to accommodate the oil wells, which hit depths of more than 3,700 metres below sea level and directly into the oil reservoirs. The entire facility weighs an astounding 1.2 million tonnes. Production at the facility began in November, 1997 and is the most prolific oil well in Canada, pumping out 126,000 barrels of oil per day and almost 670 million barrels by the start of 2010.

Hibernia is jointly owned by a cartel that includes ExxonMobil Canada, Chevron Canada Resources, Suncor, Canada Hibernia Holding Corporation, Murphy Oil and Statoil Hydro Canada.