Canada’s First Network: CNR Radio

Henry Thornton

In a decade when radio stations were mushrooming all over Canada, a new sense of order was brought to those random and pioneering days of early Canadian broadcasting thanks to the intervention of an unexpected player; The Canadian National Railways. The CNR’s involvement as it grasped radio’s potential to promote the railway and its services, was as controversial and unifying as the laying of ribbons of steel across Canada in an earlier decade. This was largely due to the vision of the CNR’s second President and Chairman – Sir Henry Thornton.

Thornton, an Anglicized American, had achieved early fame as an able and often unconventional manager of the Pennsylvania and Long Island Railroads in the U.S. He went on to gain international recognition for his work in unsnarling the problems of England’s Great Eastern Railway, which served the dense commuter territory northeast of London. For his work during the First World War in coordinating the transportation division of the British Expeditionary Force in France, Thornton was knighted by King George V.

As accomplished as he was in the transportation field, Thornton was perhaps an unlikely candidate for the role of godfather in the establishment of the framework of the national broadcasting system that survives today as the CBC. But he was no ordinary executive. His place in broadcasting history is one that he carved out largely on his own in a country that he came to love dearly. But Thornton paid a high price for his vision. He was driven from Canada by vested business and political interests that, for a time, portrayed him as an irresponsible threat to the adopted country that he sought to serve. He left a broken man, the first but certainly not the last to be consumed by forces seeking to prevent the establishment of a cohesive national system of Canadian-controlled communications and transportation.

Thornton’s Canadian adventure began in 1922. When Prime Minister Mackenzie King lured him here, it was to assume his greatest challenge: To straighten out a railway mess that threatened to permanently damage Canada’s economic performance and its reputation throughout the world.

Fuelled by the overly-ambitious promises of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government and the enthusiastic cooperation of numerous Canadian banks and British investment houses, two additional transcontinental railways had been built early in the 20th century to break the original Canadian Pacific Railway’s unpopular monopoly. Unfortunately, this was one competitor too many. Excessive construction costs, lack of adequate traffic and the diversion of foreign capital due to the First World War led to the doom of these two railways. First the Canadian Northern and then the Grand Trunk fell into bankruptcy, threatening service in the areas they had opened up, and shaking the foundations of major financial institutions that had added their investment to that which Laurier had pledged on behalf of the Government of Canada.

It fell to Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government to take control and protect the taxpayers and the private sector. The solution was to pour these vital but insolvent transportation assets in with some existing government-owned lines to form the CNR, the world’s largest railway system.

Greg Gormick / J. Lyman Potts – October, 1998