Ottawa Lost: Bagman Station

It was a monument to scandal. For 19th century visitors and VIPs, the last stop in Ottawa was Canadian Pacific Railway’s Broad Street station. It had no more frequent visitor than Prime Minister John Abbott, millionaire lawyer and CPR fixer.  The station is gone now, the scandal forgotten. And Abbott is recalled only as the great-grandfather of actor Christopher Plummer.

The Broad Street station was designed by architect Edward Maxwell in the trademark chateau style the CPR made famous nationwide. It rang to the hiss and clang of steam locomotives on the Ottawa-to-Montreal run morning, noon and night.

Abbott traveled by free CPR pass between Montreal and Parliament Hill, but not always on public business. As counsel he incorporated the CPR and served as director. He also toted the cash used to buy votes in the House and Senate. Abbott was a key figure in the 1874 Pacific Scandal, “the most stupendous contract ever made under a responsible government,” as one newspaperman put it.

The CPR was granted $25,000,000 in subsidies, a land grant of 25 million acres, a 20-year monopoly on freight rates, free right-of-way through Crown lands and exemption from all local taxes in the West. In exchange the railway paid kickbacks to John A. Macdonald and his cabinet totaling $440,000.

“Even to railway promoters of the United States, accustomed as they were to the lobbying and corruption in the legislatures of their country, the lavish terms of this agreement caused astonishment,” wrote an MP.

Abbott kept a tally of all the payoffs but on the witness stand at a subsequent inquiry suffered a memory lapse. Asked if he acted as a CPR bagman, Abbott replied: “No, I don’t think I was –”

Public life made Abbott rich. He owned a fabulous mansion in Montreal, a 300-acre country estate on the west end of the island.  Here he built a baronial house with a library and conservatories surrounded by farms, orchards and gardens. No wonder he didn’t have a residence in Ottawa. He could escape Parliament Hill, arriving at the Broad Street station at dinnertime and be in Montreal by 9 pm.

Despite the Pacific Scandal Abbott survived politically in the Senate. Named a caretaker prime minister in 1891, he served eighteen joyless months as leader. “I hate politics,” Abbott wrote. “Why should I go where the doing of public work will only make me hated?”

He remains the only prime minister who never made a public speech. When he died of cancer in 1893 Saturday Night magazine marveled the news “occasioned surprisingly little comment.”

The Broad Street train station burned in a 1900 fire. The old CPR tracks on what is now LeBreton Flats were removed by 1970.

By Andrew Elliott

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