Henry George Clopper Ketchum


UNB Connection

Early Career

Chignecto Ship Railway

Selective Bibliography

HGC Ketchum photoMore than 100 years after the last railway navvies laid down their mallets, the Chignecto Ship Railway  still fascinates Canadians. Henry Ketchum’s vision of transporting ships by train over the Isthmus of Chignecto continues to intrigue engineers and lay people alike.

In the history of Canada, railways were inextricably tied to national development. The 19th century was an age when railroad tracks ploughed through nearly impenetrable forests, plunged down mountainsides and soared over gorges. Consequently, the engineers who built them were the recipients of public adulation. The completion of the
Canadian Pacific Railway elevated Sanford Fleming and William Cornelius Van Horne into household names. Among the contemporaries of these railway giants was the young Fredericton engineer, Henry George Clopper Ketchum, whose very successful early career suggested he too was headed for greatness. Then came the collapse of his dream, the Chignecto Ship Railway Project, and in its aftermath, Ketchum slipped into historical oblivion. 

There are few physical remains of the massive three year construction project (1888-1891) that brought 4,000 immigrant workers to Amherst, Nova Scotia, in addition to a crew that included some of the most distinguished British engineers of the time.  Many unanswered questions remain.
  • Was Henry Ketchum an engineering genius, felled by the lack of imagination of the people around him? 
  • Was his failure just bad timing and bad luck?
  • Was the project an example of Canadian technical innovation betrayed by loss of government support?
  • Was the idea of a ship railway just folly, an embarrassment best forgotten in the annals of Canadian history?
  • Was the ship railway doomed to be an entrepreneurial failure?
Since 1945, the UNB Archives has held the Henry G.C. Ketchum fonds consisting of manuscripts and printed materials, photographs, technical and architectural drawings, and maps. Over the years, there has been repeated  interest from researchers captured by Ketchum’s vision. It is this fonds, and its finding aid,  which form the foundation of this virtual exhibit, generously supplemented by background material designed to expand the reader’s understanding of the Ship Railway and the individuals involved in it.  Ketchum’s successful early career as a railway engineer in Canada and Brazil has been given more prominence. Finally, the exhibit highlights Ketchum’s connection with the University of New Brunswick, who proudly claim  him as the recipient of the first engineering certificate granted by the institution, and donor of the Ketchum Medal which annually recognizes the best graduate from the UNB's Dept. of Civil Engineering.

View Inventory of the Henry G.C. Ketchum fonds

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Last Update:  2004/03/31