Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915) was an American-born Canadian railroad entrepreneur who supervised the building of the trans-Canadian railroad.
William Van Horne was born in Will County, Ill., the eldest child of Cornelius Covenhoven Van Horne, a struggling farmer-lawyer, and his second wife, Mary Minier Richards Van Horne. In 1851 the family moved to Joliet, where the father became the first mayor and William attended his first school. After his father's death 3 years later, poverty allowed William only 3 further years of schooling.
At 14 Van Horne quickly achieved advancement as a telegraph operator successively with the Illinois Central, the Michigan Central, and the Chicago and Alton railroads. In 1864 Van Horne became the Chicago and Alton's Bloomington train dispatcher, in 1868 its superintendent of telegraph, and in 1870 superintendent of transportation. In 1874 he rose to general manager of the Southern Minnesota Railroad; later he became its president. In 1879 he returned briefly to the Chicago and Alton as general superintendent before assuming the same position with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul.
Van Horne was appointed general manager of the Canadian project to build a transcontinental railroad from Montreal to the Pacific in 1881. His driving leadership and formidable organizing ability reached their peak in forcing the pace of construction. His sound employee relations supplemented the directors' tireless efforts to raise funds in hard times, and Van Horne was significantly complemented by his purchasing agent, T. G. Shaughnessy, formerly his general storekeeper on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul. Although the contract called for the railway's completion in 1891, the last spike was driven on Nov. 7, 1885.
Van Horne's role in this extraordinary achievement had been recognized in his appointment as vice president in 1884 and was confirmed in 1888, when he became president, with Shaughnessy succeeding him as general manager. Van Horne's presidency was marked by further construction, early profits, and the projection of auxiliary services, such as a shipping fleet. Failing health dictated his retirement in 1899, although he assumed the titular dignity of chairman of the board and member of the executive committee until his full withdrawal in 1910.
In retirement, characteristically Van Horne built a railroad in eastern Cuba in 1901 and Guatemalan line between 1903 and 1908 and forthrightly opposed reciprocity with the United States in 1911. He also produced many competent watercolors. He was a trustee of McGill University and a director or officer of many trusts, urban transport companies, and industries in Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Brazil. His magnificent homes in Montreal, in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and in Cuba consumed much of his interest, as did his large collections of paintings, rare Japanese pottery, and fossils. He lived richly and dealt generously with his loyal employees. He died on Sept. 11, 1915, in Montreal.
Walter Vaughan, The Life and Work of Sir William Van Horne (1920), is a full-length study. Van Horne also figures in Henry James, ed., The Canadian Men and Women of the Time (1898; 2d ed. 1912).