|The Skeena River at Mi 28 CN Skeena Sub
Wandering through the hillside town, hewn out of solid rock on Kaien Island, I thought of the great city some people had wanted to see built here. It was a pleasant seaside town, supported by some canneries, a fishing fleet, and the small port. The train left Prince Rupert three times a week. The settlement of 14,000 already had its back up against a steep, hard slope. Looking down the hill at the little passenger train waiting in the station, I wondered how many years would pass before it would run only once or twice a week, and then perhaps not at all.
On vacation, I read Whistle Stop a Journey Across Canada, by George Galt, published in 1987. George travels across Canada by train, visiting various Canadian arts community mavens. At times depressing, at times raunchy or slightly irrelevant to today, I enjoyed the snapshot in VIA time that this book presents. A note inside the cover from my aunt to my Dad: "Don't know if you have seen this. Maritime coverage poor but he does appreciate the Prairies, Windsor Station and even has a mention of Lachute on p.192." Cover photo shows VIA engine 6423 and five Dayniters - most likely VIA's Canadian Rockies by Daylight which began operating in mid-1988, eventually becoming Rocky Mountaineer's pricey land cruise. (See book cover photo at bottom.)
Last year for my annual Canada Day post, I connected the RCMP with Canada's railways. My 2013 Canada Day post includes links to each previous Canada Day post if you'd care to reminisce and wallow in Canadiana! This year's hommage features excerpts from George's book, loosely matched to some photos I've taken across Canada. Perhaps unconventionally, we travel west to east, like the return leg of Buster Keaton's journey in the 1965 NFB film The Railrodder!
|From the steps of the BC Legislature in Victoria, 1980.
|Vestibule View of VIA No 1 near Exshaw, AB.
I boarded the westbound transcontinental in Calgary. Today it arrived on time. We rolled over the bald foothills. The tracks followed the Bow River Valley into Banff and on to Lake Louise. As we rose, the river took on the milky-jade hue of glacial water. The mountain sun made the dome section an oven. By late afternoon all the seats had emptied. I moved to the dining car and sat by the window until there was no more light. We stopped at Golden, went through Calamity Tunnel, passed under snowsheds, and crossed narrow bridges high above alpine creeks. Little patches of snow clung to the mountainsides, but the trees were breaking into leaf. Green rushed into view at every turn.
|Maple Creek, SK from the Park car of VIA No 1, 1985.
Maple Creek - the train was late. At four-thirty I boarded the coach. Through the black night I could make out a long barn by the tracks, in between the Pioneer and Saskatchewan Pool elevators. At Calgary, I changed trains and rode the Dayliner to Edmonton. Isolated farmsteads, spring calves wobbling on the short glass, flat wheatlands, the sky divided into black and blue. We charged into the shadow, leaving the blue behind.
|Carseland, AB United Grain Growers from VIA No 1.
|CN Watrous, SK elevator track
Indian Head - on Grand Avenue, the Rainbow Cafe, the Chinese restaurant had a 1930s interior of dark red stools along a wooden diner counter and two rows of booths. Away from the buildings you could feel strong gusts of cooked air hurling bits of dust.The elevators defined any notion of height here. Everything else looked flat, the prairie and the town. Only the hotel and a couple of commercial buildings rose to three levels - most of Grand Avenue was one-story high and flat-roofed.
|CP's Brandon, MB yard in 1984.
We passed Brandon, with its symmetrical yellow brick station and MCKENZIE SEEDS painted on a tall warehouse; the old stone station at Virden; and the tiny red frame station at Moosomin, all settlements created by the railway just over a hundred years before. At Moosomin, you could see the main street from where the train stopped. The grain elevator, the hotel, the government liquor store, the Lyric Theatre. At Broadview, the rigorously plain World Cafe stood across the road from the station.
|Sunrise near Wolseley, SK from the window of VIA's Sherwood Manor, 1986
At the first sitting for dinner I was alone, one pair of eyes in a railway car crossing a limitless expanse of flat terrain. Occasionally some sign of life would tumble into the vacuum, a solitary farmer running a machine over his vast acreage, or a few ducks, or a lone grain elevator. Where there was grass, it was palpably green. We passed some spring calves scampering from the train. It was ten o'clock. The bush was higher and thicker. Between the trees and on the stubbled fields were occasional patches of snow. A few minutes later, a bull moose stared impassively at the train from a marshy window.
|VIA 6923 leads an LRC consist through snowy Napanee, ON
Up to Quebec City I had taken the slow ride. Going back I booked a seat on the express, but it was a private journey. Food came to us at our seats, as on a plane. The new LRC cars ("light, rapid and comfortable" being the claim made for them) offered no public lounge areas. I watched the landscape pass. Winter was beginning to feel less like an inconvenience and more like a terrible Biblical prophecy. Last year's bleached corn stalks were visible, poking up out of the dead fields. Snow still lay in the furrows.
|A quiet Windsor Station in Montreal, March 1992.
I went into the cavernous concourse of Windsor Station, largely empty now. The two brass clocks were still hanging from arched girders high over the floor, still keeping time. The schedule boards that once were changed by men with long sticks were gone. Remaining were the immoveables: the spearhead prongs in rows, crowning the black iron fence between the lobby and the platforms, through them you entered the infinitely mobile world of railwaydom. Above it all, the long translucent roof, giving an unusual, light-headed effect to a building otherwise preoccupied with iron and steel.
|VIA No 10 heads south from Sudbury in October, 1985.
The Canadian was the last word in luxury train travel, and the eulogy too, though we did not know that at the time. The hand-tooled bar with two linoleum ducks depicted in flight and other interior surfaces merged fantasy and reality, an endless succession of mobile rooms with improbable floor plant, with pockets for hiding things and a panel of switches for the lights and the fan. The end of the train was for people who had enough money, the comfortably middle-class, or those who had saved for a holiday. I went down the narrow stairway from the dome section to the lounge, where people were reading the magazines in plastic folders.
|Kouchibouguac Park's Bog Trail, New Brunswick
|Our kids at the former CN station in Kensington, PEI in August, 2002.
|Picturesque Peggy's Cove, NS
I had seen from the train window in Nova Scotia - Maritimers often stopped on a rise by the tracks and watched the train roll by. Somewhere between Annapolis and Halifax we passed an old county couple standing by the line with their arms raised. They had the look of people who were not only acknowleding the daily train, but waving good-bye to an era.
In the past twenty years trains had been removed from the schedule in every part of Canada, branch lines ripped up ,stations closed and demolished. The remaining passenger routes were probably running out of time.
"Tell me," the permanent tourist said, wanting to continue, "what's the difference between CN and CP?" "CN is the government railway," I said. "Why don't you tell him the truth?" interjected a young VIA Rail employee, out of uniform and travelling for pleasure. "One is run by a bunch of bureaucrats, and the other by a bunch of shareholders and crooks."
You heard it everywhere in the country, "Eh?" It went together with the disconcerting habit many Canadians had acquired of turning assertions into questions. This verbal tic acted as a kind of insurance. You wanted to say something, but you did not want to face the odds of being challenged or denied. "Eh?" was a way of asking whether anyone of listening, perhaps not a surprising tactic of discourse in a country with one of the lowest population densities on Earth.
Happy Canada Day to Trackside Treasure readers everywhere.
I hope you share my all-encompassing appreciation and affection for this country.