Guest writer Barbara Richardson retired a year ago to Alberta from a career in the Foreign Service. She lived in Ottawa, Manila, Nairobi, Dhaka, Harare and Prague and was Ambassador for three assignments. Coronavirus was not in her retirement plan.
Retirement brings the luxury of time. Freed from work pressures and child-rearing demands, we now have time to dilly-dally down memory lane. To deep dive into our childhood. To research our stories.
I saw a train today for the first time in awhile, and off I went. Meandering along my memory lane and ending with reflection on the contribution trains have made to Canada and the role they have played in the span of my life.
British Columbia joined confederation in 1871 after Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promised to build a transcontinental railroad that would link the province to the rest of Canada. From the early days of construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the imported Chinese rail workers were new immigrants building our country. This influence on the population and culture of Canada is profound. Over the course of construction and by the end of 1882, of the 9,000 railway workers, 6,500 were Chinese Canadians. They were employed to build the B.C. segment of the railway through the most challenging and dangerous terrain. And then they settled here, to help build our county’s future. In my 12 years of schooling in Alberta in the ’60s, I recall one Asian family in my schools. Today our country reflects a completely international population. Those first Chinese workers became early Canadian pioneers.
Trains also brought our iconic CP hotels, Canada’s ‘castles’. Built to accommodate rail travellers. How many of our generation have special memories of these hotels across Canada? Snapshots scattered across our lives. Moments of holiday stays, conferences, weddings, meals experienced in these scenic hotels. Always a bit awed when walking into their magnificent lobbies. Long-stored and special life memories — a gift of trains.
During the depression, more than 2 million homeless became hoboes — a term forgotten now. Often the only way they could search for work was by hopping on freight trains, illegally. I was fascinated, as a child, with stories of them ‘riding the rails’. And with a piece of cloth, a pole, some old, baggy clothes and smudged face, and this legacy of trains, I had my perfect Halloween hobo costume.
Those freight trains were essential for the economy in Canada, moving our Alberta grain and oil to market. My generation rode that wave of economic growth and prosperity. Up until the 1990s, the average freight train in Canada was about 5,000 ft (1.54 km) long and weighed 7,000 tons. But it is now not uncommon to see these trains stretch to 12,000 ft, sometimes as much as 14,000 ft (more than four km), weighing up to 18,000 tons. Did you count the cars out loud on long car rides? How many of us have nostalgic memories of train whistles and playing near the tracks? We may be the only generation that placed coins on the train tracks to try to flatten them on the rails as the train sped past! Were our parents worried about us playing by the tracks or walking across the trestles prepared to run if we heard the whistle? Probably not. ‘Helicopters’ were aircraft back then, not parents.
Trains are also central to my family history. My paternal great-grandfather came to Calgary on May 23, 1883, on location work for the engineering department of the Canadian Pacific Railway which was then nearing completion of the first Trans-Canada railway. In the spring of 1884 the Canadian Pacific Mail Company was organized, and he was given the responsibility of carrying the mail to and from all the camps 50 miles from the end of track. In 1886 he settled in Banff, and in 1887 he started in the hotel and real estate business in Calgary, activities he carried on until his death. That makes me a fourth generation and my brother’s grandchildren the sixth-generation of Calgarians. Thanks CPR.
And trains also conjure up a most treasured memory from my childhood. Every summer our family would decamp to our lake cabin to spend a few carefree, glorious weeks. It seemed an endless drive (190 km), at the time, in a car crammed with four impatient kids and summer clothes. But for several years, when we were very young, our parents would allow my sisters and me to ride the Dayliner passenger train instead. Long before the fear of strangers and abductions ruled our psyches. They would see us off on the train in Calgary and then pick us up a few hours later, in Lacombe in central Alberta. I’m sure for them it was brief, glorious freedom. And for us, three little girls? A train ride on our own was a thrilling adventure!
Trains. An historic, iconic, fascinating part of our generation’s experience. What are your memories? Take time to ponder, remember, research. Memories are there; we now have time to follow them — and share them in the comments below. •