Wednesday, June 1, 2011

First to Vancouver

© 2001, 2004 Manuel Erickson

Victoria Day, May 23, 1887

"Ma! Ma!"

Mary Flowers roused herself from slumber, opened her eyes and raised her head from the pillow she had propped against the top of her seat. She heard a rhythmic clickety-click, and struggled to comprehend it, her brows furrowing. "Yes, Evelyn," she said, the sleep having not yet left her throat. "What is it, dear?"

Twelve-year-old Evelyn Flowers stared out the passenger coach. She jumped up and down on her seat until a quick glance at her mother forced her into stillness. She looked out the window. A large smile played across her smooth, round face, which the window reflected back to her. She craned her head upwards, then lowered it, trying to absorb the scenery as it slipped past her window. Her blond curls bounced and shook with each sudden movement of her head.

"We're here, Ma! We're here!"

For the first time since her daughter had awakened her, Mary shifted her eyes from the child to the passing scene outside. She became fully conscious of the clicks of the wheels. They sounded farther apart, as if the train were slowing down.

Evelyn perceived a second reflection in the window glass: Mary had stood up and, balancing herself against the vibrations of the coach, gingerly transferred herself to Evelyn's place and peered out the window. Since it was a warm spring day, Mary had opened the window before her nap. Rich scents entered the coach, filling it with a mix of the heady fragrances of blossoming trees and flowers. At first only tall trees could be seen. The train had almost stopped when a small wooden clapboard building came into view. A painted sign hanging from the edge of the roof clearly identified the station. Mary smiled.

"Evelyn, dear…"

"Yes, Ma?" Evelyn answered, her face pressed into the window.

"Did you think we'd arrived at Vancouver?"

Evelyn turned quickly and glanced at Mary. Her gaze was between consternation and surprise.

Mary put her hand on Evelyn's shoulder, leaned toward her ear and said softly, almost whispering, "Read the sign on the station roof."

Evelyn did so and took in air. She turned again to her mother, her face wrinkled in disappointment.

"It's all right, darling," she said. "In your excitement, you simply forgot we had to stop in Port Moody. We'll be on our way again, soon."

The conductor approached their seats and said, "We've stopped in Port Moody to change engines, Mrs. Flowers. We'll be off again in ten minutes."

"Thank you," Mary said, nodding to him.

"How far is Vancouver from here, Ma?"

Mary sat beside Evelyn again. "They said it was only twelve miles along the new track, dear, so it won't be too long, now."

"Oh, I hope so!" said Evelyn. "I want to see Vancouver, and I want to see Pa!"

"So do I, Evelyn," Mary said softly.

True to the conductor's word, in ten minutes Evelyn and Mary felt a slight tug from the front of the train, and the whistle sounded. Then they heard the chuffing sound that had become so familiar to them during their trip across the continent. The train accelerated. The next stop, they were certain, would be the last.

"Ma," said Evelyn, "I love riding the train!"

"Yes, dear, I know. I like it, too."

"I mean, all the new things I've seen, all the new places, and even how it was spring in Toronto when we left, but still winter in Winnipeg. And the mountains! Oh Ma--the mountains are so beautiful, especially with the snow! I didn't know they were so high. Then when we got here, suddenly it was spring again."

Evelyn smiled and again turned her attention to the passing scene outside her window.

"Those are new and wondrous things to me, too, Evelyn. After all, I've never before travelled across Canada."

"And this train!" said Evelyn, turning to her mother. "The conductor wouldn't let me visit the engine, but I saw all the wood they carry and he showed me where the water goes and where they put mail and our baggage and how they made lunches and--Ma, while you were having a nap last evening, the porter even showed me how to make a seat into a bed, and I did one myself!"

"Did you, dear? Well, I'm glad you've seen all these things. It has certainly been an adventure for us, and you are an adventurous person."

"Thank you, Ma." Evelyn paused. Then, "Ma, we're part of history."

Mary smiled and gave Evelyn a light hug.

"I mean, we're passengers on the first train across Canada. That's--that's special. Even the conductor said so."

"Most definitely, dear."

Mary did not carry a timepiece, but she thought that about twenty minutes had passed when the clickety-clicks of the wheels once again started getting farther apart. She knew they would be at the Vancouver terminus shortly.

They peered out of Evelyn's window, looking for their first glimpse of Vancouver. The faces of mother and daughter reflected in the glass and were so close to each other that a portrait photographer might have placed them that way.

The train slowed once more and only tall trees could be seen. Evelyn looked at her mother, a question on her face. "Don't worry, Evelyn. You'll see Vancouver by-and-by." Evelyn turned back.

As Evelyn gazed, the scene began to change. The trees were fewer, and eventually there were none. A large berm blocked her view where she thought the city lay, so she spun around to look out the other side. A wide body of water filled the glass.

Mary turned as well. The slowly moving train passed a small building, then another. They spied what looked like a boat dock. A tall holly tree stood near it; small birds flitted into and out of the holly. At that point the tracks curved to the right. In a few seconds, the train glided past some buildings as it approached their destination. Evelyn glanced over her shoulder, but the berm still prevented her from seeing a view, so she turned back. Several freight cars, some with their side doors agape, sat on a trestle built onto the water.

Suddenly the scene was blocked by a low, peaked building. "That looks like a big garage," said Evelyn.

"It could be a shed of some kind, but it's too large for that. You could be right, dear." She looked out Evelyn's window, but saw only hills. The train slowed more, then stopped completely.

As their coach was not far from the locomotive, they heard steam escaping. To Evelyn it sounded like her cat hissing its displeasure. She had given it to her best friend before leaving Toronto. They gazed at the scene outside the train.

"Ma," Evelyn said, not taking her eyes from the scene, "all the trees! They were so big in Port Moody! But here there's just big, brown hills with no grass. Where are the big firs and cedars that my books said are here in Vancouver? And I can't see Vancouver, Ma." She turned to look at her mother, then gasped as she saw what was outside the opposite window.

Evelyn almost did not hear her mother's response. She felt Mary take her hand and pull her close. She heard her say, softly, "Perhaps Vancouver's behind those hills, but at last we're here, Evelyn." Then, a sigh. "It's been a long journey." Mary smiled and kissed Evelyn's forehead. "Welcome to your new home, dear."

"Ma, look out the other window," said Evelyn.

A large crowd had gathered on the pier next to the railroad tracks. Most of the men were attired in suits and derbies, the few women, in bright blouses and dresses with colourful, flamboyant hats. A low murmur of conversation reached their ears. The crowd stood, facing what looked like a shed.

Again the conductor stood beside their seats. Mary looked up and Evelyn heard him say, "Sorry to disturb you and your daughter, ma'am, but we've reached Vancouver terminus. Everyone gets off here." He smiled, touched a finger to his cap and moved on.

Mary straightened her light-blue cotton dress, suitable apparel for a warm Pacific day in May about which her husband, Ben, had advised her in a letter. Evelyn searched the crowd for her father as Mary opened the curtain of the luggage bin above her seat and took down two suitcases, giving the smaller one to Evelyn. Her mother took a deep breath, then said, "All right, Evelyn, let's go and see Vancouver and your pa."

"Oh, yes!" said Evelyn.

Mary opened the compartment door and they stepped through.

They made their way to the car's exit where they found the door already opened to the outside. Mary went first, the conductor giving her a steadying hand. Evelyn jumped from the last step to the platform.

"Ma'am," said the conductor, "you might want to know that the large body of water you see is called Coal Harbour and the road just there goes into town. It's called Howe Street."

"Why, thank you," said Mary. It's very thoughtful of you to orient us, and I'll be sure to remember." The conductor smiled again and touched his cap.

They found themselves amidst the large crowd that they had seen from the train. It wasn't boisterous; those who spoke did so quietly, with grace. Mary turned to her daughter. "Stay close to me, Evelyn."

"Yes, Ma." Then, "Ma, why are there so many people here?" Before Mary could reply, Evelyn answered her own question. "Oh, I know! We were on the very first passenger train across Canada, and they're here to welcome it."

Mary smiled at her daughter. "That's right, dear." Evelyn's eyes sparkled, and again she started jumping up and down.

"These people know our train is historic!"

"Right again, Evelyn. And what is the name of our train?"

"The Pacific Express."


Evelyn stopped jumping. "Ma, do you think they'll keep our train?"

Mary looked at her precocious and inquisitive daughter. "Yes, I do, dear. At least the engine. I think it will be kept for a very long time." She looked around, then said, "I do think there will be a speech. I think we should hear it."

As Mary put the suitcases down, the sun was momentarily blocked by someone's shadow. A soft, baritone voice said, "Mary! Evelyn!"

They looked at him. Mary mouthed, "Ben!" and Evelyn almost shouted, "Pa!"

Evelyn grabbed her father around the midriff, laying her head on his lower chest. Mary and Ben stared at each other. Finally, Ben said, "Let's pretend we're alone…"

Evelyn stepped away; he opened his arms and Mary fell into his embrace. Apart for six weeks, their kisses were soft and sensuous, until they remembered their daughter standing beside them.

"I'm so glad to see you!" they said in unison, and laughed. Mary separated herself and straightened her dress. Ben bent and kissed Evelyn on the forehead; she threw her arms around his neck, almost knocking off his top hat in a plethora of kisses. She let go only when Ben straightened.

Evelyn wore a wide, happy grin. Her father was dressed in a light-brown suit that matched his hat. His clean-shaven, smiling face was a delight for her to see again.

"My dear Evelyn," said Ben. "Did you like the train ride across Canada?"

"Oh yes, Pa! There were so many wonderful things to see…"

A male voice boomed and the crowd turned to face the low, shed-like building. "Ladies and gentlemen!" the voice cried through a megaphone. "I am William Gregory, master of ceremonies, and I have the great honour to introduce the premier of British Columbia, the Honourable Alexander Davie!" As polite applause filled the air, Mr. Gregory handed the megaphone to another man and stepped aside.

"Well," said Ben, smiling, "it seems we're going to get a speech. Would you like to hear it, Mary, or would you prefer to go to the hotel and rest?"

"We are tired, of course, but let's hear it. After all, it's not every day they can welcome the first train to cross Canada." She turned to their daughter. "If you want, you may sit on your suitcase, Evelyn."

"Yes, Ma."

Premier Davie was clad in a pinstripe suit and top hat. He scratched his neatly trimmed, black goatée, a contrast with most of the men present who sported long, bushy moustaches.

The Premier raised the megaphone and began to speak. Evelyn understood the Premier's main point that the train on which she and her mother had travelled heralded the extension of trade and development across Canada, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

Mercifully, because the family wanted to be together, the Premier's speech was short. The master of ceremonies took back the megaphone, thanked the Premier and introduced the mayor of the city, Alex MacLean. The mayor wore a simple business suit but no hat and, unlike Davie and most of the men, was entirely clean-shaven. After another short round of applause, he explained how the train that had just arrived, pulled by the Canadian Pacific Railway's newest locomotive, Number 374, proved the practicality of a rail line across Canada.

"This engine," he said, waving his other hand above his head, "along with Number 371 and many others that pulled these cars from Toronto, will soon be bringing hundreds -- nay, thousands! -- of new migrants here to the garden that is Vancouver. The men who built Number 374 just last year in Montreal, together with those who drove her, will live in our hearts forever!"

The audience applauded politely. The mayor handed the megaphone back to Mr. Gregory and stepped aside. The crowd started to disperse.

Mary reached for her suitcase, but Ben stopped her, taking it himself. Then he grasped Evelyn's. "My carriage is just around that corner, my dears," he said, pointing with his head. "We'll be at the Alhambra Hotel in a few moments. Places are close by in this new city."

Ben had been transferred to Vancouver early in April and was looking for suitable lodgings for his family. The great fire had occurred the previous year and the city was still being rebuilt; accommodation was in very short supply. He had telegraphed his reservation to the Alhambra before leaving Toronto for Port Moody, the old CPR terminus. Once in Port Moody, he had reached Vancouver by boat.

As they approached the hotel, Evelyn's natural curiosity overcame her weariness. "Oh Pa, look at all the chimneys! Why are there so many?"

"Each room has its own stove or fireplace, Evelyn," Ben answered. "Ours has a fireplace, but we won't need it just now."

"The hotel is big…"

"Yes. Just as big as those in Toronto. See? It has two storeys."

"And so many windows!"

"Each room has a large window so you can see into the street."

"Pa, where's our room? In the front or the back?"

Ben chuckled. "Don't worry, Evelyn. You'll be able to see into the street."

Ben steered the horse near to the front door, got down from the carriage and tied the reins to the hitching post. To Evelyn, the horse's soft neigh sounded like a satisfied sigh. Ben helped Evelyn and Mary alight.

He retrieved their suitcases from the back of the carriage and they entered the front door, built into a corner of the building. A bell tinkled. Immediately, a balding, middle-aged man with a fringe of pepper hair and a dark moustache appeared from behind another door.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Flowers. I see you have collected your family." Evelyn thought his voice was too high for a man.

"That's correct, Charles. May I present my wife, Mary, and my daughter, Evelyn."

"How do you do, ma'am, and Evelyn." Charles spoke directly to Evelyn. "I'll bet you had a wonderful trip on the first train to cross Canada, didn't you?"

"Yes, sir," said Evelyn. "I saw so many new things!"

"How do you feel to be part of Canadian history?"

"Oh sir! It feels wonderful."

The three adults chuckled. "I'm glad, Evelyn," said Charles. He turned his attention to Mary and Ben. "Well, I'll help you with your suitcases."

"Thank you, Charles," said Ben. To Mary and Evelyn, he said, "Our room is on the second floor."

They followed Charles up the stairs, Ben going last. At the top, Charles turned left and stopped in front of the first door. Ben produced his key and opened it. "Do you have a second key for Mrs. Flowers, Charles?"

"Yes, of course, sir. I'll have it ready at the counter when you stop by again." He put the suitcases just inside the door and turned to go, then stopped. "Oh yes, I almost forgot. Dinner will be at six o'clock, unless you desire to dine out, of course."

"Thank you, Charles." He put a hand into a pocket and withdrew some change, giving it to Charles.

Again Charles turned. He had reached the stairs when he stopped and faced the Flowers. "Oh sir! I almost forgot. While you were at the train Mr. Chandler came by and said he has a house to offer you and your lovely family."

Ben didn't reply. Evelyn looked at him. Ben's eyes widened, his mouth opened slightly and he appeared stunned. He hadn't expected to find a house for several months, yet, because of the previous year's fire. Mary put her hand on his shoulder.

"W-well!" he said. "Well, this is indeed our lucky day. Thank you, Charles, thank you!"

"You're welcome, sir," and he continued down the stairs.

After the family had entered the room and Ben had closed the door, he said, "I've already seen Mr. Chandler's house. I think we should be very happy there." Mary smiled. Evelyn felt glad that she and her mother and father would soon have a house in which to live, just as they did in Toronto.

"You both look tired," said Ben. "Why not have a short sleep, then we'll go down for dinner and Evelyn can tell me all about the train trip. Afterwards, if you feel up to it, perhaps we'll go for a walk around town and go by Mr. Chandler's house. Let's see," he added, pulling his watch from his waistcoat, "it's almost half past four o'clock. Rest until nearly six, then we'll go for dinner downstairs."

"That would be fine, dear," said Mary. "Evelyn, do you want to rest?"

Evelyn yawned. "Yes, Ma. But may I ask Pa something first?"

"What is it, Evelyn?" said Ben.

"Well, is Mr. Chandler's house near the railway?"

"As a matter of fact, it is. Why did you want to know?"

Evelyn sat in a chair and looked at her father. "Pa, I want to see all the trains as they come and go. And I hope Engine 374 will visit here often. I want to talk to the driver."

"Why, Evelyn?" asked Mary. Her skirt rustled as she sat in another chair.

Evelyn took a deep breath and said, "It's because I want to know how they felt to be the first to drive a train to Vancouver. It can only happen once, you know. If I can talk to them, then I can write it down. Ma, Pa, I'm going to be a writer and write about things that happen first, especially historical things!"

Mary and Ben both stared wide-eyed at their precocious daughter. Ben said softly, "You are growing up fast, Evelyn." He sat quietly for a moment, then said, "Your ambition to become a writer is laudable, my dear, and I think you should follow your heart. Mary?"

"I think so, too. But Evelyn, you should know that if you start something, you have to finish it. Do you understand?"

Evelyn jumped off her chair. "Oh yes, Ma! Yes, Pa!" She ran to them, giving each a hug. "Thank you!"

Mary and Ben looked at each other. Simultaneously, happy smiles broke out on their faces and their eyes sparkled.


Victoria Day, May 21, 2001

A crowd of several hundred stood in front of The Roundhouse Community Centre in downtown Vancouver. The refurbished Engine Number 374, formerly of the Canadian Pacific Railway, stood beside the milling crowd. It glistened black with gold lettering in the bright afternoon sun, festooned with the flags of Canada and British Columbia. Members of the 374 Station Society had brought her outside from her home of thick, unbreakable glass attached to The Roundhouse, once a locomotive repair shop. Puffs of steam escaped from ports near the drive wheels: a simulation of a locomotive that is ready to roll.

A tall, pepper-haired woman stood in front of a microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "I am Laura McDiarmid, Chair of the Vancouver Parks Board. As you know, the Parks Board and the Vancouver Central Lions Club supported the 374 Station Society while they restored historic Engine 374 which stands before you here in front of its fabulous new glass home. There was one person, however, whose vision was so clear and who pushed and shoved more than anyone else to get this project started and finished so that Vancouverites could enjoy this historical artifact. This person knows more about Engine 374 than anyone else.

"Please welcome the prime mover of the restoration, Evelyn Atkinson."

The crowd applauded politely as a petite lady dressed in Victorian period costume approached the microphone and adjusted it to her height. "Thank you for that kind introduction, Laura." Holding up a sheaf of paper, she addressed the audience directly. "I prepared a little speech for this afternoon, but I would prefer to speak extemporaneously. Wel-l, perhaps I'll refer to my notes a bit.

"Before anyone asks my age, I would like to explain that I am named after my grandmother, Evelyn Flowers, who travelled across Canada with her mother in 1887. The engine that pulled that first transcontinental train from Port Moody was the one that stands in front of you, Number 374.

"Most of you already know that this historic engine came to Vancouver just eighteen months after Donald Smith drove the last spike at Craigellachie.

"Usually, a locomotive is scrapped after twenty or thirty years of service. This happened to C.P.R. Engine Number 371 and many more. She and other locomotives brought that same train all the way across the continent to Port Moody, which had been the western terminus of the C.P.R. until the last twelve miles of the line were completed to Vancouver in 1887. Port Moody, of course, is actually on salt water, so Number 371 was the first engine to complete the haul of a scheduled train across Canada from sea-to-sea. That honour belongs to her." Evelyn paused and looked at her notes.

"Unfortunately for us, Number 371 was scrapped in October 1915, just thirty years old. Number 374, however, was completely rebuilt in September 1914, giving it another thirty years of service. She was retired in July 1945, and the C.P.R. donated her to the City of Vancouver.

"The rebuild was very important. It made 374 into an almost-new locomotive, giving her a larger boiler, re-positioning the steam dome, and fitting 63-inch driving wheels in place of the original 69-inch wheels. Still, historians consider as valid the link between the 1914 rebuild and the original engine that had been built in Montreal by Canadian Pacific in 1886." Again she paused, shuffling a sheet to the back.

"Some have suggested that Number 374 should be made operational, but the refinements of 1914 mean that is impossible because too much of the 1886 engine had to be replaced. It would be easier to construct a full-size replica, though at great cost. And it wouldn't be the same, now, would it?"

Evelyn waited for the murmurs to subside.

"Furthermore, when she was retired in 1945, the Canadian Pacific Railway's shops in Montreal made Engine 374 look ‘old.' So they removed some 1914 technology which made her permanently inoperative. After delivery back to Vancouver, she was placed on a short track in the open at Kitsilano Beach, where she stayed until 1983.

"Now, I'm sure you can imagine what happened to old Number 374 over those 38 years. Sightseers climbed on her, birds dropped their ‘business' on her, and sun, wind and rain beat at her. She was vandalized and neglected. She was badly rusted and dangerous. In 1983 she was no longer good to look at.

"So I felt personally pleased that the Friends of 374, an organization I helped to form, raised the funds to start a cosmetic restoration. Twenty thousand people from all walks of life bought heritage bricks at twenty dollars each, and the donors' names were inscribed on them. The bricks are now embedded in the floor of this pavilion and are a memorial to these wonderful supporters. They made it possible to remove dear old Number 374 from Kitsilano and place her in a warehouse on Granville Island. Then in 1985, members of the West Coast Railway Association and the Canadian Railroad Historical Association started the restoration.

"You are probably asking yourselves why I was so pleased about this. Well, as it happens, my grandmother, Evelyn Flowers, then aged twelve, travelled with her mother, Mary, on the very train that Engine 374 brought to Vancouver from Port Moody. So I feel a profound personal bond with this engine, a piece of 19th Century machinery that I regard as a work of art because of her direct connection to my family."

Evelyn stopped, shuffled more pages to the back, read a few lines to herself, and continued.

"I now wish to address one last subject: making Engine 374 operable. My friends, I'm sure you can appreciate that no one would like this to happen more than I. It would be as if I could, in a way, touch my grandmother…" Evelyn paused and lowered her head. She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve, then tucked it away after dabbing at an eye. "But as I said a few minutes ago, it would mean replacing most of what you see here before you. It just wouldn't be the same. I feel that having this locomotive in its hybrid 1914 form, so very close to the original 1886 machine, is really what is important to me.

"I am grateful that we have today an example of 1880s technology modernized to 1914. Engine 374 is of great historical significance to Vancouver and to Canada, as she is the locomotive that actually linked Canada's two ocean seaboards."

Evelyn looked at the gleaming locomotive, then stepped away from the microphone. Applause followed her as she walked back inside The Roundhouse.

© 2001, 2004 Manuel Erickson

1 comment:

  1. May 23, 1887 was a great day for Vancouver, when CPR Engine 374 pulled the first transcontinental train into the city. Crowds cheered, the city band played, ships in the harbour blew their horns, and hundreds of flags decorated the young city. It was a great day not only for Vancouver, but for the whole nation. The event heralded the completion of one of the greatest engineering feats of the century, a twin line of steel linking the new nation of Canada from coast to coast, ten years in construction.