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Celebrating a Centennial: Countless Journeys by Train

During its peak years as an immigration terminal, the train tracks that spoked out from Pier 21 were arteries that crossed Canada. The train cars, moving and depositing hundreds of thousands of people to their new homes and lives. Farmers from the Netherlands, workers from Ireland, families from Italy and refugees fleeing post-war Europe, the call to “all aboard” signalled the final leg of a long journey. For some, it was a long, uncomfortable ride on board a frugal “Colonist Car”, for others more comfortable accommodations awaited in first class. For all, the steady rhythm of wheels on track was a way to measure their anticipation as they drew closer to their new lives. In recognition of CN’s 100th anniversary this June, here is a selection of train stories from our collection.

“l was quite terrified,” remembers Randal Cave, an immigrant from Northern Ireland. It wasn’t the journey by boat that scared him, but as he climbed up into the train, “I realized the enormity of the step I had taken in leaving my wife and newborn child to follow me.”

At some point, an official handed Randal a tag to wear that identified him as a landed immigrant needing assistance. He was too proud to display it at first, but after disembarking at Montreal Central Station, and swept into the bustling crowd of francophone strangers, he swallowed his pride. “How glad I was to find it still in my pocket,” he said.

Many, like Randal, were men travelling alone, forging a path for their families to join them later. Other times whole families came together; mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and multiple children. The added complication of travelling with children has not changed much and immigration officials and volunteers were prepared.

A family of seven with five kids under the age of 13, the Versluys arrived in Canada hoping for a fresh start after the Second World War. The immigration officials were there to help the large family get organized from ship to train. “We were rushed to the front of the line,” remembers Gerrit Versluys, just 9 at the time, “within a short time we were in a lounging area where we were offered some cookies and drinks by some kind Red Cross volunteers.”

Fred Johansen, a young Danish immigrant, learned the importance of sticking together. His brother Kurt wrote that at a planned stop, “he had gotten off the train, without Mom noticing…. Fortunately, a railroad employee and the train conductor got him back on board just as the train was beginning to roll. It goes without saying that a happy reunion followed.”

The Froeses, a family of five from Poland, lamented the difficulty of keeping clean. “The train was a coal engine, so we were always very black from the soot,” says Gertrude of her and her siblings’ experience. “Mother was always telling us to wash up.”

In the summer, ice water was passed down the aisle. This was literally, “huge blocks of ice which, when they melted, provided drinking water for the passengers,” wrote Kenneth Vandenberg, a Dutch immigrant. Train food and drink was tricky overall. Some had the luxury of meals in a dining car, while others travelling by Colonist Car, had to stock up on supplies of mysterious items from the small grocery stand at Pier 21. Things like the soft, snow-white Wonderbread, already sliced, and pink, salty cans of Spam were met with a whole gamut of reactions, from disgust to delight.

Some passengers snuck favourite comfort foods onboard. “My mother also had 3 salamis hidden in her purse,” wrote Theresa Perri, an Italian immigrant, “We got to enjoy them later on the train when we ran out of food.”

Strange accommodations and new foods were all forgotten while gazing out at the Canadian vistas. In the winter, it was either a sparkling wonderland, or desolate frozen landscape depending on perspective. “While stopped at Quebec City we saw the great St Lawrence ice flows with ferry boats crossing the river pushing the great chunks of ice aside,” wrote Cecil Harrison, a Scottish immigrant, “it seemed that wherever you looked there was nothing but snow and ice.”

The snowfall was a showstopper, and even a train stopper. Sometimes passengers would have to pitch in to free the tracks. Italian immigrant, Egidio Santori remembers, “there was a big snow storm, and the train stopped,” he wrote, “the men had to get out to help clear the tracks before the train could continue.”

No matter the weather or season, the views from the train were an illuminating introduction to Canada’s geographical expanse, “It quickly sank in how large the country was,” documents the Filipps family’s story, “Endless hours of nothing, just woods and landscape with only a few villages and cities…”

It was also an opportunity to unpack and examine the array of emotions that came with starting over. “I was beginning to get anxious on the train about my new job,” wrote Sheila Newby, an English immigrant travelling alone, “my impression of Canada as it passed by the window of the train was its sheer immensity. The expansiveness of the land and stunning scenery I never forgot. So began life in a new country.”

Elizabeth Erskine, a German immigrant, was stirred by early feelings of patriotism, “The Maritime landscape, so full of woods, fields, lakes and streams, held us glued to the windows,” she wrote, “Not a day in all these years have I regretted coming to Canada.”

Today, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 shares the broader story of immigration to Canada, from 400 years ago to present day, by boat, train, car and airplane. The countless journeys are ongoing, and the contributions from newcomers continue to enrich our country’s economy, culture and way of life. These train stories are a memorable feature of many newcomer’s journeys, and especially for the nearly one million people who arrived at Pier 21.

Immigration Stories Cited: