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The Colonist Car

by Dan Conlin, Curator

Time 0:02:07


Welcome aboard our Colonist Car! This is a carefully constructed replica of the train cars that took immigrants from the ships at Pier 21 to their new homes across Canada. These cars were specially designed for immigration. They were called “Colonist Cars” because they were intended to take immigrants the thousands of miles across the Canadian landscape.

They were a unique Canadian solution to the problem of our settlement areas in the twentieth century were thousands of miles from the seaports. So the railways built these cars designed for very frugal, economical transportation. When they built these cars around WWI, a whole family could cross Canada for 7 dollars. But that budget travel came at a price; the seats were hard, the sleeping berths were even harder, and 72 people would share one of these cars with no dining car, no bedding, no pillows, for this long, uncomfortable, loud voyage across Canada. It was an exciting time, but it could be a really exhausting one for many people. The cars had no dining cars when they were built so that people had to bring their own food and cook their own meals in a tiny kitchen that was also part of the car. So it was a real challenge in these cars with crying babies, coughing people, people unable to sleep, everybody sharing one ladder to get into the upper berths. Sleeping berths that were really so hard and uncomfortable, but by the 1950s people were mostly using them as giant overhead luggage racks.

So we’ve tried to capture that look of a train car going across the country stuffed with luggage and clothing and little scraps of paper that would accumulate on a long journey. These cars were also important because they were immigrants’ first exposure to the immensity of the Canadian landscape that they would see through the windows. And we have all kinds of oral history interviews that talk about how shocked people were about how big Canada was, all those rocks and trees and many immigrants started to wonder if this really was the right choice. So it was their really encounter with the raw immensity of Canada that brought them to their new homes. And we’re really hoping that this will give people an introduction to that powerful immigration experience that was 20th century Canada.