We lay at anchor in the harbour at St. John. It was Easter Sunday April twelfth. Hundreds of passengers milled about the deck. Everywhere lay piles of baggage. The air was filled with the sound of bells ringing. Bert's wife, Emily, we awed. Looking toward the wooden houses and un-surfaced earthen streets of the town nestling there at the water's edge, she listened to the bells and murmured "What a holy country this must be!"
An official from the shore came on board and gave an address of welcome. He outlined procedure for the train journey about to begin. Papers now had to be examined and long queues were formed.
Suddenly I heard my father's voice raised in haughty indignation as he explained in lofty tones, "But I don't believe in vaccination.'"
A harassed medical officer at the improvised desk looked at my parent steadily and said, "Well sir, I don't know how you got your family on board at the other side without! Don't you know that one of the passengers on board developed smallpox at sea and that any unvaccinated person maybe harbouring the infection right now?
Nonsense!" Father snorted. "If the English authorities could accept my reasoning, I should think that would suffice. Come now, let us not prolong this any further"
And because there were still hundreds of passengers to be seen too, the tired, man stamped our papers and the waiting line shuffled forward in snake-like segments. Unbelievable quantities of luggage were being swung in huge nets from the ship's holds to the quayside and then taken to nearby sheds. There were baby carriages, trunks, pianos, packing cases, small organs, and a startling assortment of household items. Some of the bales split open, their contents spilling out on the deck to the anguish of the owners witnessing the disaster. Only when the last pieces were ashore were we allowed to leave the Lake Manitoba. My parents, with Bert and his wife, went to search out our family belongings while Ted and Dick kept Fred, Joe and Reg herded together in a group around the baggage we had used on the voyage. Emmy held Buzzy's hand firmly while he tried in vain to pull away and go exploring.
Mabel held baby Ray. I stayed close to my sisters, afraid to venture more then a step away for fear of becoming lost forever in the milling throng.
Four long trains waited for us at the station. As we drew near the perpetual bell ringing became louder. Look! Those aren't church bells we've been hearing, Fred observed. They're train bells on the engines used to shunt the coaches about the station. Au we drew louder.
Our train was quite different from anything we had ever experienced in Britain. There was a long narrow aisle extending the length of each coach, with sets of double seats facing each other on either side.
A porter showed Mother how each seat pulled out to make a bed for two. The Inner part of the ceiling pulled down to form another double bunk. I thought this was wonderful and immediately asked to have one of the upper bunks for mine.
"But where are the draw curtains?" Mother asked in obvious consternation.
"There are no draw curtains, ma'am. If you want to undress you'll have to hang up some blankets," she was told. Are there some blankets supplied?"
"Oh no, mum. Each person is responsible for his own," and the porter moved away to answer more questions from other mothers trying to consolidate their effects. and settle their little ones.
The seats were rock-hard and covered in straw. Eighty-four people herded together into our coach. There was one small cook stove at one end where the women had to take turns cooking meals for their entire families. This same stove also served as our only source of heat.
My father bought a few staples for the journey while we were in St Johns and we were told that we would be able to ~ fresh bread and other necessities ~ the train stopped along the way.
We finally jerked into motion and almost immediately I was put to bed. Peering over the edge of my upper bunk with Buzzy squirming beside me, we looked down at fretful babies, wispy haired harassed mothers and piles of baggage for which a place had not yet been found. The men stood in groups, talking and smoking. The smell of tobacco rose to encircle us and I coughed. The day had been long and too full of excitement. I felt my eyes droop shut, and I slept.
At every stop the train made its passengers disgorged in a monstrous belch. The men would bolt to the nearest store for fresh supplies and sprint back when the whistle sounded. Because of the size of our family, Bert, Ted and Dick were all dispatched on these food safaris. Father strode the platform beside the train and kept an eagle eye on Reg, Joe and Fred who ran about enacting imagined skirmishes with Indians.
Spring was late this year so the train widows were kept closed against the zero weather. Women doing their best to brew a pot of tea, or simmer a stew usually surrounded the little cook-stove. We were crowded to suffocation and the cold air soon became stale with cooking odors, smoke, unwashed bodies and soiled diapers.
In complete contrast to England's budding verdure of April, Canada's seasonal bleakness chilled many a heart and a new set of fears began to take seed. Grown-ups were silent and thoughtful as they looked out the window of the monotonously swaying train and saw the ground still white with snow and lakes covered in ice. The incessant "'clickety-clack" of the wheels on the track did nothing to reassure us.
Living to the full this Jules Verne saga, my teenage brothers strode the aisle of the train, knives firmly belted in place, their eyes so filled with adventure that they saw none of the primitive sordidness of the reality around them. Constantly they peered out the gritty windows ever on the lookout for Indians on the warpath, to the alarm of the women sitting near.
One man shot a rabbit from the train window as we crawled up a steep grade. He jumped out to retrieve his prize and climbed back on board a few coaches behind.
As one day followed another we left the unfamiliar names behind - Montreal, Chalk River, Megantic. Schreiber was a small station on the north shore of Lake Superior. Beyond and to our left lay the thrashing surf of that wild, ominous gray-blue water which looked like an entire sea. The unfamiliar green rocks disappeared into dense forest on our right - deep and impenetrable.
Most of our people adjusted to their new surrounding fairly well; no small achievement for those who had never ventured more than a few miles from their homes in Britain until a fortnight ago. But there were some who complained bitterly, muttering together in prophetic groups.
"My passage money was supposed to pay for our food until we reached Saskatoon," said one bearded man whose savings were all but gone.
"I was told that blankets were to be supplied in St. John," muttered another.
My parents listened to everyone who wanted to talk, against the never-ceasing background music of the whee1s, but they held their counsel and no one knew whether Father was satisfied that he had been dealt with fairly or not.
We arrived in Winnipeg on Thursday morning for a lengthy stopover. Everyone left the train's confining quarters, grateful to be able to walk on firm ground again. The station was crowded with many hundreds of travelers, not from our train alone.
Many and varied were the national costume worn by these people and the air was filled with words spoken in tongues we had never before heard. The town boasted several substantial looking buildings and many small ones of wood. The land around was flat to the horizon -a startling change from the mountainous forests through which we had so recently traveled. The main street was paved with round wooden blocks and hoard sidewalks were raised above road level. We saw many of our train companions enjoying a real meal in Winnipeg, but my father's money must have been much too low to consider such a luxury for we gathered back at the train to have one of our regular dinners of stew and bread.
Clickety-clack~ clickety-click the sound pulsated through the very thread of our beings! One of our numbers composed a ditty, which we all sang from time to time to relieve the dreadful monotony. We borrowed the tune from the 'Rajah of Bong' and sang lustily:
"Farm, farm, do let us farm, Supposing that some of us can! We'll plow and we'll sow, and we'll reap and we'll mow in the Valley of Saskatchewan"
And the long, flat, bleak miles stretched into an eternity in a widening wake that took us ever farther from our homeland far, far to the East....
In Regina we were ordered to repack all our belongings for we were to be herded onto yet another train - the Canadian Northern - bound for Saskatoon which was as far as any train could travel westward. We knew that after that we had another two hundred miles of overland trek by wagon ahead of us before we reached Battleford - that magical name which meant that we would be almost at the end of our long journey. But even now the very name Saskatoon sent delicious tril 1s of hope through us. Had we not been promised that this great Western city awaiting our arrival was full of the comforts we had been used to back home?
Imagine! Stores! Beds with sheets and blankets! Teashops! How starved we were for these creature comforts we remembered as if from another life!
This train had a much smaller engine than the C.P.R., which had been 'home' to us for so long now. We pitched and swayed through land almost devoid of trees or any sign of human habitation.
From the oldest to the youngest child we looked out through the grimy windows and felt Hope recede once more. Occasionally we sighted a heed of antelope, which incited my brothers to a paroxysm of excitement - for awhi1e.
Outside Aylesbury our little engine broke away from the rest of the train and we slowed to a gradual stop. The engine returned to us but it took time to repair the break and we all took advantage of the mishap to leave the train and stretch our legs outdoors. Someone produced a football and some of the men soon organized a game on the flat prairie, which stretched interminably on all sides around us.
"Do let us play too," my brothers begged Mother.
"We've taken forever to get this far now that I don't want any of you left behind in this wilderness," she stated firmly. "1'm truly sorry but you must all stay close by so we don't become separated ~ the train starts again."
The boys were obviously keenly disappointed but none of us would have thought for a moment of disobeying either of parents, so they watched the game in envy from the sidelines.
It was late in the afternoon when we got under way again. Suddenly our little train was enveloped in smoke and then flames on all sides! Every face was glued to a rubbed spot on a windowpane.
"It's a prairie fire!" someone said.
We could smell the burning grass and smoke throughout the coach. I was too young to be unduly frightened by this new experience, but I could see that my parents were afraid. Mother pressed Baby Ray closer to her breast with one arm and encircled Buzzy with the other. My father reached for my hand and held on tightly as we stood in the aisle now away from the flames licking at the coach windows.
It was late in the evening when we crossed the Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon and the train came to a final stop. Oh, the eagerness we felt in our travel-weary bones to find a hot bath at last! And a night's sleep in a real bed! We tumbled over one another in our eagerness to get out of the train and become part of the city of Saskatoon!
But where was it? Where were the roads? The homes? Shops? The hospital? Offices? There had to be some mistake!
Here before us were a few tiny buildings clustered together beside the railway track. Beyond, as far as the eye could see, stretched the flat prairie. The river lay like a wide satin ribbon in the half-light, and we saw hundreds of ghostly shapes like overgrown beehives along its edge.
We were still standing stunned and speechless when a Government official arrived to deliver a short speech of welcome. Mr. Speers suggested that we would do well to remain on the train for one more night. It was too dark to sort our baggage now, he said. It would be unloaded during the night and placed in a tent for us to claim in tomorrow's daylight.
Unbelieving, we reluctantly turned our journey-worn bodies back to the train coach once more. Mother pulled down the upper bunk with a thump and Buzzy and I were hoisted up firmly and urgently. I sensed from her face that this was no time for questions, so I lay down obediently with Buzzy and Foreboding for my bedfellows. I lay there quietly for a long time that night listening to the rise and fall of voices raised in anger and frustration outside the window.
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