79th Post: 4th CANADA – Wilde on Wheels


It was with regret that we left Toronto and Oscar’s new supporters. True to the Sandcastle Theatre philosophy, the production was indeed washed away by time and tide and evaporated into memory – if that’s not mangling a metaphor too far?

The next evening we arrived at Union Station in the heart of the city. The lights of the soaring skyscrapers above us blazed into the night sky. It was a strange effect – what had been just dreary giant glass boxes in daytime now became regiments of glowing jewels emblazoned across the darkness. A North American city only becomes beautiful when you can’t see most of it.

Inside the station, we settled down in the passenger lounge to wait – and wait. Rail transport in Canada is much a matter of pot luck. You can more or less rely on which day you will arrive but not which hour. We were finally called to board at midnight. The train stood waiting: a beautiful, muscular, silver buffalo of a machine. It was impossible to look at it without memories of a hundred Hollywood films flooding in.

This became even more intense when we found our sleeping accommodation. It consisted of a long corridor carriage lined with upper and lower curtained-off bunk-beds. Again Hollywood gate-crashed reality; this time the immortal scene between Monroe and Jack Lemmon in ‘Some like It Hot’. Sean nobly took the upper bunk: the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

As the time was now approaching 1am, the guard doused the main lights and the carriage quietened. With a squeal of metal and a grating shudder, the Toronto train set out to cover the 2,775 miles to Vancouver.

And then, about ten miles outside the city, it stopped and reversed again. As I dozed off I assumed that the problem was ‘elk on the line’.

I was woken at 4am by the most romantic sound in the world: the long, low blare of the train’s air horn whistle. I first heard it on the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ album and was hooked by it. An irresistible siren call to born travellers – as the Arab saying goes, to those who ‘love to smell the breezes’.

At 5am we stopped at a station called Parry Sound. Opening the carriage curtain I could just make out a spectral white town beside a frozen river. Then with a jolt the train glided on, its lights spilling onto the snowdrifts beside the tracks. I drowsed again, euphoric on white snow and black night.

Dawn in North Ontario

Over the next four days I got to learn that this railway – this ribbon of steel – had been possibly the most important single feature in the history of Canada. It was mainly the achievement of two men – Oscar Wilde’s old acquaintance the Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald, plus an American railroad man to his roots (who became Sir) William Van Horne.

Macdonald, in his sober moments, realised that the sheer vastness of Canada needed a unifying factor, something that could link the disparate settlements previously marooned by vast tracts of forest, prairie, and mountain. Specifically he needed to bind the Pacific Ocean settlement of British Columbia to the capital Ottawa – over 3,000 miles away. The British Columbians would only consider such an undertaking if he built a trans-continental railway for them. Macdonald, risking a lot, agreed to accomplish the task in ten years. On this promise, they joined the Confederation in 1871.

By almost every yardstick outside of Macdonald’s vision, the project was insane. Driving a hugely expensive railroad through thousands of miles of desolate nothingness tested his will to the utmost. What had been christened the Canadian Pacific Railway (the CPR) tottered from financial crisis to financial crisis, often bordering on ruin. Also, the construction problems were horrendous. Not only had the engineers to deal with the Rocky Mountains, but the region to the north of Lake Superior consisted of low-lying quagmires (known as muskeg) into which rail tracks and sometimes even engines could sink without trace.

North Ontario

Fortunately Macdonald had exactly the right man at hand to see the scheme through to its conclusion. William Van Horne was an American who began his career aged 14 as a telegrapher for the Milwaukee Central Railroad and through sheer brilliance worked his way up to a position of dominance in railway construction. (He was later to build the Trans-Cuba Railway and even today the train station of the Cuban city of Camaguey is situated on the ‘Avenida Van Horne’).

In addition to his railway and business expertise, Van Horne was a true Renaissance man, commenting that: “Nothing is too small to know, and nothing is too big to attempt”. His huge intellectual curiosity embraced geology, gardening, antique collecting, and sketching. He was one of the first people in Canada to collect the work of the French Impressionist artists, and even subscribed to Oscar Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism. As he was a large man, made somewhat larger by his indulgence of a gourmet palate, he insisted on having large sleeping berths on his train – an insistence that has been much appreciated by the generations of passengers that followed him. Meanwhile from 1880 to 1885 he steadily forged his metal juggernaut across Canada.

In 1886 the route was finally opened. Sir John Macdonald and his wife were the first special passengers to travel the whole route to Vancouver. At times in order to get a better view the Prime Minister and his lady sat on the cow-catcher at the front of the train waving to anyone who might be watching.

North Ontario

It is difficult to over-emphasise the benefits that accrued out of the efforts of Macdonald and Van Horne. At the very least, they turned Canada into a single community.

To an economy that had been verging on stagnation the railroad gave an electrifying shock of stimulation. The commercial interests of Ontario and Quebec were provided with access to the raw materials of the west, and the west could send its produce to the Atlantic.

By simultaneously installing telegraph lines alongside the rail track, continental communications were improved enormously.

The line had been built through what was close to being a wilderness. Therefore, an energetic recruiting campaign was inaugurated to populate the west. The CPR started to sell farm land at bargain prices all along the route of its tracks. A steady stream of immigrants arrived by boat from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia and then proceeded to new homes by the train. (Alberta was mostly occupied by Ukrainians giving the people of that province their characteristic height.)

Noting the flat, bald nature of the prairies, the CPR created ‘education carriages’ to teach the new settlers how to plant trees and vegetation.

Van Horne, in particular, realised the potential for a tourist trade and drew up a national parks plan to draw visitors to the Rocky Mountains.

Track side in North Ontario Forest

Later on, in the 1920s, the CPR solved the problem of educating the children of the scattered communities along its route by turning some of their rail-cars into travelling schools. The teacher would live in one half of the carriage while the other half was a fully equipped classroom. The rail-car would stop for five days, then travel on to its next destination leaving the pupils with enough homework till its return.

The company even ended up fixing the children’s teeth from a specially equipped dental surgery on board the train. 

The whole project was a triumph of state investment.

Dining on the train

Not least, Macdonald and Van Horne bequeathed a marvellous method for a modern day traveller to cross the continent at leisure. The trip was one of utter relaxation – genuinely comfortable beds that became seats in the daytime, adequate washing facilities, and impeccable air conditioning. Also, having expected airline food, it was a pleasure to find that the cuisine consisted of three freshly cooked meals a day, each reflecting the habitat through which we were passing – bison on the prairies, salmon in the Rockies, etc. The fellow passengers were an added bonus – an international array of conversation if you were in the mood.

The real jewel in the journey, though, was the observation turret. The last carriage had a lounge area that projected above the roof of the train thereby allowing passengers an unrestricted 360 degree view of the passing scenery. Sean and I spent most of the daylight hours up there and each day provided a surprisingly different panorama.

The observation car on the train

Wednesday was spent travelling through North Ontario – snow covered ground, an endless array of dark green pines speckled with white, and tree islands surrounded by flat icebound lakes. This was part of the region covered by the Great Ontario Forest. To give some idea of the size of this forest – it is larger than the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany put together. I had barely even heard of it.

Cafe in Hornepayne

That afternoon we pulled into the first real stop of the route – Hornepayne – a village of about a thousand population named, as with so many other towns along the way, after an early director of the rail company. The place was almost buried in snow. We noticed a sign and having wiped the ice off its surface read the inscription: ‘Senior Citizens Sunshine Club’. Hmm?

One noticeable hiccup about Canadian passenger travel was that every so often we would have to stop and allow a freight train to pass. Although the Canadian government owned our train, a private consortium now owned the rail tracks and they prioritised freight. One member of this consortium happened to be the American computer billionaire Bill Gates. Occasionally during our enforced halts, the train guard would announce the reason for the stoppage over the speaker system and would add a derogatory sneer at Gates. By law, each announcement had to be repeated in French and it was quite entertaining to hear the original aspersion in English, followed a minute later by “Beel Gets est merde” (or words to that effect).

Sean in Hornepayne

In the evening, we managed to pull off what was arguably the oddest performance that I have ever given of the Wilde show. It began as a joke – Sean mentioned that he had never heard of a theatre show being performed on a moving train before. Neither had I. Our eyes met and a smile spread.

The train lounge car stage area

The train guard was surprisingly amenable to the suggestion – the lounge area in the rear carriage (the caboose) was large enough to fit in a small audience, and basically she was keen on anything that might break the monotony of her job. The performance space was roughly 3ft by 4ft, and the window behind it looked directly back onto the railway tracks as we raced above them. The advance publicity consisted of a flat Canadian voice on the train speaker announcing: “Oscar Wilde will be giving a talk tonight in the caboose”. But that was all that we needed.

By 8pm all the carriage seats were occupied by curious onlookers and a few more peered in from the bar at the far end. Sean took up position as stage manager, cheer leader, and potentially bouncer, and at 8 15 I launched into the familiar performance.

NJT as Oscar Wilde on the train

To anybody attempting a similar show in the future, just two main problems. The racket from the train is far louder than one expects – you will have to yell everything to have any chance of getting through. Especially when a freight train hurtles past roughly two feet away from your carriage with a shrill blast of its whistle just as you reach the most tenderly reflective spot in your narrative.

The second is that of balance. The train was travelling at about 60mph which was not an unreasonable speed. But it was fast enough to ensure that every rattle over the rails and every jolt over the points was transmitted above and into my body. One audience member said later that he thought I’d been afflicted by a sudden onset of Parkinson’s disease. Also I was in the far rear of the rear carriage and this was the part of the train most vulnerable to swaying. My depiction of Wildean languor whilst idling in a Parisian cafe was not helped by suddenly having to grab hold of the wall to prevent being hurled into the audience.

It was not the most dignified of performances, it was not even a so-so one, but I did feel a spasm of triumph at the end. God  knows if this was a first? But I did know that we’d pulled off an act of guerrilla theatre at its most basic.

Afterwards we stood at the bar for a drink. At one point the train swayed so far over that Sean’s beer slid down the counter and smashed on the floor. The barman said that he’d never seen that happen before.

Back in the berth, I lay awake. The train stopped at the town of Sioux Lookout at half past midnight. According to the guide book, the name originated with the Ojibway tribe who used the nearby mountain to look for any tell-tale sign of Sioux warriors approaching on a raid. During the Cold War the same mountain was used as a radar base to look for any tell-tale sign of military activity from Russia.

I had a bad night’s sleep and woke at 4 30am. We had stopped to allow a freight train to pass. I counted the carriages as they went by – there were 152 of them. It was truly a container ship of the prairies. I remembered a line from one of the Beat poets of my youth – Allen Ginsberg. In his wonderful poem ‘Howl’ he wrote:

‘Who lit cigarettes in boxcars, boxcars, boxcars, racketing through snow toward lonesome farms and grandfather night.’ That man certainly knew the Great Plains.

Drifting off again I wondered idly if, when Canadians wish to sleep, they try counting sheep or boxcars?

Next week on Tuesday December 11 – The Great Canadian Prairies and the Prairie Troubadours.


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