19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” ~Mark Twain
After a long day’s journey on the Grand Trunk Railway, without even the eccentricities of fellow passengers in our Pullman car to amuse us, we were all glad to reach Sarnia [Ontario, Canada]. The monotony of the scenery through which we passed had been unbroken, except by a prettily-situated cemetery, and the tasteful architecture of a hillside church, surrounded by trees just putting on their spring foliage.
It was 8 o’clock when we got to the wharf, and the steamer Manitoba only waited for our arrival to cast loose her moorings and enter the dark blue waters of Lake Huron. “Haste” will not express the excitement of the scene. Men, rushing hither and thither in search of friends, traps, and luggage, were goaded to fury by the calmness of the officials and their determination not to be hurried.
Hearing there was no chance of having tea on board that night, and discovering near the wharf a signboard announcing that meals could be obtained at all hours (except, as we were told, that particular one), we with difficulty persuaded the proprietress to let us have something to eat. Along with muttered grumblings that she was “slaved to death,” that “her life was not worth a rap,” and so on, every remark being emphasized with a plate or dish, we were at last supplied with bread, cheese, and beefsteak, for which we were kindly allowed to pay 50 cents each.
The scene on board the boat beggars description. The other steamers being still icebound on Lake Superior, the Manitoba was obliged to take as much freight and as many passengers as she could carry, many of the latter having been waiting in Sarnia upward of ten days for her departure. Surveying parties, immigrants of almost every nation on their way to make homes in the great Northwest, crowded the decks and gangways.
The confusion of tongues, the shrill cries of the frightened and tired children, the oaths of excited men, and the trundling and thumping of the baggage, mingled with the shrieks of adjacent engines “made night hideous.” Porters and cabmen jostled women laden with baskets of linen, brought on board at the last minute, when the poor tired stewardess had no time to administer the well-merited reprimand. Passengers rushed about in search of the purser, anxious to secure their staterooms before they were usurped by someone else.
It was midnight when the commotion had subsided, and quarters were assigned to all but a stray man or two wandering about in search of some Mr Brown or Mr Jones, whose room he was to share. Climbing into my berth, I soon fell asleep, but only for a few moments. The shrill whistle, the vehement ringing of the captain’s bell, the heavy beat of the paddles, roused me; and as we left the wharf and steamed out from among the ships and small craft dotting the water on every side, “Off at last!” was shouted from the crowded decks. Then the opening bars of “God save the Queen” were sung heartily and not inharmoniously, followed by three cheers for her Majesty [Victoria], three for her Imperial Highness, three for her popular representative Lord Dufferin [Governor General], and so on, till the enthusiasm culminated in “He’s a jolly good fellow,” the monotony of which sent me to sleep again.
At 4 o’clock next morning I scrambled out of my berth at the imminent risk of broken bones, wondering why the inventive powers of our Yankee neighbors had not hit on some arrangement to facilitate the descent. I dressed and went in search of fresh air. Picking my steps quietly between sleeping forms—for men in almost every attitude, some with blankets or greatcoats rolled round them, were lying on the floor and lounges in the saloon [large comfortable seating area]—I reached the deck just as the sun rose above the broad blue waters, brightening every moment the band of gold where sky and water met. Clouds of ink-black smoke floated from our funnel, tinged by the rising sun with every shade of yellow, red, and brown. Mirrored in the calm water below, lay the silent steamer—silent, save for the ceaseless revolution of her paddles, whose monotonous throb seemed like the beating of a great heart.
For an hour or more I reveled in the beauty of water and sky, and ceased to wonder why people born on the coast love the sea so dearly, and pine for the sight of its waves. When the men came to wash the decks, a pleasant, brawny fellow told me we were likely to have a good run up the lakes. The storms of the last few days having broken up the ice, and driven it into the open, there was hope both of the ice-locked steamers getting out, and of our getting into Duluth without much trouble—”unless the wind changes, which is more than possible,” he added abruptly and walked off, as if fearful of my believing his sanguine predictions too implicitly.
Later the passengers appeared, grumbling at the cold, and at being obliged to turn out so early, and wishing breakfast were ready. Of this wished-for meal the clatter of dishes in the saloon [commons] soon gave welcome warning. Dickens says that when, before taking his first meal on board an American steamer, “he tore after the rushing crowd to see what was wrong, dreadful visions of fire, in its most aggravated form, floated through his mind; but it was only dinner that the hungry public were rushing to devour.”
We were nearly as bad on the Manitoba, the friendly steward warning most of us to secure our seats without delay, the cabin walls being gradually lined with people on either side, each behind a chair. One of the “boys” strode ostentatiously down the long saloon [seating area], ringing a great handbell, which summoned a mixed multitude pell-mell to the scene of action, only to retreat in disappointment at finding the field already occupied.
It was amusing to watch the different expressions on the faces down the lines while waiting for breakfast. Men, chiefly surveyors, who during their annual trips to and from work had gotten used to “that sort of thing,” took it coolly, judiciously choosing a seat directly opposite their stateroom door, or standing in the background, but near enough to expel any intruder. New men, looking as uncomfortable as if they had been caught in petty larceny, twisted their youthful mustaches, put their hands in their pockets, or leaned against the wall, trying to look perfectly indifferent as to the event, some of their neighbors smiling satirically at their folly.
Old farmer-looking bodies, grumbling at the crush, mingled with Yankees, toothpick in hand, ready for business; sturdy Englishmen whom one knew appreciated creature comforts; and dapper little Frenchmen, hungry yet polite. Here stood a bright-looking Irishwoman, who vainly tried to restrain the impatience of five or six children, whose faces still shone from the friction of their morning ablutions [washings]; there, an old woman, well-nigh double with age, who, rather than be separated from the two stalwart sons by her side, was going to end her days in a strange land. Here was a group of bright, chatty little French Canadians, with the usual superabundance of earrings and colorful ribbons decorating their persons; there, a great raw-boned Scotchwoman, inwardly lamenting the porridge of her native land, frowned on the company.
The bell ceased, and “Presto!” all were seated, and turning over their plates as if for a wager. Then came a confused jumble of tongues, all talking at once; the rattle of dishes, the clatter of knives and forks, and the rushing about of the waiters. It required quick wit to choose a breakfast dish, from the “Whitefish—finanhaddy—beefsteak—cold roastbeef—muttonchop—bacon—potatoes—toast—roll—brown-bread-or-white—tea-or-coffee,” shouted breathlessly by a youth on one side, while his comrade screamed the same, in a shrill falsetto, to one’s neighbor on the other, their not starting simultaneously making the confusion even worse.
Such was the economical mode of setting forth the bill of fare on the Manitoba. There were 350 persons on hoard; more than one-third of whom were cabin, or would-be cabin, passengers. The accommodation being insufficient, some were camping on the upper deck, some in the saloon [commons], many on the stairs, and others wherever elbow room could be found. Breakfast began at 7:30, and at 9:30 the late risers were still at it; and it was not long before the same thing (only more so), in the shape of dinner, had to be gone through.
As Lake Huron was calm and our boat steady, we had more “God save the Queen” after dinner, besides “Rule, Britannia” and other patriotic songs, several of the passengers playing the piano very well. Someone also played a violin, and the men, clearing the saloon [seating area] of sofas and superfluous chairs, danced a double set of quadrilles [square dance], after having tried in vain to persuade some of the immigrant girls to become their partners. They were an amusing group—from the grinning steward, who, cap on head, figured away through all the steps he could recollect or invent (some of them marvels of skill and agility), to the solemn young man, only anxious to do his duty creditably. But alas for the short-lived joviality of the multitude! After touching at Southampton [Ontario, Canada] the boat altered her course, and the effect of her occasional rolls in the trough of the waves soon became manifest.
One by one the less courageous of the crowd crept away. Every face soon blanched with terror at the common enemy. Wretched women feebly tried to help crying children, though too ill to move themselves; others threw them down anywhere, to be able to escape in time for the threatened paroxysm; all were groaning, wan and miserable, railing at the poor, wearied stewardess, calling her here, there, and everywhere at the same time, and threatening her as if she were the sole cause of their woe. About midnight, our course being altered, “Richard was himself again.”
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Sunrise on Lake Huron
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 1. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.