19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ~Miriam Beard
On leaving Lichfield our road lay through some beautiful, slightly undulating country. Between lofty bluffs, the train emerged along the shores of a lovely lake, and before its beauties had disappeared, another and another followed in rapid succession. The first two, Smith and Howard, are much alike. Then we passed through two or three pretty little villages, their streets avenues of trees, the roads as well kept as the drive of an English park, the houses and gardens marvels of neatness, and glorious with flowers, and the orchards laden with ripe fruit.
As we passed Long Lake, a narrow sheet of water that called forth expressions of admiration from us all, a bright little American child, with whom we had made friends, said shyly, “You think that pretty? Wait till you see our lake—our Minnetaunka [Minnetonka]. They call it Wayzata now!” she added sadly.
We did see it about noon, and its beauties justified the preference. Lake Minnetaunka—let us keep the old name the child loved so well—about 25 miles long, is full of islands kept in perfect order. Their natural beauties are developed with the taste and skill that characterize the American nation, by the inhabitants of the beautiful villas scattered along its shores. Tiny yachts and skiffs lay at anchor, or, with all sails set, skimmed the glistening water, bearing, no doubt, pleasure-parties from the pretty villa hotels, which could only be distinguished from private houses by the numerous chairs and newspaper readers on their verandahs. A little steam yacht lay at the wharf, while a merry party of young people, laden with picnic baskets, embarked.
When the train sped on, and we had strained our eyes for the last peep, the child, watching our faces, asked, “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
We had no word to tell her how lovely we thought it. Cedar Lake, which we passed before reaching Minneapolis, could not bear the comparison. An old man, pointing out some large flour mills near the road, told us of a terrible explosion there in 1877, when many lives were lost. The machinery and mills were shattered to pieces, and thousands of pounds’ worth of damage was done; yet in 1878 they were again in full working order, and as celebrated as ever for the fineness of their flour.
At St Paul we changed trains, and said good-bye to the charming Americans who had been the pleasantest of traveling companions.
On the Chicago and Milwaukee line, which we now took, we saw more of the American element, and felt Uncle Sam’s land a greater reality. Every man was a colonel or general; every woman was neat and pretty, but painfully slight. All were perfectly at home; no matter how long the journey, they did not get so tossed and travel-stained as we Canadians.
Before the train left St Paul, we heard the story of a poor little French Canadian woman. She was returning to Quebec from Fort McLeod, 1,100 miles from Winnipeg, in the Northwest Territories. She had gone there to settle, but a terrible homesickness for her own people had impelled her to spend nearly her last shilling to pay her passage back. Now she came in great distress to tell of the loss of her pocketbook, containing her tickets, and all she had to buy food and lodging on the way. A generous compatriot said he would see that she was provided for; and the railway officials offering to give her a through ticket for less than half-price, the money was soon collected from among the passengers, the Yankees being the most liberal. The poor thing, drying her eyes, acknowledged her gratitude with all the expressive gesticulation of her race.
Comedy and tragedy jostle each other in life. At St Paul, also, our sleepy Frenchman and a friend, who had left Winnipeg together to be traveling companions to Ottawa, discovered that their tickets were for different routes, and they had to separate. They met again at Chicago, only to say good-bye once more, their routes still not agreeing. At Toronto they again encountered, to separate at Brockville. One went by the “Canada Central,” and the other the “St Lawrence and Ottawa” at Prescott; so each entered Ottawa at opposite ends. And, as one of them said, “The best of the fun is, my baggage goes with T—, and I travel sans everything.”
From St Paul our road lay along the banks of the most beautiful part of the Mississippi River, which, shallow though it is, is also broad, bright, and clear. The surrounding country was in the height of its summer beauty. Charming villages nestled under the high banks; houses were built on projecting shelves of rock, with so little space between them, that it seemed as if a slight shove would precipitate them over the edge. Every foot of ground was utilized, and there was none of the débris that hangs about the back yards and odd corners of Canadian villages. At every wharf were numbers of small craft and river steamers, seemingly plying a thriving trade.
We passed Milwaukee—the prettiest town in the State of Wisconsin—at night, and could only see, through the misty darkness, its many light and tidy streets. A noticeable feature in all the villages, however small, was the size of the substantial buildings devoted to education. Many of them were handsome, with grounds prettily laid out and well kept, while the surrounding hamlets were merely groups of neat little wooden cottages.
We had only an hour in Chicago, and saw no more of the Western metropolis than could be gleaned in a drive through to the station, or Great Western depot. Here the remainder of our Winnipeg friends left us. Anxious to telegraph to friends in Toronto, I with some questioning, found my way through a large luggage office, crowded with packages and porters, up a rickety outside staircase to a small room in a blackened row of buildings.
My telegrams despatched, I wandered through some of the neighboring streets in search of a restaurant, to replenish our lunch basket. Out of mere curiosity I asked the price of the different edibles displayed on the counter. A cold roast fowl, weighing, possibly, a fraction over a pound, was three shillings (60 cents), delicious fresh rolls, sixpence (10 cents) a dozen, buttermilk on draught, threepence (5 cents) a glass; English ale, a half-dollar (50 cents) a pint bottle; black pudding, a penny a pound; and as much cold roast pork and beans, or boiled ham, as I liked for a shilling. The man smiled at my ignorance in asking the price of pork in Chicago—the great meatpacking center of the West.
As our train left, we passed carloads of fat hogs, lying two or three deep, waiting to be unloaded at one of the great establishments, where, in but a few minutes, the pig is killed, dressed, cut up, and packed ready for shipment again as pork.
The public gardens in the suburbs, surrounded with handsome private residences, were pretty, but until we reached Detroit there was little to interest us in the country. Inside we had the usual mix of traveling companions. An animated discussion arose between two old farmers, one returning to Ontario from a short visit to a son in California, the other going to Canada after an absence of over thirty years.
The former called forth the latter’s expressions of wonder by recounting all the changes and improvements he would find. More and more incredible they sounded. A city where he had left a swamp. Thriving farms and villages where he remembered dense woods, traversed alone by wolves and bears. Mills in the middle of impassable rapids. Bridges over falls no man dare cross in his day.
When, at last, he was told that, instead of getting out and entering boats at Detroit, the train, engine and all, ran on board the iron ferryboat, and was taken across intact, then carrying us through to Hamilton, he bustled out of his seat in great indignation, exclaiming, “Hoot, mon, I’ll na believe ony mair o’ yure lies; I’m na sic an ould fule as ye tak’ me for. The hale train on a boat, indeed!” And he indignantly placed himself at the other end of the car, his informant only rubbing his hands together in great glee at the fun.
The little porter on the Pullman was attentive, getting coffee for us at the different stations, seeing our baggage through the customhouse at Detroit, and when the train was on the ferryboat, and it was fairly underway, taking me down into the engine rooms, where I could look and wonder at the power propelling the boat, laden with two trains, across the river. On deck, the lights from the numerous ships and buildings enabled me to see an outline of the city and river; but I wished it had been daylight, or even moonlight, for then I could have seen everything to greater advantage.
Returning to the car, I passed the incredulous Scotchman standing open-mouthed near the machinery, and watched him as he walked to the gangway muttering, “Ay, it is a boat, after a’. Weel, weel, wonders wull never cease.”
On Canadian soil again, and speeding on to the end of our journey, we stopped nowhere until we reached Hamilton, at 3 o’clock in the morning, Wednesday, October 16. There my brother met us, and after spending the remainder of the night, or rather morning, at the Royal Hotel, we went on to Toronto by the 9 o’clock train, reaching that place before noon. There I will leave my readers, asking their indulgence for this simple account of my trip to Manitoba.
“Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: The stately Pillsbury/Jundt estate on Bracketts Point is one of the most famous storied homes on Lake Minnetonka
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 20. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.