Sir John A’s first, and only, trip to the west
Sir Joseph Pope
Seventy-three years ago our first PM, aging but indomitable, took his lady on the new CPR for their first look at the awakening nation. Along the way, the official party — including the author — “pacified” the Indians, admired the embryo cities and got stung in a Victoria hotel
JOSEPH POPE, an industrious and Empireloving E. E. I. boy, was Sir John A. Macdonald’s private secretary during the last nine years of Macdonald's prime ministership. He accompanied Sir John and Lady Macdonald on their first and only trip across Canada on the railway that—as much as any other single fact—symbolized Macdonald's dream of a nation from sea to sea. This account of that memorable journey is drawn from Pope’s diaries and later reflections, to be published next month by Oxford University Press, under the title Public Servant.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in the autumn of 1885, and in the following
summer the Chief paid his first and only visit to the Great West, and invited me to accompany him. Our party consisted of Sir John and Lady Macdonald, Fred White, of the prime minister’s staff, George Johnson of the Mail staff, myself, and two servants — oid Ben Chilton, Sir John’s man, and a maid. We traveled in the Premier's private car. Jamaica, which had been luxuriously fitted up by Mr. Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
1 had some qualms about setting out on this long journey, my eldest son being only two weeks old, but after talking it over, my wife and I decided that it would not do to decline on her account as she was doing well, and that 1 should
go — so I went, leaving her to close our house and go down to Riviere du Loup as soon as she was able to travel.
Sir John had quite a reception at Winnipeg, where a large number of people assembled to receive him. Among the crowd gathered round the car was an enthusiastic young Tory who w'as cheering with all his might. Upon Sir John's appearance the enthusiasm became tremendous. When the lull came, the young Tory. who evidently had never seen Sir John before in his life, remarked in a low voice to a friend standing by, “Seedy-Iooking old beggar, isn’t he,” and then resumed his cheering with redoubled vigor, as though determined that his private impressions
should not be allowed to interfere with his party loyalty.
I did not expect to find so great a development in Winnipeg, which seemed to have suddenly sprung up out of the prairie. In 1871, only fifteen years before, there was scarcely a house outside the Hudson’s Bay Fort. In 1886 it was a flourishing city of 25,000 people. Main Street, as I record in my diary, would do credit to any city of equal size anywhere. “It is excellently paved from end to end with wooden blocks and is a long street of exceptional width (138 feet) lighted with electricity and furnished with all the appliances of modern civilization, including a firstrate line of street cars.” In Winnipeg I met with a surprising number of old friends who had taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone west.
I found the same promise of development everywhere as we went west. At Brandon, a flourishing town, Fred White told me that five years before he had camped on its site, then the virgin prairie. Regina had scarcely begun to be interesting, and Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, and Calgary, save where there happened to be Mounted Police posts, were in embryo. On this my first trip, everything that I saw was so new
to me that I did not experience a dull moment.
It was on this journey that I saw my first prairie — a strange and novel sight. I thus record my impressions in my diary: “Imagine a boundless plain, perfectly level, covered with short wavy grass, not a tree or bush of any kind, stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can reach, nothing but grass and sky, and you have a prairie. It makes one think of the ocean in its boundlessness and the mind fancies that the occasional settler’s house far off against the sky is a ship making its way across the waters.” The buffalo had disappeared some years before, but every now and then one could perceive their bones bleaching on the prairie. The rapidity with which these animals were extinguished or driven far north is remarkable. In 1882 there were 100,000 skins sold in St. Paul, and in 1883 just four! An old settler told me that he well remembered seeing the present site of Regina black with buffalo.
The whole journey partook of the nature of a triumphal progress. At almost every town and village addresses were presented to Sir John and the greatest enthusiasm prevailed. At Regina, as at Winnipeg, we remained over some days, stay-
ing at Government House, and holding 'receptions which in all cases were well attended.
At Gleichen the Indians assembled in force, and a great pow-wow was held in our honor, attended by the Lieutenant-Governor in state, Sir John, and other dignitaries. The Indians were marshalled under Crowfoot, head chief of the Blackfeet, Three Bulls, and a third chief whose name I forget. They were gorgeous in war paint and feathers, with the exception of Crowfoot. He was in mourning for Poundmaker, who had recently died, and for that reason appeared in undress, which consisted of little more than a dirty blanket round his loins. The Indians began by smoking a filthy-looking pipe, which they passed from one to another, each warrior merely taking a whiff or two.
Crowfoot, being invited to state his grievances, began by alluding to the prairie fires caused by sparks from the railway engines, against the continuance of which he strongly protested. He then passed on to the great question of food, which is the staple grievance with Indians.
The interpreter on this occasion rejoiced in the name of Billy Gladstone, and the circumstance suggested a
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Vancouver’s main hotel had no staircase: Pope had to shinny up a ladder to reach his room
similar scene held at the same place on the occasion of a visit by Lord Lome, then Governor - General, five years earlier, when there were no railways upon which prairie fires could be blamed. Billy Gladstone was also to have been the court interpreter on this occasion, but something occurred to prevent his attendance, and his place was taken by another whose knowledge of English was limited. Upon the Indian chief being invited to present his complaints, he began by a long harangue, illustrating his remarks by various pantomimic gestures. When at length he stopped for want of breath, Lord Lome looked toward the interpreter who, feeling the responsibilities of the occasion and realizing the inadequacy of his linguistic attainments, hesitated, shuffled his feet, and finally replied, "He say he damn glad to see you.” The Indian chief, no doubt wondering at the conciseness of the English tongue, then resumed his speech, and after more pantomimic appeals to the sun. sky, prairie, the Great Mother over the water, and so on, again subsided for want of breath. Again the Governor-General turned to the interpreter, who manifested renewed embarrassment, shuffled his feet as before, and finally replied, "He say he damn hungry."
In consequence of his more copious diction, which fitted with his great name, Billy Gladstone took more time to translate Crowfoot’s speech than did his former locum tenens. In substance, both Indians said the same thing — that thenpeople were originally happy and free with plenty of food at all times, that the white man had come in. taken their land, killed off their buffalo, thus depriving them of their means to live, and so forth. Crowfoot went on to protest his loyalty, which he had already proved in the rising of 1885. and. Sir John having appropriately replied and having provided a banquet for the occasion together with the presents of pipes, tea, and tobacco, this picturesque gathering terminated. We rejoined our train, and were soon speeding toward the great mountains already fringing the western sky.
With the mountains 1 was enormously impressed. The sublimity of the scene awed me beyond measure. As 1 sat with some members of our party on the cowcatcher of our train at a point near the summit of the Selkirks, suspended over a foaming torrent nearly three hundred feet below, with the glorious mountains all about us, 1 found myself unconsciously repeating the opening words of the íe Deum, “Te Deum laudamus, Te Dominum confitemur,'' while all around seemed to answer back, “Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur.’’
Sir John joined us on the cow-catcher, and we rode together thereon about a hundred and fifty miles, a rather risky procedure, as we afterward learned, and any repetition of which Mr. Van Horne, w'hen he heard of it. peremptorily forbade by reason of the land and rock slides which every now' and then came thundering down the mountain slopes of the newly constructed road.
Lady Macdonald, with characteristic imprudence, occupied the cow - catcher most of the way between Canmore and Port Moody, a distance of nearly six hundred miles, Fred White, George Johnson, and I accompanying her in turn.
On the last morning of our western railway journey my turn on the cowcatcher came with the rising sun. We were going along over a straight piece of road near Hope at a fairly lively rate when suddenly there started up from a neighboring ditch a number of young pigs, just in front of the train. They ran for a while straight ahead of the engine, then broke and scattered, all except one little fellow who seemed determined to try conclusions with us, for he kept on the track, running as hard as he could, and squealing at the top of his bent. We closed on him rapidly. I knew we were in great danger, but there was nothing to be done. The train rushed on. The point of the cow-catcher was a foot from the pig’s hind legs. I heard the thud as the on-speeding train struck him. Squealing, he was lifted high in the air, and passed between my body and the post I was holding! The engine driver, who immediately above me was looking out of his window in horror, comforted me after the crisis had passed, with the assurance that if that pig had struck any of us going at the rate we were, it would have been more disastrous than a rifle bullet. 1 have not ridden on a cow-catcher since.
The same day we reached the terminus at Port Moody (the railway not yet hav-
ing been carried through to Vancouver) and looked out on the blue waters of the Strait of Georgia. The usual address followed, and then Sir John, taking off his hat, addressed the people from the platform of his car.
As 1 stood on the shore of the Pacific by the side of that old man, with his grey hair blowing across his forehead, 1 could not help feeling what an exultant moment it must have been for him. Here was the full realization of his political dream of years. His chief opponent had left on record his belief that all the resources of the British Empire could not build the road in ten years. Here it was built, out of the resources of Canada, in less than half that time. It was no paper road. this. He had traveled over it himself. With his own eyes he had witnessed the marvelous feat. Here was the car which had brought him from Ottawa. Here, too, lapping his feet were the waters of the Pacific Ocean. His dream had become an accomplished fact!
British Columbia is to me the most
attractive of all provinces, and Victoria the Queen City of Canada. There is a charm about the latter which captures the visitor from the very start, as it did me, and which, after the lapse of wellnigh forty years, is as potent as ever. We took our steamer for Victoria and arrived at about 10 p.m. on the evening of Saturday the 24th of July. As we steamed into the harbor the strains of The Red, White, and Blue greeted our ears from over the water, and sounded very prettily. We were met on landing by a torchlight procession, and escorted to our hotel with much enthusiasm.
1 remember, however, when one of us was sounding the praises of the Victoria climate. Sir John agreed, but added as an aside, “The day was always in the afternoon.” The intimation was plain, but I must say I never experienced any enervating quality in the Victoria air, though perhaps it does not possess quite the strength and vigor of the lower St. Lawrence.
Candor compels me to observe that the hotel people of Victoria, even in those primeval days, were not wholly unacquainted with the art of making visitors pay for the privilege of enjoying their beautiful city. I had had an intimation of this beforehand, so it was with some trepidation, in view of Sir John's economical views on such subjects, that I approached the counter of the Driard Hotel to pay our bill. I was one of a small queue bent on the same errand. Ahead of me, chewing a cigar, was a Yankee, wearing, like the practical politician I met in Sir David Macpherson’s office in Toronto four years before, a black top hat, much tilted, and a light tweed coat. This gentleman immediately preceded me. As he got his bill, I was not reassured to hear him say, “By G-d.
I'll not pay that. I’ll fight like a - of
-first.” I do not recall how be came
out of it, being too much engrossed with my own affairs. Our bill amounted to $1,193. There were six in our party, including two servants. We had lived on a most moderate scale, had dined table d'hôte, and our wine bill amounted only to ten dollars. On the matter being brought to Sir John’s notice, he remarked philosophically, “Of course, you have got to pay it.” I think what riled me most was an additional livery stable charge of $37.50 for bringing our luggage up from the steamer to the hotel, a distance of about a quarter of a mile.
On the 13th of August Sir John formally opened the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, and afterward descended six hundred feet down the main shaft of a coal mine at Nanaimo, the scene a few weeks later of a terrible explosion whereby one hundred and fifty miners lost their lives. On the same afternoon we left Nanaimo for New Westminster in Mr. Robert Dunsmuir’s tug Alexander. As I said in my diary: “The sun was setting when we stood out to sea. and its rays lighting up the landscape made our last glimpse of Vancouver Island a very beautiful one — only less beautiful than the mainland hills toward which our faces were now turned, while in order that nothing might be wanting to complete the scene. Mount Baker stood radiant in the southern sky, catching and reflecting the light back to us for some time after the sun had disappeared below the horizon.”
Sir John and Lady Macdonald were the guests in New Westminster of the Rt. Reverend Mr. Sillitoe, the Anglican Bishop, whose accommodation was not equal to putting up the whole party, so Fred White and I drove over to Vancouver, which, started in February and burned down in June, was just rising from its ashes.
White and I approached the proprietor of the principal hotel in the place and asked him if he could give us a bed for the night. "Well,” said he, "if you don’t mind shinning up a ladder to it. I’ll be glad to accommodate you gentlemen, but the fact is we have not yet got the stairs up in this hotel.” We willingly complied with the conditions and these are the circumstances under which I spent my first night in Vancouver.
Among the few people 1 knew in the town was Mr. A. W. Ross, member of parliament for Selkirk, Manitoba, then doing business as a land agent in Vancouver. He tried his best to induce us to buy some town lots on the corner of what is now Hastings and Granville Streets for $700 a lot, one of which has since sold for $475,000. Neither of us had the money to buy, nor was the offer so tempting as it sounds today. Then the whole western problem had not got beyond the experimental stage. There was no assurance, for example, that wheat would ripen on the prairies. On the solution of that problem the success of the Canadian Pacific Railway depended, and if the Canadian Pacific Railway did not succeed, what would become of Vancouver?
We arrived back in Ottawa on the 30th of August, and so closed one of the most remarkable and enjoyable incidents in my life.
My nine years of association with Sir John Macdonald proved of inestimable value to me. Entering his service an inexperienced youth, I knew very little of society. My father's death at the outset of my official career had compelled me to practise the severest economy, and this, to a certain extent, prevented me from mixing with my fellows. I lived in one room in a boarding house on twenty dollars or so a month. Social clubs were unknown to me. 1 had no means to go out. But when the doors of Stadacona Hall and Earnscliffe were thrown open, and my financial circumstances began to improve, I issued in some measure from the obscurity in which I had hitherto dwelt.
The Prime Minister’s private secretary is always more or less of a personage and enjoys many advantages. From the start I was treated with the greatest kindness and confidence by my chief, and came by degrees to be regarded almost as a member of his family.
I remember that on one occasion, shortly after I had entered upon my secretaryship. Lady Macdonald was giving a luncheon, and I, working in the office, was not unnaturally overlooked. Quite possibly those in charge of the luncheon arrangements did not know I was in the house. Later, when my presence was discovered, my lunch was sent in to me on a tray, quickly followed by Sir John himself. who apologized for the oversight, telling me that he was much annoyed about it. He always attached importance
to what many men affect to consider trifles. “Forms are things." he was wont to say. That a man should be given his correct style and titles he was always most careful to observe.
One day when leaving the East Block with him. I was going out by the Governor-General’s door when he checked me. "That entrance is reserved to the Governor-General." he said, as we walked on to the main exit. The remark was a simple one. but it conveyed a lesson which I never forgot, though I am afraid the correct practice has been for many years more honored in the breach than in the observance. "There ;uc few' things a person resents more than to have his name misspelled." he said to me on one occasion when 1 had inadvertently put an Mc for Mac or committed some trivial inaccuracy of that sort. To recognize the relative importance of people, their little peculiarities, their correct modes of address, all these things he so inculcated by precept and example that I gradually acquired a certain aptness in such mat-
ters which proved a great help to me in after life.
As I have said. I encountered many kinds of people during my secretaryship —some of less distinction than those of whom I have been speaking. One morning, not long after my appointment, as I was sitting in the office at Earnscliffe, which had a separate entrance for visitors on public business, a man swaggered into the room full of the most overpowering assurance, and demanded to sec Sir John.
"He is in his library," I replied, “but I don’t think he will see anyone this morning."
"Oh," exclaimed the intruder, “he'll see me. You just take my card into him. young fellow, and it will be all right." He fairly swept me off my feet as I hastened to comply with his request, wondering who the great man might be, and whether I had been sufficiently deferential to him. Sir John took the card. "Where's Ben [his servanti?" he asked.
"He’s in the pantry. Sir," [ replied.
“And you left this fellow alone in the office?" exclaimed Sir John. "Good God, he'll steal everything in the room!” Having recounted my first experience of this gentleman, I think, in justice to Sir John's estimate of him, I should supplement it by my last. Years passed on. I profited by experience, and soon got to know "K,” who turned up every now and then, but who never tried his nonsense with me again.
When Macdonald died, Mr. Abbott, his successor in the Premiership, invited me to continue on as his private secretary for a while until as he expressed it he "got into the way of things.”
One morning, shortly after Mr. Abbott was installed, “K” called and asked very humbly, but very earnestly, to see the Premier. Again I took in his card, and this time, rather pluming myself upon my experience, volunteered to Mr. Abbott the information that "K” was not a desirable person, accompanied by the suggestion that perhaps on the whole he had better not see him. Abbott smiled—
that sweet smile which Macdonald used to say w'as “from the teeth outwards”— and softly replied, "Oh, Pope, I have known Joe K. for thirty years, and a damn'der scoundrel God never made. Tell him I'll not see him."
Speaking of this type, I remember once a rather big man, a contractor of some sort, calling on Sir John Macdonald. Mr. L. R. Masson. Sir John's sometime colleague in the Ministry, and afterward Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, a gentleman whom the Premier esteemed highly, happened to be in the room at the time. Sir John politely received the visitor, who as I remember was rather hard of hearing, but as he shook hands with him. in some way contrived to prevent Masson from doing likewise, saying in an undertone to the latter. "I have got to shake hands with this fellow', but you haven't." -k
A second excerpt from the memoirs of Sir Joseph Pope will appear in the next issue.