Manitoba History: The Rise and Fall of the Manitoba Railway Garden
by Edwinna von Baeyer
Some say that the Canadian railway garden was invented in Killarney. Others say Montreal. Both are rightand wrong. Certainly, it can be proved that by the 1890s the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) had seized the initiative and had become a leader in the Canadian railway gardening movement. And yes, its beautification program began through the efforts of two menN. Stewart Dunlop, a CPR tax and insurance commissioner in Montreal, and David Hysop, a CPR insurance claims adjustor, who lived in Killarney.
Dunlop knew that many CPR employees were cultivating bits of ground near stations and other railway buildings. An enthusiastic gardener himself, he thought he would encourage their efforts by sending them flower seeds from his own garden. By 1901 Dunlop evidently had established a widespread seed exchange, for he had become known as “the flower man” throughout the CPR system.
Hysop took a more practical stance in his railway gardening promotions in the mid-1890s. On the one hand, he saw the benefits of a railway garden offsetting the constant threat of fire due to dry weeds growing on the embankments. On the other, he saw the profit to be gained, namely an increase in immigration which in turn would increase rail traffic: “If you want to show how good the soil is, why not have gardens at the railway stations in which flowers and vegetables can be grown. The company can supply the seeds, the station agents and the section foreman can look after the gardens, and, if water is needed, the locomotives can supply it, and it can be kept in barrels along the track. The vegetables and flowers can be used in the dining cars and shown at fairs far and wide.” 
Hysop’s observations are the key to understanding the rise of railway gardening across Manitoba. Its continuation was also due to the efforts and support of enthusiasts like Dunlop. It also helped that both men were supported by high company officials.
So, if these two men cannot be credited with the invention of the Canadian railway garden, who can? Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered with one person’s name. However, we do know that railway gardening had been on the Canadian scene since the late 1860s. The first description of a Canadian railway garden appeared in 1868, when Stationmaster G. A. Oxnard’s flower garden at the Grand Trunk depot in Guelph, Ontario was detailed in the Canada Farmer. Interestingly, it was described as one of many attractive gardens cultivated along the company’s Central Division lines. The employees evidently paid for plant material, while the Grand Trunk financed the fencing and leveling of the garden site.
Searching further back, we discover that like many 19th century gardening ideas and practices, railway gardening had been imported into Canada from Britain, the horticultural leader of the western world. It seems that as railway lines began to creep across Britain, cottage and allotment gardens jumped over the hedgerow and onto the right-of-way, uniting ornamental gardening with the new technology. Some also say that these gardens were established to hide the scars of railway construction.
In due time gardens sprang up around the depots, switch towers, and signal shanties built to service the line, as well as near company-owned employee housing. By 1861 railway gardens were so visible on the British landscape, that the editor of the Canada Farmer remarked on those he had seen on a recent trip there. Ten years later he proclaimed that railway gardens in England were “the rule instead of the exception.”  Lockkeepers and station agents were praised for their horticultural abilitiesit was not uncommon to find their names on the prize lists of local garden competitionsas well for their intricate garden designs: “Often the name of the station is marked out on the bank in coloured stones or in flowering plants; and the letters are cut out of the sod, and the borders so made are gay with flowers or green with vegetables.” 
Early Canadian gardens were also praised for their floral beauty and how they tempered the station’s utilitarian, business-like character: “there is now an air of refinement and an appearance of beauty and elegance, whose influence is felt by all observers.”  As well, the railway garden was said to have a sentimental appeal “... travellers beginning or pursuing a journey, get a glimpse of rural loveliness which reminds them of home.”  This sentimentalization was directly related to the rising urban nostalgia for the pastoral scenery of the countryside.
Gardens, in general, were allied with right-living, progressive thinking, and civic duty. Not only was the railway garden included in this horticultural value system, but also in another common theme of turn-of-the-century gardening commentarythe garden as an educator. In 1868 the editor of the Canada Farmer wrote: “The town artisan beholds with pleasure the little enclosure, and thinks how easy it would be to get up such a scene of beauty in front of his own cottage door. Giles from the country, where grass and trees are abundant, reflects how readily he could make a pleasure garden on a far larger scale, and beat the little railway parterre hollow by a spacious lawn, an extensive shrubbery and spreading flower-beds on his own farm. Wives and daughters besiege husbands and fathers for leave and help to do something equally pretty where they live. The little railway garden is thus not only a source of pleasure, but an educator.” 
Railway companies were slowly realizing that they too were being educated by the railway garden. However, this was an education in the economic benefits of public-spirited plantings. When passengers were led to gardening and thus a life of health, piety and community uplift through the example of the railway garden, there could be a financial spin-off for the company. As more people gardened, they would need garden material, such as garden ornaments, trees, shrubs and plants, which the railway company could freight in. And then because these happy gardeners were being educated in the benefits of outdoor living and the aesthetic pleasures of the garden, they might want to travel to see distant scenes of beauty.  The economic benefits, however, were not fully exploited until the 1890s.
Thus the railway garden became entrenched on the eastern Canadian scene by the early 1880s. When the CPR established its cross country connection, the railway garden began to creep along the line. Western railway companies, especially the CPR, were well aware of the need to “fill up” the west. Immigration, as foreseen by men such as David Hysop, would certainly benefit their financial position. Revenue would be generated by increased passenger rail traffic, by the sale of railway land to settlers, by shipping manufactured goods from eastern to western settlements, and by shipping western agricultural produce all over Canada. To set this process in motion, the CPR, in particular, invested heavily in a campaign (through the media, excursion trains, and an active immigration policy) to promote the richness of prairie land. Station gardens, characterized as effective advertisements for prairie fertility, were a prominent part of these campaigns. The station, especially in the west, was often the focus of the community and a major link with the outside world. Civic boosters said the only evidence of a town’s worth immediately seen by a prospective settler was the condition of town’s railway station.
The appeal of nature, the definition of gardening as a good thing, and the recognition of the railway garden’s economic benefits all contributed to the horticultural “take-overs” of many companies. Railway officials and employees in Manitoba were swept up into this national movement. All across the province, rail stations began to blossom enthusiastically.
Early Railway Garden Design
The Canadian railway garden varied in size and composition, however nearly all were frequently described as the only colourful spot in a developing town. Large park-like grounds such as the Herbert, Saskatchewan CPR station garden were at one end of the spectrum. This garden (91 x 31 meters) was a mixture of formal and informal styles and contained nearly 500 trees and flowering shrubs. At the other end of the continuum were stations ornamented by small beds of annuals and the station name spelled out in whitewashed stones.
Despite the diversity, by 1914 a typical railway garden layout could be easily described. The garden was generally squeezed between two horizontals: the track on one side and the access road on the other, creating a long narrow site, sometimes broken into two sections by a station entry road. Often the design was no more than a border of trees, shrubs and flowers along one or more sides of an expanse of fenced-in lawn. The gardens were always located to present the best view from the station platform or from the train. Many gardens were ornamented by geometrically-shaped flower bedsstars, circles, diamondsdotted along the length of the site. This formal style, which still persists in public plantings today, was a reflection of the fashionable Victorian style of garden design.
Subject to the same dictates of fashion as the private garden, the railway garden came of age when the flower garden dominated landscape designs. Hedges, trees, and shrub groupings, traditional focal points in a landscape, receded into the background and became backdrops for flowers. By the 1860s, when railway gardens were beginning to proliferate, the bedding out style was the fashionable garden design choice. The object was to create broad colour effects in regular patterns by planting large beds of brightly-hued flowers. Plants meeting the special requirements of bedding-out (identical bloom time, neatness, strong colour and prolonged blooming) were found in semi-tropical plants annuals such as lobelia, geranium, calceolaria, alyssum, canna and salviawhich required greenhouse protection until frost-free weather.
Acceptance of the bedding-out style was not universal. By the 1870s, dissenting voices, originating in Britain, were denouncing it for causing a serious deterioration in the practice of horticulture. They said the style limited the number of plants grown and consequently reduced horticultural knowledge. As well, the bedding-out style was criticized for being overly stiff, formal and fussy as opposed to the increasing popularity of informal, natural groupings of hardy plants and shrubs. By the 1890s, the bedding-out style was no long au courant in certain horticultural circleshowever, it did remain the defining style of the railway garden up into the 1950s.
The new informal, natural style of flower gardening, however, had its supporters in Canada. In addition to their agitation to change Canadian home garden design, these garden innovators also tried to influence the design of public gardens, including the railway garden. These critics complained that not only were the designs outmoded, but also that little effort “has yet been made to hide ugly views by appropriate grouping of trees, nor to add picturesqueness to the lawns by carefully disposed clumps of choice shrubbery.” 
Another criticism was directed against the usual practice of forbidding public access to these gardens. Unlike some of the larger park-like station gardens, the majority of railway gardens were to be seen and not touched. These gardens were criticized for the “ugly and forbidding” fencing that kept the garden lover well away: “Woe betide the passengers who would dare to set foot inside!” 
The CPR only permitted woven wire fencing supported by whitewashed, rough cedar posts, with black painted tops to be erected. Where gardens were directly attached to a station, the company later provided white picket fences, and later iron-piping fences.
Pre-World War I Manitoba Railway Gardens
Before 1907, CPR gardens and others were mainly cultivated as a form of recreation by station agents and foremen, with minimal support from the companies seed and sometimes prizes for the best gardens in informal competitions. The CPR, by 1907, had recognized the economic benefits of the increasingly popular activity, and decided to regularize its participation. A Forestry Department was formed to take charge of wind-break plantings along the right-of-way, and station grounds improvement. The department established two nurseries, one at Wolseley, Saskatchewan where trees, shrubs and perennials were grown, and the other in Springfield, Manitoba where bedding plants and other perennials were grown. 
Once gardens were established, members of the department would inspect the gardens, offer suggestions, and tell inexperienced gardeners what to do. In places where towns were looking after station gardens, the CPR would supply materials if the town maintained the garden properly. Winnipeg, as a major western railway centre, supported one of the first large station gardens.
By 1912, Forest Department employees had set out horticultural practices and plant choices designed for western conditions. As one employee noted: “Owing to the severity of the winter climate and the shortness of the summer season, the choice of materials for garden purposes is rather limited and great use has to be made of hardy native species of trees and shrubs.”  Another CPR employee presented these statistics in 1912: “... last spring no fewer than 125,000 packages of seeds were sent out, representing the choicest varieties of garden flowers that the world produces. In addition to the free distribution of flower seeds many thousands of shrubs, plants, and perennials are annually distributed, while every fall about half a million bulbs are sent out free ...” 
More and more the gardens were praised for the benefits to the company and to travellers some characterized the western railway garden as an “oasis on the Prairies.” However, they also seemed to affect employee family life: “Coincident with the growth of this gardening movement has been a marked improvement in the home life of the people. The homes themselves have been made prettier and more attractive and have been kept cleaner.” 
When Canada entered World War I, the railway garden underwent a transformation influenced by patriotic horticultural displays and plantings. Campaigns arose promoting cultivating vegetables on any available land, public and private, to supplement supplies for Canadian fighting forces in Europe. These Greater Production campaigns had a direct effect on the railway garden. Railway companies plowed up lawns and flower borders along the right-of-way. Railway companies supported the effort not only by allowing their land to be gardened, but also by supplying detailed vegetable gardening instructions to participating employees, and, in the case of the CPR, providing free fertilizer. It was estimated that one-third of CPR war gardens were devoted to potatoes. Manitoba railway gardens were major participants in these Greater Production campaigns. In 1918 the station agent at the Stony Mountain station was commended for the amazing amount of vegetables he produced in a 100 foot square garden vegetables and potatoes, plus straw-berries and citrons. 
When the war ended, ornamentals regained their favoured place in the railway garden. Some companies sought to place their gardening efforts on a more permanent basis, as railway competition intensified. Gone was an ad hoc attitude, to be replaced by a more business-like approach to the garden.
Inter-war Railway Gardens
By the 1920s, the connections had been strengthened and intensified among railway culture, gardening and popular culture through the interplay of the railway garden and its four participants: the gardening railway employees, the passengers, the railway company and the municipalities the railway lines passed through.
Gardens were proliferating on all the major lines, and garden competitions had become deeply entrenched throughout the system. As well, the CPR’s newly-formed Floral Committee promoted perennial plantings to lessen the company’s expenses for annual plants. The committee listed the following as a suitable collection for a perennial garden: five each of achillea, campanula, Sweet William, larkspur, columbine, Icelandic poppy, dianthus, gaillardia, bleeding heart, paeony, phlox, golden glow, and native hop vine. 
The Keyes CPR station garden was said to be admired even by visiting royalty: “It stands at the end of the small station, which it obscures in the summer by attracting all notice toward a beautiful, neatly-clipped stretch of velvet green, surrounded on three sides with banks of bright blossoms and having on the fourth side the station wall, covered to the tops of the downstairs windows with climbing vines.” 
The Winnipeg central offices and shops expanded their gardens as well. By 1926, a handsome wooden gazebo in the midst of flower beds and immaculate lawns ornamented the Transcona Shops area.
The Dauphin Canadian National Railways (CNR) station agent continued to maintain a traditional railway garden of lawn and flower beds encircled with whitewashed stones, with vines growing up the station facade. Although noteworthy, the smaller gardens tended by trackmen, clerks and switch tenders were often overshadowed by the show gardens attached to many station buildings. The spacious grounds at the Dauphin CPR station were so enjoyed by the general, non-travelling public that the city contributed to the park’s upkeep. Grand Beach also had an extensive CNR station garden, comprising the usual floral components, a fountain, sun dial, flag pole, rustic work fencing, and gravel paths.
As the CNR added railway company after railway company in the early 1920s as it was forming, it discovered that it had inherited more than rolling stock and corporate ledger sheets, it had also gained a number of thriving railway gardens. The company did not downplay or downsize the gardening efforts, perhaps because the gardens had become accepted features, or because they were increasingly seen as valuable public relations tools. The fact that other companies supported and publicized their gardening efforts may also have convinced the CNR that railway gardening was another way of retaining a competitive edge.
Although the company was justifiably proud of its gardens, it did not create an expensive or extensive support system for them as did the CPR. For a small investment, the company received significant floral advertising, as well as a reputation of being forward-looking and mindful of its civic duty. In 1925 a clear CNR horticultural position was stated: “Nothing of an elaborate nature is attempted; the object aimed at is to improve the station surroundings at the smallest cost both in the making and the upkeep.” 
Railway gardens continued to be sited to gain maximum public exposuretraditionally near station houses, where they could be seen from the train, the platform, or from the street. Gardens were also placed near the switch house, the locomotive shop, the roundhouse, or various administrative buildings, but these were less visible to the passerby. Station masters and track forces, such as switchmen and sectionmen, seemed to be the primary station gardeners. Those in the running trades, such as engineers, brakemen, firemen, or conductors, whose free hours were uncertain, might tend gardens at home, but not necessarily on company property.
To win over skeptical employees, CNR garden promoters often argued that gardening was very little trouble and that it could be done in the employee’s spare time: “It is not necessary to take an hour of the Company’s time ... I find it a pleasure to work among my flowers after my work is done,” remarked a horticulturally-inclined section foreman. This was not an isolated remarkin many Canadian National Railways Magazine articles, an employee’s horticultural altruism was included in the lavish praise for a particular garden. When did these men actually gardenduring their meagre lunch hours, before work, after work, on their days off? It is not clear if station agents could garden between trains or signal tenders between signals.
Support was said, by the two major companies, to be given enthusiastically by their employees. The station agent had the largest scope for gardening and the most prestigious site. That other station personnel were interested in gardening was due, according to CNR opinion, to their desire to emulate the station agent’s “beauty he had created.”  Certainly rivalries existed among the different levels of railway occupations: shopmen versus switchmen, sectionmen versus dispatchers and so on. Sectionmen, in particular, were often avid railway gardeners, and were frequently praised for the gardens they tended around the section houses. They maintained the right-of-way which included weeding the tracks and embankments.
Although a railway employee’s wife and children might help out in a remote railway garden, the railway garden was definitely a male preserveas was the railway brotherhood itself. This is not surprising. Traditionally, in its professional and official guises, gardening has been a male-dominated occupation. Plant explorers, head gardeners, landscape designers, up until the 20th century, were mostly men. Women were, of course, interested in gardens, and probably worked in some, but they were more often classed as ornamentals themselves. Men did the heavy labour as well as the designing, plant hybridizing and so on. The pre-World War II Canadian scene was no different.
That working class men gardened was not unusual. It was an honourable profession. Upper class 19th century reformers seized onto this working class enthusiasm, seeking to promote it as a solution to the problems of British working class life. Some social commentators thought that if a worker gardened, he would avoid the saloon, relinquish dangerous political ideas (i.e. socialism), and increase his patriotic connection with the nation, through contact with the soil. These beliefs persisted, finding their way into early 20th century Canadian social commentary as well.
Railway workers, many of them immigrants from the British Isles, would have packed these assumptions and traditions of gardening, reform and duty into their trunks when they immigrated. The railway garden was also nourished by the developing bonds of railroading, a culture that was being built upon a shared technology, schedules, and specialized language. Within the railway brotherhood, gardening was defined as an acceptable pastime worthy of the praise the company often lavished upon it.
Although some employees did not want to garden, grumbling that it was just another demand for extra work from the company, this attitude seemed to be in the minority. Many railway employees, especially those who lived in isolated spots far from towns or villages, saw gardening as a pleasant recreation and the garden as a paradise in the wildernessa place to maintain mental and physical healtha sign that the wilderness was being civilized.
Although many gardens were reputed to be maintained in the employee’s spare time, the company supported them in various ways. One direct way was the CNR’s effort to provide gardening materialplants and seeds mainly, less frequently soil. The CNR had inherited a number of small greenhouses when the various railroads were amalgamated into the system. By the Second World War, two greenhouses were built at Montreal and Winnipeg which brought the CNR’s total to four. Stanley Taggart, chief gardener of the Fort Rouge, Winnipeg greenhouse, came to the job after wide experience as a gardener and nurseryman. He was said to “specialize in bright colours.”  Although his space was cramped, he unfailingly supplied all the western railway garden needs, and took “great pride in the fact that the gardens develop into show places later in the summer.” 
In 1930, it took twelve cars to deliver the 200,000 annuals and 2,000 shrubs and trees to 650 stations in the Central Region.  In 1940, the CNR Winnipeg greenhouse shipped 100,000 annuals across the Manitoba District. Statistics for the different regions were lovingly recorded up into the early 1940s: how much earth was carried in to make a station lawn, how many annuals were shipped, how many prizes were won by gardening employees in local shows.
The CPR also continued to support between eight and twelve greenhousestwo of which were in Manitoba. Winnipeg was the location of the largest establishment.  The CPR kept score with its own set of statistics: in 1940 alone 10,000 packets of flower seeds were distributed to over 1,250 employee gardeners. 
Yet another form of CNR endorsement, in addition to the employment of professional gardeners, was the direct support of company officials. B. T. Chappell, General Superintendent of the Manitoba District, was commended for his constant sustaining interest in his region’s gardens. “Flower beds and neatly trimmed gardens are very attractive in a residential area,” he noted, “so why not at a railway station.”  Sometimes the superintendents would privately sponsor prizes for the best station lawns and floral displays.
The railway gardening movement was also supported by frequent gardening articles in the Canadian Pacific Staff Bulletin and in the Canadian National Railways Magazineranging from the congratulatory to the descriptive to the practical. The articles were written by professional gardeners such as William Glass, landscape gardener at CNR’s Jasper Park Lodge, J. R. Almey, the CPR’s chief horticulturist for western lines, gardening employees and professional garden writers.
J. R. Almey, himself, was a leading figure on the Manitoba gardening scene. A graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College [now the University of Guelph], Almey went on to become the first provincial horticulturist for Manitoba. In 1929, he succeeded the CPR’s chief horticulturist for western lines, and remained in this position until he retired in 1960. Almey also held office in the Manitoba Horticultural Association and the Winnipeg Horticultural Society, and was recognized by a number of local, provincial and national honours.
Competitions were another major form of support. For example, J. R. Almey was said to travel hundreds of miles every summer between Vancouver and Fort William to judge the gardens along the line. Up into the late 1950s, the winners of prizes (which topped $1,200 in the 1950s) would be featured in the Staff Bulletin. Manitoba gardens usually led the list. The categories included: four district prizes for best gardens, prizes for the best old gardens and for the best new gardens in two classes, those seen from the railway tracks and those not seen from the tracks, so that company employees’ home gardens (those on company property) could also be judged.
The proud winners would be shown standing in a variety of gardensfrom the naturalistic to the traditionally formal, to gardens containing floral pictures (the Union Jack was a favourite). One year, an enthusiastic station agent in Inglis won best garden in the Brandon division for a garden filled with hundreds of dahlias which were said to “cover the otherwise bald prairie with a blaze of colour.”  In 1937, a Winnipeg resident, who loved to see the station gardens on her rail journeys, donated a trophy to be won by the best garden along the right-of-way on the line between Winnipeg and Fort William. 
The Decline of the Railway Garden
Despite the ongoing private and public success of the railway gardening movement, it began to lose its momentum after the Second World War. After the war, gardens along the right-of-way were hardly mentioned in CNR promotions or in the Canadian National Railways Magazine. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, gardening articles suddenly, without comment, appeared only in the newly created “Women’s Section,” and were written in a “how-to” format. This signaled an irrevocable shift from the railway garden to the home garden. This shift probably had much to do with a lessening of interest from the younger, unionized employees who were not as willing to devote unpaid leisure time to company interests. The CPR continued its support and competitions up into the late 1950s.
However, the two companies were both caught up in the changes affecting North American transportationthe availability and affordability of air, bus, and then private automobile travel. These changes were also felt in Manitoba as passenger traffic across the nation declined drastically. Stations were closed. As land pressure around stations intensified, more and more station gardens were replaced by buildings and parking lots. Freight traffic dominated and interest in bright flowers and velvet lawns withered.
Railway gardens had bloomed vigorously for nearly 70 years across Manitoba before slowly expiring. The gardens had been living monuments to the urge to beautify the prairie, as well as a reflection of the spirit of horticultural cooperation between industry and labour. It was a successful experiment which merged technology with an expression of pastoral nature. However, today little remains of their glory. Occasionally, the traveller will see the vestige of a vanished Manitoba railway garden: a line of trees or clumps of hardy daylilies amid weedy prairie.
1. Aileen Garland, “Gardens Along the Right of Way,” Manitoba Pageant (Winter 1977) 6-7.
10. F. Arthur W. Boyd, “Railway Gardening on the Prairies As Carried on by the Canadian Pacific Railway,” thesis, Department of Landscape Gardening, Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, Ontario, 1912, p. 4.
22. J. R. Almey, “Horticulture as Practiced by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Western Lines,” unpublished manuscript, ca. 1940, page 5.
Page revised: 18 January 2019Back to top of page