Gardens Along the Right of Way
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1977, Volume 22, Number 2
In the early years of the Canadian Pacific Railway, passengers were surprised and delighted by the gardens they beheld when the train steamed into the stations. The view from the coaches may have been across a bleak and sparsely settled prairie, but the thriving gardens were a powerful testimony to the fertility of the soil. Land that could nourish such a profusion of sunflowers, geraniums, pansies, petunias, snow on the mountain, sweet alyssum and marigolds could surely nourish wheat.
These gardens were one of the least expensive of the measures the company adopted to encourage settlement in Western Canada. After Sir Donald Smith drove the last spike in Canada's first transcontinental railway at Craigellachie in November, 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway faced serious financial problems. In order to build up traffic and acquire the cash revenue it needed, it was imperative that settlers must be induced to take up homesteads, or, better still, buy the land the company had been granted along the right of way. The Government and the railway both adopted active immigration policies. Excursion trains carrying newspaper men, government officials and agricultural experts from The British Isles, Europe, and the United States toured the country at the expense of the company in the hope that the guests would spread the news about the good farm land available. What better demonstration could there be than the flowers and shrubs of the railway gardens?
The gardens at the railway stations must have been a welcome sight for many an anxious immigrant when he first saw the flowers that grew in his homeland blooming in the new. Beyond the station the land may have looked bleak and forbidding, the prairie gumbo sticky and almost impassable, the village a cluster of flimsy unpainted shacks, but the garden was a reality which renewed his courage.
Whose idea was it to have the station agents and section foremen plant and care for these gardens? Who in the company recognized that this was a sound policy to adopt? Two men share the credit, David Hysop of Killarney, Manitoba, and William (later Sir William) Whyte, Superintendent of Western Lines from Fort William to the west coast, who accepted the suggestion and initiated the policy.
David Hysop came from Ireland to Kingston, Ontario, with his parents in 1847. Three years later his father apprenticed him to a shoemaker but this was not the life for David. He soon took a more adventurous job with a Grand Trunk Railway survey party. Later he became a conductor and was on the first through train from Toronto to Montreal in 1858.
A railway conductor was a man of considerable importance in his community. Unlike the conductors of today who have to spend a great deal of their time filling out forms, he was free to chat with his passengers. Few people had such good opportunities to know what was going on in the country. By 1881 Canada was recovering from the depression of the seventies. People were talking hopefully about the railway which Sir John A. Macdonald had promised to build to the west coast, about the free homesteads on the prairie waiting for the plough, and the amazing developments in Manitoba.
The talk about the West appealed to Hysop's adventurous nature. He was forty-seven years old, prospering in Toronto, living in a substantial house in the fashionable Parkdale district with his wife and five children, the oldest already working for the railway, when he decided to go out and look things over in August, 1881. Manitoba was in the midst of a fantastic land boom. Hysop was a prudent man; instead of rushing out to claim a homestead he took a position with the railway so that he could look the situation over before making any decision. Between trips on the railway he invested in real estate. Either because he was shrewder than most or because he wanted cash for the new home he planned to build, he was one of very few who emerged from the boom more prosperous than when he entered it. In February, 1882, he registered for homesteads for himself and his son, George, two miles east of the present site of Killarney.
While in the employ of the railway he met William Whyte, who soon recognized that he was a man of ability and good judgment. The company had problems about claims made by farmers for damages to their homes and livestock caused by fires started by sparks from the locomotives. When some Alberta ranchers claimed damages for loss of cattle because of prairie fires, Whyte commissioned Hysop to investigate their claims, handing him a fat roll of bills with which to pay those he thought just. Hysop settled the claims and in his report advised that fireguards be ploughed along the right of way. A seed company from Chicago had offered free seed for the road allowance. Luxuriant grass, they argued, would demonstrate the fertility of the soil.
"Keep it black," Hysop advised when Whyte asked his opinion. "Plough it and harrow it and keep it black. Good grass there would be setting up a free lunch counter for all the cattle in the country. Just think of the train wrecks and the lawsuits about cattle killed by the trains! 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 foremen 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."
Whyte saw at once that this was a good suggestion, not only because it would demonstrate the fertility of the soil but also because it would make life more pleasant for the station agents and their families. He took steps to have the gardens established and appointed Hysop the superintendent of gardens from Brandon to Golden.
The railway company supplied the seed, and, later, bedding plants and shrubs. Greenhouses were established at Fort William, Kenora, Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Calgary, Revelstoke and Vancouver. A nursery at Wolseley, Saskatchewan, supplied trees and shrubs.
The station agent lived with his family above the station; the section foreman's home was nearby. These men did not receive additional pay for looking after the gardens. They were beautifying their own homes and growing vegetables for their own use, and, at the same time, winning approval from their superiors in the company, possibly even taking a step toward future advancement. There is no record that the flowers and vegetables were used in the dining cars, as David Hysop had suggested. Prizes were awarded annually in each division and competition was keen. The gardens became a matter of local pride. Was Manitou's garden really better than Holmfield's this year? Swift Current's more luxuriant than Maple Creek's?
The gardens served their original purpose of proving that the soil was good, but, perhaps more important than that, they were islands of beauty, tokens of gracious living, in a landscape often bleak and bare. Homecoming passengers, after the train pulled out and the smoke and cinders vanished, found the pervasive aroma of smoke, dust and orange peel of the coaches replaced by the fragrance of mignonette, tobacco plants, and sweet-scented stock. They were home again.
Even during the depression of the dirty thirties, according to Mr. J. R. Almey, who was General Agricultural Agent from the Lakehead to the west coast from 1928 to 1960, the company actively encouraged the maintenance of the gardens, putting pressure on the employees to plant and care for the gardens wherever it was possible. With crop failure and desolation around them, the grass and flowers at the station became a symbol of faith in the country and hope for the future.
Most of the gardens have disappeared. They were at their best in 1955, according to Mr. Almey. Today a station agent may maintain his garden if he wants to do so but it is no longer a part of company policy. Some gardens have been replaced by parking spaces; some gardeners discouraged by the fact that the passenger trains no longer stop at their stations; some stations closed. There are still a few large gardens, as in Kenora and Revelstoke, where gardeners are employed. The money for maintenance comes out of the Divisional Engineer's budget, and he has many needs to meet, some of which he may consider more important than gardens.
Today the passenger looks out at fields of grain, herds of cattle, well-kept farm homes, prosperous towns and cities, and rows of late-model cars drawn up at the stations. There is no longer the need to advertise that the soil is good, but, as the gardens disappear, something of graciousness and charm is vanishing from our lives.
Page revised: 20 July 2009