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The Colonist Trains

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People fleeing Europe during smallpox and cholera epidemics arrived in ocean-crossing vessels and disembarked onto the piers near Quebec City. The emigrants crossed to Grosse Île, where nurses examined their mouths and throats.

Most of the settlers to western Canada came west in Colonist cars which were basically third-class sleeping cars. The seats and berths were wooden slats and no bedding was provided. However, the railways would sell the passengers mattresses, bedding and privacy curtains for the trip.  The settlers would then keep these items for their sod shack or log cabin.

Those pronounced healthy progressed to disinfection with a shower mixture of water and mercury bi-chloride. The healthy moved to heated areas called disinfection ovens. Tests for mental illnesses further weeded out the healthy. The sick moved into hospitals while those severely ill went to quarantine where the unfortunate found a final rest in the many cemeteries on the island.

The healthy transferred to the thirty or so buildings on Grosse Île for a few weeks. Families who sought a homestead paid ten dollars. Their new immigration status included the ride back to dry land at one restricted pier outside Quebec City, then the free ride on a colonist train into the prairies. For the trip to their new homesteads, immigrants needed to purchase four days’ worth of food and warm bedding for the unheated colonist coaches. Immigrants visited one restricted room in the rail station where vendors sold blankets and warm clothing, fresh meat, vegetables, milk and cheese. The trip might be two months long.

At this time in Canada, the only passenger trains that traveled long distances were known as Excursion trains, featuring luxurious embellishments at high rates. They included a dining car where travelers could order restaurant-type foods and the stops were very few, usually hundreds of miles apart. Excursion trains were for the rich, no one else could afford them.

There were trains that carried cargo, live animals, and rail equipment, or machinery. The skilled workers or navvies that worked for the Navy League of Canada used trains to further their own programs. Even railroads used their own trains to transport tons of rock to build another twenty miles of rail line at designated stops.

But colonist trains were different, they were a dedicated set of special coaches used to transport immigrants, and thus fulfill the government’s desire to populate the Prairies and better compete in a global economy through exports.

Only the Pilot knew the destination of the colonist trains that stopped every four days, neither picking up newer passengers, nor letting off immigrants wherever they wanted to go. The government decided which townships they wanted filled with more homesteaders.

Once a colonist train left, it would not stop for another four days. At every stop, a fresh crew relieved a tired one, and the train would take on fresh food and water for the crew, then fuel for the engine.

Each colony coach came equipped with a stove in the front and ample wood for cooking. Opposite the stove, a sink stood with an adequate supply of cooking water. The balance of the car held two rows of facing seats with tables whose surface split into halves that folded down, converting the seats to pallets for sleeping. Nets tethered from the ceiling dropped to allow small children a stationary berth. Most people used the nets for hanging wash or storing their baggage to relieve cramped floor space.

Every four days the colonist train would stop for another restricted food shopping trip in an idle rail station. Immigrants were allowed off, then back on and so it went. They traveled sixteen hundred miles just to reach the edge of the prairies. The journey took close to ninety hard days and nights. Windows rattled nonstop while floor boards vibrated and threw dust into narrow aisles. The churn of the wheels gave everyone headaches and ear throbs.

No one could escape their seat nor protect their dignity. Even the sharing of smells when people roasted their meats, cut their cheese or washed their dirty clothes became unbearable.

Passengers were as good as imprisoned in close quarters, so young and old took the opportunity to stretch during the short stops. Smarter immigrants switched coaches during the stops to remain in proximity of family members or friends. No one knew their final destination, so immigrants remained in a state of lengthened anxiety that inclined into spontaneous scraps and fights.

When the colonist train reached its terminus, immigrants had little time to reconnoiter. Immigration Halls in target cities provided limited shelter, comfort but free soup to thousands who struggled to start their new life. It was not uncommon for women and children to live in crowded Immigration Halls for up to three years before their menfolk had staked out a homestead, somehow found timber in a treeless region, and started to build a shelter.

With communities that lacked an Immigration Hall, open wagons herded the immigrants to their assigned land.

The homesteads in Palliser’s Triangle lacked trees, making the first winter close to impossible when shelter is the immediate need. The homestead might be far from a grain elevator, or any good road, but no matter. For new farmers, the first crop would take two to three years to get going but at least the soils were rich. Few expected the locusts to ruin crops every seven years and mosquitoes to be an annual scourge. Horses were still plentiful and free for the taking if you could catch one.


The Canadian Railway Museum, ExpoRail in Saint-Constant is restoring one of the last surviving Colonist Trains. This museum is a magical place to learn about early railway history and the growth of a transportation system that allowed the country to flourish.