a delightful opportunity for a new sensation
February 12, 2021 7:29 AM   Subscribe

After the 1885 completion of the first Canadian railroad to cross the Rockies, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his wife Agnes resolved to travel the length of the railroad the following summer. Unfortunately for the rail staff, Lady Agnes became bored while watching the prairies roll by. During a tour of the engine just after Banff, she noticed the cowcatcher and decided that such a perch would provide the best view of the Rockies on the whole train. Despite alarmed objections from the railroad staff, Lady Agnes successfully made herself a seat aboard the cowcatcher. Immortalized in the historically-focused Canadian folk band Tanglefoot's work, she famously rode that cowcatcher over the five hundred miles across the steep Rockies between Lake Louise and Vancouver.
posted by sciatrix (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The front of the roller coaster *is* the best spot. Or the end. Nah, the front.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:34 AM on February 12

Well, that's quite a moment of badassery.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:39 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]

As a Canadian, I am offended that this wasn't part of my social studies curriculum when we learned about the construction of the railway. I assure you, I would have been much more interested in Canadian history.
posted by dazedandconfused at 7:45 AM on February 12 [17 favorites]

TIL that Lake Agnes, one of my favorite spots on the planet, was named after a lady who decided to ride a few hundred miles on a steam locomotive's cowcatcher. *high fives universe*
posted by phooky at 7:58 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]

Pics or it didn't;t happen.
posted by ocschwar at 7:59 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

As a Canadian, I am offended that this wasn't part of my social studies curriculum

What blows my mind is that no one has made a Canadian Heritage Moment about it. I mean, y'all try to claim Superman and Winnie the Pooh, but you leave this sitting out on the table?!
posted by sciatrix at 7:59 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

I do feel a bit bad for the pigs, though.

And the Superintendent.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:04 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

What blows my mind is that no one has made a Canadian Heritage Moment about it.

she needs her own movie. It starts with her riding the cowcatcher through the f***ing Rocky Mountains!!!


"20 Years Earlier"
posted by philip-random at 8:05 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]

That actually seems sort of...spoiled? I tend to think that rich people should not in fact get to decide that safety rules don't apply to them and that others should have to go along on their hare-brained schemes to assist them. Like, what if one of them had been knocked off their seat and fallen to their death? It would have been a disaster for the railroad if it was her and it would have been pretty horrible for the Superintendant's family if it was him. I appreciate that a lot of dangerous things are only dangerous 1% of the time and that it's more fun to do the fun dangerous thing as long as you're doing it the 99% non-dangerous time but we still wear seatbelts, etc.
posted by Frowner at 8:08 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]

Like imagine that Melania Trump made some poor flack ride along with her on some kind of dangerous airplane stunt. We wouldn't be saying, "yes, that Melania Trump was sure badass, girlboss, go girl, etc etc"; we'd be saying "a rich lady decided to imperil someone who could not say no because she wanted to break the rules".
posted by Frowner at 8:10 AM on February 12

Re Frowner: I'm pretty sure she didn't ask for a gallant protector out there. Lets not ding women for endangering people who were just there trying to guilt her into backing down.
posted by thandal at 8:16 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]

I mean, yes, obviously, it was a crazy, ridiculous, dangerous stunt and should never have happened. But it did happen, many years ago, and everything turned out okay (except for the pigs, but that wasn't caused by her stunt) so now we can sort of just enjoy the crazy, ridiculousness of it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:24 AM on February 12 [7 favorites]

Like imagine that Melania Trump made some poor flack ride along with her on some kind of dangerous airplane stunt. We wouldn't be saying, "yes, that Melania Trump was sure badass, girlboss, go girl, etc etc"

This. And moreover, this was being done on a railroad built on the deaths of 17,000 Chinese workers brought in as disposable labour - one dead for every mile of track laid on that stretch of Alberta and BC where she had her ride alone - only for John A. MacDonald the very year of completion to revoke voting rights from anyone of Chinese descent because it threatened the "Aryan character" of Canada. He called this legislation, not the railroad, his greatest triumph and spoke of Europeans and Asians as being of different species.

Were these views shared by Agnes? I don't know. I know she was charity-minded. I also know she was the daughter of a slaver of almost a hundred people, one who did not give up enslaving men, women and children until the law required him to and he was well-compensated for it. She then married a man who was virulently racist even by the standards of his time, at a point in his life when his views were very public knowledge.

At a time when Canada has actively been in conversation and protest over whether we want to keep memorializing and elevating someone whose legacy is the brutal oppression of indigenous peoples and immigrants - when statues of John A. MacDonald been toppled and activists have been fighting to have lionizing mythology and "it was a different time" excuses replaced by truth - I'm sorry, but I side-eye the hell out of a post sharing kicky stories about what a firecracker his wife was. I am hoping in good faith that this came only from a place of ignorance and tone-deafness about the significance of John A. MacDonald in current anti-racist dialogue in Canada.
posted by northernish at 8:38 AM on February 12 [18 favorites]

Oschwar, I wondered myself, but a posed picture can be found here, along with the information that Lady MacDonald wrote about the experience for Murray's Magazine with the title "By Car and Cow-Catcher". Haven't found a link to a digitization yet, but I did find ads!
posted by tavella at 8:41 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

The Superintendent was struck by the body of a pig, and narrowly avoided falling off his perch, but Lady Agnes was untouched.

In addition to being a Heritage Moment lacuna, it's unfortunate that Robert Service didn't pen a "The Cremation of Sam McGee"-type poem about it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:56 AM on February 12

If anybody wants to enjoy this experience through the Canadian Rockies it's quite easy to do. The westbound grain and sulfur trains are long and minimally-supervised and they roll slowly uphill through Lake Louise; jog alongside the last car, grab the ladder behind the last wheel bogey, thrill at the awesome force of the train now pulling you along, throw a foot up and you're on, with a nice little cubby hole to sit in and enjoy the scenery. You just have to hope that the crew stops for a break in Field or you might be in for a long ride to Revelstoke.
posted by Flashman at 8:59 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]

I suppose sitting in front of the smoke stack had its merits . . .
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:02 AM on February 12

Maybe it seemed like a plausible way to get out of being married to John A.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:37 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

[A few comments deleted. First, not everybody knows everything; it's a wild story on its own, there's no foul in posting it for the "wow" aspect, people can enjoy talking about small-scale wild anecdotes in history without necessarily knowing the full context. But second, when someone points out there's specific racist background in a story like this, or some national context for how a story like this lands for them as a Canadian, that needs to be accepted. It can be hard to switch gears from "fun story" to "oh, I didn't realize" but in that case it's better to take a break from the thread for a while.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:38 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

I see that she also rode in the cab of the locomotive, learned all of the controls and blew the train whistle over and over until Sir John A sent a note ordering her to stop.

imagine that Melania Trump...

If she had deliberately made herself as annoying as possible to Trump I would think more highly of her.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:13 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

To get a better view of the genocide?
posted by scruss at 1:56 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

From reading about Louis Riel and his rebellion, I learned that before this railway was completed, the only practical way to cross from Ontario to the western Provinces involved crossing into and out of the US, and that the route usually involved stopping at a town in the Dakotas: Pembina. Which is why one of Canada's national security think tanks is called the Pembina Institute. So this train is the reason there actually is a Canada.
posted by ocschwar at 4:59 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

BC made a wholly within Canada rail connection a requirement of Confederation.

This article has a picture from the Yorkton archives of many of the entourage posing on the front of the locomotive. If Lady Agnes (on the far right) was seated where the women in the photo are sitting her trip wasn't nearly as insane as I first imagined.

Anges Macdonald was quite the woman. Two time immigrant (she was born in Jamaica and moved to Canada, then the UK and then back to Canada (though all controlled by the British)), political and travel writer, mother to a disabled daughter and adopted son, and of course first first lady of Canada.

She wrote an article for Murray's Magazine [Google Digitization] about the trip called By Car and by Cowcatcher . It is split into two parts but if you search within the Google text for "By Car and by Cowcatcher" [include the quotes] the results will put you at the beginning of each part. In her words:
At the Laggan Station , more than thirty miles from the summit , a huge engine , -in curious black contrast to a small white house near by , stood on a siding with all steam up , waiting for our train .

I then learned that this monster is necessary for the steep grades , both ascending and descending , over which we have to go . The General Superintendent ( whom I have already mentioned as having joined our party at Winnipeg -- Mr . E .-- ) in an unlucky moment suggested I should walk forward , examine this big " mountain " engine , and see its heavy proportions and fine machinery . I say “ unlucky , ” because from the instant my eyes rested on the broad shining surface of its buffer - beam and cowcatcher , over which a bright little flag waved from a glossy brass pole , I decided to travel there and nowhere else for the remaining 600 miles of my journey !

FROM Calgary to Laggan I had travelled in the car of the engine , accompanied by a victimized official . Perched on a little feather bench , well in front , and close to the small windows , I had enjoyed an excellent opportunity of seeing everything . Besides this , I had gained a great deal of useful information about engines , boilers , signals , & c . , which may come in “ handy ” some day . During our stoppages the engineer and firemen had not failed to explain these things , and I had even ventured to whistle “ caution ” at a “ crossing . ” The signal went very well for an amateur , but the Chief ' s quick ear had detected a falter , and at the next halt he sent a peremptory message , desiring me “ not to play tricks , ” which , addressed to a discreet matron , was really quite insulting . I had even questioned the engineer as to the probable effect of a bad collision while I occupied this post . He promptly suggested , “ most likely killed ; ” and added , reflectively , as he carefully oiled an already dripping valve , " which would be a bad job ” !

When I announced my desire to travel on the cowcatcher , Mr . E - seemed to think that a very bad job indeed . To a sensible , level - headed man as he is , such an innovation on all general rules of travelling decorum was no doubt very startling . He used many ineffectual persuasions to induce me to abandon the idea , and almost said I should not run so great a risk ; but at last , being a man of few words , and seeing time was nearly up , he so far relented as to ask what I proposed using as a seat . Glancing round the station platform I beheld a small empty candle - box lying near , and at once declared that was “ just the thing . ” Before Mr . E - could expostulate further , I had asked a brakesman to place the candle - box on the buffer - beam , and was on my way to the “ Jamaica ” to ask the Chief ' s permission . The Chief , seated on a low chair on the rear plat form of the car , with a rug over his knees and a magazine in his hand , looked very comfortable and content . Hearing my request , after a moment's thought , he pronounced the idea “ rather ridiculous , ” then remembered it was dangerous as well , and finally asked if I was sure I could hold on . Before the words were well out of his lips , and taking permission for granted by the question , I was again standing by the cow catcher , admiring the position of the candle - box , and anxiously asking to be helped on .
She describes the cowcatcher:
Before I take my seat , let me try , briefly , to describe the “ Cowcatcher . " Of course every one knows that the buffer beam is that narrow , heavy iron platform , with the sides scooped out , as it were , on the very fore - front of the engine over which the headlight glares , and in the corner of which a little flag is generally placed . In English engines , I believe , the buffers proper project from the front of this beam . In Canadian engines another sort of attachment is arranged , immediately below the beam , by which the engine can draw trains backwards as well as forwards . The beam is about eight feet across , at the widest part , and about three feet deep . The description of a cowcatcher is less easy . To begin with , it is misnamed , for it catches no cows at all . Sometimes , I understand , it throws up on the buffer - beam whatever maimed or mangled animal it has struck , but in most cases it clears the line by shoving forward , or tossing aside , any removable obstruction . It is best described as a sort of barred iron beak , about six feet long , projecting close over the track in a V shape , and attached to the buffer beam by very strong bolts . It is sometimes sheathed with thin iron plates in winter , and acts then as a small snow - plough .
Continued description of the ride:
Behold me now , enthroned on the candle - box , with a soft felt hat well over my eyes , and a linen carriage - cover tucked round me from waist to foot . Mr. E had seated himself on the other side of the headlight . He had succumbed to the inevitable , ceased further expostulation , disclaimed all responsibility , and , like the jewel of a Superintendent he was , had decided on sharing my peril ! I turn to him , peeping round the headlight , with my best smile . “ This is lovely , " I triumphantly announce , seeing that a word of comfort is necessary , “ quite lovely ; I shall travel on this cowcatcher from summit to sea ! ”

Mr. Superintendent , in his turn , peeps round the headlight and surveys me with solemn and resigned surprise . “ I — suppose - you — will , ” he says slowly , and I see that he is hoping , at any rate , that I shall live to do it !

With a mighty snort , a terribly big throb , and a shrieking whistle , No. 374 moves slowly forward . The very small population of Laggan have all come out to see . They stand in the hot sunshine , and shade their eyes as the stately engine moves on . " It is an awful thing to do ! ” I hear a voice say , as the little group lean forward ; and for a moment I feel a thrill that is very like fear ; but it is gone at once , and I can think of nothing but the novelty , the excitement , and the fun of this mad ride in glorious sunshine and intoxicating air , with magnificent mountains before and around me , their lofty peaks smiling down on us , and never a frown on their grand faces !

The pace quickens gradually , surely , swiftly , and then we are rushing up to the summit . We soon stand on the “ Great Divide " -5300 feet above sea - level - between the two great oceans . As we pass , Mr. E— by a gesture , points out a small river ( called Bath Creek , I think ) which , issuing from a lake on the narrow summit - level , winds near the track . I look , and lo ! the water , flowing eastward towards the Atlantic side , turns in a moment as the Divide is passed , and pours westward down the Pacific slope !
Next a description of descending the 4.5% grade (twice as a steep as the normal maximum and completely insane for the tech of the 1886s) at Kicking Horse Pass:
Another moment and a strange silence has fallen round us . With steam shut off and brakes down , the 60 - ton engine , by its own weight and impetus alone , glides into the pass of the Kicking Horse River , and begins a descent of 2800 feet in twelve miles . We rush onward through the vast valley stretching before us , bristling with lofty forests , dark and deep , that , clinging to the mountain side , are reared up into the sky . The river , widening , grows white with dashing foam , and rushes downwards with tremendous force . Sun light flashes on glaciers , into gorges , and athwart huge , towering masses of rock crowned with magnificent tree crests that rise all round us of every size and shape . Breathless -almost awe - stricken - but with a wild triumph in my heart , I look from farthest mountain peak , lifted high before me , to the shining pebbles at my feet ! Warm wind rushes past ; a thousand sunshine colours dance in the air . With a firm right hand grasping the iron stanchion , and my feet planted on the buffer beam , there was not a yard of that descent in which I faltered for a moment . If I had , then assuredly in the wild valley of the Kicking Horse River , on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains , a life had gone out that day ! I did not think of danger , or remember what a giddy post I had . I could only gaze at the glaciers that the mountains held so closely , 5000 feet above us , at the trace of snow avalanches which had left a space a hundred feet wide massed with torn and prostrate trees ; on the shadows that played over the distant peaks ; and on a hundred rainbows made by the foaming , dashing river , which swirls with tremendous rapidity down the gorge on its way to the Columbia in the valley below .

There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere , and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher , just because it is all so delightful !
Later the train passes a forest first burning next to the tracks:
The engineer went on to inspect , and returned very dubious about the safety of our position at all events ; but I succeeded so well in impressing him with an idea of our safety , that he made preparations to go forward . And a very new and very hot sensation it certainly was to fly through a bush - fire on a cowcatcher , as we did , with bent heads and closely gathered skirts , to avoid breathing the heated air or catching fire .
Penultimately a description of my home:
Ninety - four miles of the C. P. R. lie between Kamloops and Lytton . At Kamloops the scenery changes abruptly and entirely . From thence through the canyon of the Thompson to Lytton , where we strike the canyon of the Fraser , we seem in a different world . Huge sand - hills , almost devoid of grass , roll in uniform succession on either side the wide , rapidly flowing river . Some of these hills are thinly covered with short coarse bunches of greyish grass ; a peculiar kind of red pine - tree clothes others from base to crown . These trees stand apart in curious rows , as if they had been set in line , and , mounting the steep hillsides , all leaning one way , have the effect of a large army toiling upward and around the mighty canyon's fold as far as eye can see .

Remarkable contrasts of colour make these parts very striking . The country sloping away before me in billowy sandhills , which wear every tint of brown from pale to chocolate , is brightened only by the Thompson's brilliant green waters , and arched over by a sort of dull China - blue sky . At some distance above Kamloops we had passed over green park - like flats ex tending to the water on the right . Through these we had made good time , and pleasant it was to be flying across that new country in warm sunlight !

In this section of the canyon rain scarcely ever falls , which accounts for the remarkable brown tint visible everywhere . There are indeed very green fields - large emerald patches which are irrigated at great cost from the heights above . The diligent C-----n [Chinese] own most of these bright spots , to which a new charm is added by their brown surroundings . We were told at a station near Kamloops that only two heavy showers of rain had fallen in nine years , which I felt to be another injustice to poor Ireland , who has so many more showers than are good for her !

Never to be forgotten is that ride , all alone , on the cowcatcher down the valley of the Thompson ! Though strong of nerve and will , the sight of those slender rails — always on a heavy down grade — gleaming on the precipice brink as far as I could see ahead , was somewhat startling — not a bush or blade to break the edge of the stern declivities , or to soften the dull coloured steeps that rose from the ledge we travelled on . However , no failing of heart -- no reeling of brain must be allowed . No human succour could come near — no cry could be heard , no sign seen — but then ! how glorious was the feeling of daring risk , the thrill of shooting downwards with the flashing of sunlight and the glancing of water before me , and that immense shadowless expanse at my feet !
Finally the encounter with the pig:
Just at such a spot we killed a pig . This was how it happened . Having been told that one of my chief dangers on the buffer - beam was the possibly sudden arrival of an animal's body killed by the cowcatcher and thrown into my lap , I was always on the look - out for such a catastrophe , and much consoled to find that when , as in the valley of the Thompson , cows persisted in crossing our way , the engineer slackened speed , and whistled until they disappeared . But this pig , evidently of a coy and shrinking nature , did not reveal himself until death was close at hand . With the “ Secretary " on my " guest's ” candle - box , I was enjoying the beauty of the scene just described , when the roadway immediately before us swarmed with little black pigs , which had darted from bushes growing near the track . There was a squeak , a flash of something near , and away we went , leaving one poor little sacrificed beauty lying dead on the road behind us . The Secretary averred that the body had struck him in passing ; but as I shut my eyes tightly almost as soon as the pigs appeared , I cannot bear testimony to the fact .
The whole thing starting at Ottawa and ending at Victora is an amazing piece of writing. I'm curious how they got back to Ottawa.

Joseph Pope, Sir John A. Macdonald’s private secretary during the last nine years of Macdonald's prime ministership, rode with the Prime Minister on the cowcatcher as well.
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.
A 1960 Maclean's (a long published, well known Canadian News Magazine) article from 1960 has long excerpts of the journey from Pope's biographical book which was published that year.
posted by Mitheral at 11:26 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]

You can see locomotive 374 in person in Yaletown where it sits under cover after being restored. However the restoration returned the engine to it appearance after a major rebuild in 1914 and the front of the engine is radically different than when Lady Macdonald was riding it.
posted by Mitheral at 11:55 PM on February 13

I can't think of anything more fabulous than running down the Thompson River canyon on a hot July day on the front of a train. It's just a thin trail etched onto the side of a steep canyon of cliffs and talus 200 feet above a huge cascading river.
posted by JackFlash at 7:22 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]

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