CLIO TALKS BACK: A Prime Minister’s Wife Goes Adventuring in the Canadian Rockies, 1887.

As reproduced in This Wild Spirit, ed. Colleen Skidmore, from GAA NA -4967-132
The Macdonalds on their 1887 train trip across Canada, at Stave Lake
Lady Agnes Macdonald (born Susan Agnes Bernard, 1836-1920) was the second wife of the Scot John A. Macdonald who served as prime minister of Canada (from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878-1891). By all accounts she was a rather strong-minded, austere person, ill at ease in society, and no doubt depressed by the birth in 1869 of a terribly handicapped daughter.

During the prime minister’s second term, following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1886, the Macdonalds embarked on a journey by train across Canada to the Pacific coast to publicize the new route. Agnes quickly became enthralled by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, as well by the power and novelty of steam locomotives.

In the Rockies Agnes Macdonald, who was about to turn fifty (her husband was some twenty years older), made a very audacious, impulsive decision – to ride on the locomotive’s cowcatcher (she described it 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,” designed to clear the tracks of any obstacle, including wandering animals). Her adventure, which she wrote about and published in a Canadian magazine, encouraged later women travelers to imitate her action. Thus riding on the cowcatcher quickly became a fashionable activity! It would be the equivalent of sky-diving today.

As reproduced in This Wild Spirit, ed. Colleen Skidmore, 
from Sara Jeannette Duncan
Riding the Cowcatcher - the fad begun by Agnes Macdonald
Here is Agnes Macdonald’s description of her encounter with the locomotive in the Rockies:

“. . . 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 Laggan, west of Banff, to Vancouver, British Columbia)! . . .

“When I announced my desire to travel on the cowcatcher Mr. E. [the superintendent] . . 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 . . . 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.’ . . . I asked a brakesman to place the candlebox on the buffer-beam. . . .

“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!

“With a mighty snort, a terribly big throb, and a shreiking whistle, No. 374 moves slowly forward. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . Sunlight 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. . . . 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. . . . There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”

Today, a lake and a mountain peak in Banff National Park carry Agnes Macdonald’s name, honoring her passage – and her spirit of adventure.

Clio observes: Today, no wife of a prime minister or president would ever be allowed, either by the government secret service or by the railroad’s insurance company (not to mention her husband), to take such a risk. Clio thinks that in earlier times a few high-placed women could and did have more fun in their traveling – on official business, of course – than their successors! Agnes Macdonald’s story reveals not only a tale of adventure and risk but also an exhilarating personal epiphany.

Source: Agnes Macdonald, “By Car and by Cowcatcher,” Murray’s Magazine (1887), in 2 parts. This selection excerpted from Colleen Skidmore, ed., This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada (University of Alberta Press, 2006), pp. 100-103 passim. For further information on Lady Macdonald, see Louise Reynolds, Agnes, The Biography of Lady Macdonald (Carleton University Press, 1990), and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online under “Bernard, Susan Agnes (Macdonald, Baroness Macdonald), politician’s wife.”