You can listen to this episode on my podcast Canadian History Ehx
By the 1960s, train travel was declining across Canada. More people were driving or taking planes, and the era of train travel was disappearing.
While the trains, at least passenger trains, were disappearing, there would be one final shining moment for the form of travel in 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year.
With Canada celebrating its first century, it was decided that a traveling train exhibit would be a great way to reach Canadians
This is where the Confederation Train came in.
Throughout the year, the train would travel across Canada, hitting every province and territory and reaching Canadians in dozens of communities.
The train was made up of six cars, with each car specializing in one aspect of Canada and its history.
The first car was about Canada before the arrival of Europeans. From relating the history of the ice ages that dominated the landscape, to the arrival of the First Nations over the Bering Strait and the impact the First Nations had on the landscape. Indian villages were designed by artists and craftsman, allowing visitors to see what Canada was like centuries ago.
The second car was about the arrival of the Europeans, beginning with the Vikings and continuing with the French and English. An electronic map traced the routes of Cabot, Cartier, Hudson and others. Samuel de Champlain had a life-sized statue, while holding his astrolabe for residents to look at. A map from 1632, created by Champlain, was also on display.
In the third car, the era of settlement was celebrated. A drawing room window allowed visitors to see what a typical scene looked like in 19th century French Canada. Other exhibits displayed the pre-Confederation state of confusion, the isolation of communities and colonies, along with the pressures from the United States. In the Confederation chamber of the car, the Centennial symbol is most prominent with the four coloured triangles that symbolized the first four provinces in Canada.
In the fourth car, the era of 1867 to 1876 was covered. An old printing shop was on display, and prime ministers of the day were represented in Macdonald and Mackenzie. Sitting Bull’s rifle and a Sioux headdress were on display, while displays detailing the history of the Riel Rebellion, the Hudson’s Bay Grant and the creation of the North West Mounted Police. The remainder of the 19th century is represented at the back of the car, including the Treaties, the Klondike Gold Rush and the railway to the west.
In car five, the first decades of the 20th century were represented, from the Boer War, through the establishment of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to the First World War. Visitors were able to go into a dug out roofed by corrugated iron and sand bags to see what it was like to look out at No Mans Land. Newspapers from the start of the Second World War finish off the visit to the car.
In the last car, the sixth one, The Second World War and Prime Minister Mackenzie King were represented, as were subsequent prime ministers St. Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson.
The idea for the train was dreamed up by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961 as a travelling exhibit that would travel the country. One of the most interesting parts of the train, apart from the horn, was that it was pulled by two Diesel engines, one owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and one by Canadian National Railway.
The Confederation Train was funded through the Centennial Commission and began its journey from Victoria on Jan. 9, 1967. The train’s whistle would first be activated by Blytha Pearkes, wife of the Lt. Governor General of BC, Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh and May Bennett, wife of premier W.A.C Bennett. A total of 1,500 people were at the rail yard to watch the train begin its journey. In addition, 1,000 coloured balloons were released and three RCAF jets roared over. During its first week in Victoria, 40,000 people would tour the train. It would then begin progressing through Canada until it reached the Maritimes on Oct. 26, 1967. At that point it turned around and finished in Montreal on Dec. 5. The train would blast the first four notes of O’Canada, rather than a typical train horn.
In all, 87 communities would be visited across Canada.
Over the course of its journey, hundreds of thousands of Canadians would visit the car. In one four-day visit at Sault Ste. Marie, 37,427 citizens toured the car. In Calgary, it would stay for 10 days beginning on March 9, with 80,000 citizens coming out to see the train.
For communities that were not reached by the train, there was the Centennial Caravan, made up of tractor-trailers that travelled to 655 smaller communities and reached 6.5 million people. In the far north, there was the Confederation Barge, which went up and down the Mackenzie River, visiting communities along the way.
Information for this episode comes from Expo 67, Soo Today, Wikipedia, Times Colonist, Canadian Geogrpahic and A Year To Remember.