• Cindy Zampa


Legacy of Lady Agnes Macdonald

"I thought of nothing but the novelty, the excitement, and the fun of this mad ride in the glorious sunshine and intoxicating air."

I love the story of the journey by rail that was taken in 1886 by the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes.

I imagine it was a highly anticipated event. After all, they’d be making the first trip of its kind on the recently completed trans-continental railway line, travelling across Canada, from ocean to ocean. I can picture the entourage of political dignitaries and their aides, boarding the train, then settling into their seats. A private railcar had been appointed with the very best of amenities for the prime minister and Lady Agnes. Everyone was probably bubbling over with nervous excitement and high energy, like children at a theme park about to take their first ride on a roller-coaster.

Then, after days and many miles of landscape rolled by, they’d reach the prairies. The monotonous landscape would fill their windows. After being confined to such close quarters, conversations would become as stale as the smoke-filled air inside the cars. Boredom would reign. Especially for Lady Agnes, who was perhaps not as involved in planning the campaign speech for their next stop. Or reading, drinking, smoking, or discussing politics.

Lady Agnes had a spunky, curious, and adventurous spirit though, and a bit of boredom wasn't tolerated. At a stop in Calgary, she entered the locomotive cab and began asking the engineer to explain what the various levers, dials and buttons were for. She became so intrigued that she decided to ride to the next stop in the cab, with the fireman and engineer. She took great delight in blowing the whistle, and in learning about how the engine worked.

When they arrived in Banff, Lady Agnes took things to the next level. She insisted that she’d ride the rest of the route, from the summit of the mountains all the way to the sea, on the cowcatcher of the train. This, she argued with the dumbstruck engineer, would provide the best view of the scenery, and allow her to breathe in the fresh air.

The engineer firmly denied her outrageous request, citing concerns for her safety. When she persisted, he deferred to the prime minister and his top aide. Despite valiant efforts to convince her of the lack of decorum, the dangers and possible discomforts she’d face, Lady Agnes finally got her way. She finished the rest of the voyage perched on a candle box that had been secured to the cowcatcher.

Lady Agnes was an avid diarist, so we get her viewpoint when she wrote:

“I did not think of the danger. My mind was not on the precarious post I had because I could gaze at the glaciers, the shadows playing on the distant peaks, the hundreds of rainbows made by the foaming, dashing river. I laughed out loud on that cowcatcher. It was so delightful!”

Today, we see evidence of her legacy at the mountain lake named in her honour. There’s a hiking trail leading from Lake Louise up to the Lake Agnes teahouse, a perfect spot for enjoying the fresh air and spectacular scenery. Her legacy also lives on in anyone who has a deep appreciation of our western landscape, a passionate enthusiasm for thrilling adventures, breathing in the fresh air of the mountains, and enjoying the journey!

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