By cowcatcher and candlebox to the sea

One of the world’s most famous railway journeys was launched by a female daredevil in spectacular fashion, writes Roderick Eime.

Susan turned to her husband John and said plainly, “I wish to ride the rest of the journey on the cowcatcher.

A brazen and forthright proposal for any woman let alone the wife of the prime minister. But Lady (Susan) Agnes Macdonald was no ordinary woman and this was no mundane occasion. Her husband, Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB, KCMG, PC, PC (Can), QC, was the first prime minister of Canada and the couple were undertaking a momentous journey across the country aboard the brand new and incredibly expensive Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR).

At first her request was dismissed out of hand by railway officials and Sir John also thought the stunt ‘ridiculous’.

“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.”

But Lady Agnes prevailed and by force of will installed herself on the cowcatcher seated only on a discarded candle box. The sensible Mr E was obliged to travel with her on the front of the engine and the two completed the 1000 kilometres from Banff to Vancouver that glorious summer of 1886. “This is lovely,” announced Lady Agnes with great satisfaction.

The stunt was a public relations masterstroke and the CPR was catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers all across Canada, doing her husband’s re-election prospects no harm at all. So much so that the most prominent ladies of the new Confederation insisted on emulating their idol and often rode in mock fashion perched on the front of the engine.

The railway line that took ten gruelling years to build and united a nation is still in place today and passengers enjoy the identical scenery that so enthralled Lady Agnes all those years ago. While it may no longer be possible to sit on the front, today’s famous Rocky Mountaineer has an open air viewing platform on the rear of the train that affords similarly staggering views of the unfolding mountainscape that passes through such ominously named locations as Hell’s Gate, Kicking Horse and Yellowhead Passes and the Rocky Mountain Trench.


With such scenic treasures, the railway quickly became a tourist attraction thanks to Lady Agnes’s colourful descriptions published in the popular Murray’s Magazine.

“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.”

One hundred years after that momentous last spike was hammered, a new incarnation in rail transportation arrived in the form of the Rocky Mountaineer, a railway service designed specifically with the tourist in mind and following the historic line as ridden by Lady Agnes on her candlebox.

Named “First Passage to the West”, the 1112km, 4-day journey to Calgary is Rocky Mountaineer’s signature route and most faithful to the history of the region. Three other routes complete the steel rail catalogue, taking in newer lines laid in subsequent years and visiting Whistler, Quesnel and Jasper.

The superbly comfortable ‘GoldLeaf’ carriages are almost cabriolets with massive domed panoramic windows through which to digest the sprawling landscape. Speaking of digestion, this top-tier category (of three) serves sumptuous à la carte meals in a private dining room beneath the passenger compartment with complimentary beverages throughout. We get regular, but unobtrusive commentary with our champagne top-ups.

Without sleeper cars, the entire train overnights en route, ensuring not a minute of the spectacular scenery is missed and bringing valuable tourists dollars to the little towns along the way. At the authentic frontier town of Kamloops, we disembark for a night at the Thompson Hotel, named I assume like the adjacent river for David Thompson, the prolific surveyor and explorer who mapped almost the entire Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century.

Ambling lazily down the main street, rock music comes from one of the lively café pubs, but we grab the last table at ‘Felix on fourth’ and tuck into some tapas, tuna and steak. Local red wine from the nearby Okanagan Valley is surprisingly good.

The cattle, milling and mining town of 90,000 has grown beyond austere beginnings in this semi-arid region of BC to a tourist hub of its own and one could easily spend an entire holiday here ticking everything off their list of 101 things-to-do. It reminds me of Bathurst or Orange back home and comes complete with its own bushranger folk legends.

On May 8, 1906, the infamous ‘Gentleman Bandit’ William ‘Billy’ Miner held up his second CPR train just south of Kamloops and was captured three days later by Mounties as he and his two accomplices calmly ate lunch. The trio were brought back to Kamloops for trial amid a media circus. The CPR’s railroad monopoly had made the company unpopular in some circles and Miner was elevated to folk hero status for taking them on and a mural on the main street depicts his daring, but polite exploits.

These days, thanks to the Rocky Mountaineer, the railway enjoys a different kind of notoriety, garnering awards and accolades in abundance. While some may tout the experience as the ‘world’s best train journey’, it is certainly deserves a place on anyone’s very short list. Many, it is clear, share Lady Agnes’s giddy excitement.

“There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”

Doing It

Rocky Mountaineer offer five distinct rail journeys throughout the Pacific Northwest in three categories; Red, Silver and Gold. Running from April-October, fares for the 2-day Classic First Passage to the West start at CAD1249 (Red Leaf, double occupancy). Over 45 packages are offered including road, cruise (with Holland America) and a Coast-to-Coast rail extension with VIA Rail. Hotel partner, Fairmont, offer packages for Gold Leaf guests.

For full details, see

Stay: Fairmont Waterfront Vancouver

Virgin Australia fly to Los Angeles with connection to Vancouver through Alaska Airlines

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