Not your grandparents’ railway journey

The Quebec City train station where the Russlaender departed for new homes 100 years ago. (Photos by John Longhurst)

After days of touring in Quebec City and Grosse Isle, participants in the “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” boarded a VIA Rail train at Quebec City’s Gare du Palais (Palace train station) on July 8.

It was the first leg of their cross-Canada train trip, organized to replicate the journey taken by their ancestors 100 years ago as they journeyed to new homes across Canada.

Singing together at the train station.

Before boarding, tour participants gathered in the main concourse of the station, built in 1915—the same place their ancestors may have waited for their trains between 1923 and 1930 after arriving by ship from Europe.

Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (now Canadian Pacific Kansas City), the two-storey station is similar in design to the Château Frontenac hotel. It was designated a Heritage Railway Station in 1992.

While in the concourse waiting to board, the group sang together, led by Karis Wiebe of Winnipeg—songs like Amazing GraceGott ist die Liebe and Grosser Gott wir Lieben Dich, the notes reaching to the high ceiling.

But the station itself is the only part of the journey that actually replicates the trip taken by Russlaender Mennonites a century ago.

For one thing, the tracks the tour will follow are not the same as the ones their forebears travelled on.

Canada’s national passenger train carrier no longer runs on tracks owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Instead, the journey will be on tracks owned by Canadian National Railway, which has hosted VIA Rail since its inception in 1977.

Callum Rempel and Carl Neustaedter settle in for the trip.

For another thing, tour participants are travelling in much greater comfort! In the Quebec-Ontario corridor, they will ride in the most modern Renaissance equipment.

Later in Toronto, for the second segment of the trip, participants will board classic refurbished 1950s Budd cars that make up the Canadian for their trip to Winnipeg and points further west.

This is quite unlike how Mennonites travelled to new homes between 1923 and 1930. The trains they boarded were made up of what were called Colonist Cars(link is external)—passenger cars especially built for poor immigrants. (Click here(link is external) to see the interior of a Colonist Car.)

Designed to provide inexpensive long-distance transportation for immigrants, the cars were noted for their very spartan accommodations.

This included pull-down sleeping berths and simple kitchens where immigrant families could cook their own meals. Passengers had to provide their own food and bedding—not like the good accommodation and meals on VIA Rail.

Ultimately, the CPR had a fleet of over 1,000 colonist cars, transporting about 3 million immigrants from places like Quebec City and Halifax to new homes across Canada. Each car could hold 60-70 people.

By the 1960s, most colonist cars were taken out of service as demand for immigrant trains fell. One car that has been preserved is No. 1202, built in 1905 in Montreal. It can be found at Heritage Park in Calgary.

Who knows? Maybe some of the Mennonites who came between 1923 and 1930 travelled to their new homes in that car!

Marjorie Wall Hofer and Eileen Gratrix visit on the train from Quebec City to Montreal.
Henry Schroeder of Winnipeg reads on the train. Wonder if it’s a book about Mennonite history?

—With files from Heritage Rail Alliance

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.