Mother’s 1940 summer holiday remembered

The author’s mother made a trip with a 
friend to Vancouver Island, and captured 
her adventures in a diary

Ah summer. That time of year when Canadians free themselves to travel while the weather is warm.

As a history writer, I’m curious about most things from days passed, so I wonder what travel was like.

Recently, I came across a diary written by my mother, then named Louise McLean, of a trip she took with a friend, Betty Chisholm, in 1940. It was special because people didn’t often travel except to the nearest lake.

These girls were single and working and saved up for a summer holiday to Vancouver Island — just two wild and crazy gals, footloose and fancy free.

Today, we can plan a trip in one day by sending out a few emails and buying tickets online, but back then, it took months. For one thing, they weren’t living close so had to write letters back and forth. They used to both live at Senlac, Sask., and became friends at school, but Louise’s parents moved to Dewberry, Alta., so they ended up living about 200 kilometres apart in 1940. Although both were teachers, they lived with their parents. Long distance phone calls cost money, so they wrote letters. Stamps cost three cents each and delivery took one day.

Once they agreed on a trip, they then had to go to a train station to research departure times and fees. Air travel didn’t become popular in North America until the 1950s. These two travellers took the train. They first wrote letters to all the people they wanted to visit along the way and awaited a reply from each, which would take about a month or longer.

They might have bought tickets beforehand but most likely this was done on the day they approached the station, suitcase in hand, ready to go.

“Daddy and Mother drove me to the station at 7:00 a.m. to catch the Edmonton bound CPR coach, which arrived in Edmonton at about 12:45 p.m.,” wrote an excited Louise in her diary. Louise met up with Betty at the Edmonton station having arrived about an hour earlier.

From then on, they journeyed together, their route snaking along to Calgary and through the mountains to Vancouver where they boarded the ferry to Vancouver Island. Along the way, they stopped to visit friends and everyone treated them to a meal and a tour of the sights around their hometowns.

In Calgary, they stayed at the YWCA for one night but after that, they slept and ate on the train.

People didn’t snack then as they do now. There is no mention of snacking on the train as we often do today to pass the time.

When the train stopped at Kelowna, Louise sent a telegram to friends in Vancouver, telling them what time to meet them. Telegraph offices were situated in railroad stations for public use for a fee. The message was transmitted using Morse code on telegraph wires. When received and printed at the other end, a paper copy was delivered by hand to the recipient’s home. Now you see why telephones were welcome.

Nevertheless, Louise’s message reached its intended recipients, who met them on time at the Vancouver station.

It seems strange, but neither traveller owned a camera. Postcards were popular and they bought plenty. Postcards provided good, colour pictures and Louise even bought ones of places they didn’t visit but that she thought interesting.

Once home, she carefully preserved them in her home-made diary, cutting slots in the pages to hold the corners.

A common problem throughout history is a shortage of money. The difference back then was they had no credit card to rescue them. In a letter home, Louise asks if her parents can send help by money order. It’s not known if any was sent.

They returned by way of Lake Louise where they lived in a room over a “cheap restaurant until our money ran out,” she wrote.

Their trip home was guaranteed because they had a return ticket. Betty had enough money to buy an apple for supper and Louise told her, “I’ll be fine once we get to Edmonton as I can borrow from my sister, Varina. She’s working there now.”

Varina met them at the train station and the first thing she blurted to Louise was, “Am I glad to see you. I’m flat broke.” Somehow they survived.

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