“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!”
Agnes McDonald, the wife of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. McDonald spoke those words as she perched on the cowcatcher at the front of a train. In 1886 Agnes and Sir John A. were guests on the maiden journey of the new Canadian Pacific Railway to Banff, Alberta. Exasperated with seeing the splendor of the Rockies only through the glass of the train window, Agnes declared she would put a box up on the cowcatcher of the train and ride there. The train engineer was appalled and tried to dissuade her. He insisted she receive the prime minister’s permission. Sir John A apparently quite unperturbed at the prospect of his wife falling into the Fraser Canyon gave his assent. Agnes quickly enthroned herself on the box at the front of the locomotive. Later she would write the words that open this blog post in her journal.
Agnes was certainly a woman with a mind of her own. Reading about her in Heather Robertson’s book More Than A Rose one gets the impression she was full of mischief and adventure before she wed the prime minister who was 21 years her senior. Witty, perceptive and energetic she found her new life in Ottawa difficult. Much younger than her husband’s friends she never fit in with his crowd. Sir John A was an alcoholic and hopelessly in debt. Ottawa was a rough frontier town at the time, not at all like London, England where Agnes was living when she met her future husband. The McDonalds had only one child, a daughter Mary who had hydrocephalus and was often ill.
Perhaps Agnes’ railroad adventure was one way for her to break free from the responsibilities of a difficult family life and the clearly defined expectations the public had of her in the confining role of the prime minister’s wife.
Agnes lived in a time when women weren’t offered many choices in life. They had to find small ways to assert their independence. Agnes certainly did!