Engine No. 374

There is an amazing piece of Canadian history not far from where I live.

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It’s Engine No. 374. Engine No. 374 is the locomotive that pulled the first transcontinental train across Canada ― from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific ― arriving in Vancouver on May 23, 1887.

I have to admit I get a little thrill every time I walk by Engine No. 374. It’s the history geek in me.

British Columbia is a part of Canada because of the railway. The young colony joined Confederation in 1871 after Sir John A. Macdonald, our esteemed first prime minister, promised to build a railway to connect it to the rest of Canada. That was quite a promise; even more amazing was that Sir John A. said it would be done within ten years.

It took fourteen, but it got done ― an incredible engineering feat for a country not yet two decades old. There was a political scandal, which brought down the government, and there was a rebellion. But eventually, on November 7, 1885, the two ends of the railway met somewhere in the middle of BC’s Interior.

All that is now part of Canada’s national myth. Myths are great, and necessary, to a national identity. And that is why, when I walk by Engine No. 374, I get a little thrill.

I also love the romanticism of trains. Great stories begin on trains. It used to be that new Canadians began their lives in Canada by crossing the country by train. My ancestors did. And I, many years ago, travelled across Canada by train because I’d decided I needed to do it at least once in order to truly understand this vast and varied country of ours. When I finally disembarked in Quebec City after five days of coach travel from Vancouver, the conductor remarked that I had become part of the furniture.

The most surreal moment of that trip, however, was when I and the fellow who sat down across from me after boarding the train in Sudbury recognized each other, and it took us to North Bay to figure out where from. We finally put it together that we had met a couple of years earlier at the youth hostel in Baden-Baden, Germany, and then bumped into each other a few weeks later in the Venice train station, and yet again a few weeks after that in the middle of some demonstration in the centre of Athens. (Yes, the Greeks were already demonstrating back in the 1980s.) We were both criss-crossing Europe by train at the time. Great stories begin on trains.

Engine No. 374 was built by Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal in 1886. It was completely rebuilt in 1914, and then continued in active use until 1945. After sitting at Kitsilano Beach for almost forty years, it was restored and put on display for Expo 86. Today it stands in a glass pavilion that is part of the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown.

When I was taking the photos for this post, the volunteer working at the pavilion wouldn’t leave my elbow. As I knelt down to get a shot, he told me that once a year, on the Sunday closest to May 23, Engine No. 374 is taken out of its glass pavilion and moved into Turntable Plaza.

Now that’s a thrill this history geek won’t want to miss.

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