A Journey to the West Coast


On Friday April 17 1914, accounting clerk Harold Monks sailed from Liverpool to Halifax on the Canadian Pacific “Royal Mail Steamship” Empress of Ireland. He was about to begin an “All Red Route” to the West Coast — Canadian Pacific steamship, transcontinental railway, coastal steamship — all the way to his new home on Vargas Island on the West Coast of Canada.

Harold Monks portrait from 1914, just before he left for Canada

Harold was one of millions of people who emigrated from England to Canada in the early 1900s. Harold kept mementos of his journey by C.P.R. steamship in the form of a daily ‘Diary of My Voyage to Canada” magazine given to ship’s passengers. We can further get an idea of what Harold’s trip was like by looking at contemporary accounts of travellers. The Chung Collection at University of British Columbia has pamphlets and menus from Canadian Pacific steamships in the early twentieth century. Edmund Hacking, later Harold’s “uncle-in-law”, sailed to Vancouver in 1910 and shared his experiences in a “Tips for Emigrants” column in a Blackburn Lancashire newspaper. The best resource of all is Mrs. Helen Malon, Harold’s future Vargas Island neighbour, who kept a vivid daily account of her journey from Liverpool to Clayoquot Sound.

Mrs. Helen Malon’s diary gives a vivid account of her 1912 journey to the West Coast. Photo credit: Joan Nicholson
Empress of Ireland. Photo credit: wikimedia commons, Agence Roi

“After having a fine night’s rest, I awoke about 7.30, then got up and dressed.” Harold Monks, April 18 1914. Like other passengers, Harold was given a diary to complete, but only filled out the first day’s page, but it does give a nice insight into the first day of his adventure:

Harold Monks’ diary of his first day at sea on the Empress of Ireland, April 1914. Harold Monks collection

Harold travelled second cabin (second class). According to promotional literature, second class on the Empress of Ireland had “comforts comparable to first class on many other ships.” The men had a smoking parlour, the ladies a music room. Yet, Helen Malon, who also travelled Second Cabin, found her space “very uncomfortable being so crowded as there [was] nowhere to sit even the music room [was] taken up six hours a day with meals.”

This comment shows how full the steamships were of prospective Canadian emigrants. Helen Malon, a forty-nine year old widow, was not impressed with the younger people on board. On her first day at sea June 14 1912, she noted in her diary: “The less said about the fellow passengers the better. The men are a fearful crew, so noisy and the “ladies” are much of a muchness. They seem good natured most of them which is something.” A week later, she was distinctly fed up with them! On June 21 1912 she wrote: “At the concert Mr. Farrell took the chair. He is a government emigration agent. He made a little speech beforehand. It was rather amusing. He tried hard to find something nice to say about the passengers and all he could find was that we were a an up-to-date crowd. It was meant to be very complimentary. I do not wonder that he could not find anything better to say. The way some of the men and girls behave is disgraceful, kissing and hugging and sitting on each other’s knees, one man and girl went to such lengths that a great many of the passengers complained about it…..We have just had dinner and since then a little turn on deck, but it is too crowded to stay there, and such a horrid spitting crowd, you can hardly move on deck, they are pigs some of these people.”

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Empress of Ireland Second Cabin Passenger List. Harold Monks collection.

Meals on Board

Meals on the Empress of Ireland Second Cabin were served in a dining room “equal to first class with a restrained decor.” The Second Cabin Dining Saloon of the “Empress” class ships was “a fine apartment, finished in mahogany and capable of seating 300 persons.” On Harold’s first morning at sea, he had breakfast at 8.30. Helen Malon wrote that her ship had meals in lots: “ours are at 8:30 breakfast, 1 lunch and 7:30 dinner. The other batch have theirs before us. I chose ours later as we did not care to breakfast at 4:30.”

For breakfast, Harold had “oatmeal porridge, then roasted whiting, afterwards coffee.” Porridge and fried fish seem standard fair for transatlantic journeys. Fried haddock was served at one breakfast on the Empress of Britain in 1909 and fried striped bass was served on the Missinabie in 1916. Other other breakfast food in menus included: egg and potato dishes, fresh rolls, toast, jam and marmalade, and oranges. Passengers who wanted grilled steaks had to wait an extra fifteen minutes. According to Edmund Hacking, who sailed the Teutonic, the food on his ship was “good.” Helen Malon was less complimentary about her ship’s food. “The food is not bad, though not very grand. The butter is rather nasty.”

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Harold Monks’ Empress of Ireland diary entry shows that he ate oatmeal porridge and roasted whiting for breakfast. Harold Monks collection.

After breakfast, Harold “felt rather queer for the ship was rolling a little.” He “got on the top deck and was alright. On deck several started playing quoits and skipping rope.” Helen Malon was less energetic but she “…took one or two constitutionals and rather enjoyed it…though very rough and cold it was invigorating.” However, ‘Mr. G’, who sailed on the Empress of Ireland in 1910, wrote that he “felt very shabby and could not walk enough to keep warm.” The Empress of Ireland passenger booklet tells us that “deck chairs were provided free of charge for the use of passengers.” While sitting in deck chairs, passengers like Harold could read a daily magazine. It contained stories and poems about beautiful Canada.

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Passengers on the Empress of Ireland could read a magazine. This one has a photo of a farm garden in Alberta and a poem by Kipling on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Harold Monks collection

Passengers could also read “marconigrams” — news from the associated press transmitted by wireless technology from the Marconi station in Cornwall — cutting edge technology allowed ship passengers to know the daily news though they were in the middle of the Atlantic. As a sign of the times, this marconigram mentions damage by the “suffragettes.” Another marconigram in Harold’s collection mentions growing tensions along the German – French border (remember, it was April 1914 and war was just a few months away).

April 18 1914  marconigram reported on suffragette problems in England. Harold Monks collection.

When she wasn’t fighting sea-sickness, Helen Malon sat up on deck quite a bit covered in rugs. One day she wrote: “We saw a huge iceberg quite close….We spent most of the afternoon staring at the iceberg through our glasses.” She travelled in June 1912, two months after the Titanic sinking! Another 1912 passenger, Winnie Dixson of Tofino, recalled that when they started to pass icebergs all the sounds of the ship had to be shut off – no music etc. – so not to disturb the ice.

A side note — the Empress of Ireland may have successfully navigated icebergs, but it was soon to meet tragedy. The ship made a return journey to Liverpool and another successful crossing arriving in Quebec City on May 22 1914. A few days later, as she travelled up the St. Lawrence River, she collided with another vessel. Over 1000 passengers drowned in the May 29 1914 sinking.

Page from Harold’s C.P.R. magazine explains the customs and baggage procedure. Harold Monks collection.

A train to the West Coast

The Empress of Ireland arrived in Halifax on April 24 1914 at 7.30 am. After being inspected by customs and medical officers (second cabin inspection from 7.40 – 11.15am), Harold disembarked and made his way to a Canadian Pacific Railway train to begin his journey west. He took a local train from Halifax to Montreal, then joined the “Imperial Limited” or “Vancouver Express”, the C.P.R.’s transcontinental railway trains.

The Chung Collection at University of British Columbia has digitized an annotated time table of the Canadian Pacific Railway transcontinental trains from 1911. This is an excellent visual overview of the journey that Harold experienced.

The train journey may have been interesting for him, or just boring. Edmund Hacking wrote that “the worst part of the journey is the railway out across the Continent, as six days on the train would become most monotonous to most people.” Helen Malon had a long, hot and dirty journey. “Broiling day. I felt too seedy to do anything. Had caught a bad chill and had a bad headache the whole day we were simply grilled too hot to eat, too hot to do anything, only gasp. There was a thunderstorm in the evening. That night was cooler, ie. poured, which cooled the train.” A couple of days later, she noted “It was pouring nearly all night so everyone was cooler and slept better. We are getting blacker and blacker but is impossible to do much washing and five minutes after we have washed we are as black as ever again. There are several children and one of them has the whooping cough which is unpleasant as his seat is exactly opposite ours.”

The gap where the Canadian Pacific Railway enters the Rockies from the Prairies, from the Empress of Ireland magazine of 1914. Harold Monks collection.

Relief came for English travellers when they finally saw the Rocky Mountains! An annotated time table of the transcontinental and other main line routes of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1911) notes “Approaching Kananaskis the mountains suddenly appear close at hand and seemingly and unpenetrable barrier, their bases deeply tinted in purple, and their sides flecked with white and gold, while high above, dimly outlined in the mists are distant snowy peaks.” Helen Malon wrote in her diary: “After Calgary the ground gradually began to rise and a few miles further on we had our first view of the Rockies. They look so beautiful, the highest peaks covered with snow and further on we began to get in among the mountains, and as we got higher and higher the view became more and more grand and lovely, such beautiful peeps we got of the different snow capped peaks.”

Eventually the train arrived in Vancouver. Helen Malon stayed on for a couple of days to recover from the journey, visit Stanley Park zoo and sight-see in the open topped Observation Car (her observation about Vancouver: “It is a big place”).

An annotated time table of the transcontinental and other main line routes of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1911) describes Vancouver, then with a population of 115,000. Credit: University of British Columbia, Open Collections, Wallace Chung Collection

A trip to Vancouver Island would have been remarkable for a first time visitor from the “Old Country”. The boats sailed from Vancouver harbour out past Stanley Park (no Lions Gate Bridge at this time). There were dramatic views of the North Shore. In July 1912, Helen Malon remarked on her steamship journey out of Vancouver: “Lovely scenery, mountains beautiful.” In May 1914, the Princess Adelaide, Princess Charlotte and Princess Alice made daily trips to Victoria. According to An annotated time table of the transcontinental and other main line routes of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1911), boats sailed at 8 am and 1 pm. “A splendid Canadian Pacific Railway Steamship connects with Victoria daily, a ferriage of about four hours through a beautiful archipelago.”

Up the West Coast by steamship

The last part of the journey to the West Coast was by steamship (and in fact the only way to get to the coast until the late 1950s). Harold sailed on the Princess Maquinna, a new “modern” steamship built in Esquimalt, that made her maiden voyage in 1913.

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Princess Maquinna, photograph by Harold Monks

A notice in The Daily Colonist in July 1913 shows that she was to sail from Victoria to Clayoquot on the 1st and the 15th of every month. This schedule from August 1917 shows the many stops that the Maquinna made on its trip up the coast.

Detail from British Columbia Coast Steamship Sailings, August 1917. University of British Columbia Open Collections, Wallace Chung collection

In May 1914, when Harold arrived on Vancouver Island, the Maquinna left Victoria about 11pm and arrived in Port Alberni on Thursday evening.

The wharf at Port Alberni, The Daily Colonist December 21 1911

The Maquinna was a marked improvement on the Tees, notorious for being unstable. Helen Malon’s son, Ted Abraham, who moved to Vargas Island in summer 1911, recalled taking the Tees from Port Alberni: “We went up on our ship which was three times a month. The boat was horrible – everyone used to be sick before she left the port – it used to roll.” Here is Helen Malon’s account of her July 1912 trip: “The boat left at 11.30 but we were in our bunks before that and managed to sleep. Pierre not well and was sick just before we started and again in the night.” (A few years later, the Tees was on the coast again, and Helen Malon’s diary notes: “Tees — worse luck.”).

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Steamship Tees at dock in Clayoquot Sound 1914-1917, photograph by Harold Monks

By the next morning, the “boat” was travelling up the west coast. Harold, like Helen Malon, would have enjoyed the scenery: “Lovely views of the coast all the way, grand mountains. Arrived Clayoquot about 3 pm.” Helen Malon and family had to stay at the Clayoquot Hotel for the night as their beds had only arrived the same boat as them. She noted in her diary: “Very primitive little place, hotel, one store, post office, police station. For all around us there are other small settlements and Indian villages on the mainland and islands round. Hotel queer, and primitive, but clean. John Chinaman cook, housemaid etc. We were introduced to various settlers, all more or less queer, mostly more.”

Helen Malon and family “lounged about all morning” as their “ride” to Vargas Island could not bring his motor launch until the afternoon on account of the tide. He came about 2 pm. Helen Malon’s diary continues: “They started loading the launch and a canoe which was towed behind, I expected to see it and all my worldly goods disappear every moment, but luckily we got across without accident.” Helen Malon would have more shocks to come as she discovered her new accommodation on Vargas Island. Read more about Helen Malon’s Vargas Island experiences in Mrs. Malon’s Vargas Island verandah, a story I wrote for the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum.

Two years later, Harold Monks had an equally vivid experience on his arrival on the West Coast. He was waiting on the dock for his Vargas Island relations to arrive, when he was alarmed to hear a booming Scots voice greet him, “Well, how’s the boy?” Harold later laughed, “That’s first expression I’d ever heard of something like that. I started looking around where the boy was! I was the boy!”

Harold looked younger than his twenty-one and a half years. He was 5’7, 130 lbs, with a fair complexion, fair hair and blue eyes. Indeed quite boyish! In his 1907 grammar school report, Harold’s teacher noted that Harold “should aim at developing manly qualities.” His journey was over…but only beginning. Clearing land, building a shack and fishing for salmon, Harold would soon develop the “manly qualities” needed to survive on the west coast. Read more about Harold’s early 1900s ranching experiences on Vargas Island.