A parade on rails
Parades are a part of the holiday season in many towns, but this is a parade on rails that travels across most of Canada and parts of the United States, and a few eastern Ontario and Champlain Valley towns got enjoy it. For 19 years, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), has ran its annual Holiday Train to spread seasonal cheer in communities along its tracks. It’s decorated with lights, and one of the boxcars opens up as a stage.
Two Canadian Pacific Holiday Trains left Montreal on Monday. One headed west across Canada to Vancouver, the other went south into New York State and made stops in Rouses Point, Plattsburgh, Port Henry, Ticonderoga, and Fort Edward on the way to Saratoga Springs, its final destination (see story by Zach Hirsch).
Another train will also leave Toronto and go across the U.S. Midwest before returning to Canada.
Next stop, Merrickville
I took a drive to Merrickville in eastern Ontario to see the Holiday Train. It had already been to the village of Finch in Stormont County that afternoon. About 3,000 people live in historic Merrickville on the Rideau River and over 1,000 people must have been gathered around the railroad siding. Traffic was backed up on the county roads leading to the village and I had to park my car along the road about a mile away and walk into town.
The mood was happy when I walked into the yard between the tracks and a factory where the train waited with light displays flashing as the sun set in the west. Suddenly, the side of a box car opened and there was a stage with a band. Toronto-based pop singer Emma-Lee appeared and the Merrickville crowd got down and boogied in their snowsuits. Children rolled around in the snow. Couples of all ages danced together, smiling.
The Holiday Train raises money and supplies for community food pantries. Food and cash donations were being collected in Merrickville on Monday evening for local food pantries, but CP also presented a check for $4,000 to Rideau Community Health Services, one of the largest food pantry providers in the area.
After Emma-Lee, the next performer was one of Canada’s biggest names in blues and R&B, Colin James. It may have been well below freezing outside, but the crowd got hot pretty quick hearing James’ rendition of Run, Run, Rudolph, and his own Boogie-Woogie Santa. The Juno Awards-winner is from Regina, Saskatchewan. James once opened for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and has several gold records.
Canadian heritage and holiday nostalgia
The CP Holiday Train had an extra special meaning this year because of Canada’s 150th anniversary. One of the boxcars was decorated in lights showing the Canada 150 logo, the flag, and a map of the country. The Canadian Pacific Railway was chartered in 1881 by the federal government to build a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Its development was completely intertwined with the politics, economy, and society of Canada’s first 20 years. It has defined the image of Canadian development and is part of the image of Canada. Pierre Berton wrote the books The National Dream and The Last Spike about CP, both were made into a popular miniseries on CBC-TV. Gordon Lightfoot told the CP story in his song The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.
I stood by the tracks in Merrickville thinking about how the image of the railway as a signature piece of Canadian identity has actually diminished, though. CP doesn’t usually make stops in Merrickville, anymore. The company ended its passenger service in the 1970s when the federal government created VIA Rail, which is similar to Amtrak in the US. The last Prime Minister who made a cross-country tour by train was Pierre Trudeau in 1974.
Recreational trails have replaced the rails in many places, or the former corridors have reverted to forest. But, the holiday season is a time for nostalgia, and there’s nothing more nostalgic than the scene of hundreds of people gathered around the railroad tracks in an old Ontario village to greet a special train and celebrate together.
I watched the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train leave Merrickville and head towards Smiths Falls and Perth, its two other Monday evening stops. While I was walking back to my car, I passed a family along the road. A boy of about 10 looked at me and said, “Merry Christmas.” I said “Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you, too.” I thought that was the most quotable moment from an event of holiday celebration infused with community and Canadian heritage.