Soo train

Posted: February 21, 2014 in Short stories, starts & writing, Soo train

Part I

Oleskiw’s name, and his pamphlet, were cursed no end in those first few years. Even after three decades, whenever things were hard on us or we were met with some catastrophe or other, Father never failed to exclaim “Bah! About Free Land! Curse the day I read it!”
I have never read Doctor Oleskiw’s pamphlet, but for a hundred-and-fifty-thousand people to be persuaded to immigrate half-way round the world in thirty-odd pages, they must have been extremely compelling.
Although I suspect Oleskiw could have named almost any country outside of Europe and people would have gone. Except for Brazil, of course. Widely reported as a savage, deadly place, Brazil was a living hell where killer Indians, cruel landlords, oppressive tropical heat and virulent disease had dispatched countless numbers of good Ruthenian settlers. So Brazil was out of the question.
But men like my father just needed to be told the destination, the name.

In the old country Father was at his wit’s end. A harsh Winter had followed several fruitless seasons and Father felt like he was slipping. He began to have regular nightmares in which his wife and children were starving to death. It got to the point where he started to feel like the nightmare might be coming true. Yet, try as he might, not even the faintest whisper of a vague idea would come to him. He wanted things better for his family. He knew he had it in him to make things better. He just had no idea how. Perhaps he even thought about Brazil.

But there was no use taking aimless flight. My father was never that spontaneous. Not then he wasn’t anyway. He needed an idea of where he was going, what he was setting out to achieve. Many people were full of empty ideas and advice and Father felt his and his family’s lives slipping further. And then one day a neighbour handed Father a pamphlet. It was a copy of About Free Land, and with it Father was handed the idea and the advice he had been after. A name and a destination. Canada!

Despite the poverty and hopelessness of serfdom, had Father known the hardship and pain ahead, or that he himself would nearly be killed, I wonder, would we still have gone.


Father had stayed a long time at Sudbury before the doctor said he was well enough to make the journey back to the homestead. The doctor had feared he would never walk again, but such was Father’s resolve that not twelve months later he was sufficiently recovered as to make it out to Alvena to see the harvest brought in.

He is said to have lost all reason after the accident. He remained in a dazed and rambling state for some time after his rescue, before eventually fainting away. The conductor of the train, Mr. Glenally, the hero of Father’s miraculous tale, told of dragging Father to the river bank by the hair of his head, and that he gave Father little hope of survival.
Also Mrs. Laney, who is herself reported to have shown great heroism in pulling some of the injured and dying from the water, tended to Father’s wounds as he lay raving and moaning in the snow.

Father has no memory of the accident, nor of the subsequent period in which he lay unconscious. He speaks of boarding the train in Ottawa, but Mother insists Father had travelled from Montreal, not Ottawa. He recalls having his ticket inspected by the conductor, but from then until his first lucid moment in the hospital bed, his mind is blank. Therefore, we can only imagine the horrors he must have endured and what appalling scenes were witnessed there on that dreadful morning. The stories we heard and the descriptions we read of the wreckage and the terrible circumstances that befell those poor, unfortunate souls were agonising.
Often was the time that I thought about that catastrophic event and wept for those that had suffered it.

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