When I was in the twelfth grade, I enrolled in an Island history class, a major component of which was an oral history project. We were tasked to conduct an interview with a senior citizen of our choosing and capture their memories of years past for posterity. I could think of only one person who met the criteria and would (I hoped) have some fascinating stories to tell: My then 89-year-old great-grandmother, Mary Stewart (nee Bain).
When I broached the subject with her, she dismissed it, uncertain she would have anything of value to relate and claiming she’d have to call a friend of hers to help jog her memory. But then something seemed to click and the stories poured forth in torrents.
Over the course of a month or so, we (my parents and I) made weekly visits to her place. It never proved difficult to get her to talk; in fact, the trouble was getting her to stop. We often heard the same stories, but every so often she would toss in something different. By the end of the interviews, I’d amassed a sizeable collection of material. I also came to know my great-grandmother in an entirely new light.
Shortly after, my great-grandmother began to exhibit noticeable signs of Alzheimer’s. As we were later to discover, this had begun to manifest around the time of the interviews, calling into question the veracity of the information she’d imparted. Had her memory been serving her correctly? The stories had become so important to me, and more than just a school project. It would be devastating to find out the facts had been misremembered.
I considered pitting the stories against historical research. Would the events and the people she discussed match with how things had actually happened? But I never followed through with it, skirting the issue to spare myself any disappointment; however, in searching for an idea to complement the winter theme for this issue of Backstory, I decided to finally put one to the test.
During one visit, we were discussing different means of transportation when, naturally, talk turned to trains. Beginning in the early 1870s, iron roads became a new feature of the Island’s landscape. By my great-grandmother’s day, the system had become quite refined, vastly facilitating travel across the province. But as impervious as they seemed, trains weren’t indestructible. Riding the rails during the finer seasons was one thing. During a classic Island winter of yore? That could be another matter entirely.
As my great-grandmother told it, it was her ninth birthday (January 24th, 1926). That morning, she and her mother left their house in Iris, a small farming community in southeastern Prince Edward Island, and caught the train at nearby Wood Islands Station. They were heading to Southport (Stratford) via the Murray Harbour branch, in order to visit with her elder half-sister, Frances.
After boarding the train, they made it just beyond Surrey, a mere few miles north along the tracks, before they ran afoul of a snowstorm. The snow was falling so heavily and had piled up enough to bring the train to a halt, not only for the day, but also for the night.
Once the storm had abated, able-bodied men who lived nearby assembled, shovels in hand, to assist trainmen in shovelling out the locomotive. My great-grandmother recalled one in particular, Angus MacFadyen, who, when he learned that she and her mother were stranded on board, went to his house and returned with a large batch of food. It wasn’t fancy, he claimed, but it was all that he and his family had to share, and it would at least ensure that they wouldn’t be hungry. In my great-grandmother’s words: “Nothing ever tasted better since that bread and blueberry jam. I never forgot about it.”
For a girl of her age, it must have seemed a grand adventure. But it was made even better by the making of a new friend. According to my great-grandmother, she was entertained by a “little McGuigan girl” about her age, who lived near to where the train was stuck and came aboard to play with her. (A friendship thereafter very much inhibited by religious differences). The story ends with my great-grandmother and her mother finally making it to Southport the next day once the snow had been cleared away from the train, no worse for wear and with a tale to tell.
But is it true?
I started with a newspaper search. A snowstorm powerful enough to halt a train had to merit some sort of coverage. And sure enough, it did. On the front page of the January 25, 1926 Guardian was the headline, “Island Railway Service Suffers From Snow Storm.” Snow had apparently begun falling sometime on Friday, January 22, and the ensuing high winds caused massive drifting. The lines most affected were the Souris and Murray Harbour branches, the latter particularly so with drifts as high as ten feet reported.
On Saturday morning at 8 a.m., despite the conditions, the train departed Murray Harbour and by about 9:30 had made it a mile and a half north of Surrey when it became snowed in. That evening, a plow train was dispatched from Charlottetown and had progressed as far as Uigg by the following morning, Sunday. As of 7 p.m. Sunday evening, it was reported to have almost made it to Murray Harbour, with the assistance of a team of 20 snow shovellers. All more or less as my great-grandmother described. The only real discrepancy? She remembered it being the day of her 9th birthday; instead, it was the day before. Close enough!
I turned next to the individuals she recalled: Angus MacFadyen, and a McGuigan girl. What of them?
I tackled the question of Angus MacFadyen first. My great-grandmother said that he lived near the tracks. Given it was 1926, I consulted Cummins 1928 Atlas of Prince Edward Island in the hopes it would offer a clue. Locating Surrey, I scanned the various names of property owners in the area. In the neighbouring community of Ocean View, a mere few hundred yards from the tracks, my eyes zeroed in on one name: Angus MacFadyen. He lived close enough to have naturally offered up his shovel – and his food – that day in 1926.
The atlas, however, failed to turn up evidence of a McGuigan family in the area. But a quick check of baptismal records resolved the issue. In September 1915, an Annie Josephine McGuigan had been born in Iona, the next community along the tracks from Surrey. At less than two years older than my great-grandmother, this must have been the girl she remembered as being about her age; in all likelihood, Annie’s father had been one of the local men who’d made his way to the train to assist in shovelling it out while she tagged along.
For someone standing at the threshold of memory loss and reflecting on events 80 years after the fact, my great-grandmother’s recollection proved comfortingly accurate. She’s gone now, having passed away in June 2014, aged 97. But she lives on in this story and the many others she shared.