Flatlander Faith

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Moose Jaw Memories

I was seven years old when I got my first train ride. It was back in 1949 and my mother and I boarded the train in early morning for the hour long ride into Moose Jaw. When we arrived in the city, the conductor held out his hand to help my mother and me down the steps from the passenger car. I looked across the many rows of tracks between us and the big railway station and wondered how we were supposed to walk across those tracks when there were other trains coming in the distance. My mother told me to just follow the other passengers; we walked along the concrete walk to a set of steps leading down to a tunnel under the tracks. When we came up the steps in the railway station, the first thing that caught my eye was a large sign giving departure and arrival times, topped by a clock and saying at the bottom “Welcome to Moose Jaw, population 27,000.”

I don’t remember the reason for our trip; it was probably to see a doctor or a dentist, though I am sure a visit to the dentist would have instilled a vivid memory. My father was partial to Doctor Fraser Muirhead, a true frontier dentist who did not believe in using any kind of pain relief and could be heard from the waiting room shouting at the unfortunate children who could not hold still for him to work on their teeth. There was a time when I was the child in his chair and he threatened to strap me in. It took me years to overcome my fear of dentists.

Moose Jaw had been a boom town in the early days, as evidenced by the impressive buildings that lined Main Street. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built in the 1870’s to connect the prairies and British Columbia to the rest of Canada. Moose Jaw became a hub for the construction and later for the maintenance of the CPR. Branch lines fanned out in all directions, including the Soo Line Railroad, owned by the CPR, that ran from Moose Jaw all the way to Chicago. A huge tent city appeared during construction, soon replaced by sturdy brick structures. Moose Jaw became the business centre for farm families from a large part of southwest Saskatchewan. There was a flour mill, meat packing plants, lumber yards, feed mills and everything else needed in the rural economy. There were also grocery and hardware wholesalers, supplying merchants in smaller communities.

Two hospitals were built in the early years, I was born in one of them in 1942, went back five years later to have my tonsils removed. The department stores were Eaton’s, Joyner’s and Army and Navy.

Joyner’s Department Store carried clothing and shoes for the whole family. Shopping there was an unforgettable experience for a youngster. There were no cash registers to be seen, just cables humming overhead in their endless run between pulleys, connecting each area of the store to a cashier on the mezzanine level. When you bought something, the clerk would write out the bill of sale, take your money, place both in a little metal box, then reach up and attach the box to one of those cables. The box would go zipping up to the cashier and soon come back with your change and the bill stamped paid.

The Army and Navy Discount Store sold most everything, clothing, hardware, housewares, paint, toys, fabrics, on three levels. There was a marvellous modern device in their shoe department that looked something like an old platform scale. You could try on a pair of shoes, step on the platform with the toes of your shoes under the working part of this machine, then look in the top and see how the bones of your toes fit inside the shoes. This was long before anyone was aware of the dangers of too much x-ray exposure.

Eaton’s was bigger yet, carried a wider range of merchandise, more up to date, including furniture and appliances. Of special interest to me was the watch maker in a little office on the landing between the main floor and the upper level. One time I went to him with a watch that had a badly scratched crystal. It only took a minute or two for him to find the right size, pop the old one out and the new one in. The best part was that he didn’t charge me anything!

A large part of the workforce hired to build the railroad were Chinese men. Many of them made Moose Jaw their home after the railroad was built. Circumstances were difficult for them for many years, they were not allowed to bring their wives over and new immigration from China was forbidden. Still, they carved out a place for themselves in the Moose Jaw business community. George Wong, owner of the Exchange Café and “Scotty” Kwan, owner of Kwan’s Music were pillars of the community in the era that I remember.

For many years there was a thriving Jewish community. Many may not have been much in the public eye, but I remember the two Cohen’s Drug Stores, in opposite corners of the city, Harvey Stein’s Globe News and Schwartz’s news stand, run by Hymie and Bennie Schwartz. Now the drug stores, the newspaper vendors and the synagogue are all gone.

We probably had dinner at the Exchange Café or one of the other Chinese restaurants downtown. When our appointments and shopping were all done, my mother and I walked into the offices of CHAB, the radio station listened to by most people for miles around. We were shown into a room with seating all around the four walls. Just about every seat was filled with people on the same mission as my mother. I think it was around four o’clock when a radio announcer stepped in with a microphone is his hand and made his way around the room. When my mother’s turn came, she spoke into the mike “This is Agnes Goodnough from the Bishopric area. Tell Walter that we will be home on the six o’clock train.” This was an invaluable public service in the days when long distance phone calls, especially from a pay phone, were horribly expensive.

I don’t remember the train ride home, I wouldn’t be surprised if I slept the whole way, tired from an early morning and hours spent walking the streets and through the stores of the city. Sixty-seven years have passed, Joyner’s. Army & Navy and Eaton’s have all closed. So have the wholesalers, the flour mill and the meat packing plants.  You can’t get there by train anymore. The population now stands at 35,000. For years now, the city has tried to re-invent itself as a tourist destination, capitalizing on its history.

My wife and I both have family in Moose Jaw, our parents are buried there. For us, it is the family connection and family history that keep drawing us to visit Moose Jaw.


What I Did During My Summer Vacation – Part 2

I was born in this city sixty-eight years ago.  My parents are buried in a cemetery on the south side of the city, beside my Uncle Art and Aunt Katherine, my father’s brother who married my mother’s sister.  My wife’s parents are buried in another cemetery on the west side.

Moose Jaw is built at the confluence of three water courses.  Spring Creek comes from the west, passes north of downtown, turns south, then east, makes a horseshoe bend and turns south again.  Thunder Creek flows straight from west to east.  The Moose Jaw River comes from the south, with many turns.  When the three water courses meet, the Moose Jaw River turns and exits the city to the east.  The wide spot in the river where the three meet is known as Plaxton’s Lake.  There is a boardwalk here and farther along the river there are walking trails and picnic spots.  This area is known as Wakamow Valley.

On the east side of the city, Spring Creek has mostly disappeared below street level.  Eighty years ago the horseshoe bend downtown was developed into Crescent Park, a beautiful and peaceful spot covering more than six blocks that begins just a block away from Main Street.

In the 1880’s, Chinese workers were brought to Canada to build the CPR.  It was expected that they would leave when the railroad was finished, but they showed no inclination to return to China.  Laws were enacted to prevent the immigration of Chinese women — having all these Chinese men was bad enough, heaven help us if they bring wives over and start to multiply!  More men kept coming.  The government enacted a law requiring each Chinese man to pay a $500.00 head tax in order to stay in Canada legally.

This was an enormous sum of money.  The men dug tunnels to live under the downtown area, bringing the dirt up at night and adding it to the piles of dirt at construction sites.  The tunnels had secret entrances in the railway station, the hotels and the Chinese cafés.  The men who scraped together enough money to pay the head tax were given a card with their photograph on it.  The police cannot tell one Chinese man from another.  A cook or waiter in a café could work his shift,  disappear underground and hand the card to another worker.

The Chinese men discovered that the dusty and dirty cowboys bringing cattle to the meat packing plants are in need of a cheap place to sleep, a bath and a laundry and they provide these services in the tunnels.

Then came the Prohibition Era in the U.S.  It was legal to produce whiskey in Canada, but not to sell it to the U.S.  The Bronfman family was happy to look after the production part.  The Soo Line Rail Road, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific, runs directly from Moose Jaw to Chicago.  There was this wonderful maze of tunnels underneath the city, connected to the railroad station, just what Al Capone needed to look after the transportation end of things.

Moose Jaw shook off its stagnation by becoming a tourist destination.  Two guided tours of the tunnels are offered, one tells about the Chinese history, the other about the Capone era.  The Chinese tour has an off-colour reference or two, but it is a piece of our history that we should know.  The Capone tour is pure glamorization of sleaze.  I haven’t seen it and don’t intend to.

The Harwood Hotel was another grand old hotel fallen on hard times.  Some enterprising citizens drilled a well to hot underground mineral springs, piped the water to the Harwood, refurbished the hotel and renamed it the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa.  It features an outdoor swimming pool filled with hot mineral water on the second floor of an addition.  There is now a casino across the street.

There are 46 murals and sculptures around the city.  A double-decker bus gives tours, with commentary.  The commentary is a problem.  I once took a young lady on this tour and had to apologize to her after.  I hadn’t anticipated that the commentary would focus so much on glorifying the sleaziest aspects of Moose Jaw’s past.  The murals are worth seeing; now we do it on foot.

(written in 2010)

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