Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a pile of railway ties on the B.C./Alberta border near Tête Jaune Cache in June 1914, realizing his lifelong dream of seeing the Rocky Mountains at last.                                Richard Lancelyn Green Collection

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a pile of railway ties on the B.C./Alberta border near Tête Jaune Cache in June 1914, realizing his lifelong dream of seeing the Rocky Mountains at last. Richard Lancelyn Green Collection

Golden Country: When Sherlock Holmes’ creator came to Canada

During a 1914 visit, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle realized a lifelong dream: to see the Rocky Mountains.

In early 1914 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—the world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes—was preparing for a journey: a trip to Western Canada, where the 55-year-old author and his wife, Jean, had been invited by the Canadian government to visit Jasper National Park. The family would travel as guests of the Grand Trunk Railway system, which had recently completed its extension through the prairies and British Columbia to its terminus in Prince Rupert.

The journey began in New York—where Conan Doyle and his wife arrived on May 28, 1914—and ACD, a keen sportsman whose first love was cricket, was able to take in a baseball game. He enjoyed the experience immensely, writing that “The men were fine fellows… . The catching seemed to me extraordinarily good, especially the judging of the long catches by the ‘bleachers’, as the outfields who are far away from any shade are called. The throwing in is also remarkably hard and accurate and, if applied to cricket, would astonish some of our batsmen.

“I had one uneasy moment when I was asked in Canada to take the bat and open a baseball game. The pitcher, fortunately, was merciful, and the ball came swift but true… . Fortunately I got it fairly in the middle and it went on its appointed way. But I should not care to have to duplicate the performance.”

Sir Arthur and Lady Jean travelled to Montreal, and then began their cross-country journey by train and steamship. Of the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, ACD said “I expect they will grow into one. Already the suburbs join each other… . They are so evidently interdependent that it is difficult to believe that they will fail to coalesce.” [In 1970, the city of Thunder Bay was formed when Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated.]

ACD was complimentary about Winnipeg and its amenities (“The Fort Garry Hotel there is quite as modern and luxurious as any hotel in Northumberland Avenue [London]”), but noted that no such luxury waited in Edmonton. “The town is in a strangely half-formed condition, rude and raw, but with a great atmosphere of energy, bustle, and future greatness.” From Edmonton he and his wife headed toward Jasper, and one of the great moments in the author’s life.

“A line of low distant hills breaks the interminable plain which has extended with hardly a rising for fifteen hundred miles. Above them is here and there a peak of snow. They are the Rockies—my old familiar Rockies! Have I been here before? What an absurd question, when I lived there for about ten years of my life in all the hours of dreamland. What deeds have I not done among the trappers and grizzlies within their wilds! And here they are at last, glimmering bright in the rising morning sun. At least, I have seen my dream mountains. Most boys never do.”

He called Jasper Park “one of the great national playgrounds” and praised the Canadian government for setting aside the parkland so that it could be preserved and remain “forever out of the power of the speculative dealer”. He also made a side trip to Tête Jaune Cache. “Here we saw the Fraser, already a formidable river, rushing down to the Pacific.” He described the village of the railway workers as a place where “the bad man is never allowed to be too bad. There is a worse man in a red serge coat and a Stetson hat, who is told off by the State to look after him, and does his duty in such fashion that the most fire-eating desperado from across the border falls in to the line of the law.”

Although he was not able to stay long in Western Canada, the region left its mark on the author. On June 18, 1914, before his return to England, Conan Doyle put pen to paper and wrote a poem called “The Athabasca Trail”.

My life is gliding downwards; it speeds swifter to the day

When it shoots the last dark cañon to the plains of Far-away,

But while its stream is running through the years that are to be,

The mighty voice of Canada will ever call to me.

I shall hear the roar of rivers where the rapids foam and tear,

I shall smell the virgin upland with its balsam-laden air,

And shall dream that I am riding down the winding woody vale,

With the packer and the packhorse on the Athabasca Trail.

I have passed the warden cities at the Eastern water-gate,

Where the hero and the martyr laid the corner stone of State,

The habitant, Coureur-des-bois, and hardy voyageur—

Where lives a breed more strong at need to venture or endure?

I have seen the gorge at Erie where the roaring waters run,

I have crossed the Inland Ocean, lying golden in the sun,

But the last and best and sweetest is the ride by hill and dale,

With the packer and the packhorse on the Athabasca Trail.

I’ll dream again of fields of grain that stretch from sky to sky,

And the little prairie hamlets where the cars go roaring by,

Wooden hamlets as I saw them—noble cities still to be

To girdle stately Canada with gems from sea to sea.

Mother of a mighty manhood, land of glamour and of hope,

From the eastward sea-swept islands to the sunny western slope,

Ever more my heart is with you, ever more till life shall fail,

I’ll be out with pack and packer on the Athabasca Trail.