Planes, trains and the yacht Britannia: The 1959 royal visit

The 45-day visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1959 stopped in all 10 Canadian provinces and two territories, plus Chicago.

Opening of St. Lawrence Seaway was just one stop in 45-day tour that included Chicago

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip chat informally with workers at the bottom of the 91-metre open-pit Gagnon iron mine at Schefferville, Que., in the Ungava region, during their visit on June 21, 1959. (Mike Milne/The Canadian Press)

When Queen Elizabeth visited Canada with her husband, Prince Philip, in 1959, CBC was there to cover it every stop of the way, from their landing in Torbay, N.L., to their departure six weeks later. 

And when the CBC's Joyce Davidson, a host of the evening current affairs program Tabloid, suggested such heavy coverage might have exceeded the public appetite, the network suspended her. 

"Like most Canadians, I'm indifferent to the visit of the Queen," Davidson had told an NBC morning show the day the royal couple arrived, according to the Toronto Star.

The comment became front-page news and Davidson was temporarily kicked off Tabloid

'A little annoyed'

CBC host Joyce Davidson is seen in a 1956 publicity photo for the CBC program Tabloid. (CBC still photo collection)

Davidson had been in New York that week as a guest on Today with host Dave Garroway. He seemed "surprised" by the comment, and Davidson elaborated.

"We're a little annoyed at still being dependent," she said.

Lyle Brown, director of information for the CBC, said management did not share Davidson's view.

"If we were uninterested, needless to say, we would not be expending such efforts to cover the royal visit fully," he said, and cited a viewership of five million for live coverage of a speech by the Queen in Canada in 1957.

A first for Newfoundland

The tour starts in Torbay, N.L.

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip arrive to start a lengthy tour of Canada in Newfoundland.

It was a "beautiful summer day" when the Queen's plane landed at the Canadian air base in Torbay, N.L., said host Bill Herbert on the first event of the tour to be carried on live television.

"It is the first live telecast ever from Newfoundland," said Herbert.

The technological development that was made possible by the completion of the east-west microwave network.

Gov. Gen.Vincent Massey was first to greet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after they descended the stairs from the aircraft. 

Lengthy itinerary

Queen Elizabeth steps off the train at a whistle stop in the Prairies as Prince Philip prepares to follow. (Film library/CBC Archives)

According to  a detailed tour itinerary in the Globe and Mail published in January 1959, shortly after the tour was announced, the pair spent time in St. John's and Corner Brook, N.L., before moving on to Sept-Îles, Que. to board the royal yacht Britannia.

Along the way, they travelled to Schefferville in northern Quebec for a tour of what was reported by the CBC to be the province's northernmost mine.

Film taken by CBC of much of the 1959 royal tour survives, but much of it is silent.

Crowds at namesake hotel

A ball in Montreal

2 years ago
Duration 1:52
At the grand hotel named for her, Queen Elizabeth attends a ball in Montreal and talks with Cardinal Leger.

After getting on the Britannia, the Queen and Prince Philip travelled down the St. Lawrence River, stopping along the way and reaching Montreal on June 25, 1959. 

The night, they attended a ball at the city's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which had been built by the Canadian National Railway and opened the year before.

"During the dinner ... Her Majesty was seated beside His Eminence Cardinal Léger," said Herbert as the CBC camera was fixed on the tiara-wearing Queen. "They carried on a very animated conversation during almost the entire meal." 

The room was crowded with guests, many of whom were massed directly in front of the head table to get a prolonged look at Elizabeth.

"Now they are motioning the crowd to get back a bit more," said Herbert after going into considerable detail about the 14-room royal suite. "As soon as the crowd gets back ... the orchestra will begin playing."

Tribute to a president

A speech at the seaway

2 years ago
Duration 4:00
The Queen speaks before the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president before boarding the Britannia for a ride down the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway.

The next day, June 26, the Queen officially inaugurated the "great joint enterprise between our two countries" that was the St. Lawrence Seaway and welcomed U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to Canada.

"The president of the United States will always be welcome here. But today there is an added pleasure and special warmth in our greeting," she said.

The speech went on to recognize Eisenhower's role in the Second World War as "one of the great military leaders who brought the free world through the most severe crisis of modern times." 

Following the speech, the royal couple were shown boarding the Britannia along with Eisenhower, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and their wives for a voyage on the Seaway.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower smiles on June 26,1959, as he speaks at a ceremony marking the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway at St. Lambert, Que. (The Associated Press)

Following Ontario stops in Brockville, Kingston and Toronto, next on the itinerary was Ottawa for Dominion Day on July 1, where Elizabeth addressed the country outside Rideau Hall.

Two days later, after more Ontario towns, the royal couple boarded the Britannia again in Windsor and took a route through the Great Lakes north to Parry Sound, Ont.

A day off

A trip on the Great Lakes

2 years ago
Duration 1:32
The Queen and Prince Phillip get their first day off of the 1959 royal tour.

On July 5, 1959, the CBC news program Newsmagazine brought viewers the day's headlines, wrapping up by recapping the royals' movements.

"The Queen and Prince Philip are aboard the Chicago-bound royal yacht," said an unnamed newsreader. "Today was their first full day of rest since the tour began 16 days and some 2,000 handshakes ago."

Chicago, meanwhile, was planning "the loudest and most glittering welcome Chicagoans have ever given to any visitor."

The program showed viewers pictures of the royal couple in Parry Sound on July 4, which was part of a "hurried Muskoka tour" where they received a "warm" and "informal" welcome from vacationers, according to the newsreader.

The visitors had shaken a mayor's hand for "the sixth time in six hours," remarked the newsreader in voiceover.

"It was a tired Queen that bade goodbye to Eastern Canada," said the newsreader. 

Fanfare greets Queen Elizabeth on July 6, 1959, at the entrance to Chicago's International Trade Fair. (The Associated Press)

By that point, the tour wasn't even half over. The Queen and Prince Philip would go on to take in the Calgary Stampede and visit all seven remaining provinces plus both territories, leaving from Halifax by air on Aug. 1.

A special royal tour issue of the Globe and Mail published three days later sold out.

Six days after their return to London, the Queen and Prince Philip announced they were expecting their third child. The Queen had learned she was pregnant with Prince Andrew during the visit. Diefenbaker was told, but not the public.

Wearing a miner's helmet and a plastic raincoat and holding a flashlight, Queen Elizabeth leaves the Frood nickel mine at Sudbury, Ont., on July 26, 1959. With her is mine manager E.N. Gaetz. (The Canadian Press)