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How Canadians traveled in the 1920s

Buckle your seatbelts, because we’re going on a trip back in time, to the era of Frankie Drake Mysteries, the early 20th century.

Trains, planes and automobiles: the decade of a travel revolution

Frankie Drake Mysteries, S2 E8

Buckle your seatbelts, because we're going on a trip back in time, to the era of Frankie Drake Mysteries: The early 20th century. Here's a look at how Canadians traveled a hundred years ago, without Uber, heated seats, airplane food and sometimes even traffic lights.

Cross-country road trips

In modern day Canada, a road trip is pretty laid back. The roads are paved, and our GPS always has our backs. You can recline your passenger seat, look out the window and take a long nap. 

But a hundred years ago, traveling cross-country by automobile was not so relaxing, and often dangerous. Most people chose to ride horseback or on buggies for longer trips.

Frankie Drake Mysteries, S2 E8

When the first cross-country road trip was attempted in 1912, there were only 16 kilometres of paved road in Canada. The journey from Halifax to B.C. took 52 days, many of them spent driving through Northern Ontario swamps and bumping into railway tracks.

According to a driver's diary, this meant a lot of tire repair, car pushing, and switching to ferries and trains when they hit a dead end in the road. 

The first real road trip across Canada wasn't until 1946, a drive that took nine days from Louisbourg, Cape Breton, to Victoria, B.C.. This was four years before the Trans-Canada Highway was built, which most travelers use today for our long trips across the country. Now, this trip can take only four or five days.

Lunching on roadside. May 1927, Locust Hill, Ont. (vicinity) (Credit: John Boyd / Library and Archives Canada / RD-000113)

In the early 1920s, only the rich could travel great distances. Second-hand cars cost around $400 In the mid-'20s, which is $5,300 in today's money; Plus there were no paid vacations! 

The Ferguson Highway, 1929. Toronto Public Library Archives
"Across Canada" 1925. (Toronto Public Library Archives)

Yet, as cars became cheaper, they became more popular, and more than a million were on the roads by the end of the decade.

Governments tripled their investments to improve roads; The first traffic lights went into operation in Canada in 1925 in Hamilton and Toronto.

Gas stations, motels, and diners popped up as automobile travel boomed.

Horseback riding became a popular travel excursion, rather than only a means of travel. Bungalow camps were established throughout the mountains and in northern Ontario, with rates of $5 per day or $30 per week.

Luxury train rides

Passenger train travel grew in the 1920s, and the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway introduced new routes and services, such as radio, on its trains. 

By 1925, the CPR had 13 hotels in Canada, and by 1927, had constructed over 100 miles of trails along which guests could stop at various Tea Houses for rest and refreshments. 

Interior of dining car Canadian Northern Ry. 1920 (Merrilees, Andrew. Library and Archives Canada )
The railways "reached famous historic spots, wonderful vacation and sporting resorts, and some of the most magnificent scenery in the world," according to a CPR guide from 1925.
Across Canada: an annotated guide to the country served by the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1925. (Canadian Pacific Railway Company/Toronto Public Library Archives)

 

Across Canada: an annotated guide to the country served by the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1925. (Canadian Pacific Railway Company/Toronto Public Library Archives)

The growth in early 20th century passenger travel ended with the Great Depression, and the rise of automobiles, but you can still get a taste of 1920s luxury today. A Canadian Pacific rail car built in 1929 has been brought back into service as a luxury dining car at Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary.

All aboard for a luxury dining experience at Heritage Park.

7 years ago
Duration 1:41
The first load of modern-day passengers boarded an elegant 1920s dining car at Heritage Park. The recently restored "River Forth" will let visitors experience the golden era of luxury rail travel while enjoying a historically inspired menu . 1:41

Maps of the 1920s

If you were driving or taking a train in the 1920s, you would rely on paper maps to navigate your routes, but they were also your best bet for finding your travel suggestions.

 

Fishing guide and road map, 1928 (Toronto Public Library Archives)

Maps included a helpful list of fishing spots, "approved" hotels, restaurants, and auto repair stations. 

Map of Canadian Pacific Railway and its competitors

Travel overseas

If you think flights are expensive now, they were definitely out of reach for most Canadians in the early 1920s. 

The first commercial passenger flight took place in 1920, when two Manitoba bush pilots flew a fur buyer from Winnipeg to Le Pas. 

Since then, air travel expanded rapidly, and workers and supplies were flown to the newly discovered oil fields in the North Western Territories.

Auburn motor car with Travel Air 6000 aircraft CF-ABE at De Lesseps Aerodrome. 1929. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-053445)

However, air travel remained unpopular to most Canadians in the 1920s because they didn't trust the contraptions built from wood and canvas enough to fly in them. While today's commercial airplanes fly an average of 460-575 mph, a 1927 model could fly only 105 mph. 

While we take cruises for the luxury leisure travel with our families, ocean liners in the 1920s were the only way to travel from North America to Europe. 

Watch Frankie Drake Mysteries on CBC Gem.

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