Lady Macdonald’s Ride

 © David Watts 29/11/02 Canmore

In eighteen hundred eighty-six the Macdonalds came to see

The Pacific province Sir John had served as a far-away MP

A special train on the C.P.R. was now the way to go

But when they reached the mountains Lady Agnes stole the show


From Calgary she rode the cab to get a better view

And whistled for the crossings–Sir John was not amused

She thought the headend crew had the best view one could get

But after a while discovered another, even better yet


Agnes rode the pilot, Sir John his private car

She had her mountains closeup, he had his lounge and bar

The PM joined her for a bit, then went back inside

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.


Laggan’s Superintendent invited Agnes down

To inspect the special mountain engine soon to couple on

She saw the shiny buffer beam below the headlight clear

Her eyes lit up and then she said “I want to ride up here.”


The Super was distressed and asked “Where do you think you’d sit?”

She saw a candle box at hand and said “That ought to fit.”

She scrambled up the pilot: “This is the spot for me

And I shall ride the buffer beam from the summit to the sea.”


Agnes rode the pilot, SIr John the rear end lounge

Where he could read his magazines with his blanket wrapped around

The Superintendent held his breath as he rode up front beside

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.


The Super stalled for time: “If you really want to, then

Don’t you think you’d better ask your husband down at the other end?”

The PM mumbled in his book: “I didn’t hear a No”

Said Agnes, settling on her perch, “Now we’re set to go.”


With a throb and snort the mountain engine started down the line

While the folks of Laggan stood and shaded their eyes in the hot sunshine

Someone in the crowd said right out loud “It’s an awful thing to do!”

And the fear she felt soon disappeared in the face of the mountain view.


From Laggan to Wapta, down the Kicking Horse to Field

She had the thrill of the Big Hill between the bands of steel

Through tunnels, over gorges along the mountain side

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.


Two Brits with rifles walked the line returning from a hunt

When a train shot out of a tunnel with a lady on the front

The tunnel was a wet one, with seepage through the roof

A dripping umbrella in her hand, she gave a small salute.


A mule driver crossing the line by a station chanced to see

The lady on the cowcatcher with flowers, scones and tea:

You ain’t afraid?” “Why no” she said, “Then I take off my hat:

I’ve taken lots of jobs, but you couldn’t pay me to do that!”


Agnes rode the buffer beam, Sir John the tail end

Where he could see the train ahead snaking round the bend

Above the boiling Hell’s Gate on Fraser Canyon’s side

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.


One night a flagman waved his lamp: the train stopped just in time

To miss a slide of gravel that had covered up the line

If that fellow hadn’t been there” intoned the engineer

My locomotive and you, my Lady, would have ended up right here.”


The engineer came round again and begged her to move back

With report of a forest fire burning ahead along the track

A delightful opportunity” she said, “for something new”

Pulled down her hat and huddled up as the train went rushing through.


Agnes rode the buffer beam, Sir John the tail end

Where he could contemplate his mate going round the bend

To the Pacific overland from the Great Divide

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.


From her home back east in Ottawa, the lady travelled far

She’d seen the Rockies white in the morning, black among the stars

She seen the mountain cataracts so close she felt the spray

And best of all, she’d seen it all closeup, in her own way.


Where voyageurs portaged the streams, canoes upon their backs

The lady of our first PM set out along the track

No thought of liability, who’d pay or who might sue

In Canada we took the risk and saw the journey through


Agnes rode the headend points, Sir John brought up the rear

In his padded chaise, books nearby and bottle of good cheer

Down the Thompson and the Fraser until they reached the tide

The special through the Rockies: Lady Macdonald’s ride.

Notes on “Lady MacDonald’s Ride”

I’m aware of two other songs on this story, and suspect there are more. Mine was inspired by a pickup at a used book sale: Edgar A. Collard Canadian Yesterdays, Longmans Canada Limited 1955. Chapter I was entitled “The Lady on the Cowcatcher.” The seven episodes in the song, from Agnes’ whistling for crossings west of Calgary to remaining on the front for the forest fire, are all taken from Collard’s book. Much of the language is directly taken from Collard too, such as the concluding verse “She’d seen the Rockies white in the morning, black among the stars”. My job in many places was simply one of adding rhyme and stardardizing the metre.

Riding the cowcatcher may not have been as unique as it might appear. There are a number of vintage photos of men and women on the front ends of locomotives. These were taken in stations and may have been specially posed—an early sort of I-was-there postcard—so it’s hard to say if many people pictured actually rode there. Did Lady Macdonald’s ride start something? To know that, we’d have to know how widely it was reported and if the C.P.R. took any subsequent steps to close the possibility to other would be riders. Train speeds in the mountains were low then: no more than 15 miles per hour (27 kph). On the high risk Big Hill, the speed was 4-5 mph/9 kph.

I’ve not used the word “cowcatcher” in the song for two reasons: First, it does not fit well in the rhythm of the song. The three syllables would fit a compound (6/8) pattern but in the common (4/4) time here, the last syllable gets more emphasis than would be in speaking: COW-catch-er.

Second and more important though, it was NOT the actual cowcatcher she rode. That wedge of iron bars is too steeply sloping to sit on without sliding off. When there are running boards at the base of the pilot (the proper name for cowcatcher), one could stand on them and lean against the pilot proper. But that is not what she did.

The candle box on which Lady Macdonald sat was placed on the buffer beam, the structure across the front of the locomotive to which the cowcatcher is attached. This offers much more space, is absolutely flat, and has the added security that one can place their back against the smokebox (the front of the boiler). On most locomotives there were steps up from the buffer beam to the running boards along the boiler sides so the engineer and fireman could walk all around the outside of the boiler without having to step down to the ground.

Most “road engines” on North American railways still have a pilot, usually now made of plate metal rather than bars or tubes. This is to clear the track of any objects that might otherwise go underneath. This was a New World innovation, because railways often ran on the open prairie and were not fenced—hence the name “cowcatcher”. In Europe most major rail right of ways are separated from the surrounding land by grades, walls, high fences or a combination of these.

North American “yard engines” or switchers often do not have a pilot/cowcatcher, is for three reasons: (a) They have a short wheelbase with little beyond the end driving wheels, to allow maximum maneurability on tight curves in yards and terminals. (b) They operate at low speeds with ample time to stop if there is something on the track. (c) Rail yards are generally fenced off.There is no evidence of Sir John’s was drinking on this trip.That habit seems to relate more to the stresses back east. The references here are simply pandering to popular mythology.