CPR’s archives boasts 800,000 photos

 By Mike Smith

While on the hunt for photographs taken by Goderich, Ontario’s Reuben Sallows (1855-1937), the hero of my latest postcard handbook, I came across an amazing fact about the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) archives in Montreal. According to one of the books on Canadian photography I flipped through at the Goderich library, the CPR archives contain over 800,000 photos. It seems that this venerable company not only kept a photographic record of its railway construction up until Donald Smith drove the ceremonial last spike in 1885, it also commissioned thousands of photographs in subsequent decades to use in travel, tourism and immigration advertising.

With its continent-wide railway, fleets of vessels on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and great hotels such as the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Banff Springs Hotel in the Rockies and, later, the Royal York in Toronto, the CPR positioned itself as one of the world’s largest travel and tourism companies. And in order to create a steady stream of posters, pamphlets and postcards to lure customers, it employed some of the best photographers, artists and graphic designers in Canada.

One of the CPR’s go-to photographers was the aforementioned Reuben Sallows. This stellar photographer was frequently hired by the CPR to take photos of Northern Ontario and Quebec tourist (hunting and fishing) areas as well as Prairie farms. Some of the resultant postcards are shown as Figures 1 and 2. Note that CPR Prairie farm postcards were used to entice homesteaders (who would need a train ticket of course) so you will never find one showing a brutal Prairie winter.

Although the view cards published by the railway are very collectible, the crème de la crème for collectors are the cards of early CPR steamships and those made from some of the classic travel posters. One of the nicest of the early steamship postcards I’ve ever seen was in the collection of the late Wayne Curtis of Oakville. The card has an image of the Empress of Britain (see Figure 3) and entices passengers to “Go as your letters go, and travel in safety and comfort by the Canadian Pacific Railway Co.’s Royal Mail S.S. Lines Atlantic service.” In other words, you can cross the Atlantic with your mail, but in style.

For the record, according to Wikipedia, the company operated 32 different passenger ships from 1887 until 1971, when it shifted focus to container ships. The first ship in service was the SS Abyssinia (Vancouver to Australia route), and the last was the RMS Empress of Canada (transatlantic and Caribbean routes). Although I’d like to think there is a postcard collection out there with every ship in Canadian Pacific’s passenger fleet, it’s unlikely as the SS Abyssinia was out of service four years before advent of the private postcard in 1895. If one wanted to create a “connoisseur category” for CPR postcards, it would definitely apply to those made from the company’s iconic travel posters. I rarely see any of these cards for less than $25 at postcard shows and some of the Art Deco types from the 1920s can sell for a $100+ each (yikes!). The only example I have in my collection is one purchased quite recently because of its very patriotic caption (see Figure 4). In fact, since every one of the CPR poster-type cards I have ever come across has a terrific pro-Canada caption and/or scene, I created a special page for them in my latest patriotic postcard handbook.

Incidentally, the Figure 4 postcard shows locomotive CP2301 which, according to the Internet, was one of the engines used to haul the Royal Train during the Prince of Wales’ (future King Edward VIII) Royal Visit in 1919. The things one learns in this wonderful hobby.

Finally, there are two great postcard shows just around the corner. The Toronto Postcard Club’s 36th Annual Show will be held February 26 and the Post Card Memories Show & Sale, hosted by the Kitchener Waterloo Cambridge Regional Post Card Club, will be held March 19 (check the Wayback Times for details).

For book lovers, the Reuben Sallows Picture Postcard Handbook 1900–1925 will be launched at the Toronto Show, and Father Bauer and the Great Experiment: The Genesis of Canadian Olympic Hockey will be launched at the Post Card Memories Show. As usual, I’ll have a table at both events so please come over for a gab.


Figure 1:
Successful hunters with their moose head are shown in this postcard from Quebec’s Kipawa District. “On Line of C.P.R.” is included in the caption.
Figure 2
Another “On Line of C.P.R.” postcard, this one showing a bountiful Prairie harvest.
Figure 3
A beautiful, multi-coloured postcard of the RMS Empress of Britain with a message enticing passengers to travel with their mail across the Atlantic.
Figure 4
A CPR poster-type card touting Canadian Pacific as “The Empire’s Greatest Railway.”

Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of ’77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Previous titles can be found at MikeSmithBooks.ca