Finding a Life
First published in the Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2021
On a stretch of empty road 200 miles north west of Winnipeg, I stared at a green, north-American road sign. Tangible proof – more real than a copperplate scrawl in an old letter, a mark on a map, even my dad saying, ‘He went to a place called Swan River.’
It was still 100 miles away, signposted because there was little else this far north in Manitoba. The land was flat: the scruffy gold of dry grass, with patches of deep green, the screaming yellow of oil-seed rape, and a few old telegraph poles.
I drove on, tapping the steering wheel. This was it! Swan River – here I come! After all this time.
I thought of my father, dead for nearly 30 years. I was on the trail of – perhaps even honouring – his father. My father had been ten when he last saw him, in 1902, walking out of his home in Dalston carrying two suitcases. ‘I’ll see you before long,’ he’d said. But he didn’t – not before long; not ever.
Tom Reynolds lived as a vagrant on the streets of London for four years until two good people stumped up £2 each to pay his passage from Liverpool to Winnipeg, where men were needed to build a railroad. The Canadians didn’t care if a man was an alcoholic, had been sacked for stealing, had been barred from the family home by his in-laws after years of chaos and violence.
Gold filled the horizon as I drove along Main Street thrilled to be, at last, in this remote place. Were any of these low, flat-roofed buildings there back then? An old wooden grain elevator, five storeys tall, stood beside a railway line. Did he lay the track?
He had given his address as Durban, Swan River, Manitoba. He had walked 20 miles on a warm day in August 1906, and found a job on the railroad. ‘The life I am leading is awfully rough,’ he wrote, ‘but the grub I get is, and has been, good and in quantity.’ On the streets of London he had been close to starvation.
Next day, at the Swan Valley Museum, I spoke to a woman called Ann. She opened drawers of old photographs and lent me a magnifying glass, and I sifted through, searching for a man who resembled Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata. Long ago, in the dark of a cinema, my father had whispered, ‘My father looked like him – huge moustache.’
I found a picture of four men standing on a railway track; one had a dark, droopy moustache. Was that him? He had a hand in his pocket and a watch chain across his waistcoat. Ann made me a photocopy.
Ann said I should meet Stuart Harris, the author of a history of Durban. Tall and tanned, he invited me into his comfortable home, introduced me to his wife and led me to his basement den. We talked and drank cold Molson lager. But he didn’t know of my grandfather – and he was puzzled that he had said he was working on the railroad in 1906: the line to Durban and beyond was finished in 1905.
Did I have any other names? Was anyone mentioned in the letters?
‘Someone called R.W. Glennie wrote to the family in London in 1910 to say that my grandfather had died,’ I said.
‘Have you got that letter? Can I see it?’
I handed him two sheets of paper. He read the first, glanced at the second, gently slapped his knee, looked up and yelled, ‘Bob Glennie! Well, I’m damned!’
‘You’ve heard of him?’
He looked at me in wonderment. ‘I knew Glennie. He was my neighbour for 30 years. He moved to BC in 1945.’
Stuart, it turned out, was 84; he had been born in Durban in 1914. The letter from Glennie, he said, told him a lot about my grandfather. ‘If he was a drinking man in London, he’d have gone on drinking here. It was sort of illegal, but a bunch of them met most evenings at the back of Honsinger’s Livery Stable. Glennie would have been there.’
Durban took off, he said, when the railroad arrived in 1905, with hotels, banks, shops, cafés, a church, a school, a grain elevator and a railway station; a train and streams of wagons pulled by teams of horses arrived every day. About 400 people lived in the town which served the surrounding farms and homesteads. Like the homes of the many ‘bachelors’, my grandfather’s ‘would have been about 18 foot by 12, with a stove, a washstand, probably a plank on apple boxes, a board bed with a straw mattress, nails for his clothes, bare boards on the floor’.
Next day I visited The Swan River Star and Times on Main Street, and pored over weekly back numbers from 1906 to 1910, including reports from the Durban correspondent.
For two years there was nothing. Then, on 20 August 1908: ‘Mr Thomas Reynolds is about to open his boot-making establishment.’ Two weeks later equipment was installed and my grandfather was ‘ably assisted by Mr Frank White’. Later still: ‘The boot and shoe factory is working overtime.’
That was all. I made photocopies and took them to Stuart.
‘Frank White! I knew him well. A good man. He wouldn’t have helped your grandfather if they hadn’t been friends.’
I visited Durban and found no shops, banks or hotels – just ten or so inhabited houses, and about the same number of dilapidated, abandoned ones: the makings of a ghost town.
Later, I stood on a bridge on a dirt road and gazed at the dome of the sky and the wooded mountains to the north and south. Tom had said the valley was ‘beautiful’, and his life ‘not all too bad’. He was right. The space and light, and the wild beauty of the mountains, were exhilarating – as too, I was realising, was the discovery that he had friends and had found a form of contentment.
I drove up into the mountains, stopped by a lake surrounded by pines and watched a pair of loons splash down on the still water. I knew that all this was the beginning of a new understanding, not just of him, but of my father and myself.
As I packed my bag, the phone rang. A voice said: ‘You still there?’
‘Yes. Who’s that?’
‘Harris. Stuart Harris. Thought we might meet and talk.’
We had coffee in the breakfast room. ‘About your grandfather working on the railroad in 1906,’ Stuart said. ‘I remembered: when Frank White first came to Durban, he was employed to fence the railway line. The whole line, Swan River through Durban to Benito, a four-wire fence on both sides of the line – to keep animals, and people, off the track. It was a heck of a job. Four men did it, from summer 1906, through freeze up, and on into 1907. Frank was the foreman.’
He raised his finger. ‘Your grandfather said he was working on the railroad in 1906. He was. Fencing it.’ He paused. ‘And he said he lived for a time with his foreman who was building a house. He did. Frank built a house at that time, on First Avenue South. He lived there till he died.’ Stuart sat back and smiled. ‘And when your grandfather went into the boot and shoe business, who helped him set up the machinery? Frank White.’ He slapped his hand softly on the table. ‘Adds up, doesn’t it?
‘Frank White was a popular man, always making jokes,’ Stuart said. ‘And, another thing, Frank was escaping from some kind of unhappy marriage. Maybe that drew them together.’
On the road back to Winnipeg, I passed a sign – a moose on a yellow diamond – and was reminded that my grandfather built a fence – a necessary fence. And found a new life.