On June 11, 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife travelled via the Grand Trunk Pacific railway to the town of Jasper within Alberta’s Jasper National Park. Of the place, the author later wrote:
“Jasper Park is one of the great national playgrounds and health resorts which the Canadian Government with great wisdom has laid out for the benefit of the citizens. When Canada has filled up and carries a large population, she will bless the foresight of the administrators who took possession of broad tracts of the most picturesque land and put them forever out of the power of the speculative dealer.”
This statement proved to be pure gold for government travel marketers! During Conan Doyle’s visit, the commissioner for Canada’s national parks, J.B. Harkin, created his own promotional campaign for national parks, releasing the booklet entitled “Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather.”
The Jasper Park trip lasted eight days. Conan Doyle was the guest of an old friend, Colonel Rogers, who was the park’s superintendent. The author noted: “For a week we lived the life of simplicity and nature.”
The veranda of the Administration Building in Jasper Park, Alberta, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587685)
Conan Doyle wrote of his experience in the town of Jasper as follows: “Life in Jasper interested me as an experience of the first stage of a raw Canadian town. It will certainly grow into a considerable place, but at that time, bar Colonel Rogers’ house and the station, there were only log-huts and small wooden dwellings.” He and his wife visited many now-famous locations, such as Pyramid Lake, Lake Edith, and the Maligne River and Canyon.
A couple with a horse at Pyramid Lake, Alberta, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587697)
The Conan Doyle party crossing the Athabasca River in Alberta (MIKAN 3303264)
A special train was organized to take Conan Doyle, his wife, and friends to visit the area near Mount Robson. The mountain, located just over the Alberta border in British Columbia, is one of the highest and most iconic mountains in the Canadian Rockies. William Topley, the celebrated Ottawa photographer, dutifully took these photos.
The train near Lucerne, British Columbia, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587749)
A man walking along the railway tracks, with a view of Mount Robson in the background, by William Topley, 1914 (MIKAN 3587770)
Today, a century later, the landscape looks much the same. Mount Robson is notoriously difficult to photograph without clouds obscuring its peak, so Topley was extremely lucky to get such clear shots. After this excursion, Conan Doyle would survey the layout for the first golf course in Jasper (as noted in the 1914 edition of “Golf Illustrated”) and take part in a baseball game between teams from the towns of Jasper and Edson, making sure to pitch the first ball! Although Topley missed capturing the moment, another local photographer was lucky enough to get this shot.
Conan Doyle’s Return Journey East
We do not have any images of the return trip back East, perhaps because the point of the expedition was to promote the Canadian West and its newly minted national park. We do know that the couple left Jasper on June 19 and that the return journey meandered through Winnipeg, along the north shore of Lake Superior, through Algonquin Park, down to Niagara Falls, and finally back to Ottawa for Dominion Day (Canada Day). They headed back to England on July 4. The visit resonated deeply with them as they would take their children to Jasper Park in the 1920s.
The First World War would begin one month later, giving Conan Doyle’s daydream poem The Athabasca Trail an even greater poignancy.
In the last article in this Blog series, we will take a closer look at the photo album associated with Conan Doyle’s trip, and explore some of the mysteries surrounding the images it contains. Why, for example, are there photos of places in British Columbia that Conan Doyle never visited?