Trailblazers: a road trip in the summer of ’54

Four women, one Plymouth station wagon, five provinces, and four states in 38 days…

On July 31, 1954, freelance photographer Rosemary Gilliat and her girlfriends, Anna Brown, Audrey James and Helen Salkeld, left Ottawa, Ontario, for what would be an adventure of a lifetime—a road trip on the Trans-Canada Highway. Their final destination was Vancouver, British Columbia, and after a little more than a month of driving, the women covered over 12,000 kilometres before their return to Ottawa on September 6.

A black-and-white photograph of four women posing around a station wagon packed for a road trip.

Day One – July 31. Left to right: Helen Salkeld, Audrey James, Anna Brown and Rosemary Gilliat getting ready to leave Ottawa, Ontario, for their Trans-Canada Highway trip (MIKAN 4306200)

Until the mid-twentieth century, the only way to travel and really ‘see’ Canada was by train. Following the Second World War, thousands of new immigrants from across the globe immigrated to Canada. This increase in population was coupled by a huge growth in the automobile industry. During the post-war years, and with Parliament passing the Trans-Canada Highway Act in 1949, construction had begun to link Canada’s major cities with paved roads.

By the summer of 1954, work on the Trans-Canada Highway going west from Ottawa had started, but many stretches were still under construction, and in some areas work had not even begun. Rosemary described the road conditions near Cochrane, Ontario as “dirt and rutted and huge bumps which could easily break a spring.” At the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan “the average road turned into a downright bad road, dried mud, stones lying on the road, dips & holes.” Further west, just past Kicking Horse Pass, British Columbia, the conditions became even more treacherous. Rosemary wrote:

“We soon came to bits of road under construction—engineers have been working at it already for two years. They have to blast out the side of the mountain—most of it above the C.P. Railway. We marvelled once more at the building of the railway through this impossible territory. The road was often just a rocky lane with towering rock walls above and jumbled masses of blasted rock below—other places were mud, with streams & pools of water on the road & one got the feeling that the whole lot might easily slip into the canyon hundreds of feet below.”

A black-and-white photograph of a public bus travelling on a gravel road and passing a construction crew working in the background. The area is mountainous.

Day 18 – August 17. The daily Calgary bus passes through a blasting area in Kicking Horse Canyon, British Columbia. Travel is between hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. only on this stretch (MIKAN 4359684)

In spite of the many challenging stretches of highway, the windshield of Helen’s Plymouth only suffered a few cracks from flying rocks and remained intact until the women returned to Ottawa, when it was replaced.

Rosemary and her friends were not what you would call stereotypical women, or even conventional tourists, for their era. While there were some amenities available along the Trans-Canada Highway in 1954, such as motels and public camping grounds, the women preferred to have lunch and camp in wooded and secluded areas off the beaten path. As Rosemary put it, “one wonders at all the days of the year one spends in bed—when it is so perfect camping—every morning and every evening being a revelation.”

A black-and-white photograph of two women putting up two tents in a meadow with long grass surrounded by trees.

Day 4 – August 3. Anna Brown and Helen Salkeld pitching their tents, English River, Ontario (MIKAN 4306206)

Rosemary and her friends were seeking an “authentic” wilderness experience and were not discouraged by insects, rain or possible encounters with wildlife. Midway through their trip, Rosemary observed: “What always strikes me as odd is this business of people motoring 1000’s of miles into the wildest country in order to have all the luxuries they have at home in a different setting.”

A black-and-white photograph of three women in a wooded area preparing dinner in the rain.

Day 20 – August 19. Making dinner in the rain, near Yale, British Columbia (MIKAN 4306339)

Packed to the max, Helen’s station wagon was loaded with all of their camping supplies and utensils. Among their equipment was a Coleman stove and two water bottles, but no cooler or ice for perishable food. So part of their daily routine included picking up groceries and finding drinking water while getting gas for the car. This was not a luxury vacation!

A colour photograph of two women in a grassy area with mountains in the distance—one is reading reclined on a picnic blanket and the other is kneeling at a camp stove located behind a station wagon.

Day 20 – August 19. Helen Salkeld and Audrey James relaxing after lunch near Cache Creek, British Columbia (MIKAN 4323864)

Their travels took them through remote forests and small towns of north and northwestern Ontario, endless kilometres of the golden prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the foothills and Rocky Mountains of Alberta, and along the rushing glacial rivers of British Columbia to Canada’s beautiful pacific coast. Rosemary recorded their fantastic adventures, taking hundreds of photographs and keeping a detailed travel diary that describes the people they met and things they experienced along the way, including friendly farmers, charismatic cowboys, and murderous mosquitoes.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in silhouette taking a photograph while standing on the hood of a station wagon parked on the side of the road in the prairies.

Day 9 – August 8. Audrey James standing on the hood of Helen Salkeld’s station wagon taking a photograph of the prairies, southern Saskatchewan (MIKAN 4814411)

On July 31, 2015, Library and Archives Canada launched Road trip—summer of ’54 on Facebook, which features a selection of Rosemary Gilliat’s photos and diary excerpts. Visit Facebook daily to see where she and her friends travelled and who they met along their journey. At the end of each week, these photographs will be added to Flickr.