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04 February, 2010

THE PACIFIC IS SIDETRACKED IN AJAX

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I have been following with interest the story in The Toronto Star about The Pacific, a private rail car used by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their historic 1939 cross-country tour of Canada (see photos). Right off the top, I was surprised that the car still existed and was immediately compelled to go digging through a collection of old family photos and news clippings.

The Royal tour of '39 was of particular significance because it was the first time that a reigning monarch had visited Canada. It was so important that Prime Minister MacKenzie King himself accompanied the Royal couple for the duration of the month-long, cross-country trip. The Pacific was one of two vice-regal cars in the 10-car train.  Several decades later a future prime minister, John Diefenbaker, commissioned the car for his whistle-stop cross-Canada election campaign tour in 1957.


The opulent Pullman style car was built in 1924 by CN for wealthy customers and executives.

I was only a tiny tyke back in May of 1939 when my parents took me, wrapped in a blanket, to the train station in Chatham to catch a glimpse of doll-like George and Elizabeth as they waved at a distance of several hundred yards from a special platform that had been installed for them at the rear of the car. I especially remember the excitement of large crowd that had gathered for the Chatham stop that lasted no more than five minutes and the white suit worn by the Queen Mother. I was too young to really understand what was taking place, but I was starting to hear about storybook kings and queens and I knew this was a special occasion. It had a kind of magic about it.

Well, it seems that The Pacific was purchased from CN in 1972 by Paul Higgins, owner of the Mother Parker coffee and tea conglomerate. Higgins kept the car in immaculate condition and used it for personal travel and to entertain guests for a number of years. He died in 2004 and good old Pacific was passed on to his sons, Michael and Paul Jr., who continue to operate the family business and store the private car at one of their plants in Ajax.

The story came to light in The Star's "The Fixer" column in response to several readers who had complained about a bumpy (un)level crossing that exists to allow the historic rail car to be shunted to and from CN Rail tracks. One city bus driver objected to being required to stop at the level crossing "for a train that never comes".  The Higgins are currently negotiating with CN to take measures to repair and level the crossing.

Meantime, I just have to see The Pacific again.  This time up close. My next trip to Toronto, maybe. I'll pretend my folks are with me, and I'll be wrapped in a blanket hoisted on my dad's shoulders. In my mind I will wave to the King and Queen, and they will smile and wave back.
The Pacific as it stands today on a spur line in Ajax.

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