Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.

Liverpool to the Canadian North West 1887

Kevin van Koughnett


Colonist sleeping car photographed by J. Bruce, ca. 1885-1890. (Copied from Canadian Pacific Archives (NS12968), accessed June 11, 2014)

What are the odds of finding a diary of a fellow traveller of my great grandfather and his family to Canada’s North West by ship and train in 1887? Despite the low odds, I discovered this wonderful surprise in the Glenbow Archives.  The diary documents the same voyage from Liverpool to Halifax and then by train to Winnipeg as my ancestors made.

The diary-writer isa 33-year old stonemason Joseph Edward Eckersley from Lancashire, England,who crossed the Atlantic in April 1887 on the S.S. Sardinian of the Allan Shipping Line. [1] Through his eyes and words I now know day-by-day what that trip was like for my great grandfather and family.

Joseph Eckersley ended his trip at Dunmore, Alberta which is near Medicine Hat, whereas my great grandfather Valentin Lowenberg and family (himself, wife Katharina and eight children) from Josefsberg, Galicia went to Grenfell, Saskatchewan which is about 125 km east of Regina.

The diary begins on Thursday April 14, 1887 with the simple notation:  “went aboard at 8-30 AM and left the dock at 3-15 PM the same day.There are about 1000 passengers on board.”[2] Joseph Eckersley must have been keen because his name is the first on the passenger list and the names are recorded in sequence as people boarded.[3] My great grandfather and family are on page 11 of a total 17 pages.Eckersley wasn’t far wrong in his estimate; the actual total was 872 passengers.The passenger list summary is interesting as shown in the table below.The vast majority of passengers were from the United Kingdom with the waves of European passengers going to the west just beginning.

Table compiled by author from information obtained from "Passenger Lists, 1865-1922, Library and Archives Canada: Sardinian, Liverpool to Halifax, April 14 to 24, 1887." (View table, accessed June 11, 2014)


First two pages of the travel diary kept by Joseph Edward Eckersley, 1887. (Glenbow Archives M-8157-v.1)

Joseph Eckersley would be noted included as part of the English passengers whereas Valentin Lowenberg and family would be part of the Foreign passengers.English, Scotch and Irish accounted for 63% of the passengers while Foreigners accounted for 37%.

They landed in Halifax on Sunday April 24, 1887 at 2 PM after a ten-day voyage.He describes everything from rough weather and seasickness to grand days and heavy fog travelling slowly or at standstill among icebergs off Canada’s east coast.

He describes a poignant moment half-way through the journey.“We have had a death on board the ship of a German child. Today we had the funeral. The funeral service was read by one of the officers and as soon as he came to the words ashes to ashes the child was thrown overboard in a canvas bag. It is the first time I have seen anything of the sort and I hope it will be the last.”[4] Joseph Eckersley had left his wife Martha and son Albert, then age five, in England and you can sense he must have been thinking of Albert.His family was to join him in Canada in 1889.


Valentin Lowenberg and family, Grenfell area, Saskatchewan, ca. 1900. L-R, front row: Valentin, Elizabeth, Katharina, George. L-R, back row: Caroline, Mary. (Copied from Grit and Growth, the story of Grenfell by Annie I. Yule, 1980, pp 43-44. Accessed June 11, 2014)

The train left Halifax at 9:30 PM the same day the ship arrived. It would take five days to get to Winnipeg, the Eckersley’s initial destination in Canada.In comparison to his entries while on shipboard, he is voluminous during the rail portion of the trip.
He comments on the sleeping cars.“They are a clever invention. They are constructed to carry 56 passengers. The arrangements for sleeping are contrived by sliding seats. There is a water closet & Stove at each end of the car together with washing stand & bowl. The stove is useful for cooking your food as well as for heating the place.”[5] See the photograph below of a CPR sleeping car. One does wonder if his enthusiasm for the sleeping car was the same five days later.

In describing the route along Lake Superior he marvels at the wonders of building a railway through the Canadian Shield.“The railway is cut out of a solid mass of granite rock. The railway is something like about 50 or 60 feet above the water and on the other hand there is a mountain of granite in some cases 200 ft high quite perpendicular. The railway in this part is of a circular nature having to run round the edge of the rocks for miles.”[6]


Immigration pamphlet produced by the Allan Steamship Company: "Read this Pamphlet on Manitoba, the North-West Territory and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec," Liverpool, 1883. (Glenbow Library 971.2 A418c pam)

On reaching Winnipeg the realities of his situation become apparent.“Winnipeg is a very nice town and well laid out but I found things very flat. In fact there are some hundreds out of work in it. All immigrants seem to make for this place and consequently it is overstocked with men. I stopped in town 3 days but could not get work so that I thought it was no use stopping.”[7] He then moved onto Dunmore where he found work on the railway.That was May 3, 1887 and 19 days after leaving Liverpool.

Immigrants to the Northwest at this time must be considered part of the first wave in context of the historical events of the time.The railway reached Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1882 and Calgary in 1883.The railway across Canada was finally completed in November 1885.It should also be noted that the Northwest Rebellion was in the spring of 1885 with Riel surrendering on May 15, 1885 and here we have colonists arriving two years later.This was not England or Europe, this was the frontier and yet they came with courage into the unknown.Just imagine Joseph Eckersley looking for work in Winnipeg and finding none.Just imagine Valentin Lowenberg facing unbroken land north of Grenfell and a family of ten to provide for.The title of the history of Grenfell just about says it all “Grit and Growth”.[8] To this I’d add “guts”. Eckersley and Lowenberg: two examples of the pioneer spirit which built the West.


The S.S. Sardinian, Liverpool, ca. 1890. Photograph by E. Chambre Hardman (Copied from Wikipedia, accessed June 11, 2014)

Joseph Eckersley eventually wenton to Calgary where he was a stonemason and contractor.He and Martha were to have two more boys Joseph Edward,Jr. , born in 1894, and Francis Clifford born in 1898.Albert, as previously mentioned, was born in 1881.

Joseph Eckersley died in 1907.Martha, whom he had married in England in 1877, died in 1952.His son Joseph Edward Jr. died in August 1917 in France in World War I.He was a member of the 137th and 50th battalions.  His name is on the Vimy Memorial among the 11,285 soldiers missing in action and having no known grave.Albert was a rancher and farmer south of Calgary and died in 1967.Francis Clifford died in 1974.

To honour and thank Joseph Eckersley and his descendants for donating his diary to the Glenbow Archives, I have placed a transcription of his diary in the Eckersley Family Fonds.[9]


Diary of Joseph Edward Eckersley, April 14 to May 3, 1887, Eckersley Family fonds, Glenbow Archives M-8157-v.1. The diary has been scanned and may be viewed by following this link:
Eckersley diary, April 14, 1887
Passenger Lists, 1865-1922, Library and Archives Canada: Sardinian, Liverpool to Halifax, April 14 to 24, 1887.
Eckersley diary, April 19, 1887
Ibid, April 24, 1887
Ibid, April 28, 1887.
Ibid, April 30, 1887.
Annie I. Yule, Grit and Growth, the story of Grenfell, 1980, pp 43-44 re Valentin Lowenberg and family. ( Note: The Glenbow Library has the 1968 edition of this book (971.249 G826y) but unfortunately that edition does not contain the Lowenberg family information.
A typed transcription of the diary made by author Kevin van Koughnett has been placed with the original in the Eckersley Family fonds, Glenbow Archives M-8157-v.1.

About the author

I retired in 2012 as an electrical engineer after a 37 year career in the utility industry. I have a B.Sc. from Queen’s University and an MBA from the University of Calgary and am a member of the Board of Directors of First Calgary Financial. As a long-term Glenbow member with a keen interest in history and genealogy, the Stories from the Archives project intrigued me. Given the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1, I was looking for soldiers’ letters home when I discovered the unrelated 1887 diary which is the subject of my article. Family genealogy is a major hobby with interests in related families - Van Koughnett, Lowenberg, Cowley, and Trites.

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