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The undertaking was an ambitious one. The Edison team of director J. Searle Dawley, cameraman Henry Cronjager, actors, actresses and technicians was to travel the entire length of the CPR line in a special train, filming at such locations as a lumber camp in British Columbia, an Alberta coal mine, irrigated farmland at Strathmore, a ranch at Red Deer, a silver mine at Field, and the Mont Lefroy Glacier above Lake Louise. In Man to Man Magazine, writer Norman s. Rankin described the filmmakers' objectives as though quoting from a CPR press release: ". . . to show the struggling farmer through the medium of the moving picture the premium that Western Canada offers for home-making and independence to the man of energy, ambition and small capital; to picture the range cattle, fat and happy, roaming the foothills of the mighty Rockies; to tell the piscatorial enthusiast of cool retreats beside rushing streams where the salmon and trout lurk beneath the rock's overhanging shade; to whisper to the sportsman . . . ."
In two months during the summer of 1910 the Edison Company completed thirteen one-reel films of roughly ten minutes each, the standard length for films at that time. Two of these were "scenics" or non-fiction -- A Trip Over the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains in Canada and The Life of a Salmon -- while a third, A Wedding Trip from Montreal through Canada to Hong Kong, used the comic device of a honeymoon trip to present the splendours of every CPR hotel on the route. The other ten were dramas, and unfortunately only two are known to have survived. One of them, The Song that Reached His Heart, is a tale of a lumberjack in British Columbia described as "a man of brawn and muscle made rough and rude by his life and surroundings." But not to worry: the CPR brings civilizing influences and the love of a woman from the East to rescue him from base temptation.
The second survivor is An Unselfish Love, which more skilfully interweaves the romantic drama of a lost amour, retrieved at the eleventh hour, and the success to be won by farming the irrigated lands around Strathmore, Alberta. One can measure the impact of a drama like this, quite up to 1910 production standards, against the more journeyman actualities -- or documentaries, as they should be styled -- since a creative interpretation of reality is evident in the selection and presentation of shots. One of the Edison Company's "scenics," A Trip Over the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains in Canada, has also survived at least in part, and it rightly celebrates the CPR's conquest of the mountains.
The Canadian Pacific Railway's success in harnessing the pulling power of motion pictures to sell its services and lands attracted other railroads in Canada to film-making. In 1909 the Grand Trunk hired Butcher's Film Service to make a series of scenics or travelogues along the company's right of way. The films were to celebrate the virtues of the virgin farmlands being opened up by the Grand Trunk Pacific as well as the prospects for industrial expansion in the Canadian West thanks to the Grand Trunk system. They premiered in London in January 1910 and were reportedly well received, though they appear to have been conventional views of economic development in fishing, lumbering, mining and agriculture. Very few of them have survived. Like those of Edison and Urban, they had a relatively short life in active use, with an inherently unstable nitrocellulose film stock.
The connection between railroad builders and film-makers appears to have slackened after 1910, and during the years of the Great War there was little need for promotion to build rail traffic and no audience in Europe that could be reached with films on the wonders of the West.
This article is adapted by the author from an article in The CPR West: The Iron Road and the Making of a Nation, edited by Hugh A. Dempsey, Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1984.