(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the newly-released book, Winnipeg Beach: Leisure and Courtship in a Resort Town, 1900-1967, by Dale Barbour, University of Manitoba Press — www.uofmpress.ca — paperback, 264 pages, $24.95.)
by Dale Barbour
Memories of the Moonlight specials are a staple of Winnipeg Beach lore. The Moonlight encapsulates the Winnipeg Beach experience as a location for dating, providing in a few short hours the journey to somewhere else, the collective and performative experience on the boardwalk and dance hall, and the return, accompanied by the creation of private and hidden space. The Moonlight represents a different use of the train from the picnic trains, which would have seen distinct social groups going to the beach together, and the Daddy’s train, which provided a male gendered experience. The Moonlight train, in contrast, was conceptualized as a heterosocial affair — with men and women travelling together.
Howard Dundas provides us with perhaps the most graphic description of the Moonlight trains in his book Wrinkled Arrows: Good Old Days in Winnipeg. He offers a striking illustration of how the trains and Winnipeg Beach represented an opportunity to escape the regulation of the city and to enter a locale on the other side of the boundary line that separated “proper” behaviour from the possibility of sexual expression. Dundas is explicit in arguing that, when it came to stepping on the Moonlight trains in the 1920s, “sexual ignorance abounded and the cool of the evening beckoned.”
Dundas was born in 1905, and his book was published in 1980, although the chapters appear to have been written over several years. He begins the chapter Go to Sleep, Sweetie, It’s Just the Moonlight Going By with the statement, “Sex wasn’t bandied about very much in those good old days when I was young.”
In fact, Dundas portrays his entire youth as an effort to find out more about sex in the face of numerous rebuffs at the wall of regulation. “The Moonlights ended all this,” he writes.He credits economic competition with launching the Moonlights, believing that the CPR and CNR, each trying to maximize profits on their beach lines, did not quite know what they were getting into when they added the Moonlight specials.
In fact, the Moonlight specials had been running to Winnipeg Beach long before Grand Beach was opened in 1916. But there is still some truth in Dundas’s argument. I believe that, as with the Daddy’s trains, the term Moonlight was added to the excursions in the years after they started running. While the “Moonlight” trains are mentioned in social columns beginning in about 1906, the term does not appear in CPR advertisements until about 1910, when it is listed as a “Moonlight Excursion.”
Either the term Moonlight was added by the patrons and appropriated by the CPR, or it had been used unofficially by the CPR and was added to advertisements after the company realized it could be used to help sell the train ride. This progression was amplified after the CNR opened its Grand Beach line. Not coincidentally, the CPR began advertising Winnipeg Beach more aggressively, and advertisements for the Moonlight trains included pictures of dancing couples, suggesting how romance had become a commodity to be marketed. The Moonlight excursion would go on to be known as the “70-minute Moonlight,” reflecting the fact that Winnipeg Beach could be reached more quickly than Grand Beach, before finally becoming the “Moonlight special” in 1920.
Similarly, Winnipeg Beach advertisements completed their shift from appearing among travel and excursion advertisements to the entertainment section of the newspaper, a transition that reflected both a new role and the growth of mass entertainment. The language and emphasis given to the Moonlight trains reflects the growth of a dating culture. Heterosexuality had come out of its own closet by the 1920s, becoming the focal point of social relations. But people still had to play by a set of rules that dictated how men and women should behave with one another.
Dundas kicks off his Moonlight ride with a description of the trips up both sides of the lake. On the west side, “commuting members of the Establishment” detrained along the way and gave the Winnipeg Beach-bound passengers the opportunity to see “the younger members of the Establishment in their yellow and black St. John’s sweaters and the U of M brown-and-gold blazers and white flannels playing brisk games of croquet through the twinkling leaves of the aspens, or just sauntering up and down the station platform looking debonair.” The people in Whytewold, Ponemah, and Matlock were clearly considered elite Winnipeggers by Dundas, and they were marking their own territory with their station-side stroll.
In contrast, at Balsam Bay on the Grand Beach side, train patrons were “stared at rather enigmatically by a few score of Indians sitting or loitering in the station’s shade,” and, says Dundas, a discussion on the battle of Seven Oaks ensued.We can see again how aboriginal people are considered outside the experience of colonial subjects such as Dundas. And by locating them within Canada’s past, at the Battle of Seven Oaks, he neatly cuts them out of any activity in Canada’s present.
The trip was a build-up to adventure, but Dundas is doing more than providing narrative. He is using class and race to form a boundary around the beaches. In their journey, working-class riders on the Moonlight trains travelled through a moat of class and race to reach an area beyond the regulation that Dundas encountered in the city.
This boundary between Winnipeg Beach and the city was a constant fixture of the resort. A 1910 incident illustrates how the concept of distance was keenly felt at the beach in its early days. The Winnipeg Beach social column of July 12 noted that “between 40 and 50 people got left at the beach after the last train pulled out on Saturday evening. Some wanted to walk to Winnipeg, but upon being warned by Station Master Eby that they would most certainly be eaten by bears on the trip, thought better of it and chartered the launch, ‘River Queen,’ owned by Mr. Watson of St. Louis, who took the tardy ones safely into Winnipeg. The home journey was enlivened by music and singing.”
Until 1923 trains were not permitted to run on Sunday, which meant the beach was cut off from the city. But the incident illustrates how the train was expected to transport people through the “wilds” between Winnipeg and Winnipeg Beach.
Dundas gives scant attention to the actual stay at the beaches before putting his passengers back on the train. That is not surprising, given that he sees the train ride as an opportunity for circumventing sexual repression. Dundas continues: “On both sides of the lake the train’s departure was heralded by the ringing of a loud bell, and was followed by a clamorous rush to the trains for the return journey. Both trains high-balled at twenty-three hours, and between Balsam Bay on one side of the lake and Ponemah on the other, the youthful passengers vied with the trainmen, putting the lights in the cars on and off eight times. Youth always won, and the trainmen left the cars in darkness, said ‘the hell with it’ and went into the baggage car to play Euchre.”
And what happened after “youth” had won and created this darkened space? “There were squeals of laughter, poignant silences and sudden shrieks of indignation, cries for help and soft sighs of happy reciprocity; the ringing slap of palm and the brisk crack of knuckles shadowed the train’s passage through the night.”
As if the metaphor of the train as a centre of illicit sexuality were not enough, Dundas adds, “In the sleeping farmsteads along the railway’s right of way mothers soothed and calmed awakened children and said, ‘Go to sleep, sweetie, it’s just the Moonlight going by.’” Darkness, with its implicit link to the night, has traditionally been conceptualized as an area for transgression: “The night time has been the right time, a fleeting but regular period of modest but cherished freedoms from the constraints and cares of daily life.” It was the potential for this role, this flexibility, that helped make the late-night Moonlight trips back to Winnipeg so enticing for the youthful passengers.
Dundas’s portrayal of the Moonlight journey replicates standard expectations of sexual roles, with the male as pursuer and the female as defender of virtue. It also offers a spatial analysis of the return journey: “The Oak Bluff whistle warned the young men there was only another twenty miles left for sweet talk and gentle persuasion, and their young ladies to dig in anew at this threat of a new ambush ... The Transcona warning wail gave them their last chance to try something they hadn’t thought of since Ponemah or Balsam Bay, and their girlfriends, by now feeling it was safe enough, to let (the men) cop a miniscule feel, so they wouldn’t feel too let down from their hopes of the earlier evening, and to ensure a date for next Saturday.”
Dundas is tapping into a familiar theme here, suggesting women used their sexuality to ensure that their date would foot the bill for the outing. The question of how far women would go to earn their night out was one that ensured the surveillance of moral reformers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dundas goes on to describe “weary and dishevelled” youth finally leaving the trains and catching a ride home on the streetcars.
The clamour of the returning Moonlight train, like the arrival of the commuting daddies, was part of life in Winnipeg in the early part of the century. In 1967, Jocelyn Square wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press detailing her childhood in the Royal Alexandra from 1923 to 1928, during “the years of the Roaring Twenties. And the old Royal Alex did roar in those days ... Each Sunday from May 24 until after Labor Day, I was usually awakened around 1 a.m. by the opening of the great wrought iron gates on the Main Street side of the hotel. A great surge of people, all laughing and talking, pushing their way down the incline from the station platform heralded the return of the weekly Moonlight train to Winnipeg Beach.”
Despite his colourful description of the trip, Dundas pulls back at the end of his tale to say, “I don’t think anyone ever made the ‘supreme sacrifice’ on the Moonlights ... Virginity was pretty highly thought of in those days, and premarital trial runs being more the exception rather than the rule.”
In the end, even Dundas cannot resist regulating sexual behaviour. In fairness, his recollections of the 1920s are seen through the lens of the 1970s, when his book was published. The rarity of sexual activity in the past has been exaggerated, but the openness that Dundas sees in the present seems to prompt him to recoil from the contemporary world, as he sees it, and to insist on the greater virtues of an earlier age.
Dundas is mythologizing the Moonlight experience. His description of events on the train fits neatly into the script of how men and women were expected to behave: men were to be initiators of sexual activity, women the moderators and regulators of such activities. And at the end of the ride, the men were expected to listen when the women said “enough.”
Although far less graphic, other male descriptions of the Moonlight trains follow a similar pattern. These rules of behaviour encouraged both men and women to create private space under the cover of darkness, where, it was assumed, they could push the limits of acceptable behaviour. Of course, those opportunities also created fear about what the young travellers might be up to.
In a series of letters, Helen Sigurdur, Dorothy Lynch and Agnes Walker recalled journeying to the beach on the Moonlight train in the 1930s and 1940s, often to meet dates or a boyfriend.
Lynch’s recollections make it clear that she was travelling to Winnipeg Beach with female friends, with the goal of meeting men. “We would be back in Winnipeg by midnight, on a coal-fired train. How our mother[s] worried about their young, innocent daughters, arriving home early Sunday morning, having been out with boys unknown to them. They waited up for us, listening to the wireless radio, or pacing the floor,” she recalled.
In contrast, Val Kinack, a summer camper, can remember dates travelling on the train to meet her in the 1940s.
Orest travelled on the Moonlight special to Winnipeg Beach in 1956, its final year. But the routine was much the same as it had been twenty or thirty years earlier. “Winnipeg Beach was summer time. A chance to get out of Winnipeg, it was something different,” Orest said. He travelled with a friend or two and the goal was simple — have a good time and, he hoped, meet a girl. We can look to these groups and note the flexibility and protection that train travel gave them. “If you were nineteen years of age, you didn’t go out with your date. So you’d go out with your girlfriends,”
Myrna Charach recalled. “The girls would go up, four or five girls out together to be at somebody’s cottage and naturally the guys would come up separate. They’d get together there. But you never came out ...You told your mother you were going with your girlfriends. [Laughs.]”
Barney Charach remembered these unisex groups descending from the train. In this they were following the pattern of behaviour seen at other recreation facilities, with people arriving with members of their own gender, but fully expecting to couple up after they had arrived.
Of course, not everyone headed to the beach in same-sex groups. Izzy and Mary Peltz travelled to Winnipeg Beach with a group of friends, before they were married. The group of friends offered the same protection that the same-sex groups did. Certainly in the early years of the Winnipeg Beach experience, the safety of the group would have been necessary. Concerns about white slavery in North America had led to the creation of laws such as the United States’ 1910 Mann Act, which ostensibly was created to prohibit “interstate traffic in women” but was often used to harass and detain unmarried couples travelling together.
The Mann Act did not apply in Canada, but it suggests the atmosphere that people had to operate within during the first years of the twentieth century. There were CPR officials aboard to ensure proper behaviour on the Moonlight train rides, but as Dundas and even some of the interview subjects discovered, they were prepared to leave the passengers to their own devices on the trip home.
The evening began when passengers stepped on the train and men and women flirted back and forth: “The good looking guys and the good looking chicks hit it off pretty fast and the normal looking guys had to kind of see what they could find,” Orest recalled.
Ina Drummond had only a limited experience with the Moonlight train, heading to Winnipeg Beach as a teenager a few times to join her family. But even then, she could see that people began flirting the moment they stepped on the train, rather than waiting until their arrival at the dance hall.
In many ways the experience of travelling on the Moonlight special has taken on the role of a regional myth: a complex of symbols and images embedded in a larger narrative with predictable rhythms. That role does not make the experience any less real. But it does mean that individual recollections of the trip are likely to tap a familiar list of experiences. For example, many interview subjects remember the lights being turned off, but they never claim to have turned the lights out themselves.
Orest remembered the lights being extinguished as a regular part of travelling on the Moonlight special. “The cp cops and the conductors would just go crazy because they wanted the lights to be seen as the train was going by, otherwise if it’s dark they could get into trouble,” Orest recalled. And why did people put the lights out? “To neck. [Laughs.] Or smooch or whatever you want to call it,” he replied.
Izzy Peltz recalled similar incidents in the late 1930s when he and Mary travelled to Winnipeg Beach. The couple headed up with friends, all of them young and dating.
And as with Orest, his story, too, contained a reference to the lights being extinguished on the trip home. “Most of the guys got into a corner and were smooching. [Laughter.] Because they were all still single dates. Some of them would go and turn the lights off on the train,” Peltz said.
We should not miss the laugh that comes with both these admissions — fifty to seventy years later, Orest and Peltz are still of the view that people were being just a little bit naughty on the train ride home. Turning the lights off created a symbolic — and very real — moment of freedom.