Across the Blue Ripple of the Duck Mountains

I start looking for answers in rural Manitoba.

Durban is a small town in the middle of what people might call a sweeping landscape — long and wide and richer than typical prairie. Skinny poplars bunch into dips in the landscape; tall pines line farm perimeters, dirt roads skirt around them. The soil is dark, deep and loamy. Sections are neatly turned and planted, farmyards are landscaped, houses are painted white. The town itself, is so small it’s on the verge of disappearing; only four streets one way and three avenues the other.

I haven’t been to Durban since I was a kid, I’m taking this all in using street view shots knitted together on Google maps. I turn my little avatar to the Southeast; and the Duck Mountains appear as a thin blue ripple along the horizon, I turn to the North, and green wheat fields stretch out all the way to the horizon.  To my city-eye, it’s farmers’ paradise, but I know I’m seeing a greatly altered landscape. By now I’ve read a dozen local histories and looked at hundreds of old photos; what I am seeing is the result of a colossal effort. This landscape was created by hand and by horse (or oxen) managed by men and women who came with one common dream. To settle and farm.

Harold came with his parents, William and Mary across that blue ripple of the Duck Mountains. When they arrived at the turn of the last century; grandfather was five years old. The whole family (three kids plus brand new baby) travelled from the far side of Lake Huron to take advantage of Land Grants in the Swan River Valley. Ten dollars got them a quarter section of land (160 acres) under the condition that within three years there would be a dwelling, fifteen acres under cultivation and they would be permanently living on the land. It would have been the opportunity of a life-time for a family-man whose profession on the census records of 1891 was ‘Livery Keeper’.

First train to Swan River, Oct 10, 1899. Photo courtesy: Swan Valley Historical Museum

First train to Swan River, Oct 10, 1899. Photo courtesy: Swan Valley Historical Museum

The railway going west had a stop in Winnipeg. From there a new branch line headed North. Trains from the East were so crowded there weren’t enough seats. Sometimes there weren’t enough locomotives to pull overloaded carriages so trains crawled along at walking pace. Some didn’t make it; bad weather and early snow left people stranded in the middle of nowhere for days. Days on board even in good weather were long and tiresome; the view from the window daunting and endless.

I don’t know  when or what the trip was like for Harold and his family, but from old photos I imagine —

Rattling, squeaking open carriages with seats unforgiving like church pews
Coal cinders and chunks of soot blowing in through open windows
Lurching and stopping and tumbling bundles
Tired, cranky kids
Poor peasant farmers with no English and no bundles
Young men high on big dreams talking, laughing, and smoking late into the night

For a five-year-old boy on a long ride, what would have mattered was getting a turn on Mother’s lap and  missing out on Mother’s cooking.

The line running north brought them to the end of their known world. And to their new home.


Nonni Jonsson’s webpage (with many more historical photos) about his Icelandic ancestors settling in the Swan Valley can be found at:

2 thoughts on “Across the Blue Ripple of the Duck Mountains

  1. Pingback: To Cowan or Beyond | HAROLD WENT TO WAR

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