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The bubble-wrapped package finally dropped into my mail box along with the day's junk mail. A couple of weeks earlier I was the only e-Bay bidder for a 1907 copy of Baedeker's Canada and I was curious to see what my $25 had bought. Nowadays, travellers have hundreds of general and specialized guidebooks to choose from but in 1907, when international leisure travel was for a select few, Baedeker was often the only game in town.

Karl Baedeker, a German publisher who set up shop in Coblenz in 1827, once observed that most guidebooks either offered bare lists of landmarks without any practical advice or historical context, or "they provided such detailed and evocative accounts of anything worth seeing, and the emotions to be felt on seeing it, that the traveller was effectively spared the trouble of going to see it for himself." Baedeker's approach was to give travellers precise information enabling them to find their own way cheaply and conveniently and enough information to appreciate what they saw. For the most part, he left his readers to draw their own impressions. This approach would later be copied by other notable guide series such as Blue Guides (using the same format and fold-out maps)and Michelin's Green Guides (running with the idea of marking special places with an asterisk). No wonder the word "baedeker" became for many years a synonym for any guidebook.

The first edition of Baedeker's Canada was published in 1894. That was just three years after the death of Sir John A. Macdonald and nine years after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Canada was home to nearly five million people and the Klondike Gold Rush was two years away. My 1907 copy was a third edition of the guide. Canada's population had grown by 1.5 million. Alberta and Saskatchewan had become provinces two years before. Montreal, the largest city in Canada at the time, had a population of 350,000. And the First World War was still seven years away.

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The guidebook was written by a foreigner, James Muirhead, for foreigners - and adventurous ones at that - willing to put up with the rigours of travel in an immense country still in its infancy.

People were pouring into Canada by the thousands in 1907 - not just to visit but to start a new life. Leisured visitors were likely few and mostly interested in hunting and fishing, if the detailed information on these sports in the guide is any indication.

One can't help getting the impression that the author considered his European readers to be distinctly more civilized than the people they might encounter in Canada. At times it's as though the author has stumbled on some wild, untamed land and is surprised to find anything approaching European standards. Of course, in much of Canada in 1907, that wasn't far from the truth.

There was a musty old-book aroma when I opened the package. The gold-embossed red cloth cover was badly stained and the spine was darkened from years on a shelf. The fly-leaf bore a pencilled signature: "D.L. Haight." Who was this person, I wondered. Had the book been in someone's pocket on a long-ago hike in the Rockies? Perhaps it had journeyed up the St. Lawrence.

I carefully unfolded the fragile street plans, each a tiny work of art in itself. It's somewhat shocking today to see terms like "Lunatic Asylum" and "Home for Incurables" on maps of the time. Here is Halifax, before the harbour explosion of the First World War and dominated, as it is today, by the Citadel. Toronto has not yet begun the major landfills that will change its waterfront. I looked in vain for Manitoba's Provincial Legislature in Winnipeg - it would not break ground for another six years. Vancouver's Stanley Park bears the apt inscription "big trees," and Victoria shows a convent on the site of the Empress Hotel that, in the mind's eye, seems to have been there for ever.

The guide's 330 close-packed pages form a fascinating snapshot of Canada a century ago, as seen through English eyes, but I can't help wondering if eight pages of small print explaining the Canadian Constitution would have persuaded most potential visitors to head for the south of France instead.

But then Baedeker gets down to the practical information that tells so much about the country a hundred years ago. For example, in 1905 Canada's railways carried over 24 million passengers and trains rarely exceeded 25 mph. Some long-distance trains had emigrant cars and second-class cars were not recommended. The writer, while commenting that food in the dining cars was better than that served at the stations, must have had trouble deciphering the Canadian accent as he admits that "the brakeman, whose duty it is to announce each station as the train reaches it, is apt to be entirely unintelligible."

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The 1907 traveller is advised, where possible, to exchange "the hot and dusty railway for the cheaper and cooler method of locomotion by water" on Canada's extensive system of lakes, navigable rivers and canals. The writer was obviously impressed by the CPR steamers on the Great Lakes, ranking them with the finest passenger steamers in the world. However, travel by coach - and horses, that is - is not recommended: "The ordinary tourist will seldom require to avail himself of the coach-lines of Canada, for which he may be thankful as the roads are generally rough, the vehicles uncomfortable, and the time slow."

There is tantalizingly little information about J.F. Muirhead, the guidebook's author, other than that he was an English academic who also wrote the Baedeker guide to the United States, and that he had "personally visited the greater part of the districts described." He was therefore able to observe that hotel charges were considerably less in Canada than in the U.S. and that the number of Canadian hotels that charge as much as $5 a day "can be numbered on one's fingers."

These include Montreal's Windsor Hotel, Toronto's King Edward Hotel and the Banff Springs Hotel. As for the young settlements of Calgary (pop. 15,000) and Edmonton (pop. 12,000), the best bed in town goes for two bucks a night. Baedeker makes it clear that "when ladies are of the party, it is advisable to frequent the best hotels only."

Ever helpful, the author offers some advice to those hotel keepers wishing to meet the tastes of European visitors: "If it were possible to give baths more easily and cheaply it would be a great boon to English visitors. It is now, fortunately, more common than of yore for the price of a bedroom to include access to a general bathroom, but those who wish a private bath attached to their bedroom must still pay $1 a day extra."

Baedeker is also careful to ensure that visitors are aware of local customs. For example, while generally complimentary about the food and service, "restaurants which solicit the patronage of 'gents' should be avoided." And furthermore, "wine or beer is much less frequently drunk at meals than in Europe."

The little book is a gold mine of trivia about the Canada of 100 years ago, but after a few days of thumbing through it, the spine finally parts with the cover and the tiny type size takes its toll on my aging eyes. But it's useful if I'm looking for something to read before falling asleep. I just turn to page xxvi and start reading about the Constitution. Does the trick every time.

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Highlights from Baedeker's Canada 1907

WHAT'S NOT TO BE MISSED

"Among the grandest natural features of the country, one or other of which should certainly be visited... are Niagara Falls, the Canadian Pacific Railway from Banff to Vancouver, and the Saguenay."

"Every town in Canada has its snowshoe club. Each club has its distinctive uniform so that a procession of snowshoers tramping across the snow on a clear moonlight night, rousing the echoes with their songs and choruses, is a most attractive sight, and one not to be witnessed outside of the Dominion of Canada."

ON HOW TO PRONOUNCE NEWFOUNDLAND

"The natives usually accent the word on the last syllable ('Newfunland'), the English on the second, the Americans on the first. The first pronunciation is preferable, the second allowable, the third inadmissible."

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ON TRAIN TRAVEL

"An entire day spent in a train costs, with Pullman accommodation and meals, about $15-$20. The expenses of locomotion can often be materially diminished by travelling by water instead of by land."

WARNING VISITORS TO NIAGARA FALLS

"The former extortionate charges and impertinent demeanour of the Niagara hack-men have been somewhat abated, but the cab-touts at the station are scarcely to be trusted... and the driver should be strictly enjoined not to stop at the bazaars or other pay places unless ordered to do so."

ON WINE

"Wine is generally poor or dear and often both."

ON WALKING TOURS

"Unfortunately, there are few districts in Canada where walking tours are recommended. Indeed, the extremes of temperature and the scarcity of well marked footpaths offer considerable obstacles, while in the Far West a stranger on foot might be looked upon with suspicion or even be exposed to danger from the herds of semi-wild cattle."

VIGNETTES OF CANADIAN CITIES

Halifax: "The city is laid out with considerable regularity, but makes on the whole a rather dingy and shabby impression. Few of the streets are paved, and many of the buildings are still flimsy looking wooden structures."

Kingston: "Kingston is the seat of the University of Queen's College, one of the leading universities of Canada, attended by about 1000 students, some of whom are women."

Calgary: "A thriving little prairie city provided with electric light and other modern conveniences, is largely built of a fine light-grey building stone found in the neighbourhood, which gives it a handsome and substantial appearance. The population contains a large proportion of a good class of English settlers, and it offers a more refined life than most Western cities of recent origin."

Vancouver: The chief attraction of Vancouver to the tourist is the beautiful Stanley Park..... which, with commendable promptitude, the youthful city has laid out on the wooded peninsula connected with the W. side of the city by a long bridge.

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