Gillis was left to finish cross-country trek alone once trio reached Montreal
In the depth of winter, 1906, three young Cape Bretonners set out to walk from North Sydney to the other side of the continent. It was their plan to walk across North America and return within one year. If successful they would share a cash prize of $1,200, which would be worth about $25,000 today.
John Hugh Gillis, who planned this return journey of approximately 8,000 miles, was only 22 years old. Shortly before he left, he was joined by George Cummings, 32, and Jack MacDonald, 20. Early on the morning of Jan. 31, they set out from the train station in North Sydney, with the objective of walking up to 25 miles each day.
Why would you start such an undertaking in the middle of winter? Common sense would seem to indicate that you should wait until the spring. By then, the snow cover would be gone, the temperature would be getting warmer and you would have extended hours of daylight in which to walk.
Well, it seems that they counted on the fact that the railroad tracks would always be kept free of snow and the physical exertion of so much walking would tend to keep them relatively warm, despite the cold temperatures. However, I think the main reason for the mid-winter start was the fact that there would be no flies, bugs, or mosquitos, to harass them along the way.
Hopefully, by the time these little biting creatures made their appearance, they would have reached the vast wide-open expanse of the Canadian prairies, where the absence of thick forest cover would be to their advan- tage.
Forty-three days after they set out, the intrepid trio reached Bonaventure Station in Montreal, after walking approximately 1,000 miles! However, because of winter storms and several rest days along the route, their actual walking days totalled 31, quite a remarkable achievement in a Canadian winter. They had planned on walking up to 25 miles each day. Instead, they averaged a total of 32 miles for each day on the tracks.
The next day they met the mayor of Montreal, who signed a certificate indicating that they had indeed walked all the way from North Sydney, to the city of Montreal. The mayor also arranged for them to be given a private tour of the city, which included the downtown financial centre, the Basilica of Notre Dame, and McGill University.
After two days of rest, John Hugh was ready to continue the journey. His two partners, however, had other plans. They had never experienced a large cosmopolitan city like Montreal and wanted to remain there to savor it’s many delights. For them, the adventure was over. They would not be going on.
Over the last few weeks John Hugh had not realized that the other two were rapidly losing interest in this rather remarkable undertaking. He had naturally assumed that they were as excited as he was about this ongoing adventure, and he was very disappointed to say the least.
After five days of rest and relaxation in Montreal, John Hugh Gillis set out alone on the morning of March 19, 1906. From now on he would be on his own.
Next week: Alone, but not for long!