Gil­lis was left to fin­ish cross-coun­try trek alone once trio reached Mon­treal

Cape Breton Post - - NORTHSIDE / VICTORIA - Ran­nie Gil­lis Ran­nie Gil­lis is an au­thor and avid Celtic his­to­rian whose col­umn ap­pears ev­ery week in the Cape Bre­ton Post. We wel­come your com­ments on this col­umn or any other ma­te­rial ap­pear­ing in the Post. You can write c/o Let­ters to the Ed­i­tor; Cape

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!

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