CP remembers Nicholas Morant

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In May 1989, I traveled to Revelstoke, B.C., to cover the dedication of Canadian Pacific’s massive renovation of its main line through Rogers Pass, 262 miles west of Calgary in the rugged heart of the Rockies. The event was what you’d expect from CP, several days of bagpipes and speeches, press trips through 9.1-mile Mount Macdonald Tunnel, and other forms of pomp and circumstance.

A 2-10-4 Selkirk locomotive leads CP's transcontinental 'Dominion' through the curve east of Banff, Alberta, made famous by the photographer: Nicholas Morant.
Magnificent as all that was, the best part for me was the solitary drive back to Calgary along the Trans-Canada Highway, certainly one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world. I remember rolling toward Banff when a little voice in my head said “Morant’s Curve.” Of course! I couldn’t pass that up, so I checked my map, found my way over to the Bow Valley Parkway, and eventually came upon one of the most glorious sights in railroading, Milepost 113 on CP’s Laggan Subdivision.

The view facing west at the curve is breathtaking, a long, stately arc of track that traces the Bow River until it disappears in a backdrop of deep forest and a wall of 10,000-foot mountain peaks. Like Sullivan’s Curve in Cajon Pass and Horseshoe in Pennsylvania, it’s one of railroading’s hallowed places, a definite must-see.

Standing there, I also reflected on the man whose name informally graces this point on CP’s main line: Nicholas Morant, the legendary photographer who spent nearly his entire 50-plus-year career chronicling the people, places, and machinery of Canadian Pacific. Morant hired out with CP in 1929 as “special photographer” and, except for a brief stint with a Winnipeg newspaper and four years with the Wartime Information Branch of the federal government, stayed with the railway until he retired in 1981. He died March 13, 1999, at age 88.

It seems to me Morant’s long association with CP is without parallel. The only other figure I can think of with comparable celebrity and such a direct connection to a single railroad is Ed Nowak, longtime photographer for the New York Central.

Ever mindful of its history, as well as Canada’s own 150th anniversary this year, CP is celebrating Morant’s long career with what it calls “Morant Mondays,” a regular feature on the CP Facebook page. There, every Monday, you’ll see various images from Morant’s deep CP catalog. The series was launched February 20 with a stirring portrait of the man himself, 35mm camera and telephoto lens in hand, plus a beautiful photo of a passenger train heading west through — you guessed it — Morant’s Curve.

This week’s post is a grabber, too, an exuberant photo of a skier celebrating the arrival of one of CP’s steam-era ski trains to the Laurentians

Canadian Pacific is better than a lot of railroads at honoring its past, exemplified every year with the operation of its immensely popular CP Holiday Train. That commitment was underscored a few days ago with the announcement the company is bringing back a version of its famous beaver logo. “The time is right to reconnect with our past by bringing back this iconic symbol for Canada, and for CP,” said Keith Creel, president and CEO.

Now comes this richly deserved tribute to Morant, a photographer who probably did more than anyone to weave the image of Canadian Pacific into the national myth.

Morant’s vision of CP was comprehensive. First and foremost, he made beautiful photographs of CP’s trains. His pictures of the streamlined Canadian rolling over Stoney Creek bridge in Rogers Pass or doubleheaded steam locomotives blasting out of a snowshed at Mount Stephens are iconic. So are his images of CP’s far-flung physical empire, from its famous hotels and resorts to unsung bridges and roundhouses.  

As CP’s go-to public-relations photographer, he also shot all kinds of celebrities. He was there to record Winston Churchill stepping off a train in Quebec City in 1944 for a wartime conference. He stood on a windy hillside in Alberta to photograph actress Ginger Rogers sketching an elaborately dressed First Nations chief. He created a definitive portrait of Canada’s beloved author and historian Pierre Berton, posed on the pilot beam of a locomotive.

John F. Garden's 1992 book on Nicholas Morant is a massive showcase of his life and work.
Morant’s work has been showcased in at least two memorable books. The first was John F. Garden’s Nicholas Morant’s Canadian Pacific (Footprint Publishing, 1992), a massive compilation that included a lot of color. Later came Portraits of Canada, by Jonathan Hanna, Robert C. Kennel, and Carol Lacourte (Fifth House Ltd., 2006), a black-and-white volume that includes a generous sampling of Morant’s non-train pictures and this spot-on assessment: “It is said that Morant had the remarkable ability to blur the distinction between an industrial photo and a fine-art photograph.”

Morant not only was skilled, he was courageous. Railroad photography has its hazards, one of which he encountered in 1939 when he and a Swiss guide were attacked by a grizzly bear near Lake Louise. The guide eventually died of his injuries and Morant spent three months recovering in a hospital.

In 1990, Morant was ushered into the Order of Canada, a prestigious national honor that includes hundreds of Canadians prominent in public affairs, business, and the arts.

CP’s Morant tribute originated with Leah Ryan, the railway’s social media advisor, who taps into photos housed at the Canadian Railway Museum, known as ExpoRail, near Montreal. “We felt it was important to showcase [Morant’s] work as we open up our archives to celebrate Canadian turning 150. There will be many more exciting announcements to come about how we are re-connecting with our past this year, so stay tuned.” The photos will appear not only on Facebook but also via Twitter and Instagram. 

So, a tip of the Mountie’s campaign hat to Canadian Pacific. What a great way to acknowledge a rich heritage.

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