Theses Doctoral

Wilderness Nation: Building Canada's Railway Landscapes, 1885-1929

Lam, Elsa

Central to Canadian identity is a national consciousness of inhabiting a country of vast landscapes, which are often identified as "wilderness." This thesis explores the Canadian Pacific Railway Company's use of architecture, landscape, and spatial techniques to construct Canadian concepts of wilderness during a crucial period of national expansion, economic growth, and cultural development. In alignment with federal projects of cultural nationalism, the country's first transcontinental railway promoted land-grant sales and tourism by representing Canadian landscapes as wilderness areas to be at turns enhanced as scenic locales, tamed by agriculture, preserved as intact environments, or assimilated into a folk heritage. The thesis is organized through a series of four case studies, each of which examines a particular architectural episode pertaining to a different variation of the wilderness ideal.

The first case study, "A Civilized Wilderness" studies a tourism program initiated following the railroad's completion in 1885, in which luxury railway hotels were constructed in locations seen as exhibiting the scenic properties of the aesthetic sublime. "A Fertile Wilderness" examines the railway's ready-made farm program of 1909 to 1914, which envisioned the redemption of sprawling Prairie wilderness areas within picturesque farming communities. "A Recreational Wilderness" examines a bungalow camp program from 1919 to 1929 that promoted the forests as a haven for riding, hiking, and residing in rustic cabins. Finally, "A Primitive Wilderness" examines the C.P.R.-sponsored Banff Indian Days festival that was fully formed between 1911 and 1929, in which Natives were associated with images of untouched wilderness settings belonging to a distant past. This thesis studies how both the railway infrastructure itself and its landscapes came to be constructed as aesthetic objects, relating to landscape traditions in Europe and North America, and contributing to the conceptualization of wilderness as an integral part of cultural nationalism in Canada.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Frampton, Kenneth B.
Di Palma, Vittoria Emily
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 29, 2011