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Author recounts stories from Kettle Valley Railway history
In the early 20th century, the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) played a major role in shaping development across the southern British Columbia interior, including Osoyoos.
Some of that history was brought to life last week when author, engineer and historian Barrie Sanford gave a talk and slide show to about 40 people at the Anarchist Mountain Presentation Centre. The talk was organized by the Anarchist Mountain Community Society.
Sanford signed copies of his books after the talk, including one called McCulloch’s Wonder, which documents the history of the KVR.
That book, first published in 1977 and still in print, has sold 60,000 copies, far more than many Canadian bestsellers achieve in their lifetimes.
The self-acknowledged railway buff was full of fascinating anecdotes about the railway’s construction, which began in 1910, a few years before the First World War.
Many of the workers, he said, were immigrants from Eastern Europe, who actually worked in suits that they picked up cheaply in Eastern Canada before making the trip west.
The source of these suits, Sanford said, was undertakers who knew that their deceased clients would no longer need them and that the buyers were going west and wouldn’t be seen wearing Uncle Harry’s suit around town.
Conditions were so bad in tunnels choked with coal smoke that many workers urinated onto rags and held these to their faces to filter the fumes, Sanford recounted.
“I imagine WorkSafeBC would have had a problem with it,” he said dryly.
The early railway builders, who worked in some of Canada’s toughest terrain, lacked modern technology. Work was done with picks, shovels, hand drills and wheelbarrows along with explosives. Sometimes progress was measured by only a few feet a day, Sanford said.
Nonetheless, the railway builders were smart about using the technology they did have, he points out.
As one example, they were able to calculate elevation by measuring barometric pressure using devices similar to a barometer.
In order to compensate for pressure differences resulting from weather rather than elevation, readings were compared with a device at the camp in a fixed location. This method allowed elevations to be calculated within about 25 feet, said Sanford.
The history of southern B.C. before the KVR is also fascinating and much of it was shaped by the mining that developed throughout the region in the later part of the 19th century.
After the discovery of gold and silver in the 1860s, thousands of Americans flooded into the area, threatening British sovereignty.
With mountain ranges running north to south, the geography was wrong for Canadian railway building, Sanford said.
The Americans could simply build railroads up the valleys, encroaching into Canada, and connecting with American networks such as the Great Northern Railway.
At last, with the economy booming and railways being built everywhere, the KVR was started as a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).
Andrew McCulloch was chosen to lead construction and about 10,000 labourers were engaged using picks and shovels.
One of the challenges, aside from the difficult route, was that workers needed 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day – food that had to be brought in.
Once completed in 1915, the railway reversed the flow of goods, sending them to the coast instead of over the border.
Telegraph lines along the tracks provided instant communication, “the internet of the day,” Sanford said.
“It made it much easier for travel,” he said. “You could go across southern British Columbia in 24 hours now instead of weeks. People could go back and forth. If you needed medical treatment, you could go to a specialist in Vancouver.”
Products like coal, for example, were virtually useless before they could be transported and the railway made it possible.
Later, a spur line was built down to Osoyoos and Oliver from the mainline through Penticton.
By the end of the Second World War, however, the KVR went into a slow decline as it faced growing competition from automobile transport and even aircraft.
The Coquihalla section especially was difficult to maintain, with landslides doing costly damage. Gradually sections were abandoned, and the last portion of the KVR was shut down in 1990.
Today, other than an excursion train near Summerland, all that remains is hiking and biking trails along many portions of the abandoned railway bed.
The other legacy of the KVR is in place names, especially in the Coquihalla.
As Sanford notes, McCulloch was a lover of Shakespeare, and many of the names along the route are those of Shakespearean characters.
Although he is a railway buff, Sanford said he doesn’t have an overly romanticized view.
“I like to think I have an honest understanding of what went on,” he said. “I’m not trying to make it like it was something it wasn’t.”
Nor can we turn back the clock to the railway era, he adds.
“It just isn’t going to happen and I don’t think we should try,” he said.