The Trails Society of British Columbia
A Kettle Valley Railway Primer
The Kettle Valley Railway, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was constructed in 1910-1916 to provide an all-Canadian railway communication between the Kootenay mining region in the southern interior of British Columbia and the B.C. coast near Vancouver. The 500 km (300 mile) long railway commenced at Midway, at the western terminus of the CPR’s Crowsnest Pass railway (the Columbia and Western Railway) in the Kootenay Mining Region, and ran westward across three mountain summits (the Monashee Mountain Range, the Interior Plateau, and the Cascades Mountains), and through two deep valleys (the Okanagan, and the Tulameen), to the Fraser River Valley. It established an uninterrupted rail communication from the Kootenays to the Coast by connecting with the CPR mainline in the Fraser River Valley.
In running westward from Midway, the Kettle Valley Railway passed through the mining centres of Beaverdell and Carmi, crossed over the Okanagan Highlands of the Monashee Mountain Range, to Penticton in the Okanagan Valley, and beyond over Trout Creek Canyon to West Summerland, crossed the Interior Plateau of the Cascades Mountains, to Princeton and Coalmount in the Tulameen Valley, and then ascended into the Cascades Mountains to Brodie Junction. There the rail line branched both northwards down the Coldwater River Valley to Merritt where it joined an existing CPR branch line (the Nicola Branch), leading westward to the CPR mainline at Spences Bridge in the Thompson River Valley, and also southwards along the Coquihalla River Valley to connect, via the narrow Coquihalla Pass through the Hope Mountains, with the CPR mainline at Odlum in the lower Fraser River Valley, near Hope. The headquarters of the railway was at Penticton in the Okanagan Valley.
The Kettle Valley Railway served the Kootenay Mining Region of the southern interior of British Columbia for 85 years, and for many of those years operated both as a freight and passenger railway. However, passenger service was phased out by 1964, as private cars rapidly supplanted rail travel with the opening of highways from the coast into the interior, and freight service ended in 1989 in the face of a severe competition from trucking companies. Sections of the railway were abandoned piecemeal as freight traffic declined: the Coquihalla section in 1961, following a severe washout; the Midway to Penticton section, in which the Myra Canyon is located, in 1978; and the last operating section, Penticton to Merritt, in 1990. After each abandonment, the railway tracks, a number of the steel bridges, and most of the ancillary railway structures (stations, section houses, freight sheds, engine houses and turntables, tools sheds, and the telegraph line, etc.) were demolished, and the rail yards and sidings obliterated; as earlier, following the dieselization of the Kettle Valley Railway in 1953-54, the coaling towers and almost all of the water tanks of the steam locomotive era were removed. However, a large number of the most significant bridges, tunnels, trestles, rock cuts and embankments, and the railbed, with many short gaps, survive today within the former right-of-way property of the 500 km long railway.
The surviving engineering works and the routing of the extant railbed, which winds through a highly mountainous terrain with numerous grades and curves, and imaginative alignments, are the most distinguishing extant features of the Kettle Valley Railway. In British Columbia, the mountain ranges run in a north-south direction, and railways in crossing the province were routed to follow river courses and passes through the mountains, with settlements springing up subsequently along the rail line; whereas the Kettle Valley Railway did not. It was constructed to provide a direct Kootenays to Coast rail connection across the southern interior of the province, and had to be routed to link existing mining centres up in the mountains and potential areas for settlement and development in the intervening valleys.
For most of its route the Kettle Valley Railway follows a sinuous route through an exceptionally rugged terrain, as it winds around and over mountains, twists through narrow canyons, and ascends and descends through numerous significant changes in elevation. Indeed, there are few straight or level sections of any great length over the full length of the railway. For much of its length in the mountainous areas the rail line runs through sparsely populated or uninhabited land. In the Okanagan Highlands and the upper Tulameen Valley, the mining towns have all but been deserted following the closures of the mines, and in the Coquihalla and Coldwater valleys up in the Cascades Mountains, there is little settlement.
In a truly outstanding feat of railway construction engineering, KVR Chief Engineer Andrew McCulloch managed to locate, layout, and construct a railway directly through the Myra Canyon by seemingly hanging the supporting engineering works around the rim of the canyon, several thousand feet above the canyon floor. The railway swung into the canyon, just west of Myra Station, on a 0.40% ascending grade, and was literally shaped and fitted to the contours of the canyon walls in winding around the U-shaped canyon and across two large gaps in the canyon walls where the East Canyon and West Canyon (Pooley) creeks had cut deep cleavages. In a distance of but six miles, twenty major wood trestles were constructed to carry the rail line across wide gaps, deep cleavages, and depressions in the canyons walls; and all were built on a curve, or tangents to a curve, with from 7 to 12 degrees of curvature to conform to the natural contours of the canyon walls, and thereby minimize rock excavation on the sections between the trestles. Indeed, one trestle, at Mile 87.4, was built in an S-configuration, with a 12 degree right turn followed by a 12 degree left turn to conform to the winding configuration of the canyon wall in proceeding from east to west at that location.
In all cases, the curvature of the rail line was minimized through long graceful curves across several trestles, and by turning the rail line gradually throughout the length of the longer trestles. The largest of the wood frame trestles, the trestle at Mile 87.9 crossing the West Canyon Creek, was a stupendous structure, 750' long and 182' high, and turned the rail line almost 90 degrees over its entire length at the head of the canyon, while not exceeding a curvature of 12 degrees anywhere along its entire length. Although the Myra Canyon trestles were not the largest ever constructed on a Canadian railway, they were of a comparable size, and in their location, configurations, number, and alignments, the trestles in the Myra Canyon were impressive engineering works, and are unmatched today on any other six-mile section of a Canadian railway.
On the whole length of the railway through the Myra Canyon only two tunnels and three deep rock cuts were required; and they were built either on curves or tangents to curves to conform to the alignment of the rail line winding around the canyon walls. However, they were substantial works. The East Tunnel at Mile 85.7 was 375' long on a 12 degree curve; the West Tunnel at Mile 86.4 was 277.5' long on a 7 degree curve ; and the rock cuts at Mile 84.7 and Mile 86.7 were 30' to 40' deep and bisected solid rock outcrops on the canyon walls. In each case, these works were left as blasted out of the rocks, devoid of any masonry adornment or dressing of the rock face beyond some scaling to remove loose rock.
Overall, the construction and positioning of the trestles greatly minimize the amount of rock excavation that would otherwise have been require to route a railway through the canyon. Indeed, it seemed to some observers that the whole length of rail line through the Myra Canyon was but a continuous line of trestles. Moreover, the line was carried almost on a level throughout the canyon. It had a slight 0.40% ascending grade from the eastern entrance to a 4,179' elevation summit level at a trestle at Mile 85.9, the highest summit level on the Kettle Valley Railway, and a slight 0.40% descending grade running westward from the summit.
No sooner was the rail line open than the awe-inspiring works high up on the mountain side in the Myra Canyon were recognized as constituting a phenomenal feat of railway engineering and construction; and McCulloch’s assistant engineers began to refer to the Kettle Valley Railway as "McCulloch’s Wonder".
Adapted with the permission of Parks Canada from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada report prepared by Robert W. Passfield, Historian, Parks Canada Agency.
For additional information, refer to the following books:
Click here for a map of the Kettle Valley Railway, prepared by Joe Smuin for his book, Canadian Pacific’s Kettle Valley Railway.
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