Canada welcomed British Columbia and its many resources into Confederation in 1871 with the promise of a railway that would extend from sea to sea. Fourteen years later the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) arrived in BC – a little later than planned – but here none the less. Unfortunately the CPR didn’t actually have track that serviced the people of Southern BC where mineral deposits like silver, were being discovered and a fruit industry was blossoming and would become world renown if only it could get to the coast!
In the 1890’s the CPR had extended their service to the South Okanagan constructing the Shuswap & Okanagan Railway from Sicamous on the CPR Mainline through to Okanagan Landing on Okanagan Lake. From that point CPR sternwheeler ships traveled south to Penticton carrying people and freight and making frequent stops along the way.
But this was a long trip to the coast or points east for people living in the South Okanagan and the demand came about for a “Coast-to-Kootenay” connection. Although rails were being laid by the CPR in other parts of BC, it was an American railroader, J.J. Hill who was making headway in the southern part of the province. He was trying to bring a rail line up from Spokane through Oroville and eventually this was accomplished with the acquisition the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railroad. It arrived in Keremeos in 1907, and in Hedley and Princeton two years later. The CPR, which was now under the leadership of Thomas Shaughnessy, had created the Columbia & Western Railway through the Crow’s Nest Pass to Midway. They had also put down track for the Nicola, Kamloops and Similkameen Railway.
In 1901 there had been a charter created for the Kettle River Valley Railway (KRVR) which was to connect a mine at Republic and a smelter at Grand Forks. It never materialized but an Ontario lawyer, J.J. Warren had taken over the financial problems of the almost defunct KRVR. He decided to have a chat with the CPR president Shaughnessy about the future of BC’s railways. He knew Sir Thomas “was a man deeply involved with the province and its future… and had personally founded a number of business enterprises in southern BC including the development of the Summerland Development Company which became largely responsible for making Okanagan fruit world famous” (Sanford, 1988). Warren envisioned an alliance of the CPR and the KRVR which represented a subsidiary corporation and could be used to legally expand the rails west from Midway. And so the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) was born and survey work began in 1910 from Midway to Penticton (Carmi division) and Penticton to Merritt (Princeton division). Shaughnessy felt that the line should also go through the Coquihalla Pass in order for the railway to be successful and work began on this subdivision a year later.
One of the many KVR engineering achievements designed by Andrew McCulloch was the Trout Creek Trestle Bridge in Summerland, which stretched 619 feet across and 238 feet above the Canyon floor. It was and is known as the “infinitesimal” bridge – “incalculable, inestimable, great and fathomless”. It was the highest structure of its kind on the KVR and the third largest of its kind in North America at the time it was built. The Trout Creek Bridge was upgraded in 1927 & 1928 by filling in the Trestle approaches and replacing trestle work with steel girders.
The earlier trains on the KVR were routed from Midway to Spence’s Bridge where they hooked up with the CPR mainline, but after July of 1916(the Coquihalla subdivision was complete and the trains traveled south from Brodie to Hope, meeting up with the CPR mainline there.) In time the Coquihalla subdivision proved too much to handle suffering many washouts and snow and rock slides, so in 1959, after a series of abandonment, it was closed and the earlier route adopted once more. We must mention the increasing option of air travel so the KVR found its express service too expensive to maintain. In January, 1964 the final passenger run was made and eight years later the Carmi subdivision from Midway to Penticton was shut down and eventually the tracks were torn up.
While the KVR is said to have been built between 1910-1915 there were Branch lines added to the KVR mainline i.e.: at the end of World War One, a spur was constructed from Princeton to the mines at Copper Mountain; another eight-mile link line was added in 1930, from Penticton to Okanagan Falls. In order to increase fruit shipments to Great Britain during World War Two, this line was extended to Osoyoos. The CPR had officially taken over the KVR operations in 1930 and with the country in the throes of depression and the harsh decline in railway business; they decided to construct these rail lines in order to tap new sources of revenue. .
Freight continued to run from Okanagan Falls to Spence’s Bridge until 1989. Much of the track was lifted within a few years except for a sixteen-kilometre stretch from the Trout Creek Bridge to Faulder.
In Summary… The KVR was built between 1910 and 1916 under the direction of Andrew McCulloch, Chief Engineer for the CPR’s new line in the southern interior of British Columbia. He was hired to build the Coast-to-Kootenay connection when the fear of leaving BC’s mineral wealth vulnerable to exploitation by our neighbours reached its peak. Politicians and corporate leaders including CPR President Thomas Shaughnessy and James J Warren (the first President and originator of the whole idea of the line), stood behind the economic challenge and they moved to protect our province’s resources. The result was the building of 325 miles (500 kilometres) of rail over and through three mountain ranges. Like all railway construction of that era the work was backbreaking, brutal and dangerous and thousands of workers, most of them immigrants recruited to come to Canada specifically for this work, toiled in very difficult conditions for years to complete this monumental task….more than a few lost their lives in the effort. Once completed and over time, the KVR experienced the challenges all railways faced as transportation progress brought more and better roads as well as more easily accessible air travel. These factors, coupled with the challenges of operating a railway in face of the difficult terrain and weather, took their toll – by 1964, passenger service had ceased and in 1989, the last freight train rode the rails.
Today the KVR is alive again, thanks to a dedicated society and financial assistance from our municipal, regional, provincial & federal governments. We gratefully acknowledge all of the above and the co-operation of the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan and dedicated citizens of Summerland and the Okanagan Valley for keeping BC Railway Heritage Alive!
The Kettle Valley Steam Railway is operated by the Kettle Valley Railway Society, a non-profit, charitable organization that welcomes memberships in order to continue the restoration of this important national historic site.