The Great Canadian Tunnel Story

Hope, BC, Canada

September 9th, 2002

For our last adventure in Canada, we stopped at Hope, BC., just above the US border.  A nice small community, once known for the Olympics,  held other secrets of the past in its most unusual approach to the creation of a railroad through the region. Now abandoned, the once prosperous train route is part of a local park system.  Just outside the town is a parking lot and a trail that leads back to the old track bed, the track having been removed long ago.  The main attraction is the half dozen tunnels cut through some of the most rugged mountains in the area.  From placards posted along the way we learned that in constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway, Prime Minister John MacDonald feared that if the line ran too close to the US border it risked the danger of being captured by aggressive Americans.  As it turned out, it was an economic invasion in the 1800s which proved to be more of a threat.  The competition from American railway companies to establish a line into the mineral rich Kootenays was strong. A personal grudge intensified the battle.  After quarrelling with CPR President William Van Horne, James J Hill, vowing revenge, left the CPR and went on to be the president of the US company Great Northern.  With CPR sponsorship the Kettle Valley Railroad proposed to build a line through the Coquihalla Pass.  Such a route would be more challenging but also more direct then the roundabout alternative of going north to the Nicola Valley.  Running along the north bank of the Coquihalla River, the line used a 2.2% grade over most of the 36 mile climb from near sea level at Hope to the 3646 foot Coquihalla summit.  But only 4 miles from Hope, the Conquihalla River presented a straight walled canyon rising vertically from the riverbed to a height of more than 300 feet.  This was one of many difficult obstacles Engineer Andrew McCulloch encountered as he designed a railway which would cross 3 major mountain ranges.  As we walked along I couldn't help but marvel at natures rugged exposure and man's irresistible attempts to curb its violent manner to his own desires.  Tunnel building in the early 1900s was for the most part done by hand with a generous  application of some very basic explosives.  It was long tiring work.  As we wandered along we could still find the tool marks where stone has been hacked away by hand, shaping and finishing the walls. The railroad was built between 1913 and 1916 at an average cost of 136 thousand pounds (Canada's dollar at the time), a mile, which is some 5 times the average cost of railways at that time. The most expensive mile being some 300 thousand pounds for a mile near the summit.  The entire run required 43 bridges which used up 22 million board feet of lumber and 4500 tons of steel.  The Kettle Valley Railway engineer, Andrew McCulloch, was an avid fan of William Shakespeare.  McCulloch, who was said to have sat around the evening campfire with KVR construction workers reciting Shakespearean poetry, used the names of characters from the plays to name stations along the Coquihalla line.  In addition to a railway engineering marvel, he created something of a cultural curiosity.  Between Brookmore and Hope, some of the stations were names Juliet, Romeo, Lago, Porftia, Jessica, Lear and here just east of Hope, Othello.  The Kettle Valley Railway also earned the distinction of being the mot difficult railway in the country to operate.  Rock, mud and snow slides caused disruptions to service, particularly on the Coquihalla section, which was shut down more than it operated in its first seven winters. So hazardous was the terrain through the Coquihalla that many people believed that trains in both directions were scheduled to cross after dark so that passengers would not see the terrifying canyons far below.  For 48 years the railway provided both freight and passenger service between the Kootenays and the Coast.  Eventually better roads and air travel drew more and more passengers away.  Then in November 1959 heavy rain dealt a crushing blow, washing out sections of the Coquihalla line. The damage was never repaired, and in 1961 the Kettle Valley Railway's Coquihalla line was officially closed.  It took about an hour to get to to the sight of the famed rock slide and the end of the trail.  All in all it is one of the better free activities we found in Canada.

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