Part three in a series celebrating 100 years of railroad history in the North Thompson Valley, 1915 – 2015.
William Mackenzie and Donald Mann formed the Canadian Northern Railway in 1901. The Yellowhead Pass was chosen because it offered only a 3,712 feet elevation. The route was expected to be less costly to build. Certainly it would save fuel once trains were rolling, since the grade was never as steep. Surveyors were sent into the North Thompson valley in 1909.
From Edmonton to Tete Jaune, two competing companies laid track. From Tete Jaune, the Grand Trunk headed west to Prince Rupert, while the Canadian Northern Railway turned south into the North Thompson valley.
In 1910 the British Columbia government provided public money to fund the project.
Estimated costs were agreed to be $35,000 per mile. It soon became apparent that excavations, swamps, fill, curves, bridges, blasting, tunnels and trestles would require an additional $10,000 per mile from Yellowhead Pass to Hope.
S.S. Distributor, the last and largest sternwheeler to travel this river, could carry 200 tons, drew 36 inches when loaded and ran up the North Thompson from Kamloops to Pea Vine (downstream from Vavenby) three times per week. Boasting 600 horsepower she could carry a massive cargo: “four locomotives, two steam shovels, numbers of dump cars, light steel rails, other equipment” as Frank Holt’s memoirs recall.
It was only possible to use the steamship from May to July during high water. The wood-burning engine gave local workers the opportunity to sell firewood at $3 per cord.
Although the valley runs north-south, in railroad terms, the line always runs east-west.
East of Pea Vine, all freight had to be hauled by horse or mule drawn wagons or pack-trains. Many independent workers were hired to continuously haul heavy loads up the tote road.
To prepare for the track-laying machinery, camps of men were sent ahead to address the more difficult and time consuming challenges. Work gangs, including a surveyor, an engineer and men with skills for drilling, handling explosives and heavy labour, would live on-site in log and canvas tents.
To begin work on a rock-face, the engineering party would be suspended from ropes until they found the best way. Next, the work gang chopped steps to the site so men could hammer tempered steel drill bits, boring holes into the rock. When a series of drill holes was ready it was time to tamp in explosives, place the fuse, seal it, and call “Fire in the hole!” After the blast, the rubble had to be cleared away, to be used as fill in low-lying areas.
Between Tete Jaune and Kamloops there were originally three tunnels. Two of them were built with wooden beams and liners to shore up the loose material and have since been removed after problems with falling rock, water seepage, ice forming and unstable conditions. The only existing rock tunnel is east of Messiter and Little Hells Gate. It is short but still an attraction for tourists travelling by train, even after 100 years.
The first trestles were built with green timbers cut near the site. Later, treated timbers and/or steel frames were installed. Fire was a constant hazard. As a result, many trestles were filled in in later years.
Mile 44 Bridge
It took 1,000 men and two steam engines to build the Mile 44 bridge east of Vavenby in 1912. In 1916 the present concrete footings were poured and the present day curved bridge was built.
To begin making grade, there were trees to fell. Today, is hard to imagine the reality of men with pick axes, shovels and wheel barrows inching along, ending with a smooth road-bed.
Teams of horses pulling scoops and scrapers, dumping their load removed from high spots to fill low spots. If a steam shovel could be brought in, it could speed up progress, yet it also had to be fuelled by hand-cut firewood, filled with water carried in buckets, tended by mechanics with hand tools.
Once the right of way was ready, track was laid.
A steam powered conveyor brought ties forward. Men distributed tie plates, which protected the wooden ties from the weight of the train.
Next, cables drew up rail, men measured the gauge and bolted a “fish-plate” connecting the previous rail with the newly installed rail. Hammers rang as the spikes were driven to hold the rail to the ties. Riding on the new track, the “pioneer” track-laying machinery moved forward to repeat the sequence. Last, gravel was poured out of ballast cars and men used heavy metal bars to tamp the ballast under the ties to keep the track level and solidly in place.