1460 Trainspotting in the Kootenays

When Trains Ruled the Kootenays: A Short History of Railways in Southeastern British Columbia
by Terry Gainer

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2022
$25.00  /  9781771604017

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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Trainspotting in the Kootenays: Did we miss the train as a better way to travel in the 21st century?

When I was a kid growing up in the Kootenays, we used to place pennies on the train track and wait for the Nelson-bound Canadian Pacific Railway diesel engine to roar past us as we hid in the nearby bushes. Trainspotting, I suppose. That’s one of the reasons this small book caught my eye. There were other reasons as well, history being one.

The best part of reading Trains is the glimpses we get of the incredible history of development in the region. None of it would have happened without William Cornelius Van Horne of the CPR, Daniel C. Corbin of the Spokane Falls and Northern (the first American railway to reach the Kootenays), and John J. Hill of the Great Northern.

These were the rival capitalist visionaries who competed to push track through impossible terrain in the 1890s to open up the commerce fed by coal, lead, zinc, precious metals and forest products. The Silver Rush in the Slocan district drove the race to build a rail system.

The Kaslo & Sandon train crossing a trestle near Whitewater

Wagon roads and mule trains were eventually replaced by the great iron horses that converted the Kootenays from prospectors’ backwater to a thriving commercial hub of BC. The rugged Kootenay terrain forced some miraculous engineering feats to create a network that moved products and people to Canadian centres east and west.

The rapidly increasing flow of goods and people necessitated an associated nautical creation, the grand sternwheelers, or “crow boats.” Both modest and three-decked luxury ferries plied the waters of the Kootenay and Arrow Lakes and along the vast Columbia River to smelters and markets in Spokane, Washington.

Eventually, a busy network of these lake- and river- worthy craft with names like the SS Kuskanook, Nasookin, Nelson, Trail, Kaslo, Minto, Slocan and Moyie transported mine workers, settlers and supplies as the region boomed.

The maiden voyage of SS Nasookin to Kaslo, May 24, 1913

When I wasn’t trainspotting in my youth, I got to ride one of the last operating versions of these proud floating monuments on trips from Balfour near Nelson to Kootenay Bay near Riondel. The Moyie is the last of them, still serving as a museum in Kaslo.

Luxury hotels, like the Banff Springs, Chateaux Laurier and Frontenac, were a second innovation that proved lucrative. As the marketing experts predicted, the Kootenay region would attract tourism to supplement the mining and smelting economy. The CPR was quick to recognize the potential of the growing tourist traffic.

Travellers could ride the rails in comfort enjoying dining cars, sleepers and dome cars where they could watch the mountain scenery. When per chance they stopped at the Kootenay Lake Hotel or vacationed at Halycon Hot Springs north of Nakusp, they landed in a slice of uncharacteristic splendour amidst spectacular natural beauty.

First passenger train from Sproat’s Landing to Nelson, on Taghum Bridge, June 1892

Gainer takes us through a dizzying crisscross map of tracks marking out the train and sternwheeler routes that were woven into the Kootenays. We cheer on as royalty and other dignitaries make stops in the region and we join the huge crowds of smelter workers brought to Nelson’s Lakeside Park for an annual picnic.

Other annual events like the Rossland Winter Festival and the various fruit fairs were also well served by train transport. Shoppers were whisked off to the “big city” of Spokane for exclusive buying day trips. Rival hockey teams were able to meet their competitors in games away from home, helping sustain league play in an area that easily qualified as ‘sports mad’. “Special excursion rates” encouraged skiers to hop aboard the train to Rossland’s Red Mountain.

It was a transportation heyday and Gainer provides us with a glimmer of the times, some of the historic events that marked them, and the sheer exuberance of witnessing a how a tiny corner of Canada rode trains into its future.

Japanese internment camp train, Slocan City, 1942
Terry Gainer

This is not a detailed history, more an anecdotal personal journey narrated by a writer who grew up with trains, worked around them, and clearly loves them. A helpful index is missing, but what adds enormously to the book is the substantial collection of photographs that depict the amazing developments of rail travel in the Kootenays.

Our historic train journey at an end, Gainer leaves us with this food for thought: “One hundred years ago, you could travel on scheduled service from any point in the Kootenays to another,” while “public transportation today is virtually nonexistent.” We can now get there faster, but gone is the pleasure of the tracks.

Oh, that penny I mentioned at the start? It came out flat as a tin can top. I still have one of them on a keychain somewhere just to remind me of bygone days, better days perhaps.

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Ron Verzuh in Nelson

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker who takes the train whenever the opportunity presents itself. His latest book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer, and an earlier book, Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy and has recently reviewed books by Marilyn KrieteMichael NeitzelPeter J. SmithChad Reimer, Robin Winks, and Tom Wishart, Janice Baker, & Lynn Campbell. Ron lives in Victoria.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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