Tracks through B.C.’s past
BC Rail’s Cariboo Prospector line is steeped in history
By Oona Woods
Every town in the Sea to Sky Corridor is regularly affected by trains. Squamish comes to a stand-still several times a day as those long, 150-car freight trains snake through the downtown district at 30 km/h. Whistler is startled by the whistle and Pemberton-Whistler commuters keep track of the time and boot it home to try and cross the tracks before the train adds minutes to their journey.
But apart from the tracks cutting through our consciousness the train-society is largely ignored, even though a whole community travels through the corridor daily and lives out its life in co-existence with us. They are engineers, conductors, bridge and track maintenance workers, stock pushers as well as stewards and servers. These people are seeing our communities from a completely different perspective as they follow their path through the valleys.
Generally speaking trains have a pretty bad reputation for attracting some of the more "Anorak"-focused trainspotter types of the world. Expressing more than a passing interest in an express train can be a one-way ticket to nerd-ville. But there is a whole middle distance between ignoring the daily shudderings of the 9:34 a.m. to Lillooet and swapping models of B36-7s over the Internet.
British Columbia's development was always largely resource driven. The access trails and transportation corridors were beaten hand in hand with this momentum from last century's gold rush and eventually from logging. The first area to receive the gold rush touch was the Cariboo Trail in 1862, stretching from Lillooet north towards the Bakersfield mining fields near Quesnel. Focus then shifted further north when there were significant gold strikes reported beyond Prince George. To get there the rushers and white settlers used a combination of ferries, stage coaches, canoes and horses.
The Railroad that now follows that trail got underway in 1908, but it wasn’t finished until 1956, nearly a century after the gold rush was over.
The present-day BC Rail Cariboo Prospector line starts off in North Van and runs to Lillooet daily. It goes all the way to Prince George three times a week.
In the interest of getting a train-eye view of the Sea to Sky Corridor we caught up with the train at mile 39.5 in Squamish and travelled as far as Lillooet at mile 157.6, before returning to Pemberton at mile marker 95.5. One of the first things you can gather from that is that the train community never did go metric. Apparently the cost of switching everything around to be in line with federal policy was too prohibitive, so internally BC Rail continues to operate under the imperial system. Publicity material, however, will inform you that BC Rail operates the third largest freight railway in the country, behind Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, with a 1,573 km main line from North Vancouver to Fort Nelson, including branch lines.
BC Rail started off as the Howe Sound Pemberton Valley and Northern Railway, with a mandate to connect Prince George (which was Fort George at that time) with the log-taking tidewater in Squamish. In these early days the railway company went through more names than a starlet. Construction had started in 1908 and gone only 10 miles before a change of name was in order. In 1910 the company resumed work as the Howe Sound and Northern Railway. Two years later the name changed again and the company became the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. That worked for most of this century, with the name only changing to British Columbia Railways in 1972. In 1984 the handle was shortened to BC Rail.
It was during the PGE stage that the railway had its greatest growth spurt. Squamish to Quesnel — including a whistle stop in the community of Alta Lake — came on board in 1913, but the line didn't extend south of Squamish to North Vancouver until 1956.
The entire Squamish valley was covered with huge timbers at the turn of the century and the stretch of railway north was lined with hundreds of sawmills. Hence the PGE saw itself as a logging railway. Locomotive engines were used to haul logs to the tidewater. These days the freight business still makes up 90 per cent of track use, relative to passenger trips, and the majority of that freight is wood. However trucks have taken over the log hauling side of the game. BC 33 Caribou conductor Roy Lidden says this is about convenience.
"Trucks can go right from A to B. They can drive all the way down to a yard in Houston, Texas and unload... But if there is one man driving and the truck load is smaller than a box car you can't tell me the wages are the same."
Lidden has been on track for the last 30 years. His uncle also worked on the railways before him. All of his experience with BC Rail harks back to a time when a job was for life and your loyalties remained with your company. This still shows in his demeanour. As the Cariboo trail train makes its way up from Squamish through Brackendale Lidden commentates on the journey that he knows like the back of his hand with a brusque old school charm.
"We're climbing at a 2.2 grade which is the steepest grade on the journey as we make our way up through the Cheakamus River Canyon, following the river up to Whistler."
When the train passes a narrow gorge gouged through the granite rocks below the imposing Tantalus range Lidden lets his passion slip.
"Had you been motoring you'd have missed everything you've seen so far, proving once again it's better to take the train than the car."
It becomes apparent at this stage of the journey that BC Rail is not insensitive to passengers’ fascination with the surrounding scenery. Every time a particularly picturesque aspect of the country-side presents itself the train slows down so that each car has a vantage to allow photographs to be taken. As the train passes over Brandywine Falls there is a sequence of clicks as camera shutters close in canon.
This is also the one and only stage when the stewards bring round merchandise in case your enthusiasm has boiled up to the point where you find you need to pay $23 for an Engineer Bear.
After climbing through the Cheakamus Canyon, past Garibaldi and over Brandywine Falls the train piles through Function Junction in a blur, with whistles going full tilt, and approaches the Alta Lake side of Whistler. The first thing you can see from the train are the ski runs and their reflections in the lakes skirted by bikers, hikers and bladers scurrying along the Valley Trail. From this angle it does look like a mecca for recreation.
"Please check the area around your seat and in the overhead storage before disembarking," comments Lidden. "People get so excited about getting off at Whistler they leave all kinds of things behind them: money, passports. We usually manage to get the passports back to them."
From Whistler the train makes its way down to Pemberton and through Mount Currie with a route different enough from Highway 99 to provide a fresh take on all the scenery.
Lidden has a story for every bump in the tracks along the way. Between Mount Currie and D'Arcy and off the microphone he sets the scene of a terrible accident.
"It was a dark and stormy night, Dec. 12 1993. It was raining, not snowing, and we were coming around the corner at mile 101. There was a huge boulder on the tracks that had slid down off the mountain. I saw it and the engineer saw it at the same time. He was off his seat about three inches already. We made it as far as the corridor when the train hit. Thirteen people were hospitalized. As they were pulling me out of the wreckage I asked the fireman to put his coat over me to keep the rain off. Then I said 'Put the hood over my eyes the rain's landing on my head.' On the film footage of that night I look like a dead body...
"I was off work for a while and then when I came back I heard about another train hitting a rock one night and I just stood there looking at the track. I was so shocked. It really hit me... The boulder is still there at the side of the tracks. It's the one with the black marks on it."
As we pass the Gramson’s stop north of Pemberton Lidden has a different kind of story to tell.
"That place used to be known as 10 Downing Street. In the 1800s the man that lived in that house was in charge of collecting census information. He took himself very seriously with the job and someone painted 10 Downing Street on the side of his house. At that time in history it was less Ottawa that was in charge than London, (England). This guy liked the idea so much he re-painted it.
"Then Ed Gramson came along and lived in the house. He listed all these battles that he had fought in, like The Somme, on the side of the house. It was his history, he had it all there.
"One day a woman got off the train. Her name was Minnie Greer. She had come over from England and signed on as a mail order bride in Vancouver. She took one look at the homesteader she was supposed to marry and came walking back down the tracks. Ed started talking to her and in the end they lived together as man and wife for 50 years. When she took sick in her old age they tried to sign her in to the nursing home as Mrs. Gramson. She put up a real fight about that, she was still Minnie Greer."
The train rumbles on past Birken and Gates lakes, Devine and D'Arcy before taking its path around the massive Anderson Lake. All the passengers in every boat and all the campers we pass stop and wave.
"Actually, most of my job is about waving," quips the train driver Paul Vartersian.
Lidden points out geographical features like the massive rock slide into Anderson Lake. Although it still looks fresh, it happened 75 years ago. Lidden points out the huge cavity and says the majority of the debris is filling up the 800 foot depth of that section of Anderson Lake. Further down another rock slide is responsible for the lay of the land.
"About 10,000 years ago this slide divided Anderson Lake in half," says Lidden. "Trees have grown back over it and now the other side is known as Seton Lake. When prospectors were making their way up the lake they had to stop and carry their canoes over that section. Now the area is known as Seton Portage."
The BC Rail Heritage Society keeps fastidious records of the fate of each car that is constructed and bought. According to their records a few ended up in Seton Lake in 1980. The 711-MF-30 M-630, constructed in 1971, was lost there but recovered in 1988. They also lost car number 616, built in 1964, in Seton Lake.
The cars that BC Rail uses for its passenger service are unique in that they are self-propelled diesels with hydraulic transmissions, known as Budd Rail Diesel Cars.
After Seton Portage and the lake itself, the train passes Shelath before coming into Lillooet. In February 1915 a train load of dignitaries, including Premier McBride, travelled from Squamish to Lillooet to celebrate the railway’s arrival in the Interior town. Writing in the book British Columbia Railway, J. F. Gardner says:
"The dignitaries and politicians waxed eloquent when it came their time to praise the work and the town of Lillooet welcomed them at the Victoria Hotel with open arms and an open bar."
Which, in an odd recreation of history, is pretty much what happened with all the passengers on the train in August of 1998. As soon as the train stopped in Lillooet streams of passengers, lulled into a trance by a five hour journey, began wandering around the town asking locals for directions. Most of them ended up in the Lillooet Tavern.
The more you hear from people like Lidden, the more you become aware there are a thousand stories out there marked by seemingly innocent landmarks. When you consider that every length of track brought people with it, and wherever there are people there is history, culture and adventure, you know that there are probably tales in every tie.