Politics has plagued railways for a very, very long time.
In fact, the one railway company that likes to boast about being Canada’s first trans-continental railway only became that way under political pressure.
It was back in 1881 when the CPR – Canadian Pacific Railway was incorporated. They built their ribbon of steel from eastern Canada to British Columbia between 1881 and 1885. British Columbia at the time was a separate colony when the CPR was formed.
In fact, the Colony of British Columbia was already 23 years old when the CPR came into existence. A series of gold rushes, which started in 1858 with the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, brought thousands of miners to the region known as New Caledonia. It was because of the influx of new ‘temporary’ residents that the mainland was designated as the Colony of British Columbia.
The Offer To Join Confederation
The first Prime Minister of Canada - Sir John A. MacDonald - figures prominently in the politics of BC’s railways.
July 1, 1867 was his official first day in office however, he had been working on something called ‘confederation’ as far back as 1864. In the years that followed the formation of Canada as a new entity, MacDonald embarked on drawing the Colony of British Columbia into the fold.
But he needed a good sales pitch.
The suggestion of becoming part of a vast land mass, that was mostly centred in what is now the territory from Ontario to the Maritimes, must have sounded unattractive to BC.
Then Sir John A. started to grease the wheels.
You see, the Prime Minister had a political dream. It was promoted as the National Dream and for a few tense months it fluctuated between being a national nightmare to a national daydream.
The issue was how to get British Columbia on board. Pressure was coming from Quebec and Ontario where manufacturing companies were sprouting up everywhere and wanted access to the raw materials that still existed – mostly undiscovered – under the surface of the ground in a place known as the Colony of British Columbia.
Sir John A. had an ally in Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt. He was the owner of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company. He had buckets and buckets of raw material he wanted to get out to Quebec and Ontario.
At the time, British Columbia was only joined to eastern Canada by a four-month long sea voyage. Galt insisted that a land transportation link between British Columbia and the rest of Canada be a condition for joining Confederation. Originally, Galt wanted a wagon road but since the CPR was already a few thousand miles of track closer to BC…the Federal government proposed a railway.
It sounded good on paper.
Then someone noticed that the Rocky Mountains were kinda rugged and kinda tall. The political wizards of the day felt the logical path of the Canadian National Rail line was through the American Midwest. However, as governments tend to do when they want things done, huge incentives started flowing along with the granting of massive pieces of land in the West.
Bribery and Scandal
It is interesting to note that at this time Canada’s first truly international railway was um, riding the rails of a political scandal.
It was in 1873 that the Conservative government was found to have awarded the construction contracts based on an interesting scale.
The biggest bribe offered got the contract.
And it should be no surprise to anyone that John A. MacDonald’s government was overthrown in office later that year – because of the system used to award contracts was a tad sneaky.
Enter Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal party.
The actions of Sir John A’s government – accepting bribes for construction contracts - became known as the Pacific Scandal.
However, it was deemed okay to for the government to bribe the Colony of British Columbia with something called the National Dream.
Mining Forces The Need For More Rail Lines
By the 1880’s, Canada was finally united by a single railway. However, mining activity in British Columbia saw several smaller rail lines built. The Great Northern Railway was scooping a great deal of traffic and in 1896 CPR was forced – those are their words – to build a second rail line across BC, somewhat further south than their original line.
Enter the Kettle Valley Railway and more British Columbia railway politics.
Increasing mining activity in the province became the part of the supply and demand equation that turned some heads. The CPR route, completed in 1885 as a political promise – or a bribe – to bring British Columbia into Confederation in 1871, ran sort of through the lower midsection of the province. You know, below your beltline but not too low.
The heavy mining activity in BC at the time was quite a way below that belt line. CPR was missing out on some prime traffic and actually came under fire for not running their track along the Dewdney Trail.
The Path Of Least Resistance
Let’s look at that for a moment.
Dewdney and the Royal Engineers crossed the lower portion of BC on a path that was easy for foot traffic, pack horses and assorted other animals. You’d think that with a transportation route already established in the easiest location to go from ‘here to there’ that it was the most logical choice for a rail line.
Logic had nothing to do with it…it was all political.
After all, the fear when CPR ran steel into BC was that they were doing it to secure the territory in the name of Canada before anyone in the US caught wind of the gold rush activity in the Fraser and Similkameen.
Funny when you consider the majority of the miners heading to the Fraser and Similkameen were from The States to begin with. But there was no internet. There was no fax machine technology. The postal system was sketchy at best as was the quality of news reporting.
(Some things oddly have yet to change).
Keeping The Americans At Bay
Well, as soon as silver, and gold were discovered in southern BC, thousands of American prospectors flooded the region in 1887. The recently completed Northern Pacific Railway that ran down to Spokane was almost like a gift to these non-Canadian miners.
Politicians of the federal and provincial kind quickly agreed that a second railway was needed in order to halt the hemorrhaging and to assist in keeping Canadian sovereignty preserved.
It was called the Coast-to-Kootenay Railway. The terrain proved to be challenging so the CPR took on the task of what basically amounted to smaller local area railways that would eventually be joined together to make a single second British Columbia railway.
This, by the way, is the same methodology adopted by the push to create Canada’s first cross-country trail network. You may have heard of it, it’s had a few different names such as The Great Trail…the Trans-Canada Trail…you know, kinda like Sir John A’s National Dream, a ribbon of trails where the trains used to be.
Examples of the smaller rail lines CPR looked at connecting included the Nicola Valley Railway that connected Merritt to the CPR mainline at Spences Bridge. The Midway & Vernon Railway was proposed to join all points between the two locations to the westernmost CPR station at Midway.
It didn’t fly.
Then the Kettle Valley Railway was launched. It started in Hope and connected with Great Northern track through Brookmere, Tulameen and Princeton. It then followed CP track from Jura to Osprey Lake, to Summerland, Penticton, Beaverdell and ended at Midway.
The KVR opened in 1915 and added spur lines where needed such as from Princeton to Copper Mountain and from Oliver to Penticton.
Here’s the political part about the KVR – as if there hasn’t been enough. Most of the Kettle Valley line was constructed in response to the construction of the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway (the VV&E) which was owned by the Great Northern Railway.
The CPR and GNR had been in fierce competition in the Kootenays and the construction of the KVR sort of acted like a buffer, cooling the tension.
Although the KVR was a separate entity, it was a political football used by CPR senior management and was eventually taken over and fully controlled by the CPR in 1931.
In 1957 the Copper Mountain spur line became the first section of the KVR to be abandoned. The closure of the mine there brought an end to that section of line. In 1959 a large portion of the Coquihalla subdivision was abandoned. By 1978 the KVR was officially labeled as completely abandoned.
Since the track was removed several politicians in communities that once had rail track cutting through their neighbourhoods have struggled with finding the right solution for this lineal stretch of property that has no other practical use. In some communities it became a trail – of some kind.
Fast Forward To Present Day
The Trans-Canada Trail system was born in 1992. Princeton is mentioned as part of the route that cuts through British Columbia. Politics continues to plague the trail system, particularly the small section that falls within the municipal boundaries of the Town of Princeton.
That’s when local government got their turn to throw some more politics into the mix.
These are the people, by the way, that residents turn to to keep things on track.
At a time when rumours and speculation started to swirl - largely thanks to something called social media - a movement was born.
The section within the town boundaries was slated to be designated as a non-motorized trail.
Motorized vehicles were not going to be restricted, they were going to be completely banned.
For the first time in the 101 years since that railway cut through the region as a transportation route – designed specifically for vehicles propelled with locomotion – those vehicles responsible for leading the development of the region were now going to have to find somewhere else to go.
Motorized Vehicles Not Allowed
Town Council gives a bylaw to ban motorized use on the section of the KVR within town boundaries three readings.
A petition, a rally and a lot of noise ensues to fight the bylaw from going into effect.
More people attend a town council meeting than had collectively sat through one during the entire previous year.
The petition is presented to Town Council. They ignore it and Bylaw 925 is passed.
There was a slight back-pedal. The wording of the bylaw in its original state not only banned motorized vehicles on the section of the KVR that cuts through the town, it also read that if you had an ATV that you used to – for example – plow your driveway in winter – you weren’t allowed to do that.
That little wrinkle got corrected.
An Election Issue
Town Council eventually forms a committee to look at creating a bypass around the Town, on property that is mostly in Area H – which, by the way – the Town has no jurisdiction.
The committee spends more time spinning its wheels than actually moving forward.
True to the history of rail lines in British Columbia, the issue of the Bylaw becomes an election issue.
20 candidates file papers, 2 eventually drop out.
The end result?
The entire council is derailed.
The railways in BC have been political issues from the very first day when the CPR was offered up as a carrot to entice the Colony of British Columbia to join confederation...right up to the banning of motorized traffic on the one transportation route that opened up the West.
I hope you have enjoyed my presentation. I thank ATVBC, the Princeton ATV Club, Similkameen ATV Riders, sponsors and other partners for this weekend's event and for giving me an opportunity to share with you this story.
My name is George Elliott. I have been in the Media Industry since 1978. I spent 23 years in Broadcasting and worked in a total of six different radio stations located in southern British Columbia Canada during my career. In 2000 I switched gears and moved into the Print Media Industry at a small town, local weekly community newspaper. In 2004 I bought the paper and operated it with my wife, Brenda until July 2016 when we closed it. I launched a freelance web content and article writing business from my home in January 2014.