Excerpt from When Trains Ruled the Kootenays

I recently reviewed the excellent book When Trains Ruled the Kootenays (RMB, 2022) by Terry Gainer. You can read my review here. Please enjoy this 10 page excerpt, provided by the publisher.


Daniel Chase Corbin built the first American railway into the Kootenays. Fully cognizant of the rich silver strikes and coal de- posits in the Kootenays, he knew profits were there for the taking if he could connect a feeder line to the Northern Pacific in Spokane from the new mining discoveries in the Kootenays. In 1889 Corbin chartered the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway, and by 1890 the line was complete from Spokane to Little Dalles, just south of the Canadian border on the Columbia River. Barges delivered the ore from the Canadian mines to the railhead for shipment to Spokane area smelters.

Corbin then applied to the Canadian government to extend his rail line to Nelson and Kootenay Lake. At this point, Corbin’s twisted web began to weave. The British Columbia government was concerned his request only served American interests in Spokane. Federally, British Columbia Member of Parliament John Mara vociferously opposed Corbin’s request. Ottawa denied the charter. (A couple of years later, Mara would do an about-turn.) Additionally, William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the CPR, informed the prime minis- ter that his company opposed Corbin’s application, stating the CPR would construct a rail line into the Kootenays if refused. It appeared that the CPR had finally stepped up to bat at the “Kootenay” plate.

Completing the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway to Little Dalles spurred the CPR. Sensing a deteriorating position for its plan to dominate transportation in the Kootenays, Canadian Pacific finally commenced construction on its rail line. In 1890 executive Harry Abbott successfully applied to the BC government for his Columbia & Kootenay Railway charter. Abbott then leased it to the CPR for 999 years. In the spring of 1891, CPR’s first train rolled into Nelson.

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The CPR strategy was to build the rail line from Nelson to Robson, bypassing the unnavigable waters of the Kootenay River, hauling Nelson’s ore and passengers to the CP wharf at Sproat’s Landing (Robson) on the Columbia River. From that point, CPR steamboats and barges navigated north via Arrow Lakes and the Columbia River to the main line at Revelstoke, with connections to Vancouver and eastern Canada. A new smelter was built in Revelstoke, attempting to divert the flow of ore away from Spokane. On paper it sounded feasible, but Mother Nature was not always a willing partner. Frequently in winter, parts of Arrow Lakes became icebound, and in summer it was an expensive upstream battle for the steamboats. While the passenger service prospered, the smelter failed. Canadian Pacific could lay claim to the first railway in the Kootenays, but as Van Horne eventually conceded, the Columbia and Kootenay did little to advance CP’s position. It was a stopgap solution to show the flag, avoid a significant cash outlay and buy some time.

It was back to the drawing board for the CPR, because Daniel Corbin was on the move.

Corbin had learned a valuable lesson in his first approach to the Canadian and BC governments; in the future, he would include Canadian executives to front his application to allay fears that the railroad would only be a feed to Spokane. Under his name, he then submitted an additional application in 1892, promising to build a second rail line through southern BC along the Kettle River to Vancouver. The BC government roundly refused this application. It had caused such a stir in the local political scene that the Nelson & Fort Sheppard line application, fronted by BC executives, slipped through with little notice and received approval. In a startling turnaround, Corbin’s most vocal supporter for the Kootenay line was the same federal MP, John Mara, who had so vociferously opposed his first application in 1890. Coincidentally (of course), and shortly after Corbin’s first application for a rail charter, Mara became a financial partner in the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company (CKSN), making a small fortune hauling ore to Corbin’s railhead on the Columbia River. Mara now deemed Corbin’s application to extend his rail line to Nelson “good for British Columbia.” In December 1893, the Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway commenced operations, complete to Five Mile Point, where Corbin built a railway terminal and wharf for easy connections with the Kootenay Lake steamboats. Probably not by coincidence, the newly expanded fleet of steamboats and barges of John Mara’s Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company were on hand to meet the Nelson & Fort Sheppard at Five Mile Point, ready to haul ore from the Kootenay Lake mines in even greater volumes. Corbin’s railways had proven to be a genuine threat. But the CPR was about to rejoin the fray, playing hardball by calling in political favours and then finally commencing construction of competing rail lines in the Kootenays.

When Corbin’s Nelson & Fort Sheppard line approached the overlook above Nelson, Canadian Pacific fired its second shot with a political “waterfront ploy” designed to keep Corbin’s railway out of the Nelson townsite. A CPR land agent presented Corbin’s foreman with an official document issued by British Columbia Premier John Robson. The certificate granted the CPR exclusive access to all Kootenay Lake foreshore land within the Nelson city limits. That effectively killed Corbin’s plans for a Nelson terminus and easy access to the Silver King mine. CP had hoped this action would stop construction, forcing Corbin into negotiations. But to no avail. Without hesitation, Corbin made a snap decision, electing to bypass the CPR lakefront reserve, establishing the Mountain Station above the townsite, and then drove the rail line north to Five Mile Point on the west arm of Kootenay Lake. The terminal and boat landing at Five Mile became a permanent fixture, providing a seam- less link to Spokane and the US smelters for the high-grade minerals of the Kootenays.

The CPR’s blockade did not thwart Corbin by keeping his railway out of Nelson. By the end of 1894, he had laid track along the lake back towards town. Unable to enter the city centre, he built his so-called Nelson station on the edge of the CPR waterfront tract, about a mile north of downtown. “It didn’t take long for the local press, often an ally of the CPR, to jump into the fray, labelling Corbin’s station ‘Bogustown’ because it wasn’t even in the city limits. However, it was far more convenient for potential passengers and shippers than the oxcart access to Mountain Station. 1894 also marked the year Hall Mining began shipping ore direct to Spokane on the N&FS, validating Corbin’s claim to his shareholders that the railway would be a success.” No longer a dream, the rail link from Nelson to Spokane was complete. The CPR faced another set- back in their plan to dominate in the Kootenays.

“Meanwhile, James J. Hill had begun plotting his entry into Canadian Pacific territory. In 1887 he had approached the British Columbia government for a rail charter to run from the US border to Vancouver, connecting to a line he planned to run north from Seattle. Despite opposition from Ottawa, the BC Government granted the charter, and by 1889, construction began on the New Westminster & Southern Railway. On December 2, 1891, the rail lines were complete, and the two trains met: one from Seattle and the other from Canada. The completion of Hill’s first venture in Canada predated his main line but indicated his foresight and long-term strategy.” This move caused grave concern for Van Horne and the CPR. Their worst nightmare of James J. Hill and the Great Northern in Canada became a reality.

Hill had punched his GN main line to the Pacific coast to completion in 1893, close to the Canadian border across Montana, Idaho and Washington. Hill’s vision was to hit CP where it would hurt the most by gaining entry to the Port of Vancouver for the Great Northern. But the New Westminster & Southern Railway was dead-ended on the south bank of the Fraser River. Not only was Hill unable to secure the funding required to build a bridge over the fast-flowing Fraser, 20 miles short of the port, but the CPR had locked in a monopoly on all railway construction north of the Fraser River until 1903. Additionally, the devastating stock market crash of 1893 put the rivalries on hold as the railroads struggled to survive. It would not be until 1904 and the end of the CPR monopoly that a bridge would be constructed over the Fraser, finally allowing GN access to downtown Vancouver.

But recessions are temporary, and by 1895 the financial markets of North America were improving. The Kootenays were to experience a second boom, and J.J. Hill jumped all over this opportunity. Great Northern Railway had joined the Battle for the Kootenays.

J.J. Hill’s next volley came in the mid-1890s when he silently began purchasing stock in Corbin’s railways, including the Spokane Falls & Northern and the Nelson & Fort Sheppard, finally taking control in 1898 and removing Daniel Corbin from the company. In addition, Hill and partners had taken over Northern Pacific when it fell into bankruptcy in 1893–94. This purchase provided Great Northern with unchallenged access into the Kootenays from the United States.

Van Horne wasted no time in retaliating. In a surprise move, the CPR bought 100 per cent of John Mara and his partners’ CKSN stock and immediately cancelled all steamboat and barge services to Five Mile Point, cutting Hill’s access to the mining communities. However, the victory was short-lived. Hill moved swiftly, buying a smaller but competitive steamboat operation, the International Navigation & Trading Company, once again feeding his Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway with Kootenay ore. Hill would add new and larger vessels to his fleet, bolstering the connection to Spokane.

But perhaps Hill’s most daunting move of the 1890s was his decision to finance constructing a narrow-gauge line between Kaslo and Sandon to serve mines extracting quantities of high-grade silver ore. The charter, issued to BC businessman John Hendry in 1893, never got off the ground. Because of the stock market crash in 1893, Hendry could not secure financing. In early 1895, up stepped Hill, eager to carry the battle to the CPR, and his narrow gauge was the first to reach Sandon in October of 1895.

During the same time frame, Van Horne’s Canadian Pacific extended its rail line, the Nakusp & Slocan Railway, east from Nakusp on Arrow Lakes to Sandon. When the CP line arrived in Sandon in December of 1895, the Battle for the Kootenays became ugly.

According to the December 21, 1895, issue of Nelson’s Daily Miner, in advance of the Nakusp & Sandon line reaching Sandon, the CPR had built a station and freight shed within the townsite. But when the Nakusp & Sandon line was about to enter Sandon on December 15, the battle was on. Led by a battery of lawyers, Hill’s superintendent convinced a local magistrate that the CP station was on their land, only metres from the Kaslo & Sandon Railway (K & S) station. The CPR then presented its legal file asserting ownership, convincing a provincial judge to issue a counter-order denying Hill’s claim, and CP immediately reclaimed possession.

CP’s victory in court enraged Hill, and the next day an order assembled all Kaslo & Sandon Railway crews. Travelling from Kaslo, the 70-plus team arrived in Sandon and demolished the CP station and freight shed in the middle of the night. The CPR telegraph lines were cut, denying any possible assistance. The Kaslo and Slocan employees continued their rampage, pushing the CP employee bunk cars off the tracks and destroying a newly completed trestle on the outskirts of town. By the time CP’s help arrived, the Kaslo and Sandon crews had reboarded their train and headed back to Kaslo. Hill denied all accusations that he had ordered the rampage, but it became apparent that he probably had sanctioned the actions over time. Hill’s quest for revenge against the CPR continued until his death.

Surprisingly, CP turned the other cheek, acquiescing on its claim to the disputed land, but quickly erected a second station only metres away and repaired the trestle, and the rail line to Nakusp was operational within days. The CP line was standard gauge with fewer physical obstacles and more economical. CP was successfully competing with the K & S.

From the beginning, the terrain and weather, plus substandard construction in the quest to be “first” to reach Sandon, plagued the K & S. While enjoying some early success and profitability into the late 1890s, the line’s deficiencies eventually took their toll. Steep grades (3.5 per cent) beyond the accepted railway norms resulted in high operating costs. In winter devastating snow and mudslides often closed the line for weeks at a time. In 1900 Sandon burned to the ground, and labour problems at the mines ended the boom years. It was becoming increasingly difficult to operate profitably.

By 1908 the K & S suspended service to Sandon, needing expensive repairs for slide-damaged bridges and trestles. Then in 1910 a raging forest fire burned bridges and snowsheds, closing the line. In 1911 GN pulled the plug, selling the remnants of the K & S to Kaslo merchants, who revived a portion of the line from Bear Lake to Kaslo. But without the Sandon con- tracts, the K & S was doomed, and the local owners did not have the capital to repair the Sandon portion. In 1912 the government stepped in, taking over the line, and made the CPR an attractive offer to lease the K & S. CP then rebuilt the line in standard gauge and by 1914 was providing a through rail service from Nakusp to Sandon to Kaslo. Canadian Pacific had wrested control of the West Kootenay back from Hill and the Great Northern.

But the battle was far from over. Rumours of another confrontation in the East Kootenay were rampant. In 1899 a syndicate of investors, apparently headquartered in London, England, announced its intention to build the Bedlington & Nelson Railway from the border to Kuskanook on Kootenay Lake to Hill’s Great Northern branch line from Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The new railway would meet the steamboats of the International Navigation & Trading Company from the Kaslo run. It was the worst-kept secret; everyone knew Hill was the money behind the London-based syndicate called the Kootenay Railway and Navigation Company.

Nevertheless, it was a signal loud and clear that Hill would continue the battle for the Kootenays. Van Horne recognized that Hill had to be “cut off at the pass,” containing Great Northern where possible at the international boundary. The CPR could no longer procrastinate or play politics; immediate construction of the planned CPR line across southern BC had to commence before Hill could act.

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