ARCHIVE MATTERS - Northern BC Rail Transportation: From Backlog to Foreground

by Ramona Rose and Erica Hernandez-Read 
Northern BC Archives, Geoffrey R. Weller Library, University of Northern British Columbia

Most archives have at least one long-standing ‘backlog’ project that has been sitting on the ‘back burner’ for far too long. This state of perpetual stagnancy, resulting from lack of money and/or staff, serving as a source of constant frustration for the archivist involved as they struggle to care for incredible treasure troves of information that remain so inaccessible they might as well be stored in a hidden grotto. The Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum Collection was one such project for the Northern BC Archives (NBCA) at the University of Northern British Columbia. This tremendous collection of materials documenting the rail, and indeed the socio-economic, history of the northern half of the province had remained untouched for almost 2 decades. However, thanks to some innovative grant-writing skills, and the support of the Canadian National Railways, resources were finally obtained which allowed for the processing of this collection – these hidden treasures were veiled no more!

In fact, an on-line inventory providing intriguing visual images and detailed descriptions of historical records documenting rail transportation developments in Northern BC (c.1887 to c.1998) is now available to all through the NBCA’s website [ ]. The records identified in this finding aid document developments of the Canadian National Railway as well as its’ predecessors, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway and BC Railway; they also include materials from many northern BC communities including Prince George, Bulkley Valley, Hazelton, Terrace, Prince Rupert and the Peace River Region.

As B.C. history buffs know, the arrival of rail transportation not only opened up Northern B.C. to the rest of the province, it also led to increased settlement in the region and to the development of economic opportunities. So being able to provide access to the records that document this transportation history is intrinsically important to developing an understanding of Northern B.C.’s overall socio-economic development.

The Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum Collection online finding aid provides descriptions for 8.55 metres of textual files, 200+ maps and blueprints and over 280 photographs. The original photographic images have each been digitized and are available for individual viewing on-line. These images provide rare visual documentation of railway pack surveying and rail construction c.1908 to 1914 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in Northern BC; town site construction of railway line communities; deep snow jams and awe-inspiring flooding episodes and its impacts on rail operations. The earliest textual records include transportation agreements between Inter-Colonial Railway (which operated in Eastern Canada and was later amalgamated into Canadian National Railway) with partnering companies, c.1914; while the most current records relate to BC Rail train movement operations and time tables, c.1998.

These holdings include a broad range of materials related to every aspect of rail operations including: administrative and financial records; operational, engineering and mechanical records; architectural drawings; labour and union materials and records related to freight and train movements. This material even includes documentation of the 1939 Royal Tour of Canada of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth across Canada by rail. This collection, which was originally acquired by the Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum [] in the 1980s from a number of individual donors, was transferred to the Northern BC Archives in 2002 so as to be available for broader educational and research access.

The Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum Collection back-log project involved many steps and many people to ensure the preservation and usability of this material, including: re-housing, processing and preventive conservation activities, provenance research, digitization and electronic finding aid development. Undertaking this myriad of archival activities were NBCA archivists and former UNBC summer students; however it was due in large part to the herculean efforts of Morgan Shepherd, a co-op student in the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies Program (2015), and Kathryn Louro, a UNBC History student (2016) that this large-scale project finally found completion. Ms. Louro, in fact, was so inspired by her work on the rail collection that she decided to enter the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies Program to complete her Masters in Archival Studies! A collection processed and a new archivist born – victory is ours! Now on to the next backlog project.

The Archives would like to thank the Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum for its collaboration on this project over the last 15 years; in particular Trudy Swaan, former Board chair, and Kathy Carlson, the museum’s present curator and Acting CEO. The finding aid project was made possible through the financial contributions of an anonymous private foundation and from Canadian National Railways.

For access see:

PHOTO: Skeena Riverside View of Inspection Train, Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, c. 1912
From The Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum Archival Collection, Northern BC Archives
Accession# 2002.

PHOTO: Prince Rupert docks featuring the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad Line, c. 1912, Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Photograph Series, from The Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum Archival Collection, Northern BC Archives Accession# 2002.

Ramona Rose, MA, MMst, Head, Archives & Special Collections

Erica Hernandez-Read, MAS, Access & Digital Initiatives Archivist 
Northern BC Archives, Geoffrey R. Weller Library,, University of Northern British Columbia



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