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Review

Myra’s Men: Building the Kettle Valley Railway, Myra Canyon to Penticton

By Maurice Williams

November 4, 2013

Review By Frank Leonard

In August 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire southeast of Kelowna destroyed or damaged the Myra Canyon trestles, eighteen railroad structures, and the roadbed between them. This 5.5-mile (8.9-km) elevated path around a mountainous amphitheatre had long been regarded as an engineering marvel and, as part of the Trans Canada Trail, was fast becoming a major tourist attraction. To commemorate the restoration and reopening of the site less than five years after the disaster, the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society commissioned historian Maurice Williams to write an account of the original construction of that section of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), of which the canyon line was a part. In Myra’s Men a series of indispensable maps orients new trekkers to the site, and dozens of clearly captioned contemporary photographs of the construction process will intrigue them after they leave the trail. But the thoughtful narrative of some of the challenges of building and living on the road that anchors these elements makes the book more than a helpful souvenir.

The book’s main title reflects Williams’s primary interest in the labour relations that construction generated, but the author also deploys two important sources – namely, company engineering reports and correspondence between the KVR manager and CPR headquarters in Montreal – to present briefer accounts of two other topics: locating the line and building it. Data drawn from these sources have been rearranged in a series of lists: trestle and tunnel designation and completion; track-laying dates; workforce totals, both in Myra Canyon and the longer section; deaths by accident; and rosters of subcontractors and the resident engineers. These items alone will attract academic specialists.    

Both topics deserve more, of course. In his classic text on railroad location, A.M. Wellington declares that “economics is all there is to it.” A cost comparison, even if simplified, would illuminate just why KVR chief engineer Andrew McCullough discarded an initial lower route, which, even if longer, reduced the gradient and approached Kelowna, and selected instead a higher route that required construction of the trestles and bypassed the Okanagan farming community. Why did estimates of first cost (construction alone) apparently trump estimates of traffic and operating costs in this decision?  

Unfortunately, only a handful of images in the book concern site preparation and the actual assembly of the original trestles in Myra Canyon. While few other photographs of this sequence may survive, the addition of an image of the engineering profile of a small trestle juxtaposed with that of the largest structure (Trestle 6 Pooley Creek) would have given readers a better indication of the scale and the complexity of building. Inclusion of several images of the sequence of construction of the replacement structures, clearly noted as such, would have illustrated some steps that are lacking in the original photos.    

Perhaps because even the partial documentation of a railroad under construction is so rich, this work is content to describe a world on its own – a kind of KVR exceptionalism. That the building of the KVR overlapped with the completion of the BC legs of the two new transcontinentals, the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) and the Canadian Northern (CN), as well as the beginning of the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE), invites comparison of labour relations. Excerpts from testimony to the BC Royal Commission on Labour concerning the working conditions of navvies certainly illustrate and reinforce Williams’s conclusion that contractors “exploited them, [sub-contractors] paid them minimally, [and] the BC government ignored them” (135). But what was the level of profit for the exploiters? It appears that the principal contractor and the major subcontractor that built much of the line in Myra Canyon did not make returns on the scale that hobbled the operation of the GTP and that looted the PGE. An examination of the records of the lawsuit of the principal contractor against the KVR (46-47n) might illuminate how the CPR was more vigilant than the Canadian and BC governments in financing railroad construction.    

The most dramatic act of resistance to exploitation on this section of the KVR was a strike in May 1913 led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Williams suggests that this action did not impede construction as IWW strikes on the CN and the GTP had done in 1912, but his reliance on local and IWW newspapers for details of the strike obscures the reasons for its failure. Did the KVR pay rates lead blanketstiffs to tramp from the GTP or the CN? Certainly iww organizers such as Thorne (130) had been involved in both earlier conflicts. A troll through labour commission testimony should provide some data for comparison. Did the slump of 1913 increase the labour supply of the KVR and thus make both Wobbly promises and turning away from wages, however inadequate, less attractive? Provincial Police reports on agitation and the strike might offer answers.  

The points above simply build on Williams’s interesting work. It deserves not only purchase by trekkers and cyclists but also reflection by scholars.