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Review

Steel Rails and Iron Men: A Pictorial History of the Kettle Valley Railway

By Barrie Sanford

November 4, 2013

Review By Duane Thomson

THE DECISION of Whitecap Books to publish the first paperback edition of Steel Rails &Iron Men is appropriate and timely. Since this book appeared in cloth in 1990, the Kettle Valley Railway (the KV) has grown in both the public imagination and the numbers of people using the roadbed. Thousands of hikers and mountain bikers annually enjoy the scenic roadbed; the Okanagan Mountain fire of 2003 publicized even as it destroyed the Myra Canyon trestles. This book will appeal to KV tourists and aficionados who demand a brief history of the construction, operation, and eventual closure of the storied railway 

The first chapter considers the initial political/strategic considerations behind the decision to build the Kootenay to Coast railway, mercifully in less detail than Sanford provides in his earlier McCullochs Wonder: The Story of the Kettle Valley Railway (1981). The second chapter focuses on the competition between the Kettle River Valley Railway, a predecessor of the KV, and affiliates of Jim Hill’s Great Northern Railway to control ore traffic between Republic, WA, and the smelter at Grand Forks, BC. This chapter is largely extraneous because it deals with a railway never incorporated into the KV; rather, it reflects Sanford s fascination with the competitive environment that informed railway construction in southern BC at the turn of the century. The next three chapters detail the construction, early operation, and economic impact of three different portions of the line: the Nicola branch, the Midway to Merritt line, and the incredibly difficult Coquihalla line. These chapters deal with spectacular engineering feats such as building trestles across the many tributaries of Myra Canyon and the construction of the famous Quintette Tunnels down the Coquihalla Canyon. The numerous photographs of survey parties operating in nearly impossible terrain, massive trestle and tunnel construction projects, and inaugural celebrations make this section the most interesting part of the book. The following three chapters consider the operation of the railway, first as an independent line, then as a CPR affiliate, and finally as a fully fledged second mainline of the CPR. These chapters explore the passenger and freight operations and include topics such as operating schedules, maintenance and upgrading, snow-clearing and avalanche control, and connections to the mining, logging, and fruit-growing industries in the areas served. The final three chapters document the railway’s decline: the disruption of service beginning with abandonment of the Coquihalla section, the continued operation of remnants of the KV, and the eventual closure of the railway. 

Each chapter includes a two- to five-page summary of the main theme of the chapter dealing with the political and economic environment and the business decisions that affected the operation of the railway. Good maps, elevation profiles, datelines, and sample timetables present detailed operational information clearly and concisely. Each chapter also includes copies of railway memorabilia that tend to trivialize the book: copies of posters, railway passes, telegrams, invitations to public functions, newspaper clippings, and cover pages of agreements. Finally, each chapter contains many photographs with accompanying informational captions that comprise the real value of this book. 

The photographs are well chosen and are generally of good quality. Many were taken during construction by local professional photographers, good examples of which are the beautifully composed, high-resolution photographs of Lumb Stocks of Penticton (Figures 4-33 and 6-12) and the remarkable panoramic view of the Myra Canyon trestles by G.H. Hudson of Vernon (Figure 4-16). Many other high-quality photographs, generally of trains operating on scenic stretches of track or of abandoned tresdes and buildings are by recent photographers such as Bill Presley, Lance Camp, André Morin, and the author, Barrie Sanford. Sanford also includes many snapshots of train wrecks, winter snow-removal operations, surveyor camps, and railway construction sites that, while of medium quality, are of value for their immediacy and drama (Figures 7-14 to 7-16 and 5-2 to 5-4). The inclusion of one photograph is questionable, that being the famous view of a Kaslo ôc Slocan Railway engine and crew perched on a narrow track on a bluff above Kaslo. While the photograph is dramatic and demonstrates better than most the wild terrain through which railways were constructed in BC, it is not taken anywhere near KV territory. Sanford has included numerous photographs that present the working railway, for example, loading logs in the Nicola Valley (3-11) and loading coal in Coalmont (6-24 and 6-25). Medium quality, but excellent, images of pack trains hauling supplies to the railhead (4-6), tramways using horse-drawn carts to excavate materials (4-10), and men constructing tunnels by the “English” method (4-26) represent railway construction. 

The most instructive feature of this book lies in the captions that indicate the date, location, and orientation of the photograph, the collection from which they derive, and often the photographer. Most importantly, they indicate why Sanford thinks that the photograph is significant. A caption accompanying a photograph of track-laying (4-19) describes the method of construction, which adds substantial value to the photograph. Another caption (6-26 and 6-27) describes the whole industry of cutting and transporting ice from Os-prey Lake, noting that 3,000 carloads of ice were loaded and shipped in fifteen days in 1919. 

One deficiency of the book is the lack of adequate documentation for both the text and some of the photographs. The photographs of Coquihalla surveyor paths gracing the pages before and after the title-page are from unknown sources. Documentation is, in fact, available to Sanford in certain instances, for example, for the photograph of the CPR steamers Rossland and Minto (1-2), which was taken by R.H. Trueman & Co. of Vancouver. The problem is frequently the result of archives not documenting their collections either at all or correctly. For example, the Penticton Museum has not had the resources to catalogue its photograph collection and the BC Archives on-line documentation is inaccurate in its description of the location of some photographs (4-28 and 4-29). I commend Sanford for correcting those errors. 

Steel Rails and Iron Men is a well-presented, accessible pictorial history of the KV. Other books on the railway have more narrow niches. Kettle Valley Railway Mileboards: A[n] Historical Field Guide to the KVR (2003) by Joe Smuin provides detailed physical, operational, and geographic information about each site along the track. Kettle Valley Railway (2003), Volume 1 of the Railways of Western Canada series by Gerry Doeksen, provides photographs, drawings, and specifications of engines for railway buffs. Sanford’s own McCulloch’s Wonder: The Story of the Kettle Valley Railway explores in considerable detail the political, strategic, and economic factors in the railway’s birth, operation, and decline, using secondary sources, newspaper accounts, and some government publications.