STEEP AND CROOKED: THE MINING RAILROADS OF THE CANADIAN BORDER
By Bill Laux
THE RED MOUNTAIN RAILWAY
1896 – 1922
Daniel Corbin’s Columbia and Red Mountain Railway was chartered to run from Northport to the Canadian border at Frontier. A Canadian charter covered the rest of the line from Patterson, on the Canadian side of the border, to Rossland under the title, Red Mountain Railway. The line was operated by Corbin, and later by the Great Northern, as a branch of the Spokane Falls and Northern. Red Mountain mileage are figured from the Northport station, which adds .6 miles to the actual distance, since trains departing from Northport had to back .6 miles to the junction, south of town. There, taking the switch, the trains climbed out on a long trestle approach to the Columbia bridge.
The construction of the great, six span Columbia bridge delayed completion of the line. To get a share of the Rossland ore traffic, Dan Corbin began operations before the bridge was complete. For the first six months, from December, 1896, the trains were run down a steep track from the Northport station to the water’s edge and a reaction ferry. There, the cars would be ferried across, two or three at a time. On the right bank the cars were hauled off the ferry and up a steep track to the permanent line near the southeast end of the present Lowry landing strip. A curving section of macadam pavement from the present gravel river road, leads to the original ferry landing which was also used briefly for an auto ferry in 1947 after the bridge collapsed.
Coming off the west end of the bridge, the Columbia and Red Mountain grade climbed on a 2-1/2 percent grade across the delta of Big Sheep Creek . A mile and a half (2.4 km) from the river it entered Big Sheep Creek canyon on its west wall, opposite the St Crispen mine. The tracks clung to a narrow ledge, sometimes 100 feet above the water, and passed above Sheep Creek Falls at mile 3 (km 4.8). A half mile (.8 km) farther upstream, Upper Sheep Creek Falls poured through a narrow cleft in the rocks. Here at the falls, the line crossed the creek on a single Howe truss span, 75 feet above the tumbling water. This was a favorite spot for photographers, the train pausing while they exposed their glass plates.
On the left (east) bank of the creek the grade steepened to 3 percent, and the line crawled out of the dark canyon to enter the valley of the tributary, Little Sheep Creek, at mile 6 (km. 9.6). At Velvet, mile 7(km. 11.2), a water tank was built and a siding laid out to receive ore from Olaus Jeldness’ Velvet mine. A wagon road led from the siding up Big Sheep Creek to Jeldness’ mine, across the border in British Columbia.
At the border, mile 8 (km. 12.8), the Great Republic and the Double Standard mines were developing ore on the slopes just above the track. Their waste dumps can be seen today, immediately south of the U.S. Border Station. On the Canadian side, at mile 8.4 (km. 13.4), was Patterson, with a depot and a 26 car siding for customs inspection. Ahead the valley steepened, so engineer Roberts had to swing his grade in a wide loop to the east to gain enough elevation to reenter Little Sheep Creek canyon at Silica, mile 13 (km.20.8). The OK mine, just beyond Silica, had ore ready to ship when the rails arrived. Here, for a short time, a transfer station existed where Rossland freight and Le Roi ore, coming down the wagon road, could be put on the cars while the slow work of blasting a grade through the granite bluffs ahead proceeded. Back of Silica, quarries were opened in a quartz deposit, and the product shipped as flux to the smelters at Trail and Northport.
In 1898, the imposingly named British Columbia Bullion Extraction Company built a large mill stepping down the slope from the Red Mountain rails north of Silica to Little Sheep Creek. Its developers planned to use the power from the West Kootenay Power and Light Company’s lines which crossed the canyon at this point, to extract gold from the Rossland ores by a patented electrochemical process. This was just one of the “secret gold saving devices” being hawked to naive investors. All promised to recover the gold and silver the smelters were allegedly “losing.” Like most “secret processes,” the B.C. Bullion Company’s process was not commercially successful, and the great mill was eventually closed.1
Past Silica, at mile 13.5 (km. 21.6), the line crossed the canyon to the west wall on a high, 21 bent trestle at the Midnight mine. The grade, even at 3 percent, could not stay above the even steeper grade of the creek, and Roberts was obliged to reversed it on a 22 degree loop over Little Sheep Creek to ascend the east wall of the canyon. Just above the stream-spanning trestle at the Midnight mine, the line crawled out on another high, curving trestle of 26 bents to loop around a handy granite knob and head upstream again. From here a ledge to carry the rails had to be blasted out of the sheer granite wall of Deer Park Mountain. This ledge brought the rails around the nose of the mountain and into the shallow pass leading to Trail Creek and Rossland.
With the extensive blasting and rock-work, the track layers did not get into Rossland until December, 1896. A box car was set off at mile 17 (km. 27.2) as a temporary station from which the first passenger train departed on the 19th. In the pass, two spurs were run into General Warren’s White Bear mine and mill. Warren could now ship his lower grade ores which he had been stockpiling, awaiting the railroad. Originally, Corbin planned to have the White Bear spur extended around to the east slope of Deer park Mountain and the “South Belt” of the Rossland mines. But with the Trail Creek Tramway already in place, and serving those mines, this line was never built.
Across the flat from the White Bear was the Black Bear mine. Sidings, loading tracks and a wye were laid here. The Le Roi was high above the Black Bear, but the workings were interconnected, and Le Roi ores could come out through the Black Bear tunnel. From the wye at the Black Bear, the track was run diagonally northeast through the upper part of Rossland with a spur to the Nickel Plate mine and a trestle across Centre Star (Acme) Gulch ( the two railroads could not agree on a name). A station was built on the flat at Spokane Street and Third Avenue. The track continued northeast to the Great Western mine at the top of St Paul Street. A water tank was put up here and a short spur served the town wood lot. As the Trail Creek Tramway (Columbia & Western) was still narrow gauge, no connection could be made. Freight had to be transferred by hand and dray wagon from one railway to the other.
Down at Northport the great Columbia bridge was built at the south end of town. Its east approach climbed on a long trestle to carry the line to the height required to clear steamers on the river at high water. The bridge was of composite construction, two 3/4 inch iron plates bolted between three 4 x 16 inch wood timbers. The iron carried the tension loads, the wood the compression loads. The bridge was 1200 feet long, six Howe truss spans, supported on iron cylinder piers filled with rocks and concrete. The cylindrical filling of these piers lies on the beach today, the iron casings having been sold as salvage. During construction the high water of spring, 1897, swept away some of the false work, and completion was delayed until October, 1897. At its west end, the track was carried off the bridge by a short trestle to the top of a gravel bench where several summer homes are now located.1
During the eleven months while bridge was under construction,the small reaction ferry carried locomotives, and freight and passenger cars across the river. The ferry was slung from an overhead 1-1/2 inch steel cable, 1500 feet long, that was made fast to wooden towers on each side of the river. Cables, from bow and stern ran up to a sliding sheave on the overhead line. By slacking or tightening these cables with a hand winch, the hull of the ferry would assume an angle to the current, and the fast running water would push the vessel across the river. Rail traffic on this ferry began on September 3, 1896.1
The Red Mountain Railway owned one locomotive, possibly two. No. 9, the engine most often seen on the line, was a powerful Baldwin 2-8-0 of 1896, with 19 x 24 inch cylinders and 47 inch drivers. It weighed 56 tons and was able to exert 26,000 pounds of pull. After the Great Northern takeover, it was classified GN Class F-4, and renumbered 1094. In 1925 the GN sold it to the McGoldrick Lumber Company of Pe Ell, Washington, and it disappears from the record.
In addition to No. 9, one passenger coach and twenty box cars were lettered for the Red Mountain Railway. All other locomotives and cars were leased from the parent Spokane Falls and Northern. To judge from early photos, SF&N 4-4-0 No.7 frequently worked passenger traffic on the line. No. 7 was the SF&N’s fastest engine. It was an 1883 Baldwin machine with 63 inch drivers, 18 x 24 inch cylinders, and was capable of 14,000 pounds of pull. 2
With the Red Mountain boom in full flower in 1900, the wealthy mine owners persuaded the Great Northern to put on a first class sleeping car service to Spokane.
The train left Rossland at 11:00 PM, just after the CPR train from Grand Forks and Robson West arrived at the CPR station a block away, down Second Avenue. The sleepers got into Spokane at 6:00 AM. Travelers had a full day for business, and an evening for recreation. They could then board the departing sleepers for Rossland at 1:00 AM, and arrive at the mountaintop city at 7:00 AM, jut in time to catch the departing CPR train for Trail, Robson West, Grand Forks and Greenwood. The extra fare for the sleeping car berths was $1.50, and, at the request of the passengers, speed was slowed to ten miles per hour over the rougher sections of track so that travelers did not need to be strapped into their beds.
James J. Hill bought the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway with its Red Mountain subsidiary in 1898, and dismissed Daniel Corbin. In 1907 Hill folded the SF&N, the N&FS,and the RMR into the Great Northern, with all equipment renumbered and re-lettered for the GN. D. C. Corbin went on to build another railroad with CPR financing, the Spokane International, to give the Canadian Pacific an entry into Spokane.
By 1909, the majority of Red Mountain mines had passed into Canadian/British ownership, and ore traffic to the Northport smelter was dwindling. It sought ore from Phoenix, B.C. and from Republic, Washington to make up the shortfall, bu it was not enough. With six smelters operating in the great Boundary-Kootenay boom before WWI, competition was vigorous. But at the end of the war metal prices slumped and in 1921 it was closed. As Rossland and its mines gradually became more and more Canadian, the important and bibulous comings and goings of the Yankee Colonels and the Canadian Honourables ceased, and the night train was withdrawn. Still, the families and ordinary working residents of Rossland and Trail took the day train to Spokane on regular shopping trips. Until the completion of the Kettle Valley Railway in 1916, linking the Kootenays with Vancouver, Spokane continued secure as the metropolis of the Kootenay – Boundary country.
After the Great Northern’s takeover of the SF&N with its Red Mountain branch, GN Class D-5, No. 471, a Brooks Mogul of 1896, usually handled the passenger run. F-4, No 1094 (ex RMR No. 9) which was the heaviest locomotive permitted on the increasingly shaky trestle loops, continued to take the freight runs, often with a snowplow on its pilot.1 Traffic up to Rossland included coal from Jim Hill’s Crowsnest Pass mines, coke from Michel, and limestone flux from the Evans quarry south of Northport for the Trail smelter.
In 1897 the morning freight of fifteen cars, leaving Rossland for Northport, derailed two of the cars on the trestle at the OK/Midnight mines. Luckily the cars did not fall off the trestle and a crew of men unloaded the heavy ore with shovels enabling the cars to be re-railed again.
After the Trail Creek Tramway (C&W) was standard gauged by the CPR in 1898, the lack of a physical connection between the two lines in Rossland was frustrating for the local population. Although the two stations were just a block apart, the unremitting hostility between Jim Hill of the GN and Shaughnessy of the CPR, prevented any joining of the tracks until the Rossland business community and mine managers forcibly agitated for one. The CPR did not want a connection that would permit mines on its rails to ship their ore out via the GN. And, the GN, of course, had identical considerations. Finally, after persistent public outcry, the two corporations gave in, and a single line of track was laid down Third Avenue from one station to the other. When the Northport smelter got contracts from some of the mines along the CPR “Highline, ” the GN laid a pair of switchbacks up from present Jubilee Park to connect with the CPR line on Mc Leod Avenue. Ore then came down the connecting switchbacks, avoiding the passenger stations.
Corbin’s Red Mountain line had cost him half a million dollars to build, a quarter of which went for the big Columbia bridge. When the Northport smelter went into operation on January 1, 1898, more and more of the ore traffic began to move out via Corbin’s line, attracted by J.J. Hill’s lower freight rates. High grade ore could be contracted to the smelters at Butte, and at Everett and Tacoma as well, and moved on GN rails. With horses and mules rawhiding the ore down the snowy trails in 1894, the mines had shipped 2000 tons. In the following year, with the wagon roads open, they shipped 19,600 tons. With the Tramway open for just half of 1896, 38,000 tons went down to the smelter. When both railroads were operating in 1897, 60,000 tons went out. The next year, shipments soared to 111,000 tons.