STEEP AND CROOKED: THE MINING RAILROADS OF THE CANADIAN BORDER
By Bill Laux
RAIL OPERATIONS, TRAIL TO ROSSLAND (1896 – 1929)
On the narrow gauge line to Rossland, three freight trains ran daily, bringing ore down to the smelter, and hauling coal, machinery and supplies to the Rossland Camp from barges on the Columbia. At the riverfront, a steep track ran diagonally down the riverbank to a switchback, and reversed down to the extreme low water line. A steamer or a barge moored alongside the track at any stage of the river allowed transfer of freight or passengers directly to the little cars of the Trail Creek Tramway.
Dispatching was from the Tramway office at Smelter Junction, a two story building, with operations on the first floor. The second floor was comfortably fitted up as accommodations for Fritz Heinze where he spent one week of every month in Trail looking after his Canadian enterprises. The freight schedule had one train loading at the ore bunkers above Rossland, while another was on the line, and a third unloading at the smelter. The ore cars were the 12 ton wooden coal gondolas that had come from Alberta. They had link and pin couplers, hand brakes, and typically ran in trains of seven cars with no caboose. Upgrade, the little Hinkleys would have been taxed to their tractive limit by eight empties, or fewer if a car of coal was in the uphill consist. The Tramway ran several passenger trains daily between the Trail waterfront station and Rossland. Passenger service began on June 5, 1896, with a morning and an afternoon train each way. The fare was $2.00. As the Tramway had no proper passenger cars as yet, three freight cars had windows cut in their sides, wood stoves installed, and a double bench was run down the length of the car, the passengers facing outward, back to back, and bracing their feet against the sides of the car for the rough ride up the hill.
The afternoon train of these improvised coaches left Trail at 5:00 PM, and , according to the Trail Creek Times, regularly carried a hundred or more passengers, local people, and travellers disembarking from the sternwheelers down at the riverfront. At times space in the train was fully occupied and passengers sat on the car steps, on the roofs, and even on the locomotive pilot. Frequently, in those early days, extra cars had to be added to handle the baggage off the boats, and a second locomotive had to be coupled onto the train to haul it up the steep grades to Rossland. These were bonanza times, and in their eagerness to get to the golden promise of the mines, travellers were undeterred by such inconveniences; the more overcrowded the trains, the more wonderful the mines above must be. Miners, promoters, salesmen, saloon keepers, gamblers, prostitutes: everyone was frantic to get in on the roaring days while they lasted. Farmers and ranchers from the surrounding district rode the Tramway as well. They made regular trips to Rossland to solicit restaurants, hotels, grocers, for contracts for their produce, fruit and meat. Many of the orchardists along the Arrow Lakes would contract their entire crop to a retailer in Rossland and ship the fruit, as it came ripe, on the daily CPR sternwheelers that would pause at every rural wharf where boxes of fruit were stacked. Taken off the steamer that same day at Trail, these perishables would ride the cars up the steep and twisting rails to Rossland. With this coordinated boat-rail service, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, apples and pears, could be in the Rossland grocers’ windows the day after being picked. It is deceptively easy for us to dismiss the 19th Century as crude and rustic. A look at the wilted produce at the market today should remind us that we often grossly overestimate the fruits of progress. Similarly, in the cold months of the year, when lack of refrigeration was no problem,. fresh killed pork, beef and lamb rode the boats and rails to the mines. Retired farmers and orchardists assert that the golden days of the Rossland Bonanza were the making of their homesteads. The Red Mountain mines made millionaires out of the Spokane Colonels, but more importantly, it kick-started a brand new Kootenay agriculture which flourished in those years as it has not done since.
The Spokane passenger train left that city at 8:45 AM daily, and its Northport connection on the Red Mountain Railway did not get into Rossland until 4:10 PM, too late to catch the last passenger train down the hill. They would likely have taken the stage down the steep, twisting wagon road the last eight miles to Trail. The 10:00 AM Red Mountain Railway departure from Rossland got its passengers into Spokane at 5:35 PM, making the 147 mile trip at and average of 19 miles per hour. Chartered private trains, not obliged to make station stops, probably made the journey in two thirds of that time.
The timetable above shows that the passenger schedules on the Rossland hill left two daylight windows for freight operations, one from 9:15 AM to 11:00 AM, probably for a run of empty ore cars up to the mines, and another from 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM, to bring down the first loads of ore. Nighttime was open, and the other two freight runs were certainly made in the dark.
Motive power on the narrow gauge consisted of the two Hinkley 2-6-0 locomotives bought second hand from the Alberta Railway and Coal Company, successors to the Northwest Coal and Navigation Company, when they standard gauged their “Turkey Trail” line to Great Falls, Montana. Hinkleys No. 1 and No. 2 were construction numbers 1780 and 1781 respectively, with 12 x18 cylinders and tiny, 31” drivers which gave them 13,000 pounds of tractive effort. The Hinkleys were built as 0-6-0 machines with the pilot truck added later. They probably handled the passenger runs on the narrow gauge with the more powerful Brooks locomotive making the freight runs. The Brooks was construction number 578, with 14 x18 cylinders, 42 inch drivers, and weighed 20 tons. Two more moguls were reportedly obtained in 1899. No. 4 was a Mogul of unknown origin, and No. 5 was a 2-6-0 from the Canadian Locomotive Company of Kingston. No photographs are known to exist. Possibly one or both were bought for spare parts. On December 6, 1896, the refurbished private car made its first trip up the line to Rossland with Heinze and a party of contractors who had come to bid on the C&W line to Robson West.
The Trail Creek Tramway from the outset was worked as hard as its diminutive equipment would allow, to bring down the tonnage Heinze required for his smelter. In the summer of 1896 a new blast furnace was installed at the smelter and capacity was raised to 500 tons per day. This was more than the little 12 ton cars could handle. In the middle of August, 1896, the tramway was delivering 200 tons a day. 50 tons came from Le Roi, 50 from the War Eagle and a hundred tons from other mines. A further 50 tons of very high grade ore in sacks was brought down daily and taken to the riverbank to be put aboard the Lytton for Northport and rail shipment from there to the Tacoma smelter. Heinze boasted his tramway was earning $25,000 a month. In October of 1896, fourth freight run was instituted and the tramway was able to bring down 325 tons daily. About half this ore was was coming from the stockpiles accumulated at the mines during the years before the railway had come. The mines themselves were not producing more than 175 tons daily, all told. When the tramway should have caught up with this backlog, the smelter would need new ores or have to cut back to a reduced capacity. This prompted Fritz Heinze to go after those Slocan silver-lead ores with his C&W line to Robson West.
The Trail Creek Tramway did not keep its employees long. The pay was low, only $1.75 per day, from which $1.25 was deducted if one used the company boardinghouse. As well, the operation was a difficult and hazardous one, bringing heavy trains down one of the steepest railroads in the West at night and without air brakes. Brakemen had to ride between the cars, with a foot on each, and twist down the brake wheel, with a pick handle for leverage, at whistle signals from the engineer. In winter the job was particularly brutal. Most men stayed only long enough to earn a grub stake, then moved on.
In one instance, remembered by freight conductor, Tom Peck, the entire train crew rebelled. During the obligatory stop at the Tiger switchbacks to let the wheels and brake shoes cool, the grumbling men discovered that they were of one mind: Fritz Heinze could have his damned railroad in a place that would cause him severe discomfort. Led by conductor, “Lean Dog” McLean, they took a sight on a lighted window in Anable and walked off in a body, leaving the train to look after itself. For such a steep and difficult line, accidents were surprisingly few. A passenger train demolished an ore car which had somehow strayed onto the main line in July of 1896. In August of 1897, the second loaded ore car of a ten car train left the rails on the Davis Street curve in Rossland, just above the Spitzee mine. Conductor Abercrombie and his crew made two unsuccessful attempts to re-rail the car with track frogs. On the third try, Hackett, the impatient engineer,. took slack, threw the Johnson bar over and opened the throttle wide. The sudden jerk, instead of pulling the car up onto the frog, threw it over on its side, tumbling it down the embankment, and pulling the first car and the locomotive with it. Engineer Hackett, Fireman Harkness, and another man leapt free from the locomotive as it rolled, and scrambled away, uninjured. No. 3, the Brooks Mogul, came to rest upside down, its drivers still turning until someone closed the throttle. The wreck came at the wrong time, as No. 2 was in the shop for repairs, and Hinkley No. 1 was left to run the Tramway by itself. Tragedy came during the efforts to right the wreck, and get No. 3 back up on the rails. The company’s blacksmith, trying to loosen a bolt, had his wrench slip, and falling backward, crushed his kidney on a tree stump. The injury proved fatal, the first casualty of the little line.
After three years of operation as a narrow gauge line, the Canadian Pacific, when it took over, standard gauged the line in 1899. The loops at Warfield were widened from 25 to 20 degrees, and at Tiger, the alignment was changed. The switchbacks could not be dispensed with, but the line linking them was lengthened to reduce the grade. All but one of the line’s tight curves were eased to 20 degrees, but still the standard CPR Mikado locomotives were never able to be used since their trailing trucks lacked the swing necessary to negotiate a 20 degree curve. The grade on the line after standard gauging was still 4 percent with short stretches of 4.6 percent, and two sections of 4.8 percent, one at Anable and the other on Le Roi Avenue in Rossland.
In the process of conversion, standard gauge ties were slid under the rails, and the old six foot ties were sent down to the smelter to be used as fuel. 60 pound rails replaced the old 28 pound steel, but one 28 pound rail was left in place so that the narrow gauge traffic could continue uninterrupted during the changeover. 60 pound rail for all the standard gauge switches was cut and set out, and on June 15, 1899, a hundred men, in six gangs, replaced the 14 narrow gauge switches with standard gauge, and the changeover was complete. By 3:15 PM, on that same day, the first standard gauge train, following the changeover crews up the hill, arrived in Rossland.
The narrow gauge equipment was sold by the CPR. Hinkley No. 1, went in November, 1899, to Mc Lean Brothers, contractors working on the C&W extension to Midway. It worked at Bulldog tunnel, on the long fills above Dog Creek and doubtless at other locations as well. It was reported in 1905 at Midway, working on the abortive Midway and Vernon grade. In 1907, a locomotive of identical appearance shows up in a photograph as No. 2 of the Belcher Mine Ry, an 8 mile narrow gauge line serving the Belcher mine up Lambert creek near Karamin in Ferry County, Washington. This may have been Trail Creek Tramway No. 1 or a sister locomotive from the Turkey Trail in Alberta.
Master Mechanic Garlock, left Trail to work in Seattle for the White Pass and Yukon Railway. He was charged by them with the job of finding narrow gauge equipment for the new line. He bought Hinkley No. 2 in October, 1900 and shipped it to Skagway where it worked on the White Pass as its No. 64. It was scrapped there in 1918. No. 3, the Brooks Mogul, was also bought by Garlock in July,1900, and shipped north to become WP&Y No. 65. When it was replaced some years later by heavier locomotives, the White Pass sold it to Tanana Mines in Alaska to become their No. 51. It was scrapped by the Alaska Railroad, probably in 1917, when it standard gauged the Tananna Mines line. The fate of Mogul No. 4 is unknown; some reports have it sent back to the Alberta Railway and Coal Company. No 5, the C.L.C. locomotive, went to McDonnell and Gzowski, contractors, and was put to work on the construction of the spiral tunnels above Field as No. 15. Its ultimate fate is unknown. There are reports in Trail that Garlock sent the first class passenger coach and Heinze’s private car to the WP&Y as well. However, there are no records in Skagway to bear this out.
The early coaches on that line have been thoroughly rebuilt and no evidence of origin remains. However, early photos of the WP&Y show a “duckbilled” roof Billmeyer and Smalls coach, which could have come from either the Trail Creek Tramway or the Coeur D’Alene Railway which was standard gauged about the same time. In 1900, the CPR bought the first of three large three truck Shay locomotives to work the Rossland Hill. No 111, the first of the Shays, was a 90 ton machine, (120 tons in working order with a full boiler and tank) with three 15 x 17 inch cylinders and 41” drivers. The big Shay had greater tractive power than any other locomotive the Canadian Pacific possessed at that time. As the CPR intended to run mixed trains on the Rossland hill, the Shay was fitted with an elegant wooden cowcatcher as the law required for a passenger locomotive. Wooden cowcatchers were favored by the CPR for mountain districts in the early years of the century. It was noted that on encountering a boulder on the track at speed, a wooden cowcatcher would disintegrate into splinters, while a steel pilot would be mangled into mass of bent metal, which, passing under the wheels, would frequently derail the locomotive. But Shay 111, though powerful, was slow, and it is doubtful that the mandated cowcatcher was ever able to overtake a cow in good health.
The Shay could bring eight steel gondolas up the hill, while the light Consolidations assigned to the branch could bring up but four. Capacity of the Shay on the hill was 213 tons, the Consolidations, 184 tons. For winter service it was found necessary to sheathe that elegant wooden pilot with steel to throw the snow, and to also extend steel sheathing outside the front truck to keep wet snow from balling up in the gears. The curves on the Rossland line were too tight to permit a standard snowplough to operate; its long wheelbase caused it to overhang the sharp curves and derail when pushing snow. A special short coupled plough was built for the Rossland line, and a tiny flanger was constructed on a single truck, weighted with lengths of rail.
The CPR bought two more Shays to the same pattern as 111, for the Motherlode and Phoenix branches, and these locomotives probably worked the Rossland hill as well. No 112 came in 1902, and was scrapped after a wreck in 1911. No 113 arrived in 1903. In 1913 it was sold to become No. 5 on Dan Corbin’s coal line in the East Kootenay. It was sent to Contractors’ Machinery in Seattle the same year in trade for a lighter Shay, and disappears from the record. Probably it served out its time on some Northwest logging line.
Winter brought special problems at the ore receiving pockets at the smelter. All of the Red Mountain ores came out of the mines wet, and in the winter whole train loads of ore would come off the hill frozen solid. A special thawing house was built at the smelter into which the cars of frozen ore would be shunted and the doors closed. Stoves would lit to raise the temperature, and steam lances employed in the wooden cars to loosen the ore. Later, when steel ore jennies were introduced, oil fired torches would be played against their sides and workers with sledge hammers would pound the cars until the ore could be broken up. The scorched and battered sides of these cars testified to dozens of combats with frozen ore. Finally, the engineering department built a car shaker to break up frozen ore.
Other problems abounded on the steep and crooked line, even in summer. T.L. Bloomer, who worked on the Rossland hill, remembered, “One of the most trying difficulties on the Rossland Hill in the old days was bad rails caused by smoke from the smelter combining with dew or mist from the heavens. All sorts of schemes have been tried for overcoming this combination — steam jets to blow it off and different methods of sanding. I have seen it so bad that the train crew had to get shovels and throw dirt from the side of the track onto the rails, and still the engine would slip.” As the smelter stack was belching tons of sulfur dioxide, the oxygen of the air and the dew on the rails, converted it into sulfuric acid, an oily liquid. Another slippery rail problem was caused by caterpillars in the summer, which, Bloomer reported, “…would cluster on the rails for warmth when the sun went down. And how they would smell!”
Acid rain, shivering caterpillars, unremarked on a normal railroad, became serious on the 4.6 percent grades, stalling trains and magnifying the trivial into the serious. Bloomer, and other engineers on the Rossland hill, noted that a light day snow gave ideal traction on the tight curves. It held the sand on the rail and provided just enough moisture to lubricate the flanges. The trains always ran better through the loops, the crews found, when the outer drivers had just the right amount of slippage on the super-elevated outer rail. The Rossland hill was a challenge for engineers and train crew, winter and summer.
Coming down the hill with a loaded train or ore, a stop had to be made .4 miles below the old narrow gauge wye for a safety switch. Here retainers were set up to hold 15 pounds of air on the brakes, the switch was thrown, and the train proceeded down the hill. The switch was normally lined for an old quarry and if the descending train was unable to stop, the switch would divert it into a pile of loose rock in the quarry.
Freights were limited to 10 miles per hour downhill, passenger trains to 20. At the Tiger switchbacks, freights had a mandatory stop of ten minutes, to allow brakes and wheels to cool before proceeding down to Warfield. Most tricky of all, was bringing down a light engine. The engine brakes in that case could be used only sparingly, for if the steel driver tires overheated, they would expand and come off the drivers, derailing the locomotive. Engineers put the Johnson bar in the second notch of reverse and open the cylinder cocks slightly and came down on compression, rather than on brakes.
Up above Rossland, the Highline leading to the War Eagle and Le Roi ore bunkers crossed Acme Creek (Centre Star Gulch) on a high trestle built on a 26 degree curve. Only the Shays and rod engines with blind second and main drivers could negotiate it. Later, new ore bunkers were built down on the lower line and the ore sent down to them by cable trams to eliminate this awkward spur.
The Canadian Pacific operating department never did like the Shays bought for the steep mine branches. With their limited speed, they were not interchangeable with rod engines for mainline service. In 1910, with the coming of the heavy Consolidations of the M4 class, these engines were assigned to the Rossland hill and the Shays confined to the the Phoenix and Motherlode branches in the Boundary district. The M4 3400s and 3500s were rated at 184 tons on the Rossland hill, and could when required, work the line to Castlegar and Nelson, or wherever else they might be needed. The Shays could out pull them, but that was all. Later, the N2 class Consolidations worked the hill, the heaviest engines permitted on the line.
With the standard gauging of the line in 1898, passenger connections to Nelson, where all court and government business had to be transacted, and to the outside world, were greatly improved. A 1905 timetable shows daily except Sunday departures from Rossland at 6:55 PM, dropping down to Trail to pick up passengers, and then climbing back to Smelter Junction to take the line to Castlegar. The train arrived at the dock at Robson West at 9:00 PM, and passengers would board the sternwheeler “Rossland,” “Kootenay,” or “Minto,” leaving at 11:00 PM for the sixteen hour run up the lakes to the rail connection at Arrowhead. Arrival at Revelstoke was at 5:30 PM to make connections with trains to Vancouver or Calgary and the East.
On the inbound trip, passengers would leave Revelstoke at 8:15 AM on the branch line train to Arrowhead where they would board whichever one of the three sternwheelers was running that day at 9:15 AM for a 10:15 AM departure. Arrival at Robson West was at 8:30 PM, after a fast ten hour run down the lakes. Waiting at the dock would be the Rossland-Trail train, departing at 8:50 PM, and reaching Rossland at 10:50 that evening. The Nelson and Grand Forks trains would be at Robson West as well, for passengers bound to those destinations.
Robson West was a busy place with a twice daily interchange of steamer and three trains. At 9:24 AM the Rossland train arrived, followed six minutes later by the arrival of the Nelson train. After transferring passengers, the train from Rossland departed for Grand Forks and Midway. At the same time, the train from Midway which had been standing all night, departed for Nelson, and a third train departed for Rossland.
At 8:30 in the evening, the Revelstoke steamer would arrive and ten minutes later, trains began arriving. First, the Nelson train, then five minutes later,the train from Grand Forks, Greenwood and Midway. Fifteen minutes later, the Rossland train would pull in.
Passengers from the boat boarded their trains; train passengers boarded the boat, and at 8:45 all three trains departed, for Rossland, for Nelson and for Midway. The steamer took on coal, and at 11:00 PM she departed up lake. Nothing remains of Robson West today but a double line of rotting piles where the trains used to back down the long, sloping ramp to lie alongside the steamers to transfer freight and passengers. Directly across the river was the terminus of the Columbia and Kootenay line to Nelson and in the early years, after the steamer had discharged its passengers, it would barge rail cars across to the line on the other side. In 1902, the CPR bridged the Columbia at Castlegar and the Robson terminus was abandoned. Robson West continued to function as the rail-boat transfer point until the last sternwheeler, the “Minto,” was withdrawn in 1954.
All of the trains from Rossland, bound for Nelson, or Grand Forks, or Robson West, stopped at Smelter Junction, (now called Tadanac) and backed down the switchback line to Dublin gulch, took the switchback, and proceeded down Trail Creek to the Trail City Station on Cedar Avenue. Passengers and express would be loaded and the train would back up the gulch to the switchback and then up the 3.9 percent grade to Smelter Junction. In the 30s trim Ten Wheeler D10g class locomotives were assigned to the Trail- Nelson run. Gibson Kennedy reports that some engineers with their light, two car train, would work the grade with a short cutoff which yielded a satisfyingly sharp bark from the stack, but produced a surge in train motion with every revolution of the drivers. This caused the clerks in the mail and baggage car to lose their footing while trying to sort mail. They registered a complaint to the company and engineers were subsequently ordered to moderate their efforts to save fuel on this particular grade.