Tales & Legends of the Mountain Kingdom: They called it a train

Allyson Kenning
By Allyson Kenning
December 15th, 2010

Oh, sometimes there is nothing better and more Rossland-ish than sitting out on the sidewalk in front of the Sunshine Cafe, enjoying a nice sandwich and a cool drink, chatting with friends and passersby, meeting some convivial dogs – all accompanied by the idyllic soundtrack of DT Chambers and other assorted semis trundling by, drowning out your little chat and churning up a swirl of grit that ends up peppering your lovely clubhouse sandwich and fries. There really is nothing like it.

And what about those semis? How efficient can they possibly be? How sustainable is that mode of transporting goods going to be in the long run? And speaking of modes of transportation, I have written here before about transit to Trail and how it can feel like the proverbial slow boat to China. Bearing in mind the fact that I am a car-less person, the wheels began to turn in my mind (it happens from time to time) as I was doing some reading on Rossland’s history. They had a great idea way back in the 1890s: they called it a train. Colonel Eugene Sayre Topping originally owned the LeRoi mine. He lived in Trail and was responsible, along with his friend Frank Hanna, for getting that town up and running, starting from a camp on the banks of the Columbia River at the mouth of Trail Creek called Trail Creek Landing. I cannot imagine for one second that Colonel Topping could have enjoyed jouncing his way to and from Rossland on a packhorse. It was a six mile journey down a narrow wagon road, and once ore started coming out of the mine, this road was the means by which it was transported to Trail.  Teams of horse-drawn freight wagons: I can’t imagine the horses were terribly thrilled, either. From Trail, the ore was packed aboard a sternwheeler called the Lytton, and from there it went to Northport, Spokane, and on to the Colorado Smelting Works in Butte, Montana. This operation was owned by an enterprising young New Yorker named F. Augustus Heinze, who, once the riches of the Rossland mines became well-known, decided to send two men to scout out the situation in Trail Creek Landing. In 1895 he made trip himself. With a keen eye for efficiency, he decided that Trail needed its own smelter to process all the ore coming down from Rossland. I can just hear the collective sigh of relief in local stables when Heinze decided to build a railway between the two towns. Work on a narrow-gauge railway began shortly after Christmas 1895 and was completed by the following June. The difference between narrow-gauge and standard-gauge railways can vary, but the standard-gauge (the gauge being the distance between the inside edges of the track) is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Narrow-gauge railways had significant advantages: they were less expensive to build and operate, they were better suited to the local terrain, and it was pretty standard at the time that mines had narrow-gauge tracks. It made sense.  The first train up the hill between Trail and Rossland was basic, with one engine and four ore cars. It made two return trips during the day and one at night. The line itself was 13 miles long and switchbacked over a seven-mile descent right from Red Mountain to Trail Creek.  Eventually, more cars were added: 11 flat cars, 6 boxcars, another engine, and a private coach that once belonged to Brigham Young. By June of 1899, the narrow-gauge was fully replaced by a standard-gauge line, and the trip between Trail and Rossland took 40 minutes. Which, incidentally, is approximately how long it takes us to get down the hill by bus today. But what was particularly advantageous about this railway, was its connectivity to the world at large. Once in Trail, you could pretty much go anywhere. Connected to the CPR, one could go to the coast via the Okanagan, or east through the Crowsnest. If you wanted to go north, you could go part way by train, and part way by boat, up to Revelstoke via the Arrow Lakes. This was great for business, and it was great for human mobility in general. Heinze wasn’t the only one around with a keen eye for efficiency–or a great business opportunity. Rossland was hopping, the mines were pouring out product, and the town was about to become the centre for a bit of a turf war.Along comes another young, enterprising American, this time building a railway north from Northport to Rossland, along the Sheep Creek Valley. His name was Daniel Chase Corbin, and he was from Spokane. He already had a history of building railroads, and was responsible for lines between Spokane, Colville, and Northport, and a line connecting Nelson with Fort Sheppard and and Northport.  In December 1896, Corbin’s Red Mountain Railway opened with great fanfare, and the trip from Northport to Rossland took an hour. At the Columbia River in Northport, the train crossed the river by ferry, but within a year there was a bridge. From Northport, one could connect on to Spokane. The depot, yard, immigration office, and off-loading area for the Red Mountain Railway were located where our Emcon lot now stands, kitty corner to where the CPR had its loading docks, engine house, and station. But it wasn’t just the railway Corbin sought to make money from; in fact, the trains were merely the precursor of a bigger plan. In 1897, the year Heinze’s contract with the LeRoi mine for ore transportation was due to expire, Corbin made a key maneouver. He offered Rossland’s mine owners a one third interest in the town of Northport in exchange for building a smelter there. He threw in cheaper freight rates for good measure. Needless to say, this new smelting operation caused a lot of job losses in Trail. There is a lot more to this story than is easily relatable here, but the concept of these train connections hither and yon are quite fascinating to me, especially with our focus on sustainability. The Rossland-Colivlle-Spokane line is particularly intriguing. That is a heavily-used travel corridor for all kinds of traffic. Carless as I am, I’d love to be able to hop a train to Spokane for a day out or a weekend of shopping, or a trip to Colville’s Wally World. As a person who enjoys sitting outside at the Sunshine Cafe in the summertime, I’d be thrilled if some of the semi traffic coming through town could be diverted, and a train sounds like a great solution to me. Similarly, the train connections between the coast, the Okanagan, and Trail, and then east via the Crowsnest, also seems like a fabulous idea nowadays. Talk about efficiency! Unfortunately, the last train to Northport from Rossland was on July 1, 1921 and less than a year later the line was being taken up. It seems to me like an regrettable lack of foresight, and I guess we’ll be peppering our Sunshine Cafe fries with grit for a long time to come. Sources:  McCulloch’s Wonder: The Story of the Kettle Valley Railway, by Barrie Sandford Topping’s Trail: The First Years of a Now Famous Smelter City, by Elsie G. Turnbull http://www.crowsnest-highway.ca/ The photo came from http://www.trailhistory.com/photos.php 

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