Recollections of the Carmi

Reading John Cowans’ interesting article, The Carmi Sub., by Bicycle, in the November 2002 issue of Branchline, provoked memories of my own four encounters with the Carmi Subdivision over 30 years.  That I should have had so many memorable experiences with one piece of railway that is well off the beaten track is all the more unusual as I have been an Eastern Canadian all my life, never living closer than 3,800 km (2,400 miles) from British Columbia.

These encounters began in 1973 when I worked with Omer Lavallée as Special Projects Assistant in the Corporate Archives section of Canadian Pacific’s Public Relations Department.  Our big project that year was to assist the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s production of The National Dream that was both based on Pierre Berton’s two-volume history on the building of the CPR and narrated by him.

My role in this, as in much of the rest of my life, was to be the logistics coordinator – to help find the older equipment that would be used in the filming, to see that it was repaired and painted in an appropriate time frame, and then moved on its own wheels or aboard special flatcars to the various film locations on the prairies, in Ontario and in BC.  As usual, that also meant staying behind in Montreal to organize the next phase while others from headquarters were on the road with the location filming crews.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all this, I was informed that I was going to BC - my second-ever trip there, and this time by two now fallen flags – Canadian Pacific Airlines, and Pacific Western Airlines, whose featured Stampeder Service included stewardesses in mini-skirts and cowboy boots!  Except perhaps for my innate ability to interface between railway operating personnel and art directors, it was highly unusual that I should be present for the filming of the mountain construction sequences, but that is how I first came face-to-face with the Carmi.

In those days, I didn’t yet appreciate how important maps are to me when I first travel anywhere, in order to get my bearings, and when I reached Penticton, I might as well have been in the middle of Mongolia.  It didn’t help that night was crowding in as Omer drove us north from Penticton, up along the southeast shore of Lake Okanagan, to meet up with the equipment that would be parked at Chute Lake for the duration of the mountain filming.  As lost as I was, I still vividly remember my first sight of the train, which consisted of Ontario Rail Association’s CP 4-4-0 No. 136 and a CPR box car, baggage car and open-platform coach in period paint schemes, standing in the siding at twilight.

The next day was my real introduction to the Carmi Subdivision and its multiple bridges and trestles.  For several days, we travelled back and forth between Chute Lake and the west side of Myra, setting up shots of the train creeping around mountains, through the tunnel at Mile 85.7 and across towering frame trestles.  During one scene showing Van Horne, played by John Colicos, inspecting the construction from the fireman’s seatbox, you can clearly make out Jack Hewitson, of CP’s Mechanical Department and live steam locomotive building fame, at the throttle of No. 136, wearing one of the bowler hats favoured by many enginemen of the period.

One of the most extraordinary film sequences shot there and later featured prominently in the series involved a senior CBC cameraman, likely Harry Makin. 

In order to get an upward shot of Van Horne gazing down from the cab, Makin had to be suspended almost upside down outside the cab.  As both his hands were required to hold and manipulate the substantial camera, that left only his feet to act as horizontal props against the lower steps of the cab ladder.  As the engine proceeded at 5-10 mph across curving wooden trestles almost 100 feet above the valley floor, all that lay between him and eternity was the single sturdy leather strap of a safety harness.

If you are lucky enough to catch a rerun of that episode, you may want to pay particular attention to the creaking of the trestles in this and other sequences – the sounds are all authentic.  What it must have been like on Van Horne’s real inspection trip of mountain construction in 1884 over far less substantial trestles one can only imagine.

A footnote.  The Carmi and Princeton subdivisions were closed to rail traffic in May, 1973, a month before the CBC filming; as such, the film train and CP 8509, the diesel pilot for the ferry moves into and out of Southern BC, were the last train movements over that part of the Carmi.  As this was the early era of Crowsnest coal moving to export at Roberts Bank in unit trains, however, the line west of Midway was retained intact in order to provide an alternate route in the event of a blockage of CP’s main line.  The story is told that the fate of what was left of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) was finally sealed in the late 1970s during a conversation between a senior CPR official out from Montreal and the local Roadmaster during an inspection trip.  In response to a question about whether he could guarantee that unit trains could traverse the two subdivisions safely, the Roadmaster is reported to have responded “Yes sir – the first one.”  Not too long after, the abandonment application was filed and rail removal crews were on the ground.

My second encounter with the Carmi occurred twenty years later and was of a far different nature.  Following up on some research I was doing, I learned that the (then) Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) in Hull (now Gatineau) held a large collection of railway plans.  These plans, which had been deposited with the Agency and its predecessors dating back to 1903 under the various iterations of Canadian railway legislation, included detailed plans and profiles of locations of proposed railways, revisions to locations and locations as constructed.  As access to this collection was restricted for legal reasons, I worked out an arrangement whereby I would do an inventory and create a more up-to-date and user-friendly index on a volunteer basis.

Among the 7,000+ plans were several dozen of the KVR, including those of the Myra Canyon section of the Carmi Subdivision, that are unique from several perspectives, the most striking of which is their appearance.  When Andrew McCulloch located and built the KVR during the second decade of the last century, he had been involved in various aspects of railway construction since 1891.  His trade had been learned in an earlier era, when it was still customary to apply colour washes to enhance the appearance of plans, and this he continued to do long after other engineers had abandoned the practice to save time and money.  Because McCulloch carried on as he had learned, however, his KVR plans are extraordinarily attractive.

The second aspect is no less significant but only becomes obvious when McCulloch’s plans are compared to the thousands of others in the CTA files.  Despite the fact that his 300-mile railway crossed three mountain summits and two deep valleys, there are very few revisions on file.  This means that, unlike many of his contemporaries, McCulloch got it right the first time.  As well, because the initial locating work was so carefully done, the KVR as constructed followed the location plans almost to the letter.  While I didn’t do a scientific survey, it certainly appeared to me that the ‘As Constructed’ plans that had to be filed following the completion of construction were simply extra copies of the location plans, but with a new title.  Of course, these were colour-washed as well.  Coming upon any of these plans as I sorted through the collection was always a particular source of pleasure, and I fancy that they still radiated the satisfaction that McCulloch much have felt as he affixed his signature, as Chief Engineer, to each one.

Back to B.C. again, this time in late-summer 1995.  This trip is tied to Dawn’s (my wife) business travel, to which we have added some down time.  The plan is to drive south from Calgary and west through the Crowsnest Pass to visit friends in Fort Steele, just east of Cranbrook, and then just to drive.  By now, I have learned to carry a map and, on this trip, I also bring along a copy of Roger Burrows’ excellent guide, Railways Mileposts: British Columbia, Volume II.

Another night finds us in Kelowna, back at The Mad Catter, our all-time favourite B&B and less than 10 miles from the Carmi.  While the flyer describing the new walking trail around the Myra Canyon section looks interesting, I don’t propose venturing there again as I want to remember it as I last saw it.  Instead, the next morning, we head down the west side of Lake Okanagan on the main highway to Penticton.  After a quick look at the CP sternwheeler S.S. Sicamous , which is preserved there, we head north up the east side of the lake towards Naramata to enjoy the orchards and visit a few of the wineries, which are open and offering tastes of their products.

By mid-afternoon, we are ready to return to Kelowna, about a two-hour drive if we retrace our route via Penticton.  Although no through roads are shown on the east side of the Lake, the gap between the roads that are shown is very small, and Dawn urges further investigation.  At a junction with two dirt roads, a hydro crew wrapping up for the day tells us to follow the one that climbs the hillside and we will find a logging road that will get us through.  Since we are driving a rental, we decide to chance it.  After a couple of mostly uphill miles, the road levels out suddenly and I realize that I have travelled this road before, that I am once again in Chute Lake, and that the logging road we are looking for is the roadbed of the KVR.

Although the rails and ties are missing, I still sense the railway stretching out in both directions, and have an overwhelming feeling of coming home.  Because the cinder ballast has been smoothed over and compacted by many rubber wheelsets, the ride is surprisingly good as we head east by railway direction.  At Lorna, we pause briefly to survey what is left of the water tank footings.  Dawn, who is not a rail aficionado, is constantly amazed that anyone has bothered to catalogue such information.  For my part, still expecting that this little road may simply come to an end, I fail to mention that there are large bridges a short distance ahead.

All too soon, what stretches out before us is the crossing of Bellevue Creek, a massive, 182-foot high curved deck plate girder bridge whose steel side members project only 12 inches or so above the tops of the bridge ties that are now the road surface.  At least one of those ties still has a tie plate firmly anchored to it by a single spike, likely driven into a knot and thereafter resistant to any and every effort to remove it.  Caterpillar tracks cut into the ties indicate that the structure is still being used.  Fortunately, neither one of us looks down too much and, after one of those infamous ‘husband-wife discussions’ in which I promise “not to do anything foolish”, we set out on the slowest 721 feet of our trip, me with my eyes wide open, Dawn with hers firmly shut.  

As there is about a 6-inch gap between each pair of bridge ties, the ride is a tad bumpy as we move forward.  Additionally, between each of the 12 or so bridge spans, the gap widens to about a foot to allow for a transverse bridge girder that is several inches lower than the top of the bridge ties.  The bumps between the ties are bad enough, but feeling the front wheels drop into these wider depressions so high above the ground is stomach-tightening to say the least, especially so for the person who still has her eyes closed.  About five hundred big and little bumps later, we reach the eastern end of the bridge and, as we regain terra firma, a group of hikers who have been standing and watching the slow progress of our Taurus wagon salute us with a round of applause.

A short while later, we find that the road leading back down to Kelowna is also the access road to the Myra Canyon walking trail.  We both need to get out and stretch our legs, so we park and hike further along the right of way, this time crossing wooden trestles equipped with plank decking and sturdy, chest-high railings.  A highlight is stopping for a break at a little rock outcropping with natural seating and a wonderful view.  No sooner do we settle in than we are surrounded by a legion of chipmunks who, in the spirit of the CPR, make it very clear that no one travels this road for free, and that the price is a share of our snack.  So if you hike the Trans-Canada Trail, remember that this highly recommended part remains a toll road!

My most recent encounter with the Carmi was in December 2002 and was once again far away from BC.  No sooner had my December Branchline been read that a much thicker document landed on my desk at Parks Canada, where I managed the flow of executive documents.  This time, it was a recommendation from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) to designate a portion of the Carmi Subdivision a National Historic Site of Canada.  The site is defined as the 9.6 km (6 mile) section of the former KVR right-of-way in the Myra Canyon extending from Mile 84.5, just west of Myra, to Mile 90.5, just east of Ruth.  Considered by the HSMBC under the Developing Economies historical theme, this designation was recommended because “the location, layout, and construction ...... through the Myra Canyon constitutes an outstanding engineering achievement which employed conventional technologies in highly imaginative and ingenious applications in routing and constructing a railway in mountainous terrain.”  The recommendation was subsequently approved by the Honourable Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, and announced in January, 2003.  Over the course of the next year or so, an appropriate text would be developed for the bronze HSMBC plaque that would be installed on a rock ledge clearing east of the trestle at Mile 85.2.

Growing up in Ottawa and then working for the CPR in Ottawa and Montreal for a number of years, I rarely travelled more than a subdivision’s distance from Ottawa, so the Carmi should not have figured so prominently in my life.  Any one of the recounted incidents would have been more than sufficient exposure for one person to one subdivision, let alone to a few miles around one canyon, but it just kept on coming.  If the alternating nature of those exposures holds, the next one should involve another trip to B.C., so here’s hoping!

*     *     *     *     *


When I wrote this article in early summer 2003, Dawn and I knew that we would be in Vancouver in early September and so made plans to once again visit our friends in Fort Steele.    As the drive eastward would take us through Kelowna, there would at least be some glimpses of the KVR east of there, and who knows what else.

As summer wore on, however, circumstances changed.  My daily Parks Canada issue-management conference calls always included an update on the forest fire situation in the west.  Some fires were reported to be burning so hot that their smoke plumes rose more that 30,000 feet and created micro-climates which, in turn, spawned lightning storms that ignited more fires.

The advent of a fire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park set off some particular alarm bells for me.  Following the destruction of some 240 houses in Kelowna, a Department of Canadian Heritage official began sending e-mail updates that provided a local source of specific information on the KVR bridges.

These daily messages, often containing items lifted from the local newspapers, expressed great public concern for the fate of the bridges.  Towards the end of August, the reports took on a more hopeful tone as the winds either dropped or shifted away, and as prevention strategies for the bridges, which are key elements of the Trans Canada Trail and bring 50,000 visitors to Kelowna each year, were devised.  Among other things, monumental efforts were expended to apply fire retardant gel to the bridges, and to remove the piles of disused bridge timbers at the bases of the trestles, discarded by generations of railway B&B (Bridge and Building) workers.

Then, on the night of Thursday September 4, conditions changed again.  The next morning, the lead story and photo on front page of the Vancouver Sun was about the destruction of 7 bridges.  As the weekend wore on, further reports revealed that only 4 of the 18 bridges, Nos. 1, 12, 16 and 17, had escaped the ravages of the hungry fire.  Even the high steel bridges were not spared.  In all, 3,338 linear feet of framed wooden and 1,086 feet of steel bridging were destroyed.

Preliminary estimates have set the cost of reconstruction in kind at more than $30 million.  While politicians at all levels of government have indicated that replacement of the trestles is essential, it can be expected that issues of cost, low availability of skilled labour, the survival of a few bridges in their original form and the ultimate realization that much more modest structures will suffice for pedestrian traffic will likely result in bridges being replaced in some lesser form.  Fundraising activities are currently under way, details of which are available from the Okanagan Mountain Firewatch Site at  The Photo Gallery at this site also contains an interesting selection of past and present photos of the Myra Canyon trestles and views.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, November 2003, page 6.

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