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HISTORY BUFF: The legacy of railways in the West Kootenay

Museum archivist Jean-Philippe Stienne will be a regular history columnist in the Nelson Star

by Jean-Philippe Stienne

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries railways had a profound impact on social, political, and economic life in the Kootenays.

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the Great Northern Railway operated almost all rail lines in the Kootenays. Their selections for stations, terminals, and workshops could make or break an urban centre; their shipyards built sternwheelers and tugs to transport products and people across lakes and rivers; their telegraph and express services revolutionized communication.

Nelson’s first train station was built in 1891, but the most important event came in 1899 when CPR announced it would set up its divisional headquarters in Nelson. The CPR took advantage of tax exemptions from the city and quickly constructed freight sheds, a turntable, a roundhouse, a wharf, and a new station. The station was built on the site of a Chinese-owned vegetable garden, and Cottonwood Creek was diverted for its construction.

Crew cutting the railway grade below Red Mountain near Rossland, 1896. Photo attributed to Elmer Anderson

The railway companies became some of the city’s biggest employers and, despite the decline of the area’s mining industry, were an important factor in allowing Nelson to maintain its population and position as a leading transportation hub and economic centre in the West Kootenays. By 1954 CPR employed over 500 people in Nelson.

Former Nelson CPR worker Jim Robertson remembers Nelson as a busy railway town.

“There could be 15 trains coming in during a morning from sites such as the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley,” he recalls. “Chemicals and product was distributed in Nelson and sent on to locations like Trail Cominco, the pulp mill in Castlegar, the mills in Midway and Grand Forks or over to the Kootenay Forest Products plywood plant and sawmill that existed in Nelson.”

Daniel Corbin constructed a direct rail line from Spokane to Nelson, completed in 1893. He was prevented from entering Nelson due to the CPR having already been given exclusive rail-access rights within town limits. He instead established his Mountain Station above the townsite. The station site is now occupied by a rail trail parking lot at the east end of Gore Street. Photo: Bunyan Family album

While the rail industry brought opportunity and prosperity to many in the Kootenays, there is also a dark side to the story. Railway construction workers laboured long hours with poor pay, crude equipment and unsafe conditions. Lice infestations were a persistent problem. Diseases swept through labour camps and, without access to reasonable healthcare, many died.

A significant portion of railway workers across Canada were Chinese. In 1891 Nelson’s first newspaper The Miner reported that over 40 per cent of the workforce building the Kootenay’s first railway between Sproat’s Landing (near present day Castlegar) and Nelson were Chinese. However, in the following years Chinese people were barred from working on the construction of many rail lines due to government legislation and opposition from white workers.

First Nations and Métis communities were fundamentally impacted by railways; many railways in the region were built along the extensive trail networks developed by Indigenous nations. Railways brought settlers looking to extract wealth from the natural landscape. Wildlife patterns that Indigenous people had lived in balance with for generations were dramatically altered. Huge land grants were provided to railway companies, including land that was not subject to treaties and had never been ceded by First Nations communities.

CPR Service Station Platform, Nelson, January 29, 1954. A photograph from the opening day of Nelson’s diesel maintenance shop. The Nelson Daily News reported that the 305-foot-long diesel plant employed 154 workers amongst approximately 500 CPR employees living in the city. Photo: Nelson Daily News Collection

“When we look at the impacts to the land, the impacts to Indigenous people, the impacts to the water, the impacts to the fish, suddenly, the railroad is not as romantic,” says Sinixt Nation spokesperson Shelly Boyd, reflecting on some of the negative impacts of railway history.

“It doesn’t have that same feel. And I think as human beings it is important for us to look at what we are taking. Every time we are taking something, we are changing something, we are moving something else. And we have a responsibility to be aware of this.”

Although railways remain important for freight transportation, the network of sternwheelers, tugs and rail passenger services are gone. A mixed legacy of land ownership issues, displacement, heritage buildings and attractions, environmental damage and rail trails remain.

Jean-Philippe Stienne is the archivist and collections manager at the Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery. History Buff is a new column that will run monthly.