Iron Road West tracks the history of railways in B.C.

Q&A with author Derek Hayes

Iron Road West: An Illustrated History of British Columbia's Railways by Derek Hayes. Hardback, 500 colour and black and white photos and illustrations, 240 pp, November 2018 CAD$44.95. Harbour Publishing.


article continues below

Derek Hayes takes an encyclopedic look at the history of railways in B.C. in his new book, Iron Road West.

The province was actually brought into the Canadian conversation when the idea of a transcontinental line to the West Coast was raised. Up until then the Americans were also eyeing the region as a possible addition. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886 set off economic development, with William Van Horne, the American president of the Montreal-based CPR, naming the city “Vancouver,” even though there was already a Vancouver in Washington state and a Vancouver Island. Other names were bandied about but he got to make the call.

Hayes talked to the North Shore News about his book, one of the great reads of 2018.

(Some of the text has been edited for brevity and clarity).

NSN: The city of Vancouver became a reality in 1886 just as the CPR rolls into town. The railroad seems to have been all-powerful at that time.

Derek Hayes: Where the West End is now the layout was planned by some private developers who saw the Canadian Pacific coming and figured it would be extended to Coal Harbour. They pre-empted the land and laid out the subdivision hoping to make a fast buck. All the roads are basically the same as they were – that’s why you have a disconnect where the roads don’t line up, like on Burrard Street. The roads go across Burrard Street at right angles because the CP Railway wanted to lay out things to suit themselves and they ignored the private subdivision which at that time was mainly forest anyway. When it was developed that’s the way it stayed because they didn’t want to go through the process of resurveying it.

You couldn’t get around very easily, to put it mildly. Once you got out of the Lower Mainland there weren’t any real roads. There was the Cariboo Trail but it was in pretty bad condition. The railway, as it did everywhere else in the world, became a fast and inexpensive way of getting from A to B. Quite dramatically it was responsible for the growth and development across British Columbia at that time. By the time it came here in 1885, to Port Moody, railways were pretty well established almost everywhere in the world. Even the American transcontinental was built in 1869. In Europe there were already considerable networks of railways. It was really just a transfer of existing technologies it wasn’t something that was new in a world sense, just new for British Columbia.


NSN: When the railway did get here they had to deal with a lot of extreme terrain to lay down the track.

Derek Hayes: There’s a lot of horror stories about the building of the CPR, particularly in the Fraser Canyon where they had to build a bridge to get from one side to the other. The standard wasn’t as good as it is today – it has been upgraded dramatically over the years. It was enough for the railways of the day. The big thing that CP had to deal with was forest fires. The steam locomotives of the day were prone to throwing out sparks and cinders setting the forests on fire. The railway used wood because it was the available material to build its (infrastructure).

The second eastbound train from Port Moody was caught in a forest fire and had some of its carriages burned. It was somewhat more of an intrepid trip than it is today. The railway was completed to Port Moody in ’85 but it was late in the year and so they closed it down for the winter realizing they weren’t going to be able to run trains with the snow. They opened up again in the spring and that’s when you have your first trains running although there was a test train in 1885 just to prove that it could be done. They sent barrels of oil from Halifax to the naval supply storage in Victoria but passenger service didn’t start until 1886.


NSN: There’s at least one photo in the book of a train with a fire beside the tracks.

Derek Hayes: That’s the legacy of the steam locomotive of the time. A burnt forest.


NSN: Which came first connecting the province or the interurban tracks?

Derek Hayes: The CP connecting the province. All the other stuff came after. The railway was essentially responsible for the establishment of Vancouver as a place to be although there was a small settlement there before. Once the CP came to Vancouver then you got all these competing lines that tried to jump in and make money selling lands and getting land grants and getting subsidies to build railways and, of course, the CP was doing its best to keep them out. They had a huge land grant in Vancouver and it was quite difficult for other railways to find a way into Vancouver that avoided the Canadian Pacific land grant.


NSN: How many railways were there?

Derek Hayes: That’s a loaded question. Hundreds, certainly. In the back of the book there’s a 10-page list of railway charters that were granted in British columbia. Only a small percentage of them went out anywhere. What would happen typically is businessmen would get together and they would charter a railway and then they’d either start building it and sell it to a bigger railway like Great Northern or the Canadian Pacific or they’d sell the charter.  For example, in the Okanagan, the mine from Sicamous to Okanagan Lake was chartered by a group of local businessmen who wanted to connect to the CP but before they even started the service it was bought by the CP which was looking for markets. They were looking for traffic to support the railway because they were running in areas where there wasn’t a lot of settlement initially and the settlement followed the railway. The CP, in fact, set up a huge system of steamboats on most of the lakes that connected with the railway to extend it as far south as Penticton.


NSN: The Pacific Great Eastern had ambitious plans to link the southern B.C. coast with the north.

Derek Hayes: The first steam locomotive on the North Shore was barged down from Squamish in November 1913 because that’s where the initial Pacific Great Eastern was built. Now you’ve got the Howe Sound Pemberton Valley & Northern in 1907 and that changed its name to the Howe Sound Northern in 1910 and then became the Pacific Great Eastern but it only went north from Squamish because of the difficulty of building in Howe Sound.

The locomotive came ashore at the foot of Lonsdale and then they built what became the North Shore subdivision with the line from Lonsdale to Whytecliff. That was completed in 1914 but unfortunately the First World War started and a lot of settlers went to Europe to fight in the war. (As a result) the markets were quite down and it was almost doomed to failure before it started.

PGE had the first use of gas rail cars in B.C. They closed them in 1922 but reopened because of public outcry. In 1925 the Second Narrows Bridge opened so they had more cars on the North Shore. The government, which had bought the PGE when it went bancrupt, paid the District of West Vancouver $150,000 to pave Marine Drive and to start a bus service to take the place of the railway.

The railway never formally abandoned the line and in 1956 when W.A.C. Bennett was in charge of the province the PGE did finally extend down to North Vancouver. All those people in West Vancouver who had extended their gardens into land that was part of the PGE right-of-way thinking it had been abandoned suddenly found that they had their gardens truncated. It was a bit like what’s happened in recent years in the Kerrisdale area with the Arbutus line – a lot of people had extended their gardens thinking they were going to get away with it.


NSN: Was the Whytecliff station right at Whytecliff Park?

Derek Hayes:  It was close to where Gleneagles Community Centre is now. There’s nothing left of the station. The railway was moved up the hill so it went around Fisherman’s Cove. In 1972 there was a big derailment there where all the freight cars rolled down the hill on to houses on the curve there. That was the reasoning why the railway (by this time the British Columbia Railway) decided to build a tunnel through to Horseshoe Bay in 1973.

The (original PGE) railway was in two sections – one went from Squamish to just north of Quesnel. Lonsdale to Whytecliff, the North Shore subdivision as they called it, was usually operated by gas railcars but there’s a beautiful photo from the B.C. archives in the book of a steam train at Altamont on that line so they didn’t always run on gas. Gas rail cars were the cheapest way of operating a line like that and that’s what they used most of the time.


NSN: Were there other railway companies on the North Shore besides PGE?

Derek Hayes: There was a short line. The Vancouver Harbour Commissioner’s Terminal Railway was built in 1926 to use the Second Narrows Bridge, which had been completed in 1925, to link the southern docks with the north part and that became the National Harbours Board Railway in 1936. In 1953 it was bought out by Canadian National which is what it is today. Canadian National went as far as Lonsdale and then it was PGE and then BC Railway. CN bought BC Railway in 2006.


NSN: What’s the status of passenger rail traffic today? In other parts of the world it seems a more popular mode of travel. Is it because of the distances and expense?

Derek Hayes: Distances and population density. The railways are competing against airlines. If somebody wants to go from Vancouver to Calgary it’s just so much easier and quicker to take a plane. The railways in North America generally went through a big consolidation period where they tried to figure out what they could do and they figured they could do freight – particularly bulk freight like wheat and coal, much more efficiently than trucks or anything else and so that’s what they started to concentrate on. Now you’ve got these huge unit trains that can be a couple of kilometres long. The coal trains that go to Roberts Bank and to Neptune Terminals on the North Shore that’s the traffic that’s become their bread and butter.

Amtrak and VIA Rail in Canada operate the passenger services and, as they are, they work quite well. The one from Vancouver to Seattle just got new state of the art locomotives and has a high-end service that seems (to be economical) but it’s still government sponsored. The Washington State Transport Department is largely responsible for financing it. They think it’s a public service so they do it. Back East you’ve got the Acela Amtrak high-speed train that runs between Boston and Washington in a very densely populated corridor that makes it worthwhile to do. The distance is just enough so they can compete with airlines quite successfully. As is the case in Japan with their bullet trains. In Europe there are high-speed trains all over the place that can generally get you from A to B a lot faster than planes because of all the waiting at airports, the security and all that sort of stuff. You can go from London to Paris through The Chunnel in two hours.


NSN: California’s building a high-speed network. Could it extend to here?

Derek Hayes: It could but these things are incredibly expensive to build. The current line goes around the edge of the coastline near where I live in White Rock and it’s not a high-speed route at all. They’re currently building pedestrian crossings so people can get to the beach. That route would have to be completely changed. It would have to run near where the freeway is now in order to be straighter and allow the high speeds. There would also have to be tunnelling as it has to be flatter than it is now. Once you start doing that things get really expensive. It’s possible but in my opinion the population density is not likely to support it for another 50 years.


NSN: What about SkyTrain? Surrey wants it. Would it be possible for the North Shore?

Derek Hayes: Anything’s possible but again it’s the economics versus the population density. That’s the argument in Surrey. They want to build it thinking that it will generate that density as it has done in Vancouver. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Do you build it before the density is there or do you wait?


NSN: It seems exactly like what the railways were doing back in 1886.

Derek Hayes: The railways in British Columbia were built on the principle that if you build it they will come – that’s why they were very precariously balanced as far as their finances were concerned. The Great Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific, two of the three transcontinentals, went belly up and were nationalized and became part of what became Canadian National.


10 great reads from B.C. (in alphabetical author order)

Atomic Road by Grant Buday (Anvil Press)

Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes & Stories by Naz Deravian (Macmillan/Flatiron)

Iron Road West: An Illustrated History of British Columbia’s Railways by Derek Hayes (Harbour Publishing)

Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį: Teachings from Long Ago Person Found, edited by Richard J. Hebda, Sheila Greer, Alexander P. Mackie (Royal BC Museum)

Anna Like Thunder by Peggy Herring (Brindle & Glass)

Live at The Cellar: Vancouver’s Iconic Jazz Club and the Canadian Co-operative Jazz Scene in the 1950s and ‘60s by Marian Jago (UBC Press)

Murder by Milkshake: An Astonishing True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and a Charismatic Killer by Eve Lazarus (Arsenal Pulp Press)

On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement by Rod Mickleburgh (Harbour Publishing)

Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner (Greystone)

Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence by Paula Wild (Douglas & McIntyre)


Read Related Topics

Noise POLL

What’s the most annoying noise in your neighbourhood?

or  view results

Popular News

Community Events Calendar