Tuesday, September 7, 2010  
   Volume 80 - Issue 36 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
Return to Home Page


Quote of the Week
“Music is one of the rare things in life that can transport you.”
- Shelly Groves  
- on the study of music   


Looking Back - John KinnearEast of Golden along the TransCanada highway lies the C.P.R. divisional point known as Field. It is a relatively flat spot terrain wise on the east side of the Kicking Horse Pass and its railroad history makes for some fascinating reading. Being a dedicated train spotter I thought I would share some of it with you, the readers.
Field was and still is, located where it is because of the railroad grades that occur on either side of that stretch of line. While the modern day grades are somewhat improved, in earlier days they presented a serious problem for east west traffic from Lake Louise to Golden. One section east of Field has the steepest grade and sharpest curves of any main line in Canada and is referred to as the "Big Hill". At one time, before the construction of the famous spiral tunnels, the Big Hill had the steepest piece of mainline track anywhere in the world!
That section came to be in the 1880's after Van Horne, then president of C.P.R., informed the Fed's that it would take an extra year of drilling to get through this area if he was to conform to their maximum 2.2% grade standard. The Federal Government, anxious to complete the transcontinental line, gave Van Horne approval to push the line through at 4.4%, twice the allowable limit. It was supposed to be a temporary measure but in fact it was over 20 years before that grade was finally reduced. In those days steam locomotives did not have any air pumps for brakes and the only way for an engineer to try and control his train was to reverse the wheel drivers and tighten the hand brake on the "tender". The tender was a coal carrier type car always attached to the back of the train.
In an attempt to control incidents on this 8 mile nightmare ride certain measures were taken. Passenger train traffic was restricted to 8 M.P.H. and freight trains to 6. Just like the truckers on the Creston/Salmo summit, trainmen on the hill would inspect their brakes and sanding gear at the top. The brakeman would hop off and inspect the "trucks “as they went by, looking for sliding or overheating wheels.
Another measure used entailed the construction of track runaway lanes. Like the Creston/Salmo truck runaway lanes these runoffs generally headed uphill off the main line as it dropped downhill. These emergency exits had a track switch with a small shack next to it where a switchman was to be found. His job was to listen for trains coming down the hill to blow their whistles signalling that the train was under control. Hearing no whistle he would switch the out of control train onto the runaway lane and try to stop it.
There were many accidents and incidents on the hill until the "spirals" were built. In one such incident a crew new to the hill learned a hard lesson. It seems they were making a light run down to Field one day with an engine and a caboose with some trainmen in it.
When the engine began sliding out of control the engineer reversed his drivers and then in a panic he and the fireman leapt from the train.
When the trainmen inside the caboose realized what was happening they uncoupled the caboose from the engine and applied it's handbrake to slow it down. The engine roared on down to the runaway switch #3 where the watchman not hearing the all clear whistle threw the switch. The train ran up the runaway lane where it stopped and then began back down as it had been left in reverse. It reached the switch at the same time as that slowed down caboose and smashed it to smithereens. The trainmen prudently chose to leap off at the last minute.
For over 20 years train engineers endured the uncertainties of the "big hill" until finally the grade was rebuilt. The solution was the famous spiral tunnels, a masterpiece of engineering. All 4 tunnel entrances were started at the same time and their alignments when they met were within inches of each other. The grade now drops 425 feet in 4.6 miles which is about 1 3/4%, a damned sight better than 4.4. Over 1000 men worked on their construction which was designed by John E. Schwitzer, a senior C.P.R. engineer and the man who also designed the marvellous Lethbridge Viaduct.
Incidentally the story that Schwitzer realized a week before the tunnels were finished that his mathematical calculations were off and they’d never meet in the middle is naught but an urban legend. The story goes he entered one of the tunnels and shot himself in the head. A week later, the tunnels were completed and met in the middle as Schwitzer had calculated and he took his own life for nothing. Utter rubbish.
The tunnels double over themselves and are both about 3000 feet long. It is truly an amazing sight to see a train travel over top of itself as its tail end heads into the tunnel it is coming out of. In and out of Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain they go an engineering feat unique to this day in North America.
For many years after their completion powerful steam locomotives with design names like Mikado, Selkirk, Pacific, Sante Fe and Decapod were the workhorses that kept east west transcontinental traffic flowing. They were manned by "hill crews" who would take over from the regular train crew and shunt passenger and freight trains down the grade to Field or up from Field to Lake Louise. Most times they were teamed up in tandem or at either end of a small train as they chugged up and down the grades of the Kicking Horse Pass.
The mountains around Field no longer echo the shrill blasts of those wonderful steam driven machines. They have long since been replaced with monstrously powerful 4400 hp "mountain diesels" like the ones that roar through the Crowsnest Pass every day. The last steam train ever to pass through the spiral tunnels was B.C.'s very own Royal Hudson #2860 in April of 1979
Return to Home Page

John Kinnear Archives

   Volume 80 - Issue 36 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
All information on this website is Copyright (c) 2010 Pass Herald Ltd. All rights reserved.
12925 20th Ave, Box 960, Blairmore, Alberta, Canada T0K 0E0
| passherald@shaw.ca
403.562.2248 | 403.562.8379 (FAX)