March 5th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 9
Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Little Engine that Could
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear Photo
Royal Scot locomotive and 8 passenger cars prepare to leave Montreal.
Sometimes in-depth research can take one off on a tangent that proves to be most enlightening. Digging deeper into a story can lead to some fascinating revelations and more often than not I wind up going in a different direction.
Such is the case with an anecdote I found in the 1980 commemorative booklet entitled: “Hillcrest-Bellevue Early Days”, a marvellous 35 page trip into early Hillcrest history that was part of Alberta’s 75th anniversary celebrations. It was written for the most part by Lew Thomas a one time staff reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Amongst the personal recollections in this souvenir booklet I found a piece entitled: “It Was Royal Coal”, a brief story about how Hillcrest was the best steam coal available in North America and that it was placed at strategic points along the CPR’s rugged mountain runs, “especially through the steep grades in the Rockies.”
The story went on to tell of the famous 1935 journey of the Royal Scot train across Canada and how it ran into troubles when it ran out of specially shipped Welsh coal in the mountains. It goes on to say that CPR officials rushed boxcars of Hillcrest coal to the Royal Scot whereupon it: “chugged through the grueling grades of the Rockies without further trouble—fired by Hillcrest Coal”.
Digging deeper I explored the story of how this high speed Scottish train and eight of its cars were loaded onto a boat called the Beaversdale at Tilsbury Dock in London and offloaded at Montreal. It then sped to Chicago to be part of the “Century of Progress Exposition” which opened there in May of 1933. There were dozens of whistle stops where huge crowds checked out this Scottish speedster and it made a big splash in the windy city. Because it had proved so popular it was decided to take it west to Las Vegas and then north to Vancouver and across Canada instead of returning to Montreal to reverse its journey. When it was done over three million people visited the train on its 11, 000 mile circuit.
On the net I found a very detailed and fascinating eleven page document on its trip published by the Canadian Railroad Historical Association in 1965. It retraced the Royal Scot from England to Montreal, thru the States and back again to Montreal but nowhere did it mention the Hillcrest coal rescue. In fact Mr. Thomas’ article was off by two years when he wrote of its journey as being in 1935. While it is entirely possible that Hillcrest coal was stockpiled in the mountains, according to the CRHA document the Royal Scot passed through the mountains without any problems.
So while it was generally accepted that Hillcrest coal was one of the finest steam coals there were at the time, I have not been able to find any further reference to this Hillcrest coal rescue. As I researched deeper into Hillcrest coal itself I found an ad in a Spokane paper that announced that Hillcrest Steam Coal was: “The King Pin of the Bunch. The finest quality steam coal mined in Canada.” It went on to say that this particular supplier was the exclusive agent for it and that for:”hotels, apartment houses and all kinds of steam heating it is par excellence.” Most people think coal is just coal but back then there were dozens of suppliers competing for sales and each product had it own desirable qualities.
Now this is where this story gets really interesting. As I dug even deeper a pdf document popped up in my Google searches that was advertising that the Western Development Museum (WDM) in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan was offering a Steam Locomotive Operation Training Course. What was written in this 2013 course offer I had to reread several times before I let myself believe it. It said: “This class is for people interested in operating the Vulcan steam locomotive at the Moose Jaw WDM. The Vulcan is the only operating steam locomotive in Saskatchewan. The Vulcan narrow-gauge 0-4-0 engine was manufactured in 1914 by Vulcan Iron Works in Pennsylvania, USA for Hillcrest Collieries in southern Alberta.”

So there it was. Wow! You’re telling me that one of the original small gauge locomotives for Hillcrest (there were two, #’s 4 and 5) is still around! And is still running! I rattled off an email to both the WDM in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw and got responses from their conservation curator and a fellow by the name of Thom Cholowski, their Conservation Manager/Steam Program Chief Engineer. Being a train nut this story really lit me up. Thom informed me that yes they had old #5 (later renamed Shortline 101) and that recently they had completely rebuilt it from the ground up including a new boiler. It runs every summer season in Moose Jaw hauling visitors around their WDM Moose Jaw museum.
When I contacted the queen of Hillcrest researchers Belle Kovach about this find she said she knew of it and sent me a 1999 article done on its history. From there the story just kept getting better and better. Turns out that after Hillcrest closed down old #5 wound up being run at a sodium sulphate mine at a salt lake near Alsask Saskatchewan until 1958 when it was donated to the WDM.
According to the article a respected history researcher and author by the name of Bill Wardill did some digging of his own. In the National Archives in Ottawa he found a 1943 letter from the salt mine’s owner to the then Federal Deputy Minister of Labour Arthur MacNamara that stated: “It occurs to us that there is a considerable untapped reservoir of labour in the interned Japanese in this country.” British Columbia officials were contacted by MacNamara’s office and the next thing you know Kusada Katsutaro, Maruno Hiroshi and six other internees were living in a military type barracks at Alsask. They laid the tracks for the narrow gauge rail line for old #5 between the alkali lake and the dehydration plant and then worked there mining the Glauber’s salts.
While official records suggest they sought employment there Wardill thought otherwise. In an essay entitled “Exiled to a Salt Mine” Bill stated: “It is difficult to believe their presence on the treeless shore of an isolated salt lake represented any real freedom of choice.”
As I mentioned research can take one on the most amazing journey and for me this one took me from Scotland to Chicago to Spokane and then Moose Jaw and Alsask. All history fits together in the end, you just have to keep connecting the dots.
March 5th ~ Vol. 84 No. 9
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