The Columbia and Western Railway: Cycling the C&W in 2012

I suppose this post is a little late. In August of 2012, a year after I started building my railway, my bicycling beauty Adrienne and I biked from Castlegar (mile 25.7 Boundary Sub.) to Grand Forks (Mile 94.8) over two hot, sunny days.

A little preface: Castlegar was founded on the west side of the Columbia river at its junction with the Kootenay. It was an important transportation centre from the beginning – steamships plied the Columbia, but couldn’t navigate up the rapids of the Kootenay to the booming silver mines around Nelson, so CP built the Columbia and Kootenay railway in 1890 from Nelson to Robson, on the east shore of the Columbia a couple miles up from Castlegar for a sternwheeler landing. A couple years later, Augustus Heinze built a smelter in Trail as well as the narrow gauge Columbia and Western railway up the valley to Rossland. It was converted to standard gauge, and extended to Robson West (2 miles up from Castlegar, across the river from Robson.)

Things are really snowballing in Boundary country at this point. Copper ore has been discovered at a number of mines in the West Kootenays (Notably Phoenix and Greenwood) and the best route is to go down the Kettle River to the GNR in Washington. We wanted to put a stop to that, so under the C&W charter CP built a bridge across the Columbia at Castlegar, turning it into Castlegar Junction, and over Farron and Eholt summits to Grand Forks and Midway.

This is that journey.

At this time, the Kraft switcher ran with a single unit (GP38AC, in this case) in daylight. Here, it’s finished its work for the day, and is parked at the old station platform.

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The station was originally inside the wye, but moved to the south side in the late 1980s to become the Castlegar museum.

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The Kootenay Express, Train #12, stops at Castlegar about 1955

The railway follows the south shore of the Columbia west from Castlegar, past Robson West, now a storage siding for the Celgar mill.

Celgar, derived from Cellulose and Castlegar, is a large paper mill, the largest employer in town. It’s big, is what I’m saying.

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Past Celgar, we get onto the railgrade. It’s abandoned past a small cement reload, as improvements to highway 3 in the 1980s took away much of the traffic, and CP was left losing a couple million a year. The line over Farron summit saw its last train in 1990.

The first siding west of Celgar was Labarthe. At the bottom of Farron hill, it hosted a turntable, and turned helpers in the steam days to assist heavy trains from Trail over the average 2.2% grade to points west. In the 1960s, CP had to reroute the railway higher as the Hugh Keenleyside dam was constructed to flood the Lower and Upper Arrow Lakes – flooding the majority of fertile land along the Columbia. The line was rerouted around the Labarthe tunnel, which is only visible when the water level is low. The level fluctuates by up to 60 feet, so sometimes the water level is low enough to reveal the ties.

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Can you see it down the shoreline?

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6 miles up is the first major bridge on the hill – McCormack Creek.

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Across the lake, you can get a good view of this bridge from Syringa Provincial Park. It’s very cool to see the right of way hanging on the hillside.

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Next up is Shields station, home to a logging spur, and now crossed by Shields Forestry Service Road. You can find the remains of the 33 car siding, pulled in the late 60s, and the station foundation here.

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A bit further up, the line hangs to the cliffs on rock retaining walls, and you get a view down to the cottages on Shields Creek below.

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Continuing up the hill, you hit two tunnels, one straight, and one curved.

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Then two bridges, Farr creek and Bear creek.

Farr creek is a fascinating bridge. Originally a through truss over the Elbow river in Calgary, this link and pin structure was relocated and rebuilt to its present configuration sometime in the teens.

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Bear Creek bridge is identical to McCormack Creek bridge in every way – except it’s slightly more curved at each end.

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There’s one more tunnel through a small, hard nose of rock…

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And then you’re in Coykendahl. Coykendahl is located at Mile 43.5, halfway up the hill, and back when there was a west and east freight in the same day, they often met either here or at Farron.

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Coykendahl is also notable because a small red shed remains here, built into the hillside.

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Not far beyond Coykendahl, the line turns up the Pup Creek valley and away from the Lower Arrow Lake. In this last view as it rounds the corner, you can see the line snaking its way all the way back to Labarthe, now a thousand feet below.

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Brooklyn Creek was a major trestle along this route that was filled in, but washed out in 2011. Crossing it was awful, and I have no photos.

Not too far beyond that is the Bulldog tunnel. Not quite a kilometer, it’s 912 meters long, mostly straight with a curve out the west end. Between when the line was built in 1900 and its completion in 1902, a number of switchbacks carried the railway across this ridge.

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We’re in the homestretch now. Two sidings existed between the tunnel and the Summit – 33 car Tunnel, and 14 car Porcupine. I’m modeling Tunnel as an abandoned siding, with the foundations of a water tower…just like real life.

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Porcupine Creek was another large trestle that was filled.

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Finally, we reached the summit at Farron, 2500 vertical feet and 50km above where we began our journey.

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Farron sits in a narrow pass between Dog Creek, which drains into the Lower Arrow Lakes, and McRae Creek, which drains into Christina Lake. A diesel fuel tower still remains here.

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The home of helpers for the steam era, Farron was home to a number of buildings and a wye. We set up our tent on the tail track of the wye, which is partly used for a logging road.

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Many building foundations remain at Farron.

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Just west of the summit, as you tip over onto the downgrade to Christina Lake, is an unusual monument – a grain bushel, dedicated to Peter Verigan, a leader of a community of Russian Doukhobor pacifists, and other 6 victims of a 1924 bombing of train 11.

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Up next is one of my favorite little features, though I can’t explain why – this little pond draws me so.

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Paulson was a fairly important station on the C&W, having a mail drop and hook as well as a sawmill.

Today, it’s home to a detour road from the highway, and we chose to eat a can of fulfilling, cold beans there.

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Neat culvert at Paulson.

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This is where the line really starts dropping. It follows McRae Creek down its valley, and the creek falls faster than the railway. A short distance south (railway west) of Paulson is Paulson Gap, where the creek slots between a couple noses of rock as Highway 3 soars above on a large arch bridge. There are spectacular cliffs, a tunnel, and formerly a snowshed in this curve. What more do you need?

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Inside the tunnel is some interesting rockwork.

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Both ends have concrete liners, however, the west portal has no overburden for the first 15 feet or so.

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Just beyond here, the creek swings west.

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We were really hurrying at this point to make it to Grand Forks in time for dinner, so I didn’t take photos of many of the interesting features in this stretch – abandoned water towers, flumes, and a truss bridge over a slide path.

Things get amazing as you hit Christina Lake, though. The railway is high above McRae Creek, and swings south high on the mountainside.

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Looking south over the town of Christina Lake – the railway continues down on a grade that will have it reach the bottom a few hundred feet from the US border.

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At Fife, there existed a limestone tipple until it was torn down in 2016 – owned by Teck Cominco (once part of CP, and the owners of the Trail smelter) it was unsafe.

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There’s also a small shed, maintained by the C&W trail society.

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Some neat rocks as we swing onto the 500 foot Kettle river bridge #5 (the first you encounter coming from the east, but they’re numbered from the west)

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The bridge itself:

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From here, the line runs through grasslands to Grand Forks. It was just west of here that I got a slow leak in my tire – not wanting to take the time to change the tube out, I resolved to pump it up every 15-20 minutes as we hurried along the dusty, hot trail toward a delicious dinner.

The only remaining railway in this area is a mile of the Boundary sub served by the Grand Forks Railway, which runs to the border and meets up with the Kettle Falls International, running on ex-BNSF, exx-GN trackage to serve the sawmill. They run with 6703, an ex-CP SW8 that was bought from CP and left there when they pulled up rails to the east.

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The Grand Forks station is now home to a restaurant. It was more than welcome.

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That’s it! We continued west on the C&W and KVR on other trips, but this was our experience on the C&W that I’m modeling. I hope you enjoyed it!

 

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