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.


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


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.


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.


Can you see it down the shoreline?


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


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.


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.




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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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.



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.


Porcupine Creek was another large trestle that was filled.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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:


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!



How to build tunnel liners: Concrete and rock

Spoiler for the next big post: I’ve been adding a lot of scenery base in. I decided to make my life MUCH easier and put in my tunnels, weathering and all, before the hills above, and I’m very happy with this strategy!

The prototype Paulson tunnel is 365 feet long through a nose of rock that shuts McRae Creek into a tight canyon known as Paulson Gap. This is one of my favorite spots on the Boundary subdivision, as it contains sheer rock faces, a tunnel and a snowshed in a few hundred feet of track.

The tunnel itself has poured concrete portals dating back to the 1940s. These continue about 30 feet back into the tunnel or so, where it reverts to blasted rock.

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For the portals themselves, I used Chooch concrete portals with the top trim cut off and the corners rounded to mimic CP’s very utilitarian method.

Here’s where I got clever.

I made a form to act like the wooden forms the concrete would have been poured into. This form was made out of a dollar store ‘for sale’ sign with lines scribed into it with a somewhat dull exacto blade and a ruler at (roughly) the same points they are on the portal. Then, using a hot glue gun, I temporarily attached this form to the inside of the two tunnel portals. This ensured that it kept its shape, although the tunnel is much longer than that!

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I had some clearance issues, the tunnel being on a curve combined with the narrow portals caused a slight rub from my test autorack. In the end, I changed the shape of the liner from a rectangle to a parallelogram so that the end away from the portal was higher. This solved the clearance issue.

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With the form ready, I soaked some paper towels in a slightly runny plaster of paris mix (since they don’t carry hydrocal within 500 miles of me anymore) and draped them over the form, making sure the plaster was worked into every nook and cranny – though the end result says I could have done a better job!

Removing the form yielded a look that was almost perfect. The transition from portal to liner could be a bit smoother, but I ended up filling the gaps with more plaster. Then I painted it with a mix of mostly unbleached titanium and raw umber, following it up with washes of both unbleached titanium and black. (Couldn’t find the india ink)

Here’s two photos before the patching and final wash:

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Next, I was going to just use black construction paper for the rest, but as I was putting it on I noticed that you could tell by looking through the tunnel as it was short enough that you could barely see the other side! The prototype is quite a bit longer, after all…I was all ready to start carving some plaster and was talking to my dad about how he did his tunnel liners with crumpled aluminum foil molds when he said “Why not just use the foil?”
Freaking. Genius.

This was seriously SO EASY. Crumpled a sheet of foil, spray painted it with some matte oxide red I had lying around, shaped it, stapled and hot glued it onto the existing liners (which were glued down by this point) and voila! It looks SO much better. It’s hard to show in photos, especially since I can’t get a tripod in. It’s only on the outside of the curve, since you can’t see the inside from any reasonable angle. There’s construction paper over the top to prevent light entry, and it’s attached with push pins to allow easy access in case of a derailed car.

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Seeing the light shining through from the other side is nearly unreal in how good it looks.

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Can’t wait to get that hillside built over it!


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Until next time, highball!

Clear to Stop, track speed 10

No, I don’t have CTC on my layout, nor has the prototype ever seen any sort of signaling, but I know when I need to slow down. The layout’s kind of on hold while my life does stuff.

This post is about me, not trains.

I’m in school right now, for that whole electrician thing I’m doing. It’s getting progressively harder to keep homework away from home, and I find myself devoting more to it every night – Don’t worry, my grades are at the top of the class.

More than that, my summer is becoming busy in the best way – As some of you know, I’m working on gaining momentum with my photography business, and I have picked up enough business lately to fill a lot of my free time!

Between school and other-work, I have little to no time to spare. In addition, the prospect of moving soon is looming, so I’m scared to do much work anywhere outside of the pulp mill.

So, what has happened? I’m in week 2 of replacing a rail at Castlegar, where I’m throwing a couple more servos onto turnouts.

I’m also starting to work on some of the kits I have. I’ve somehow acquired 5 Kaslo H16-44 kits, two Geoff Gooderham resin kits for a 4700 series baggage and a Cape series observation to complete my Kootenay/Kettle Valley Express, and an old Sylvan Angus caboose, because I love them and rapido hasn’t come out with them yet.

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Hope I get to finish them this summer!

And I bought this, it sounds delicious.

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Can’t pull the full train, but it can manage 16 or so cars – Not bad for such a tiny toy.

Well, I’ll check in later – Doing another 4 day abandoned railway bike ride in 2 weeks!

January 20, 1995

 20 years ago today, a rockslide hit the Kootenay valley railway hotshot along Kootenay lake in the dark of a cold January morning. The lead locomotive plunged down the cliff into the freezing lake, and with engineer Peter Whitehead and trainman Shawn Trevor Hogg in the cab, those two men died that night. The train’s conductor had been riding in the trailing unit and managed to escape the wreck – But safety was not close. The highway is on the far side of Kootenay Lake here, and the only way in is by boat or rail. With no way to contact the outside world, he ran five kilometers down the track before meeting some maintenance of way men who were working serendipitously close.


Today there is a plaque on the sheer granite cliff at mile 111 of the Nelson subdivision. The CPR has done work to stabilize dangerous cliffs along this section, but the fact remains that this section of line is still as remote as when it was built, and the men who work on it are as brave as any.


Kootenay Division video series launch – A conversation through time!

Hey, everyone. I’ve been working on this huge project all year and will continue to for the upcoming year. I’d love it if you would all subscribe to it! The premise is that every Wednesday I upload a video taken a year ago and every Saturday I upload a video taken that week, and converse with myself about all manner of things.

It’s called Past Matt/Future Matt.

First Past Matt:

First Future Matt:


Thanks in advance, please enjoy this 104-video long series!

Catastrophic flooding and a state of emergency in Calgary

So, you folks might have heard the news, and some of you might even remember that I live in Calgary, so I’ll give you an update on what’s going on.

1: I live on a hill. A nice big hill. We corrected drainage problems years ago, and no water is anywhere in the house. Except the sink. There’s muddy water in the sink. The tapwater tastes muddy.

2: This is by far the worst flood in Calgary’s history. It’s four times higher than the previous record breaking flood. The closest we’ve ever gotten was localized flooding in winter due to ice jams up until the 1950s.

3: Calgary isn’t the only place affected. All of southern Alberta is FUBAR, including highways 1, 2, 3, 22, 40, 93, and the CP Crowsnest and Laggan subs. On a related note, there is a washout on the Kootenay Valley Railway’s Nelson sub near Wynndel, MP 73.8 in my era.

4: Nearly 100,000 people have been evacuated from 26 communities. Less than 2% needed an emergency shelter, the city’s done an amazing job of sticking together.

5: I’ve been out and about taking photos and getting water inside both of my 5Ds. (Yay…) I have a gallery at the following link, please check it out. It gives a glimpse into the utter devastation that’s occurring here.

The Canadian Red Cross is accepting monetary donations at this time, and I do strongly encourage you to donate.

Riding the Hotshot from Nelson to Trail!

Well folks, I’ve been meaning to get this up for a while. Part 2 of 3 of this series… a few days after chasing the hotshot from Nelson to Trail, and a 90km bike ride on the old Nakusp and Slocan from Nakusp to Rosebery and back (few photos, I’ll tack it onto part 3) I made my way to Nelson at 4 in the morning yet again. This time, I was to set out on a cabride on the hotshot to Trail. Before you go alerting the proper authorities, signatures were placed onto paper and there would be no recompense for any limb severing encountered.

Let’s start the previous day: As I’ve gone over in my Kootenay division operations post, the hotshot is brought from Cranbrook to McConnel (east of Creston) by a CPR crew, then is handed to a KVR crew that takes it into Nelson in the wee hours of the morning. A second crew takes it from Nelson to Trail and back to Nelson, leaving at 0630 and arriving back between 1600 and 1900. From there, its third crew takes it from Nelson to McConnel, where they swap trains with the CPR crew that brought another hotshot in, and the third KVR crew takes the hotshot back into Nelson. See the cycle?

Okay. Good. That’s the only thinking you’ll have to do reading this.

The previous night, one of the units on the hotshot coming to Nelson from Cranbrook died and they tied up at McConnel. This meant that on this particular day, it was a double length train, with double the work and (nearly) double the locomotives. As luck would have it, the same locomotive was on the point as the previous adventure.

The day started out with some ‘fun’. Nelson yard these days is basically being used as an extension of (or staging for, if you are a modeller) Trail yard.  What you see to the left are concentrate cars, as well as some empty acid tanks and various other cars. We had to fish out some cars from near the far end of there to add to our own train, so we departed much later than we would have liked.

At long last, we were off. I was falling asleep because, after the aforementioned 90km bike ride, I got to sleep at 2am. I had to leave for Nelson at 4. Whoo!

Now, I was pretty excited when we got to Taghum. Nothing like riding over the bridge you’re in the process of modelling.

The sun soon came out to show off how beautiful the Kootenay river can be.

The Boundary sub’s speed limit was 15MPH instead of 20 due to the derailment at Cora Linn dam in the spring, so we just enjoyed the ride.

Just before 9, we came into Castlegar. The train is about to cross the Columbia river, which it will follow all the way to Trail.

Coming up to what should be a familiar scene to my readers…

After we dropped off the empties in the yard to be taken to Celgar by the Kraft switcher, we paused at the crossing at the south end of the yard.

At the time on the Rossland sub, the first 10 miles were restricted to 10MPH. That was a damn long hour.

Leaving Castlegar, the line climbs up a light grade, and between Kinnaird and Blueberry Creek is high above the Columbia river on a glacial bench.

Surprising me, Matt Robson was still in the area, filming his video that will be released soon. Here here is at Poupore, the siding at the top of the 3.6% grade that brings the line off the bench.

A mile from Birchbank (See that sign over there that I definitely didn’t cut off?) a washout occurred in the spring. If it’s starting to sound like CP had a lot of problems in the spring, and you weren’t paying attention, they did. 2 derailments and a washout in series, closing the line for much of 2 weeks.

Just before Tadanac yard in the Trail smelter, the line crosses Stoney creek and immediately hits the north switch.

Stopped in Trail yard:

Photography isn’t allowed inside the complex, so I’m afraid there’s a lack of cool industrial photos. The Trail switcher was in the yard with 2 GP38-2s when we pulled in, they’re the ones who do all the hard work, switching the cars from the hotshot and going up the 4.1% grade to Warfield.

The yardmaster is hard at work:

Here we are, having coupled onto the train for Nelson.

…And this is when more fun started. After some calculations, we realized that because of the number of units we had there were problems with the marshaling of the train. Rather than actually worrying about it, since it was already an extra-long day, we just set out the first few cars that were the problem and got on our merry way.

Funny things happen when you combine lack of right-of-way maintenance with predictable consists.

Anyways, all units online for Poupore hill!

Oh yeahhhhh.

Actually, the last photo contains a bit of a problem.  It’s a looong way down to lower China Creek on the other side, and the bank is being seriously undercut feet from the roadbed. Trees are going down, and the CPR’s putting large rip-rap to try to stop the problem. There’s a definite worry that the entire bank of unstable glacial till might just go, taking the railway with it.

Anyway, back through the hour of yawn…I can’t even remember it.

Here’s Castlegar station in its current location outside of the wye.

We picked up over 40 loads from Celgar at Castlegar, making our train about 4500′ long – longer than the siding at McConnel! Saw-by time. Luckily for us, we got word from the RTC that while we were on the Rossland, the speed limit on the Boundary sub had been raised to 20MPH for the first time since the derailment. Small blessings! It felt like warp speed.

Here, we can see the tail end of the train as well.

Passing the Cora Linn dam…

…and the site of the derailment in spring. One of the concentrate gons nearly hit the lunch trailer.

Oh hey it’s that bridge I’m modeling.

All aboard the creative caption train!

About halfway between Taghum and Nelson, we met a grizzled friend.

Along the CP mainline, far too many bears are struck by trains. They eat fermented grain spilled from grain cars, in effect getting them drunk, them stumble around in the wrong direction while the train comes through. However, down here, there are no grain cars and the trains are moving half or a third as fast as on the mainline…this guy got away with room to spare!

Mmm, beautiful Kootenay river.

Here’s a view of Nelson and the city’s surroundings.

Now how did this end up there?

And, a final shot.

All told, it was a long 12 hour day, and we all slept well that night. I’m very grateful to the crew and management for letting me do this!

Part 3, biking the C&W and N&S…coming…eventually.