GN in Southern BC
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The GN in Southern British Columbia:

I've heard from quite a few of you (mostly our Canadian neighbors to the north) who are interested in learning more about James J. Hill's exploits in B.C. In the 1890's and 1900's, rail lines were built from Spokane, WA north and west into southern British Columbia. Hill purchased these lines and operated them with the intention of competing with the Canadian Pacific Railway in southern B.C. Hill's dream was a second mainline from Spokane to Vancouver BC.

Amanda L. Emily is researching 4 railroad lines in this area including: Spokane/Hillyard to Kettle Falls; Kettle Falls to Nelson, BC; Kettle Falls to Republic; Northport to Rossland, BC.

There is a website by Mr. Neil Roughley entitled,
The Great Northern Railway in BC's Fraser Valley.  This link no longer works...BUT:

Using the Wayback Machine, I have added screen captures from Neil Roughley's website to the GNR Page HERE.

Also, there is a very informative book entitled, "Railway Mileposts: British Columbia - Volume II: The Southern Routes - From the Crowsnest to the Coquihalla - Including the Great Northern and Kettle Valley Routes".

This book was written by Roger G. Burrows in 1984 and published by Railway Milepost Books, 4398 Valencia Avenue, North Vancouver, BC, V7N 4B1, CANADA. According to Mr. Burrows himself (e-mail of September 29, 1998), this book is still available from the above address for $19.95 in U.S. funds. Mr. Burrows' first book (Volume I) concerns the CP mainline in B.C. and is out of print although you may still be able to find it in used book stores.

The above Volume II book is the best source I have found yet for information on the GN in Southern B.C.

GN's Spokane Falls & Northern line

This information is generously provided by
Paul Lacombe who visited and researched this little-known corner of the Great Northern Railway empire.

When I was an operator at Harrington I was digging through some old pay schedules and found a sub-division I hadn't heard of before and an Agency listed in Washington named Molson. I was curious where it was located since I hadn't seen the name before so looked on a map. There in north-central Washington with no railroad for a hundred miles around I found the town. This made me more curious so I dug through the archives at Eastern Wash State College that fall and found several references. The next spring I staged an expedition and followed the entire line from Curlew to Oroville. Some of the old trestles were still standing in Canada (but the huge curved Myncaster trestle had been taken down). The depot at Ferry was still standing in a grassy field a few feet from the chain link fence separating it from the U.S. Canadian border and it was filled with Customs records dating back to 1909. I still have some of those records, a few photos of the trip and some date nails from the ties that were still abundant along the way.

The tunnels above Oroville are still easy to get to and the story of Molson is an interesting one. If you are a little bit familiar with this old line that James Hill wanted to turn into a corridor into Canada and ultimately (via Keremeos and Nighthawk) into Vancouver, this article might be of interest. I pulled this article out of the Okanagan Historical newsletter back in about 1968. I stopped and interviewed a number of old locals during my "grade hike" and unfortunately lost the notes. It was an interesting time in the history of this part of the state.

Paul Lacombe

The History of Great Northern Railway's Line:
The Spokane Falls and Northern

It might be interesting to know a little of the history of the Spokane Falls and Northern, as this railroad was acquired by the Great Northern, and the branch serving Molson and Chesaw was often spoken and written of as the S. F. and N., which will be used in this story.

D.C. Corbin, financier of Spokane Falls, built the S. F. and N. to Colville in 1889, and in the following three years, extended the road to Northport. In 1893 he started construction from the boundary to Nelson, BC. In spite of the 1893 panic, which put nearly all Western railroads including the NP Railroad in the hands of receivers, a railroad strike, which Corbin's employees refused to join, and the great Columbia River flood of 1894, which washed out much of the roadbed; in spite of all these reverses, he still finished this road. An employee, Mr. Emmet Holmes, writes of these years in the nineties. During the terrible panic of 1893 and subsequent years when nearly every railroad company of any consequence went into the hands of a receiver, Mr. D.C. Corbin weathered the storm, and despite the falling off of business and the stringency in the money market, by his great business abilities and far-sightedness and the confidence that the employees possessed in him, came through with flying colors, and though he got far behind in our salaries, paid us every dollar that he owed us. He lived to see the recovery of business, which he predicted and the confidence which he had in his country varified, and to see business so great on the S. F. and N. that we did not have equipment to handle the large volume of business offered. We had to use boxcars on our passenger equipment to haul the people.

The NP Railroad bought the S. F. and N. in 1898 and it was sold again to the GN about 1900. In 1903-04 the road was extended to Curlew and Republic. In 1905-06 to Myncaster and Molson, and in 1907 it was completed to Oroville. The road from Myncaster to Oroville, with its high trestles, rock cuts and tunnels, was one of the most expensive pieces of railroad ever built. There was an S track on the Bridesville hill and another four miles west of Molson just above the Nine Mile siding. Two miles west of Molson, just the opposite of the high 1/4 mile trestle at Myncaster to keep the track in Canada, a 1,300 foot rock cut had to be blasted through a hill to keep the track in the United States, barely leaving width for a county road between the railroad and the boundary. In pre-rum running days, the U.S. county road went into Canada and around this hill, no reporting. From Nine Mile the railroad circled back and forth from near the boundary to about four miles south until it reached Oroville. Circle siding half way down the hill, thus derived its name. The 27-mile distance by rail from Molson to Oroville was more than twice that of the wagon road.

The elevation at Molson is 3,700 feet, highest depot in Washington. Oroville is 920 feet. Molson and Chesaw had the first railroad service in Okanogan County.

The railroad from Spokane to Oroville was called the main line of the S. F. and N. as passengers had to change trains at Marcus, for Northport and Canadian points. At Grand Forks, BC for Phoenix, and Kettle Valley depot and Curlew for Republic.

The S. F. and N. was prosperous for about 15 years, with the hill country its biggest shipper. In 1920 the mines in Phoenix closed down and were dismantled. This closed the smelters in Grand Forks and Greenwood, leaving them very dead places, and Phoenix, with 4,000 population, which had been the largest copper mining town in Canada was abandoned. This took much revenue from the S. F. and N. plus what had been previously lost to the Oroville-Wenatchee line. Patronage did not now justify the two passenger and one freight train a day, so were substituted for a mixed train, one way each day. Revenue kept dropping and in 1927 the mixed train was substituted for a 3-day-a-week freight, with a motor vehicle carrying the mail to Molson and Chesaw in place of the train. In 1931 the railroad was abandoned between Molson and Oroville. The tracks were pulled in 1932.

The locomotive engineer on the work train that laid the rails from Myncaster to Molson in 1906 was the same engineer on the work train that pulled the track in the thirties, Mr. Fred King.

In 1935 service was discontinued from Molson to Curlew. The track was pulled in 1936. During the last year of the railroad's operation, the Canadian Pacific Railway was interested in taking over the road from near Midway BC to five miles west of Molson, where they planned to enter Canada again, making it the main line of the Kettle Valley. This would have assured Molson and Curlew of railroad service. Twas a big disappointment it did not come to pass.

Railroading by E. T. Stansbury

I started working for the Great Northern Railway in June 1, 1908 in the roundhouse at Oroville. Tom Collier was roundhouse foreman. On April 22, 1909 I went on the railroad firing on the extra board at Hillyard. (Hillyard is annexed to Spokane now). I was promoted to Engineer in April 27, 1916, and retired in September 28, 1956.

In 1912 I was firing a work train on the Molson hill, as the extra gang didn't work on Sunday. The company had the work train crew (engine and train crew) to double Molson hill out of Oroville, to move excess tonnage out of Oroville to Molson (Molson hill is 25 miles @ 2.5% mountain grade). We set our train out at Molson and go back "Caboose Hop" ("Caboose Hop" is a light engine and caboose running light without cars) to Oroville. The engineer and I were used to working on a mountain grade, but the conductor and brakeman never had, so when we started downgrade on compression instead of using brakes, (compression means put the reverse lever 2 or 3 notches back of center on the quadrant and open your cylinder cocks to let the steam and water out, you control your speed by your reverse lever), and when the conductor saw steam coming out of the cylinder cocks, he came over the engine tank in a hurry to tell the "Hog Head" (meaning Engineer) that he didn't have to work steam going down a mountain grade. That was the first he knew about controlling your speed on a light engine. That way you don't use any brakes and don't slip tires.

I fired a 700 engine on freight out of Oroville to Grand Forks, BC. Four hundred and twenty-five tons was the tonnage for a 700 class engine, or about 10 or 11 loads we could pull up the hill. If we had good coal we could make it in about 2.5 hours (25 miles), if we had poor coal it would take about 3 or 4 hours, cleaning fires and blowing up for steam.

In 1919 I was on passenger out of Spokane for Oroville. Engine 930 slipped a tire coming into Marcus. They gave us a freight engine 1248 out of Marcus to Oroville. Coming back the next day, going down grade from Molson to Midway, rounding a right hand curve into a rock cut, three miles from Myncaster there was a big rock 8 feet long and 4 feet high, weighing about a ton, laying on the rail. The engineer applied the emergency brakes and stepped back in the gangway. It knocked the pilot off and all the valve gear on the right side of the engine, but luck was with us as it didn't derail the engine. We disconnected the engine on the right side and drifted downhill to Myncastor and ordered another engine; we were five hours late into Spokane.

I fired the passenger train 255 and 256 between Spokane and Oroville, the engines we used were 930, 937, 934 and 925. I think the running was one hour, going 25 miles, one mail car, baggage car and two day-coaches. With good coal it wasn't bad going, but with poor coal, it was tough going, 25 to 45 minutes late into Molson. From Molson to Midway it was 30 miles downgrade (1.25%) the engineer sure would let them roll to make up lost time.

The speed limit on Molson hill to Oroville on passenger was 25 miles per hour, on freight it was 10 miles. We stopped at Circle City on passenger to cool brakes and wheels. On freight, we stopped at Nine Mile, Circle City and Mount Hull to cool brakes and wheels. If you went any faster you would burn the brake shoe off of the brake beam.

One time the local crew out of Oroville stopped to pick up a car of wood at Nine Mile. The brakeman lined up the derail and let off the hand brake, (which he shouldn't have done until the coupling was made). When the engine came up to make the coupling it didn't make. Of course, when the engine bumped the car that knocked the blocks out from under the wheels, the car took off. The brakeman tried to catch the car, but it was going too fast. The car really took off down the grade. The first curve above Circle City, the car of wood didn't make the curve. It cleared the right-of-way without leaving a mark on the ties or rail. Of course, it unloaded the wood. (Maybe you've heard of the car of wood that got away at Nine Mile.)

Yes, I've been in and out of Porter's and Chesaw spurs a good many times, picking up loads and setting out empties.

In the winter time on passenger, 15 to 25 degrees below and wind blowing, it wasn't very pleasant. Frost would form on the inside of the cab above the boiler head. When we hit snow drifts, snow would pile upon the pilot to the headlight and running boards and gang ways.

I was in snow service in the mountain territory, snow around 6 to 8 feet deep, there was a lot of excitement and grief along with it. Getting stuck in the snows and digging out and using the rotary snow plow for the big snow slides 8 to 10 feet deep.

The nearest I've been in a wreck was on a freight run between Grand Forks, BC. and Marcus, Washington. This early morning (break of day) October 1, 1910, as we were crossing this bridge, the engine and two small ore cars just made it across when the bridge collapsed. The rest of the train, except one car and caboose, dropped down into the creek below.

Yes, I remember the work train that ran away and piled 11 cars of ties on top of one another in the Oroville yard. I think it was April that year about 5 a.m. I was still going to school. We heard a noise or roar that was unusual. Mother and Dad were up and called to us. When we got up the train had gone by. (We lived on a farm by the railroad and river). Engineer Fred King (King retired in 1943 and died about 1949 from a heart attack), and fireman McSwain were at the Water tank taking water on Engine 528, and King was oiling around. The fireman saw this train coming, jumped down in the cab and called to King to get out of the way. Just as King stepped back away from Engine 528, this train hit the rear of this engine and crushed Engine 528's tank up against the boiler head and tripped the throttle open on Engine 528, and it took off up the track and hit, head on, six cars of steel before it stopped. The runaway train, after hitting Engine 528, piled 11 cars of ties on top of one another, and knocked down the powerhouse onto the coal chute on top of the wreck and pumphouse. There was a man sleeping in the pump house who looked after the coal chute and water tank, he crawled out through a window without a scratch. No one was killed. Both firemen were put in the hospital. They had to send a wrecker from Spokane to Oroville, 224 miles to pick up the wreck.

I worked with Engineer Bresnhan (the engineer on the runaway train) after I went firing on the railroad, and he told me about the runaway. He said about 1/4 mile from the tunnel east of Oroville there was a rock in the middle of the track that broke off the drain cock to the main air reservoir under the deck of the engine, and lost all of his air pressure that controlled the air brakes on the train. He whistled for brakes and started back over the train to help set the hand brakes, but the flat cars loaded with ties were hard to climb over on a fast moving train. Just as the train came out of the tunnel, he lost his footing and fell off the train. The train crew wouldn't take a chance going over the train to set the brakes, so cut the caboose off and let the train go.

This is just a few of the experiences of my 48 years of railroading.

E. T. Stansbury

(taken from The Independent Jan. 19, 1906)
Work Being Rushed at Molson Camps

"If the railroad work is not completed so that rails can be laid as far as Molson by June, 1906, it will be no fault of the engineers in charge of this section. We have orders to see that it is done, and a Great Northern engineer generally carries out his instructions."

The above is the substance of a statement made to a representative of The Independent yesterday by Engineer R.A. Turrell, in charge of the work at Molson. Ever since orders came three weeks ago to "keep out of the way of the steel" the contractors in this territory have been increasing their forces, putting on night crews, and rushing work generally wherever it is possible to do so. Fortunately, laborers are plentiful and the weather is all that could be desired, so to that extent the contractors are working to good advantage.

"The work in this locality," said Mr. Turrell, "is really the heaviest to be found anywhere between Oroville and Midway, but there are so many cuts and fills to be made that a greater number of crews can be employed here than on the British side, so it is quite probable that we will have finished before the contractors between the boundary and Midway are ready for the rail-laying crew. In any event, however, I look for trains to be running into Molson before the middle of the coming summer."

Steam Shovel Moves

Winters, Parson and Boomer have moved their huge steam shovel from the rock cut near the upper end of Sidley lake to a point near Chas. Rinehart's place, a distance of about three miles. Work with this big piece of machinery was carried on successfully at the first location for a time but when hard rock was struck, it had to be discontinued. This cut, when completed, will be 1600 feet long, and will require the removal of 55,000 cubic yards of rock and gravel.

A Monstrous Cut

The largest cut on the work is to be found on Ernest Ennerson's contract, between Molson and the boundary line. While it is only 1200 feet in length, the amount of dirt to be taken from it will be 70,000 cubic yards. Mr. Ennerson now has eight crews of men working on this monstrous cut. He works a day and night shift, has a crew at each end of the cut, and has cross-cut it, striking it in the middle and starting a crew at work either way from that point.

A Narrow Escape

Two men employed by Ennerson came near being made victims of a fatality last Sunday at about noon. They were Foreman Antone Meyer and Nels Warner, a laborer. Ennerson, in working, his big cut through the hill, employs what is known in railroad lore as a "trap cut." It is a tunnel running just under the future grade of the railroad, containing a small track upon which dump cars are run. The gravel and dirt from the cut are thus dumped into the cars through an opening in the top of the small tunnel, thus making the work much easier than if the cars had to be loaded with shovels. The tunnel in this case extended a short distance beyone the face of the cust and a shot that was intended to loosen rock in the face of the cut broke through into the tunnel. No one was in the tunnel at the time, but before the smoke and gas resulting from the explosion had cleared from the tunnel, Meyer and Warner went in. They had gone but a short distance when they were overcome by gas and fell to the ground.

Chris Erickson, who was working at the mouth of the tunnel, heard an unusual noise within and went cautiously in to see what was wrong, when he stumbled over the bodies of the two unconscious men. He lost no time in dragging them to the outside where they were soon revived by the fresh air, and are now none the worse for their experience except for the scratches and bruises accumulated as a result of being drawn over the gravelly floor of the tunnel.