The reason why two railways served the Elk Valley from 1904 to 1936 is intimately intertwined with the history of Canada, Canadian/American relations, Federal/Provincial politics, and corporate competition. It sounds convoluted but it is an interesting tale that is as relevant to us today as it was then.

The story begins with the entry of British Columbia into Confederation based on the Dominion government’s promise of a transcontinental railway. Of the people involved in massive railway project, the two most relevant to the Elk Valley are James Jerome Hill and William Cornelius Van Horne.

James Jerome Hill

Hill with an impressive record of railroad building in the American Midwest was a founding member of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). By recommending Van Horne as CPR General Manager he did much to set the course of Canadian history.

Though a Canadian by birth, Hill failed to grasp that the CPR be truly Canadian and recommended the CPR avoid the costly route along the northern shore of Lake Superior by building only from Winnipeg to the Pacific and connecting with his US lines to the south of the lake.

Van Horne, an American by birth, recognized the political reality and promoted the all Canadian Superior route. When the Lake Superior line was chosen, Hill left swearing revenge against Van Horne: “I’ll get even with him if I have to go to hell for it and shovel coal!” He promptly began an aggressive expansion of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) from Minnesota to the Pacific coast at Seattle, becoming known as ‘The Empire Builder’ and a formidable rival of Canadian Pacific.

It was gold that ultimately brought these two personalities and the companies they represented into direct competition in the Elk Valley. The 1864 gold rush to Wild Horse Creek northeast of present day Cranbrook brought the predictable flood of gold seekers and those that supported them to the Kootenays.

William Cornelius Van Horne

In 1873 Michael Phillipps caught gold fever and discovered coal while prospecting the Elk River Valley. Although a grave disappointment to someone looking for gold, others were not so disappointed. Coal may be dirty and bulky but it could be very valuable to someone who could move it efficiently. That meant, by rail.

In 1887, Colonel James Baker, a Cranbrook landowner realized the value of coal,formed a syndicate with former gold commissioner William Fernie and others to develop the coal fields of the Elk Valley. By 1896 they had acquired the coal lands and a provincial railway charter allowing construction of a line from the Elk Valley all the way to the developing mines and smelters of the West Kootenays.

There was only one problem. No lines had been built in the area and the new coal syndicate was in serious danger of losing market share to the Americans, most notably JJ Hill.

Van Horne was acutely aware of the situation. Canadian Pacific, due to natural and economic disasters, was in no position to finance the new line and in classic Canadian fashion lobbied for a government subsidy.

Van Horne stated: “I firmly believe that, by the necessary efforts on the part of the Government, a greater addition can be made to the wealth of the Dominion in the next ten years…than has been made all told in the past 30 years.” Negotiations lasted for months and in 1897 the deal was done. Given a $11,000 per mile subsidy, CPR agreed to construct the railway. The Dominion Government secured lower freight rates from CPR (the “Crow Rates”) as well as 50 000 acres of coal land. Fernie and Baker agreed to develop mines and supply coal at reasonable prices. By the end of 1898, the rail line was completed, the coal mine was in production and Fernie (population 1,500) had sprung into existence.

Many British Columbians felt betrayed that the aid to CPR covered only the eastern portion of the railway and rallied for the completion of the line from the Kootenays to the coast. “We want no Van Horne fingers in our railway pie!” asserted one Vancouver newspaper.

James Hill took advantage of this frustration by building branch lines into the mines and smelters of the West Kootenay. In 1901 he decided to tap into the Elk Valley coal supply and applied for a provincial charter for a railway from the US border to the Elk Valley. As he asked for no subsidy after a short wait the charter was granted. Canadian Pacific opposed this move, but to no avail. By 1904 the line reached Fernie.

From 1905 to 1920 the majority of the Elk Valley’s coal was transported over the Great Northern route. With the death of Hill in 1916 and a post war decline in metal prices much of the rancor disappeared. The two companies, which had raced to secure routes now raced to abandon them, fearing political realities would force the retention of at least one of the essentially duplicate lines. In the Elk Valley Great Northern won: in 1925 the section to Elko was closed. In 1936 the remainder was abandoned, and in 1938 the rails lifted.

Until the 1960’s coal markets continued to stagnate, but with the 1968 agreement to sell coal to the Japanese steel industry, the race to transport Elk Valley coal was on again. Working through the provincially chartered Kootenay and Elk Railway, GNR made clear its ambitions to compete for the traffic. CPR as it had at the beginning of the century, opposed the GNR proposal. Throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s the battle raged. It seemed that the clock had been reset and JJ Hill and William Van Horne were back at it again.

Great Norther Railway bridge spans the Elk River in Fernie

Ultimately the Canadian Transport Commission ruled against the Kootenay and Elk. Undaunted, K&E appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in its favor. Construction began in the spring of 1973 but was halted shortly thereafter by the provincial government’s refusal to grant right of way across crown land. At the end of the day, Great Northern’s line was not built and Elk Valley coal remains the private preserve of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Making good use of the opportunity, Canadian Pacific now transports approximately 20 million tones a year to the Roberts Bank ‘superport’ near Vancouver.

For now the Great Northern is mostly forgotten. Some of the old right of way is now Highway 3. South of Elko, some segments are still recognizable, but most are under the waters of the reservoir created by the damming of the Kootenay River.

Related Stories