Books: Recalling a Kettle Valley rail line that helped build BC

The real treasures to be found in this oral history are the interviews with and about the women and men who did the heavy lifting

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Tales of the KVR: The Kettle Valley Railway Remembered

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Barrie Sanford | National Railway Historical Society (B.C. chapter, Vancouver, 2021)

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$21.95 | 168pp.


Railroads changed everything. Just as the Roman and Inca empires depended upon their purpose-built roads and trails to link far-flung imperial holdings with the capital, the new empires of European-ancestry conquest and commerce here on Turtle Island depended upon steel rails and steam engines to open territory, bring in settlers, missionaries and soldiers and ship out the products of the new empire’s mines, logging camps, mills and farms.

The Kettle Valley Railroad was chartered in 1900. The company was dissolved in 1956 and by 1989 all train service was discontinued along the line.

Barrie Sanford has spent much of his adult life researching the Kettle Valley line, which snaked through the Kootenay Boundary and Okanagan Similkameen regions of the southern Interior. The historian, who still lives in Brookmere, one of the ghost towns left behind when the line shut down, had already published books and articles about the railroad when COVID lockdown sent him back to his collection of research notes and interviews, some over 50 years old.

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From this rich store, Sanford crafted his seventh book, Tales of the KVR, a kind of oral history of the line and the women and men who built it and worked on it. His pandemic project has created a wonderful collection of stories, many told in the words of the KVR’s survivors.

The oral history includes tales about business moguls like Charles Blake Gordon and the KVR’s chief engineer, Andrew McCulloch, but the real treasures to be found in this collection are the interviews with and about the women and men who did the heavy lifting as surveyors, labourers, telegraphers, stationmen and roundhouse crew — the folks who worked, as one noted in his interview, “from can see in the morning to can’t see at night.”

Sanford’s account includes female workers on the KVR, including a pioneering female civil engineer, Lota Alice Foss, who went to work on the line in 1905. She may have been the province’s first woman to hold such a position. During the First World War, women telegraphers, known as “lightning slingers,” replaced men who went off to war.

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But working men feature in most of Sanford’s interviews. And what stories they have to tell! Avalanches, runaway trains, back-breaking labour and home-made entertainments are all chronicled. Readers will have to turn elsewhere for analysis of the impacts of rail construction on Indigenous peoples, who seem largely invisible to Sanford and his interviewees. This is, nonetheless, important history well told.

Recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net


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