Cranbrook and Nelson and the Railway


Cranbrook became the railway centre of the East Kootenay in British Columbia once the Crowsnest Pass Route was in operation in 1898 and Nelson was its counterpart to the west. As division points, they were the places where large yards, engine servicing facilities and terminal offices were located. Engine and train crews, shop forces and administrative personal all made their homes in Cranbrook and Nelson. Initially, division points on the Crowsnest Route were established at Cranbrook and Macleod (later called Fort Macleod) creating the Lethbridge Section between Dunmore Junction and Macleod, the Elk River Section between Macleod and Cranbrook (later renamed the Cranbrook Section) and the Goat River Section (later renamed the Sirdar Section) between Cranbrook and Kootenay Landing.

In 1907 however, the sections were restructured and a division point was established at Crow's Nest and the division point at Macleod was moved to Lethbridge. The Crow's Nest Section was established between Lethbridge Junction and Crow's Nest. Later, the sections were renamed subdivisions: Crowsnest to Lethbridge was the Crowsnest Subdivision and Lethbridge to Medicine Hat was the Taber Subdivision. After trackage was built between Kootenay Landing and Procter, the Sirdar Subdivision and the trackage between Nelson and Procter were operated as the Nelson Subdivision.

Cranbrook freight train crews operated west to Sirdar (a local crew handled traffic to Kootenay Landing), east to Macleod until Crow's Nest became the division point, on the branch line to Kimberley and northward to Golden. Crow's Nest was the crew change point where crews based at Cranbrook and Lethbridge brought in trains and then worked their way home. At Nelson a similar arrangement existed and crews ran trains to the west as far as Grand Forks and, after the introduction of diesels, to Midway. After the tracks were extended along Kootenay Lake in 1930, Cranbrook crews worked west as far as Nelson and Nelson crews also worked east to Cranbrook. Passenger train crews usually worked over two divisions because of the faster running times of the trains.

In the railway centres such as Cranbrook and Nelson the Canadian Pacific was the major employer and the working of the railway was a central focus of activity in the communities. Around the clock, the sound of trains in the yards and of work around the shops could be heard throughout the towns. In the years when steam locomotives were used on the Crowsnest Pass Route, large repair shops, the "roundhouses" were the centre of locomotive maintenance. Between runs, locomotives had to be lubricated, fueled with coal or oil and have their tenders filled with water and their firebox ashes dumped. Minor maintenance and repairs, boiler washing and cleaning were all part of the routine. Men worked long hours in the shops to keep the locomotives serviced and ready to handle the trains passing through.

The larger yards were also home to track, bridge and building maintenance crews. Wrecking trains, always available in case of accidents or derailments, were held in readiness and snowplows and other equipment were maintained for the tough winter conditions that often prevailed in the mountains. Facilities were also required for car repairs, providing ice for refrigerator cars and passenger cars and for handling the shipments of packages, mail and express that were carried on the railway. Freight houses were another important feature of any major railway town.

Freight cars were loaded with the packages from businesses and individuals and packages or shipments--called "less than carload" or l.c.l.-- were received there for delivery from all over the continent. The railways and the Dominion Express Company (after 1926 called Canadian Pacific Express Company) performed the services now carried out by couriers, bus lines and trucking firms. Express shipments were usually carried on passenger trains and were also carried by the steamers of the British Columbia Lake & River Service.

Major terminals like Cranbrook and Nelson also provided facilities for the administration of the railways at the regional level. Senior officials and personnel who were responsible for the overall operation of the divisions, track maintenance, billing and routing cars to shippers, performed key duties not often seen by the public. Dispatchers controlled the operation of trains from one station to another juggling the complicated schedules of passenger, freight and work trains to minimize delays and ensure safety. Telegraphers sent and received messages over the railway's telegraph system and relayed orders to train crews as well as sending private messages, called telegrams, to points all across the country.

The linear nature of the rail yards dominated the evolution of the towns built next to them. In Cranbrook the yards made a major northeast-to-southwest barrier. The city grew to the southeast of the tracks. In Nelson, the yards occupied much of the waterfront along Kootenay Lake at the west end of town. The influence of the railway was even greater in Nelson than in Cranbrook because of the operations and facilities of the British Columbia Lake & River Service. Nelson's large steamer wharf and shipyard were prominent features of the Kootenay Lake waterfront. Steamers coming into town from points around Kootenay Lake added to the business and social scene along the waterfront.

Many developments in transportation and society have changed the role of the railways in the towns along the Crowsnest Route and elsewhere. The biggest single factor influencing the railways in the 1900s was the development and widespread use of the automobile and trucks which coincided with the improvement of the province's road system. By the 1920s, people were increasingly travelling by car or bus and railway travel began to decline until in the 1960s it was abandoned all together. Air lines captured long distance travel and mail contracts and trucks took over express and small shipments of freight. Railways increasingly concentrated on large shipments of bulk commodities such as coal and lumber.

The introduction of diesels eliminated the need for many jobs and the steam locomotive servicing facilities. Diesels also made it possible to extend the mileages over which crews could operate. Changes in communications and the discontinuation of passenger trains led to the closure of most community stations by the 1970s. All of these changes contributed to a decline in the impact of railways on communities and of their importance as major employers in the railway towns. Cranbrook has maintained its strategic rail services due to its location with respect to coal shipments from the Elk Valley and to its strategic connection to the United States border at Kingsgate.


Snow Plows at Cranbrook, February 1992.
Jordan Spreader at Cranbrook, Feburary 1992. (two slides). These cars are used for snow plowing, ditching and grading. Robert D. Turner
Jordan Spreader at Cranbrook, Feburary 1992.
Canadian Pacific ice house at Cranbrook, 1974. This building stored ice used in refrigerator cars and for air conditioning in passenger cars. This building has been demolished.
CPR diesel on the turntable outside the roundhouse at Cranbrook.
Creston Station, built in 1949 and one of the few "modern" stations on the Crowsnest Pass Route, shown in October 1988 when it was no longer being used as a station.
Nelson's beautiful wooden station, built in 1889, shown in July 1989.
Freight train between Castlegar and Trail destined for the Trail Smelter. This section of the CPR is operated as the Kootenay Valley Railway.
Over 90 years after the completion of the Spokane International, Canadian Pacific and SOO Line diesels at Cranbrook show the continuing importance of the route once followed by the Soo-Spokane Train de Luxe.
CP Rail and SOO Line lettering on a covered hopper car shows the progressive disappearance of the SOO as a separate railway into the CPR system. Cranbrook, August, 1998.
Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific diesels at Cranbrook. Diesels "run through" and are seldom changed at division points. These locomotives brought in an empty potash train from Portland, Oregon.
SOO Line and CPR diesels at Cranbrook, August 1998.
CPR merchandise train heading westbound towards Yahk in August, 1998.

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