Ribbons of Steel in the Wilderness:
The Rail War for the Slocan's Wealth

Because the Slocan district held so many different varieties and grades of ores, smelting them was a difficult process. As a result, many of these ores had to be transported to smelters at Trail, or even further afield ...

Because the Slocan district held so many different varieties and grades of ores, smelting them was a difficult process. As a result, many of these ores had to be transported to smelters at Trail, or even further afield in Washington state. By 1892, over 750 claims had been staked in the area, and an economical means of transporting these ores to the distant smelters, as well as bringing men and supplies in, became a pressing concern.

With the prize of the richest silver-mining district in Canada hanging in the balance, Sandon became the focus of an all-out race between two of the largest railroad companies on the continent: the Canadian Pacific Railway and the American-owned Great Northern Railway. By 1892, the CPR had leased the rights to the Nakusp & Slocan (N&S) Railway, while the Great Northern was acting under a charter it had received for its subsidiary, the Kaslo & Slocan (K&S) Railway.

The CPR's original plan was to connect its main line at Revelstoke with the N&S line, which was to extend only as far as Three Forks. In this way, the CPR hoped to avoid building a line up the steep and treacherous grade to Sandon, by making the mine owners transport their ore downhill to Three Forks. By the autumn of 1894, the N&S line had reached Three Forks, but meanwhile the GNR had not been idle. Working west from Kaslo along the Valley of the Ghosts, the GNR had been busy pushing through the K&S Railway as fast as it could.

The K&S line followed much the same route as the present-day highway, climbing steadily uphill as far as Fish Lake. At that point, it followed a level grade around Payne Mountain as the floor of Seaton Creek valley dropped rapidly below. At Payne Bluff, a dizzying 1,000 feet above the current highway, the K&S line turned south and continued on to Sandon. When the CPR realized it had been outmaneuvered by the GNR, it was forced to extend its line to Sandon along what was, at that point, the steepest grade on any rail line anywhere in the world. By 1895 the K&S line had reached Sandon, with the CPR extension following in a matter of weeks. Later, the K&S added a spur line to service the mines around Cody.

In an attempt to keep costs down, the GNR had built the K&S line with second-hand three-foot narrow-gauge equipment imported from the southern United States. Because it was a narrow-gauge track, the line was able to navigate much sharper curves than the CPR's four-foot standard-gauge track. Crossing more than 30 trestle bridges between Kaslo and Sandon, the K&S line was an engineering feat that still provokes admiration from railroad buffs to this day.

 

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As it turned out, the rich silver mines held enough galena ore to keep both rail lines busy. With sternwheeler connections to the railroads at both Rosebery and Kaslo, the ore was shipped out to a variety of American and Canadian smelters. In addition, the two lines were vital for other freight and passenger traffic between Sandon and the outside world. The K&S was justifiably proud that it was able to offer service between Spokane, Washington and Sandon in less than 12 hours, a fact that made delicacies such as oysters a possibility in remote and rugged Sandon.

Despite the ingenuity of its builders, however, the K&S line was beset with problems and plagued by disaster. Increased American tariffs gradually made the Slocan ore unprofitable for most American smelters, and the CPR's purchase of the Trail smelter soon undercut the competitive advantage of the K&S. As well, the K&S was forced to transfer ore from its narrow-gauge cars to standard-gauge cars at Kuskonook, thus further increasing its costs.

Added to this, throughout its history, the K&S Railway had to contend with near-constant washouts, snowslides and avalanches that wreaked havoc on its line and its network of bridges. Increasing maintenance costs, falling metal prices and a devastating forest fire in 1910 left the K&S Railway bankrupt. By 1912 the GNR was forced to admit defeat, and the K&S line was sold to the CPR. Within the year the line was rebuilt and converted to standard-gauge track.

The eventual fate of the old K&S locomotives is uncertain, although it is likely they were scrapped to meet the demand for steel during World War I. The K&S station in Sandon stood until it was destroyed by fire in the 1980s. A reconstruction of this building has been erected by the Friends of the K&S, a group of railroad enthusiasts. Today, the only original K&S buildings which remain are an old liquor storage warehouse in Sandon, and the old station house in Cody.

The CPR continued to provide service for Sandon's mines and dwindling population until 1955, when Sandon's main street flume plugged and burst its seams. Wreckage from the flume and various buildings was swept down Carpenter Creek, which caused repeated washouts on the CPR line along the way. In a 13-kilometre stretch between Sandon and New Denver, a total of 28 different wash-outs were caused by this disaster. This was to prove too great a catastrophe to overcome, and after 60 tumultuous years the historic rail line was finally abandoned.