I like trains
I like fast trains
I like trains
That call out through the rain. (Fred Eaglesmith – Don’t know this song? Listen to it here.)
I’m not sure why, but in recent years, I’ve become fascinated by trains.
Not in a trainspotting, Sheldon Cooper kind of way. My interest is rooted partially in the romance of long ago train travel, and partially in my awe of the people who operate these mammoth powerhouses in the present day. I wave to train engineers whenever I see them leaning out of their cabs, and a train chord echoing late at night in the Canadian Rockies always gives me the shivers.
So, I jumped at the chance to visit the Revelstoke Train Museum when we spent a few days in this still-a- railroad-town in the British Columbia interior. Freight trains, their cars sporting the tags of graffiti artists from who knows where, rumble by meters from the museum,which helps visitors to understand the role the Canadian Pacific Railway played in opening up this area of the country.
I was already familiar with the general story of railway construction in BC – the complexities of blasting through granite to lay track and build tunnels, the dangers faced by the railway workers, the harsh racism dished out to Japanese and Chinese employees. But this museum introduced me to a few new details. The iconic photo of Donald Smith driving the last spike at Cragellachie, 50 km west of Revelstoke, was matched by another photo called The Other Last Spike. In this one, the actual miners, rather than bearded, top-hatted dignitaries, pose for their own commemoration of the railway’s completion.
I also didn’t know that Revelstoke used to be called Farwell, after the town’s founder. He knew that the CPR was coming to town and applied for a land grant so that he could sell the land for the train station to the CPR. The big corporation wasn’t about to be shoved around by an enterprising independent businessman and located the station just outside of Farwell’s grasp, naming the community where it stood Revelstoke after a wealthy British nobleman. Farwell, the man and the town, never prospered as a result.
The museum also introduced some new- to- me early 20th century railway history. I never knew that Canada had its own “silk road” in the form of trains that carried only silk from Vancouver to New York. The cargo was so valuable that the only passengers on board were armed guards, and so perishable that silk trains took priority over every other type of train on the rails, stopping only for Formula 1 style pit stops to take on fuel and other necessities before racing east again.
And who knew that the CPR was in the propaganda business? I wonder how many women had their husbands or fiances convince them of the idyllic farm wife life that awaited them as a result of posters like these.
I got my fill of the romantic past of rail travel in the Museum’s outdoor Rolling Stock exhibit, a collection of rail cars from early in the CPR’s history. The vintage signs, faded paint, and rusty couplings were an art form all their own, silent ghosts of a simpler time in rail travel.