The CPR’s famous Spiral Tunnels were an important and costly project that allowed the railway to finally abandon its troublesome Big Hill. The latter was a steep and dangerous stretch of track and was a major bottleneck. The new bypass helped alleviate, but not totally solve, the congestion issues the railway faced – even the newer route is a challenging bit of track.
The subject of this report is the remains of the original line – an old bridge, a safety or runaway track, and a real treat, an abandoned steam locomotive used in constructing the the new line. We’ll also take a brief look at the Monarch and Kicking Horse Mines, which operated in the area. We’ll leave the Spiral Tunnels themselves for a possible future report.
The CPR transcontinental line came through here in the mid 1880s. With no better alternative the railway had to tackle the Big Hill section straight on, and while a total headache, it remained in place for twenty five years. At the top of the grade, the line descended at an amazing rate (4.5% – wow!) before reaching Field. It was not only inconvenient, it was a costly and dangerous, with many incidents and close calls recorded. The Spiral Tunnels, by the way, changed the grade to a still steep (by railway standards), but a more manageable 2.2%.
First up on our Big Hill tour is the remains of an old bridge. If you’ve travelled the highway, a steep road in itself, you have no doubt seen this structure right beside the road. This deck truss bridge was not the first one here and old pictures show a wooden bridge at this same spot in the early days. It’s not clear when one replaced the other, but it appears this one found work even after the railway line was abandoned and a widened concrete deck on top suggest it was used a road bridge later. West of the bridge, but inaccessible on this visit due to road construction, is a section of the rail bed with an expertly made rock retaining wall.
As a train journeyed down the hill there were several safety or runaway spurs that had to be passed. These side tracks were set up in such a way as to divert and hopefully stop an out of control train. An operator would be stationed at each spur (three separate ones in total) and it was their job to align the switch to the main track ONLY if the train was confirmed to be in control and travelling slowly. Otherwise it would be diverted to the safety track – which had a reverse hill that would stop the train. As you can see, it was a laborious operation. Uphill trains did not need to do this of course. This author has not found how many times the spurs were used to saved a train.
On our visit, we got to see the remains of the lowest safety spur. It diverges at a sharp angle (too sharp?) and then heads what appears to be gently down hill for a time (yikes- perhaps an optical illusion) before changing direction and heading up steeply, but only for a short distance. Given that, I wonder how it could have stopped a train. Hmmm.
Just down from the spur is the abandoned locomotive. It sits on a side track – sometimes mistakenly identified as a fourth runway track and was dumped here unceremoniously over a hundred years ago. Also mistaken, some claim this was the wreck of a runway – not true – and instead the engine which was used in construction of the Spiral Tunnels was left behind when the work was done. It was old, worn out and of use to no one.
This locomotive was constructed by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (November 1885 – serial number 7177) and was built for the North Western Coal and Navigation Company in Alberta as their number #6. That railway was constructed to tap the vast coal reserves in the Lethbridge area and was built to the non-standard gauge of 3 feet. Under the Whyte notation, this engine is a 2-6-0, meaning two lead wheels, six drivers and no trailing wheels. This type of engine is often referred as a Mogul.
Narrow gauge lines in Canada were not terribly common, most lines being built to standard gauge which is 4.8 1/2” (I won’t even try to convert that to metric). While while narrow gauge offered some perceived benefits, lower cost of construction is one, there were a number distinct disadvantages. For example, the exchange of freight with connecting standard gauge lines – the load had to be physically transferred from narrow gauge to standard gauge cars, a costly procedure. That’s why a few years later the NWC&N railway changed its track to standard gauge and so this locomotive had a short service life.
Declared surplus in the 1890s, the engine sat for a time before being sold to the MacDonnell and Gzowski Construction company. That organization was responsible for the building of the Spiral Tunnels and it, along with some other old locomotives toiled there for a couple years (1907-1909). They were used to haul spoil away from the workings and materials and supplies in.
Once the project was completed the engine was simply left behind, its job done. It has been stripped of some parts but it’s not clear when this happened. It’s on its side and I guess this allowed easy access to the parts that needed to be removed. It also possible it derailed when being pushed down the spur. The cab is gone – probably made of wood and perhaps long since rotted away. Some wood on the pilot is still intact though, as are the beams that make up the tender frame. All are oak I believe.
There were I understand two other locomotives that worked on this same construction project, one of them being the sister engine to the one seen here (NWC&N #7). Their disposition is not known, although this author has heard that one may have been dumped into a lake at the top of the old Big Hill grade.
Examining the stripped engine one can get an idea how they worked. The firebox is open, which where the coal was burned – it is surrounded by a water jacket and on the forward side flues lead away to the smoke stack. Simple in operation really. The tender shows both the coal bunker and a U shaped water tank that wraps around it. All the wheels on the engine are gone, but the pedestals that held the drivers square and in place, are seen. The hand done rivets are pretty cool.
Down from the locomotive is the remains of the Monarch Mine mill – just concrete bits and little else. It’s located right where the old Big Hill line and new Spiral Tunnels line converge (new…haha…like something from 1909 is new).
The ore to feed the plant came from the flanks of nearby Mt. Stephen and if you look on it’s precipitous cliffs one can see the adits (entries). These were accessed via an incredible aerial tramway – used to carry out ore and bring in the miners in – a wild ride for them! Today, a few brave people make their way to the opening, somehow, to explore the mine. They must bring bolt cutters since the openings are gated.
The Monarch was in production, sometimes intermittently, from the late 1880s to around 1940 with most of the work taking place in the final decade. The ore carried Lead, Zinc and Silver with some minor Cadmium. There was also some Copper, which I believe was not processed.
Across the valley is the Kicking Horse Mine. It also fed the mill with most of its production happening in the 1940s and early 1950s. If you look, it’s easy to spot a number of openings associated with that operation, I counted at least ten. The more accessible ones are gated but adventuresome mine explorers still find their way in. In fact I’d love to explore the place myself.
Heading back, we follow the the old road bed down and along here some old ties can be seen. These were simply left behind when this section was abandoned. One can readily see how steep the former grade was too. The locomotive crews here must have been brave souls.
To view the locomotive, safety track, and mill remains, follow the “Walk in the Past” trail from the Kicking Horse Campground. The bridge requires you to to stop off the highway, a somewhat dangerous proposition.
Over twenty years ago we visited the locomotive seen in this report and to see pictures from that time, click the link below…
Abandoned locomotive CPR’s BIG Hill – 1992.
To see some abandoned railway bridges we’ve explored, follow any of these links…
Bridge hunting – High River Alberta.
Bridge hunting – Bullpound Alberta.
Abandoned CPR Bow River bridge.
East Coulee road/rail bridge.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2013.
Location: Field, BC.