Articles

GREEN LIGHT FOR THE CRAZY QUILT EXPRESS

RAY GARDNER June 1 1950
Articles

GREEN LIGHT FOR THE CRAZY QUILT EXPRESS

RAY GARDNER June 1 1950

GREEN LIGHT FOR THE CRAZY QUILT EXPRESS

Articles

RAY GARDNER

THE WONDER of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway is that it did not end it all long ago by taking a header into the Fraser River, a sheer 2,000 feet below its mountainous right-of-way in British Columbia’s sprawling Cariboo country. Debt, derision and defeat have lurked beyond every curve and hard luck has high-balled down its puny rails for more than 30 years. Less hardy railroads long since would have shuffled off to that Valhalla where all signals blaze green and operating deficits are unknown.

All its unhappy life the PGE has been scoffed at as the railway that begins nowhere and ends nowhere. This has been the source of all its troubles. But now at last it looks like paying off. It’s going to get a southern outlet via a new highway or a rail extension to Vancouver and in the north it’s going to push on to Prince George and a linkup with the Canadian National. The B. C. Coalition Government is going to sink $13 millions—or maybe more -—into the already debt-ridden, provincially owned PGE in a brave attempt to make a railway out of it.

But though she has been scoffed at and scorned the Pacific Great Eastern has been loved more passionately than perhaps any other railroad on the continent. U. S. tourists, and especially those from the somewhat zany state of California, are wild about her and railway fans journey from all over the U. S. merely to admire her archaic rolling stock and to enjoy her charming idiosyncrasies.

This passion for the PGE is understandable for it is undoubtedly the friendliest and quaintest railroad anyone could care to meet. Furthermore, it twists and spirals through some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The first

surveyors over the route enthusiastically dubbed it the Wonder Way.

While wealthy American systems lure travelers over their lines with streamlined vista-dome coaches and television in the club car the PGE is virtually the only railroad in North America that does a roaring tourist business because most of its coaches are relics of bygone eras.

Originally, the Pacific Great Eastern was supposed to thrust 468 miles northward from Vancouver to Prince George to tap the transcontinental Grand Trunk Pacific—now the Canadian National —as it cut across the top half of British Columbia on its way to Prince Rupert. But it never reached either Vancouver or Prince George. Instead, its 348 miles of twisting single track link the tiny settlements of Squamish and Quesnel. Squamish is on fiordlike Howe Sound, 40 miles north of Vancouver, and Quesnel is in the storied Cariboo, 80 miles south of Prince George.

All Aboard for Moscow!

NOW B. C. Premier Byron Johnson has promised that the PGE won’t end at Prince George but will eventually go on another 400 miles into the rich Peace River country. One day it might push on even farther through the Rocky Mountain Trench to Fairbanks, Alaska, to become 1,700 miles of strategic railway and one of the continent’s great transportation systems. In Washington, Republicans and Democrats are pressing President Truman to build a railroad to Alaska, incorporating the PGE as a vital link.

Most British Columbians will be happy to see the

PGE get as far as Prince George, but editorial writers on the Vancouver Sun are dreaming about the day when an elongated version of the PGE will take a deep breath, burrow under the Bering Strait, come up in Siberia and join up with a direct line to Moscow. “This,” says The Sun, “is not so fantastic as you might first imagine.”

Everything has happend to the PGE. Its name has been dragged through political scandal and its funds were used to win at least one election. Even the grandiose moniker its hopeful builders bestowed on their baby has bedeviled it. When the PGE became an orphan in 1918 and the British Columbia Government was tricked into making wards of both it and its monumental debt, unhappy taxpayers became convinced that its initials stood for Province’s Greatest Expense.

After a harrowing journey on the PGE, sometimes called the continent’s most spectacular, loneliest and most rudimentary railroad, an embittered and unnerved parliamentarian remarked that the Pacific Great Eastern was certainly not eastern, it emphatically was not great and, from personal experience, he could vouch that in no sense was it pacific.

The Pacific Great Eastern’s two complete

Pacific Great Eastern, the continent’s quaintest and best-loved railway, chugs through magnificent scenery and a staggering debt toward a promising future

passenger trains, which maintain a thrice-weekly service on the day and night run between Squamish and Quesnel and a daily summer service between Squamish and Lillooet, are compounded of such museum-piece day coaches and sleepers, of assorted widths and heights, tourists know them as the Crazy Quilt Expresses. The stony-broke PGE has had to struggle along with cast-off rolling stock picked up at bargain prices from defunct American interurban lines and several major U. S. railroads.

The PGE sleepers Pavilion and Barkerville, named for the remote mining camp which at the height of the Cariboo gold rush became the largest city west of Toronto, are hand-me-downs from the Indiana Electric Railway which used to run between Louisville and Indianapolis. Today they swing and sway through mountain chasms, carrying trappers, loggers and cattlemen.

One rainy night last summer the Barkerville sprang a leak and the young woman in Upper Eight had to be rescued from the deluge. On richer railroads such incidents might lead to lawsuits but on the PGE they merely add to the uncertain charm of the journey.

Traveling on the same train was a railway enthusiast whose strange hobby is studying sleeping car berths and who had journeyed all the way from his Pennsylvania home to spend two nights bedded down in the Barkerville simply because its berths

are a full two inches narrower than those of a standard Pullman.

A California aircraft manufacturer, who in his spare time builds models of antiquated railroad equipment, made a 1,500-mile trip to ride on the PGE for the sole purpose of examining the railroad’s open-air observation cars, which are actually ancient tourist day coaches with the top half sawed off.

Another admirer of rare rolling stock journeyed from Florida to gaze upon the PGE’s high-domed day coaches, discards from the Lehigh Valley line of New York State. The seats of these period pieces are upholstered in green plush and from their ceilings hang oil lamps as finely curlecued and embossed as any that ever shone on the mustachios of the Victorian era.

Railroad fans were rendered almost heartbroken when, in a rare concession to progress, the PGE retired the sleeping cars Garibaldi and Superior, vintage of the McKinley era, and replaced them with two all-steel secondhand Pullmans. Last summer, Ernest Plant, president of the Pacific Great Eastern Boosters’ Club, persuaded PGE

officials to haul the hoary Garibaldi, once a proud part of a crack train on the Ishpeming and Superior Railroad, out of retirement for one last journey to Quesnel. Fifty railway hobbyists from a dozen American states flocked north to say good-by to the old-fashioned but faithful Garibaldi and to mutter imprecations at the Seton Lake and the Anderson Lake, the two new but blatantly modern sleepers.

Enthusiasts such as Arthur Lloyd, president of the California-Nevada Railroad Historical Society, wince every time the PGE splurges on new rolling stock for it means the pensioning off of some inefficient but lovable relic. “As she stands now,” says Lloyd, “the PGE is ideal, a railway fan’s delight.”

Then, leaning out over the swaying side of the observation car, he indicates two snazzy new ora ge and green Mikado diesel locomotives laboring efficiently and noiselessly at the head of the train. “Those diesels,” he mutters. “They may save the line a lot of money, but they’re about as glamorous as a bus.” (Lloyd himself owns a bus line.)

Such sentimental weeping over the demise of ! he snorting steam engine is not shared by Andy Steel, the veteran engineer who sits at the simplified controls in the kitchen-clean cab of one of the diesels. “I don’t want to see another steam engine as long as I live,” he says.

The PGE’s short, white-

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haired general manager, John Ashmore Kennedy, who began his career in 1900 as a CPR office boy in Winnipeg, feels the same way as Andy Steel about the road’s gradual conversion to diesels.

When the PGE finally does chug into Prince George it will lose one of its costly claims to fame. Now it is one of the continent’s few standard-gauge

railroads that have no physical link with any other railroad. At Prince George it will meet up with the Canadian National branch line running between Edmonton and Prince Rupert. This is of considerable importance for, as with people, so with railways— those with the best connections are the most likely to succeed.

Until this meeting with the CNR the PGE will also remain the world’s one railroad not on an island that can take freight cars from other systems only after the cars have put out briefly to sea. Boxcars from the New York

Central, Baltimore and Ohio and most every other North American line are loaded onto barges in Vancouver and towed by the tug Port Ellice through the Strait of Georgia and up Howe Sound to Squamish. The 45-mile journey takes six hours.

By necessity the Pacific Great Eastern’s passengers from Vancouver are also water-borne but seldom seem to mind. The three-and-a-half-hour trip by Union Steamships’ coastal steamers has been likened by many a world traveler to a journey through the Norwegian fiords.

By January 1951 the link from Vancouver to Squamish should be open. Then, says general manager Kennedy, the speedup of freight and lower handling charges will enable his railway to operate at a profit, something it has rarely been able to do.

Passenger service on the PGE, in spite of leaky Pullmans, is unequaled by any giant system with palatial depots and streamlined trains. What other railroad would throw its train in reverse for three miles to accommodate a passenger who has overslept his stop? One day last summer the PGE did just that for an elderly couple who were bound for a holiday on a dude ranch near Lone Butte. The train was three miles past Lone Butte when the travelers were found still sound asleep. They were roused and had time to complete their toilet as the train backed into Lone Butte.

Waterfall Washes the Windows

Tucked away in the mountainous core of British Columbia, the Pacific Great Eastern crowds so much superb scenery into its short line that even engineer Ed Deschene packs a camera in a huge pocket of his grease-spattered overalls. The Canadian Pacific’s worldfamous stretch of mountain grandeur between Banff and Revelstoke doesn’t surpass the PGE’s 348 miles of scenery in variety.

“The PGE’s route is so precarious,” an awed wayfarer once remarked, “it would frighten the suction cups off a human fly.”

So precarious is it that trains are held to a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit and the engineers have strict orders against trying to get home in time for lodge meetings. Crushing granite boulders are poised menacingly atop sheer cliffs which hem in mile after mile of the right-of-way. But, in spite of a route that would unnerve a tightrope walker, the PGE has never had a passenger fatality.

Train crews have been less fortunate. One night in the fall of 1944 a granite avalanche came roaring out of the blackness to decapitate a passenger train. The engine was sliced cleanly away from the coaches and buried, with its engineer and fireman, under tons of rock and gravel, at the bottom of Seton Lake. A deep-sea diver was lowered to the wreckage but was unable to recover the entombed men. In January this year it happened again. An avalanche of snow and rock swiped another loco into Seton Lake, killing the engineer and fireman.

Only seven miles out of Squamish, itself in the shadow of the Squamish Chief and the perpetually snow-clad peak of Garibaldi, the Crazy Quill Express plunges into the narrow, rockbound confines of Cheakamus Canyon. Sometimes it runs so close to the thundering waterfalls that spray splutters against the brick-red sides of the coaches. At others it is suspended a dizzy 500 feet above the boiling gorge.

A Gun In the Baggage Car

Once out of the Cheakamus the train snakes across a timbered plateau, crosses the precipitous brink of Brnndywine Falls, winds along the granite ledge of two alpine lakes, Seton und Anderson, and then veers eastward into Lillooet, in the heart of the tomato and sagebrush belt. Here in the lawless golden years, 1863-65, of the Cariboo gold rush stood Hangman’s Tree from which outlaws were strung at the decree of Sir Matthew Begbie, famed as British Columbia’s hanging judge.

At Lillooet the PGE joins the Fraser River and strikes out along the Cariboo

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Road. Here the train encounters a scenic stretch that rivals the Cheakamus. The track clings to a naked ledge 2,600 feet above the upper canyon of the Fraser, providing a spectacle which PGE officials believe is unequaled on any other North American railroad.

Completely blase about the risks it is running the Crazy Quilt Express continues on to Deep Creek which it crosses at a height of 279 feet on what was once the highest railroad bridge in the British Empire.

Appropriately, after this adventure the train heads toward two whistle stops named Whisky Creek and Soda Creek. In Whisky Creek you can’t even buy a beer, but such misnomers are commonplace on the PGE. For. a few miles later on, the train pulls into Australian, a mere dot on the map which was named after three Swedes and an American during the Cariboo gold rush. The natives called it that after mistaking the accents of the Swedes and the Americans who had pitched camp there for an Australian twang.

Because the right-of-way is not enclosed by fencing and because it runs through some of the West’s richest cattle country, herds of cattle, and even a lone moose, frequently wander onto the track and cause the engineer to reach for the brakes. In the baggage car a rifle is always kept handy. Train crews have orders to stop and shoot any injured steers or moose before getting up steam again. The record slaughter in one collision is 22 cattle.

Bulldozers Scare the Moose

Work on the extension to Prince George is well under way. Early last summer the first contract, for $634,000. was let to a Vancouver firm to clear and grade the first 14-mile stretch north of Quesnel to formidable Cottonwood Canyon which will cost $1 million to bridge.

Bulldozers and gargantuan graders are gouging the new right-of-way out of virgin eourftry where moose can be heard crashing through the spruce thickets. Glistening white tent encampments have sprung up in the bushland north of Quesnel and highbooted surveyors and construction workers tramp the board sidewalks of that once famous fur-trading centre.

In the modern Cariboo Hotel (“No hobnail boots in the lobby”) owner Harold Cleland. who has led many a campaign to have the railroad completed, says, “This will be the making of this country. It’s our last great hinterland.”

The PGE’s future may be as bright as a magnesium flare but its past is plenty shady.

The idea of the railway was conceived by Major-General Jack Stewart, of the firm of I’ oley, Welch & Stewart, a man who made so much money out of contracts on the Grand Trunk Pacific he was able to splurge $700,000 to buy a castle in Scotland.

In 1912. when his work on tinGrand Trunk was nearly over, he got the idea of building the PGE to link Vancouver with this new transcontinental liner. He hustled oil to Victoria to sell the scheme to Sir Richard McBride the silver-tongued Conservative premier.

'I he moment was opportune for Sir Richard was casting about for an election-winning issue.

“It was a meeting of forceful man who wanted to build a railway and a gullible politician who wanted to win an election,” remarks Roy Brown, an editor of the Vancouver Sun, who knew both Stewart and McBride.

They made a deal. McBride agreed to have the government guarantee the

railway's bonds on the basis of $35,000 a mile. Two years later McBride boosted the guarantee to $42,000 a

Foley, Welch and Stewart nev^r finished the railroad but instead, in the winter of 1917-18, manoeuvred Honest John Oliver’s Liberal Government into taking it over. They did this by disrupting the service between Squamish and Clinton so that the government would confiscate the line as it had a right to do under the terms of its contract with the PGE. Honest John apparently never realized this was exactly what the builders wanted him

A Rich Prize in the Peace

When the government finally took over only 178.7 miles of railroad had been built. The price was $20,160,000. Irrespective of other assets the PGE may have owned, this spiraled the cost per mile completed to nearly $113,000.

At last count the PGE’s debt stood at a staggering $136.800,000. This-is made up of $65,600.000 cash advanced by the government and $71,200,000 in unpaid interest.

From a revenue standpoint the PGE is rated a Class I railroad, which puts it in the same class as the CPR and CN. It achieved this status in 1946 when, for the first time, revenue passed $1 million. In 1948 total revenue was a record $1,791.000, still not enough to cover operating expenses.

The real future of the PGE lies in the Peace River country but to lay steel and provide rolling stock and other equipment to run it into the Peace would cost a whopping $58 millions. Thirty-five millions, it is estimated, would carry it 196 miles into Centurion Junction in the Pine River Pass and through almost endless timber stands (4.6 billion board feet), and some of the continent’s finest coal measures (190 million tons). One hundred million board feet of timber and 750.000 tons of coal could be shipped out annually to provide an estimated operating profit of $335,000.

Now, the Peace River’s products, chiefly grain, drain eastward into Alberta. Extension of the PGE would channel them to and through Pacificcoast ports. Over the PGE the distance lo Vancouver from Dawson Creek would be reduced 520 miles from the present roundabout route through Edmonton.

Americans are constantly giving the PGE’s Alaskan aspirations a leg up. In 1942 the U. S. Army ran pell-mell surveys from Quesnel to Alaska and was all set to build a railway, linked with the PGE, to supply its garrisons in Alaska. Then the Japanese were driven from the Aleutians and the project shelved. But now it is again high on the list of Washington "maybos.” Last August the U. S. House* of Representatives passed a bill empowering President T ruman to negotiate an agreement with Canada to build a railway through B. C. to Alaska. Earlier the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had passed a similar resolu-

The men who guide the destinies of the Pacific Great Eastern arc; naturally gratified by all the national and international attention that’s lavished on their little railway. But more satisfying than talk is the $1,200,000 Prime Minister St. Laurent fished out of the federal kitty last summer to help get the railway to Prince George, and still more satisfying is the sound of the bulldozers crashing their way through the woods north of Quesnel To them that’s proof positive that the railway Lo nowhere is reully going places. A