May 12, 1996

Wooden Webs Railway Left Behind A Trestle System Perfect For Tourists And Explorers

Stanton H. Patty Special To Travel
 

It is an amazing sight.

A string of 16 abandoned railroad trestles spans the gorges of Myra Canyon with webs of wood and steel - 4,000 feet above the vineyards and apple orchards of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

“Picture perfect,” says Bob Delgatty, a visitor from Coombs, B.C. “There must be a story to go with this.”

There is.

The Kettle Valley Railway whistled through this canyon, teetering on the high trestles, for more than seven decades. And then in 1989 the little railroad faded into history. Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned the KVR, ripped up the rails as the last work trains moved down the tracks.

“Like fresh graves,” a writer said of the torn roadbed.

But the story has a happy ending. The Kettle Valley route lives on as a recreational trail for hikers and cyclists. Some day it may become a provincial park.

The Okanagan Valley is about halfway between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies. Its major communities, strung along the shore of 90-mile-long Okanagan Lake, include Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon.

Myra Canyon - with its loop of 16 trestles, two bridges and two rock tunnels - is the highlight in the Kelowna area.

There’s more.

Down at Summerland, near the holiday town of Penticton, an antique steam locomotive chugs along the last original tracks of the Kettle Valley.

It turns out that Canadian Pacific didn’t lift all of the rails. A 10-mile section remained, almost forgotten, near Summerland.

Bill Barlee, minister of small business, tourism and culture in the British Columbia government - a KVR history buff himself took the lead in arranging for the province to buy that parcel, rails and all, from Canadian Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Summerland-based Kettle Valley Railway Heritage Society was campaigning for an old-fashioned steam-railway tour over those 10 miles of tracks. The section includes a spectacular trestle - 558 feet long and 216 feet high - over Trout Creek.

But where would the heritage society find a steam locomotive?

The B.C. Forest Museum at Duncan, on Vancouver Island, offered to lend a 1924 Shay locomotive that used to pull logging trains on the island.

The Forest Museum and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria joined in restoring the locomotive.

And last summer the old steamer was shipped by ferry from Vancouver Island to the mainland, then trucked to Summerland.

“It was like hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time when that locomotive arrived,” says Deborah White, executive assistant at the Kettle Valley Railway Heritage Society.

The new Kettle Valley Steam Railway made its inaugural run from Summerland on Sept. 17.

“Return to us now the days of steam and wailing whistles,” called Don Bowen, Summerland’s town crier, as the first train rolled out of the station. This year, Kettle Valley Steam Railway tours are scheduled from May into October.

Back in Myra Canyon (about 42 miles north of Penticton), the Kettle Valley trail is crowded with families on fresh-air outings.

Members of the Myra Canyon Trestle Restoration Society - volunteers from Kelowna and other Okanagan towns - have made the trestles and bridges safe with decking and handrails.

Volunteers turned out to refit the crossings after a Kelowna cyclist, Carol Faye Fingler, 26, fell to her death through a trestle in May 1994. A memorial cairn, decorated with flowers and a bicycle helmet, marks the site.

The degree of difficulty for hikers and cyclists along the KVR route these days ranges from easy to arduous.

There are stretches, such as in Myra Canyon, where the terrain is virtually level. But there are other sections where washouts have cut the old roadbed with wheel-bending gullies.

It is possible to drive some segments, but only with four-wheel-drive rigs. Myra Canyon itself is closed to motorized vehicles.

There is no food or beverage service on either end of the mile-long canyon. Carry plenty of drinking water. Okanagan summers can be hot.

Randy Manuel, director of the R.N. Atkinson Museum in Penticton, has a special attachment to Kettle Valley history.

His grandfather was an engineer on the Kettle Valley. His late father, Allen, used to break trail through snowdrifts with a bulldozer for KVR trains.

His grandmother, Bertie Beaton, now 97, remembers how the trains, sometimes with her husband at the throttle, used to howl through Penticton.

“I’ve seen a railway come and go,” she says.

Randy Manuel watched the last KVR train roll out of sight when it departed Penticton at 11:45 a.m. on May 9, 1989.

“It was a work train that collected tools along the way,” he recalls. “There were only two of us there to see it go.”

Later, Manuel buried his father’s ashes on a slope by the KVR.

“Dad loved these hills,” he said. “This is where he wanted to be.”

But there were lighter moments, too.

When Manuel and his pal, Spike Livingston, were kids they decided to butter the rails with a bar of soap “to see what would happen.”

What happened was that the next freight train’s wheels spun to a stop on the slippery rails. Randy and Spike watched from a hiding place, about where Allen Manuel rests.

Then there was the Adra Tunnel - 1,602 feet long - where KVR construction crews punched through granite walls with hand drills and sledge hammers 80 years ago.

The Adra is closed now, heaped with collapsed timbers and other debris.

“It was neat to go in there as youngsters and tell ghost stories in the dark,” Manuel says. “The best part was when someone said, ‘Boo!”’

Manuel is pleased that locals and visitors are rediscovering the KVR. “There’s a lot to be said for nostalgia,” he says.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Information Contact the Okanagan Similkameen Tourism Association, 1332 Water St., Kelowna, B.C., Canada V1Y 9P4. Phone (604) 860-5999.

Steam train tours Kettle Valley Steam Railway, P.O. Box 341, Penticton, B.C., Canada V2A 6K4. Call (604) 494-8422.

Cycling tours Vintage Cycle Tours, 4847 Parkridge Drive, Kelowna, B.C., Canada V1W 3A1. Phone (604) 764-7223.

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Information Contact the Okanagan Similkameen Tourism Association, 1332 Water St., Kelowna, B.C., Canada V1Y 9P4. Phone (604) 860-5999.

Steam train tours Kettle Valley Steam Railway, P.O. Box 341, Penticton, B.C., Canada V2A 6K4. Call (604) 494-8422.

Cycling tours Vintage Cycle Tours, 4847 Parkridge Drive, Kelowna, B.C., Canada V1W 3A1. Phone (604) 764-7223.

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE


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