This 104-year-old steam engine pulls a vintage train along the remaining 10 km (6 miles) of the famed Kettle Valley Railway (KVR). It’s a 90-minute tourist ride and well worth it. Skirting through the beautiful Prairie Valley of Summerland, B.C., the train ride offers beautiful vistas of vineyards and fruit orchards, a hallmark of the Okanagan Lake region. The conductor and volunteers offer insights on points of interest along the route. We were told sometimes a bear can be spotted and luckily we found a large brown bear in an orchard, fattening up on fruit for the winter. It was nice to be safely out of his way on the train. However, Pete, the llama, was a more predictable character to see. Entertainment is provided by Felix Possak who plays the banjo and sings requests. At other events, he plays piano, harp, guitar, accordion and provides vocals in 15 languages! Just check his website at banjo.ca.
Near the end of the trip, the train stops on the Trout Creek Bridge that crosses Trout Creek Canyon. The canyon was a major obstacle in the original KVR route between Penticton and Princeton. It’s the third largest steel girder bridge in North America, originally 189 m (620 ft.) long and 73 m (239 ft.) high. KVR engineer Andrew McCulloch built it in 1913. His measurements were so accurate they came within six mm (¼ inch) at the joint. Its construction was considered one of the major engineering feats of its time.
Historically, the KVR opened in 1915 and operated in the Thompson/Okanagan region. It extended from Hope, B.C. for about 600 km (373 miles). The route, with many stops along the way and several branches, went north from Hope to Merritt and beyond. It went east at Brookmere and then south to Princeton, north again to Summerland, south to Penticton and then north again skirting most of the Okanagan Lake region, then turned south all the way to Midway, B.C.. There was also a southern route from Penticton to Osoyoos. The building of the KVR required going over and through three mountain ranges, requiring many tunnels aided by the expertise of Andrew McCulloch.
At this time in B.C.’s history, railroads were essential on many fronts for this difficult southern B.C. route. For one thing, Lord Shaughnessy, the president of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), had bought 4000 acres of a cattle ranch in the area, which was to become Summerland, a town founded by him. He created irrigation systems and sold orchard land to CPR executives. This fruit needed a good transportation system to get to market, and the growing population in the area needed reliable transport. More importantly, silver had been discovered in the area in 1887 and American miners were establishing themselves in the area through the easier route from Spokane by the US Northern Pacific Railroad. It was fast becoming a commercial area controlled by US interests. Therefore, the establishment of the KVR became a matter of sovereignty over territory and mining rights. Lord Shaughnessy was influential in the KVR for this reason as well and eventually the railway became a subsidiary of CPR.
Due to the development of highways and airlines, as well as deteriorating conditions on some routes of the KVR, portions were abandoned starting in 1961 and operations completely ended in 1989. Most of the original route has been converted to a multi-use recreational trail: Kettle Valley Rail Trail, which also serves as the Trans-Canada Trail through this part of B.C..
Of special interest is that most of the historical facts you read about the KVR’s development have little, if anything, to say regarding the impact on First Nations people who live in the area. First Nation reserve sizes were reduced for the right of way of the railway. Although there was land added in compensation, its value was often much less than the value of the land taken away. KVR benefitted from undertakings of this sort. Today affected First Nations bands are legally suing for the return of their land, which is no longer in use by the KVR. Of note are the comments one can read by non-First Nations residents in a 2010 request by the Penticton Indian Band to the federal government for return of a KVR rail bed. Some of these residents were outraged that their homes and golf courses might have been threatened. I wonder if European settlers ever considered how First Nations people felt when their land was expropriated and they were confined to reserves.