Rails that Changed the Squamish Valley

By Trevor Mills
Published: Dec 24, 2015

WHERE is that?” My father said, standing in the Canadian Pacific crew office in Vancouver. “Squamish”, said the crew dispatcher, “is at the head of Howe Sound and the beginning of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.” A new job was waiting and a journey into the unknown had started. After a three-hour ride on the Union Steamship vessel Lady Cynthia, Squamish was in sight and dad had found a new beginning.
The Lady Cynthia arrived an old wooden dock as the Union Steam ships and other passenger ships had done for many years before. A three-hour journey from the dock near downtown Vancouver was over and an elegant looking passenger train was waiting to take passengers and freight to points north along the line. A highly polished steam locomotive leading the way. This was a train that would stop almost anywhere you needed to get on or off with all your gear. After arrival, the hatch on the deck was opened and the ship’s small crane started unloading the freight as the passengers disembarked. The section crew loaded freight from the ship to a box car behind the locomotive. The freight could have been anything that people along the line had ordered from the big city. This scene had been repeated over and over on a daily basis since the beginning of the railway back in 1910. 
Squamish was isolated until the railway was put through in 1956 and the Seaview highway was completed in 1958. In the early days, the only way to get here was by cattle trail or steamship. The railway was the only link to points north of Squamish and its construction nearly did not happen.
The Canadian Pacific had surveyed through the valley in the 1870s while trying to find a passage for their transcontinental route to the west coast but when they came upon the wall of rock and raging rivers that is the Cheakamus canyon they gave up and said it was impossible to build a railway through there. There study would only allow a certain grade on the hills and a requirement for reasonably straight track. To get through the canyon would have meant many miles of tunnels.
With more development in the valley after 1900, a vision for a railway came from several land owners both here and in Pemberton. They wanted a better way to get their farm goods to market than the wagon road. They ignored the CPR study and went ahead anyway. A ribbon of steel that would snake north through the valley linking community after community was what was needed. Its beginnings were on what we now call Loggers Lane right next to the water. The easiest transportation system to build at the time was a railway and the best place to start building the railway was where there was access to water. This made transporting materials to Squamish easier. Once the barge arrived it was a simple job to unload right onto the waiting construction train to go to the construction camp at the end of steel. 
A look around the valley from downtown Squamish and you could see the potential here with first growth forest covering the mountains in every direction and a long flat river valley that was mostly utilized for farming. It was estimated at the time that there were 8 billion board feet of harvestable lumber in the Squamish valley and points north along the projected railway. The forest was virtually untouched other than a few shingle mills along the rivers. The railway would provide a way to get up into the hills and access the wealth of timber. Cattle farmers would also benefit as they would not have to march their animals along the rough cattle trails to Vancouver any more. 
It might have seemed foolish to ignore the recommendations of a large established railway’s earlier survey but there was so much potential. The Howe Sound Pemberton Valley and Northern was incorporated on March 21, 1907. The pioneers of the railway raised money, bought rail and a used locomotive, the #1, that once pulled coal cars on Vancouver Island. The first track was put down along Loggers Lane between Marina Estates and the small boat harbour. There have been many docks built out into the water over the years and the first wood dock and barge unloading ramp were constructed right where the marina is today on the west side of the blind channel. The first shop building was a single stall building just north of the dock. It was not only used for servicing the railway’s locomotives but also its growing freight car fleet.
As the railway grew longer, a second locomotive was needed and one was ordered new from the Baldwin Locomotive Works and was delivered in 1910. This was the #2 and it is the only steam locomotive to survive from the railway. It was a 2-6-2 saddle tank locomotive and is currently going through a cosmetic restoration at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park. Locomotive #2 did all the heavy work during the first phases of the construction. There were only these two locomotives on the line until 1913. Barges of supplies from steel rail bridge building bolts arrived and were loaded onto flat cars or box cars at the dock for the journey to where the new railway was being constructed. On the return trip cars of logs would be brought back down to Squamish where the logs were put in the water to be sent off to sawmills on the Fraser River and other costal locations. 
As the railway grew, saw mills produced cut lumber which was brought down on flat cars or in box cars and sent off on the barge to Vancouver where it would go to destinations around North America. In later years, the railway had three rail barges and their own tugboat. These barges would take rail cars as far away as Seattle for markets in the United States.
Squamish started to grow with the new railway, and opportunities were everywhere. A station was built at the east end of Main Street. Later, a freight shed and ice house 
were added. Since Squamish was isolated, the railway built many company houses for workers to live in. The first company houses were right where the brew pub is now. As the town expanded west from Cleveland Ave, more houses were constructed by railway employees and by families of people working in the now booming logging industry. The railway also contributed to the community by giving land for churches to be built and by building a community hall.
In 1910, the railway name changed to the Howe Sound and Northern railway to secure a new charter and raise funds from different sources. By this time, the railway had been constructed through to Mamquam and Brackendale and the end of steel was at Cheakamus. Surveys were being completed north from there and south from the Whistler area. This was the most difficult part of the work and construction had stopped until more money could be raised.
As more people started coming to Squamish, the steamship companies started putting larger ships on this run and the dock along Loggers Lane became too small and a new one was built that stretched out to the deeper water by Squamish Terminals. This dock was completely unprotected and was washed out many times by the Squamish River.
There was a great deal of competition out there. The Canadian division of the Great Northern Railway was surveying through North and West Vancouver for a route to Squamish. 
This survey was later bought by the Pacific Great Eastern. They built track between  North Vancouver and Horseshoe Bay and operated self-propelled passenger cars on the line between 1914 and 1929. 
There was also another railway looking at putting a line through the Squamish Valley. They had offered to buy the Howe Sound and Northern and were turned down many times. This railway had secured funding from the Great Eastern Railway in England and was incorporated as the  Pacific Great Eastern on February 27, 1912 with a charter to build north from Squamish. Having their offer turned down by the Howe Sound and Northern, the Pacific Great Eastern started surveying a parallel route up through the valley. After much negotiation, the Howe Sound and Northern finally gave in and sold out to the Pacific Great eastern on October 12, 1912 for the sum of $1,225,000. 
The Pacific Great Eastern had the financing to build north of Cheakamus, and a difficult task it was. The railway line went from one shelf in the rock face to another, through tunnels where there was too much rock to blast and over many wood trestles where there was no rock to build on at all. The 10 miles from Cheakamus to Garibaldi cost over $3 million dollars to build at a time when the same amount of flat track in the valley would have cost tens of thousands dollars.
As the railway progressed north, Newport Timber laid a logging railway line up what is now Mamquam Road  and joined  the Pacific Great Eastern. Their shay-geared locomotive would pull the log cars down from the area around Quest University to the Pacific Great Eastern and the #2 would pick up the cars and take them to the waterfront along Loggers Lane so the logs could be dumped into the water. Lamb Logging owned a sawmill where the cemetery is today that had a siding where cars could be left for loading. There were sawmills at Garibaldi and Parkhurst, near Whistler, and many places along the line. There were also mines starting near Whistler and at Bralorne. The Pacific Great Eastern gained a great deal of business from the mines. It is said that the Pacific Great Eastern would not have made it through the depression after 1929 if it were not for the business generated by the mining. Vast amounts of equipment were delivered by the railway and many thousands of tons of gold ore were sent to Vancouver on the railway and the steamships.
It was not just resources and equipment that the railway moved around. The Pacific Great Eastern bought second-hand passenger cars and started passenger service along the line. The passenger trains were almost always mixed trains and would always carry the freight cars ahead of the passenger cars. The whole train was backed down onto the dock and passengers would board the coaches and freight was loaded onto the box cars. 
 The Pacific Great Eastern did not own any dining cars in the early years. At the same time, Mertle and Alex Phillip were building Rainbow Lodge on Green Lake near Whistler which opened in 1914. Rainbow became a railway resort and destination for people wanting to get away from the big city. They also provided dining services for the through passenger trains. Passengers could order meals upon arrival at Squamish and the orders and the train’s time of departure where telegraphed to Rainbow where Mertle would prepare the food in time for the trains arrival. This happened daily until 1948 when the Phillips sold Rainbow and retired. The Pacific Great Eastern converted two coaches to dining cars to continue meal services on the train.


  1. Muriel Shephard says:

    Thanks, Trevor for sharing your family’s connection with the railroad, which you have continued at the Railway Museum. Always good to learn the history and appreciate the struggles of the early pioneers. It makes for a rich experience of living in Squamish. Pity the train isn’t still running!