Exploring The Othello Tunnels

Helen Kennedy looked over the bridge, peering down thoughtfully at the rushing waters of the Coquihalla River. New wooden planking and rails passed over original ties of the Kettle Valley Railway. Those ties had been in place for just over a hundred years.

“We’re standing between Tunnels 4 and 5,” the Operations Manager and Museum Curator at the Hope Visitor Centre said to orient me. “We’re functionally between Tunnels 3 and 4 though.”

She pointed to the tunnel we had just walked through, with a self-conscious smile.

“That tunnel there is actually two tunnels. These were built as the Quintette Tunnels. There are five of them. Although we still refer to this tunnel as Tunnel 5, as you walk through it seems like two tunnels. Just to confuse all of our visitors to the park,” she said with a laugh.

I came to what must amount to one of the greatest feats of engineering in British Columbia’s colonial history. I rode my Kawasaki KLR650 into the shaded roads of the community of Hope from the small town of Coalmont where I’d been early that morning to check out one of the stations of the Kettle Valley Railway, a now retired but extremely important railway. The KVR would effectively end in this place just east of Hope. The final challenge of building the railway would be overcome in this scenic place. Chief engineer Andrew McCulloch had no other alternative than to punch holes through the solid granite of Coquihalla Canyon over the hiss and mist coming from the violent current below. Tunnels would need to line up perfectly to allow the passage of a train. Just over a hundred years since the first train went through in 1916, Kennedy gave me a tour of the tunnels.

I asked why Hope was decided upon as the terminal for the Kettle Valley Railway.

“I think it was partly the politics of building a railway,” she told me. “What made more sense was, at Merritt, to go up through the Nicola Valley, connect with the CPR line up to the Spences Bridge area. That definitely made more geographic sense. But it was a bit more circuitous.”

But as is sometimes the case in a politically charged situation, the quickest distance between two points is a straight line, despite the fact that there are mountains in the way.

“Great Northern (Railway) and the CPR were really fighting to see who would be fastest,” she told me as she gestures two fists coming together. “It was a lot faster to come from Merritt straight to Hope. And then at Hope cross the river. The CPR line came through there. As the crow flies, it was faster.”

So engineers had to move mountains, in a manner of speaking.

Once we were across the bridge, Kennedy called my attention to the cliff face to the right of Tunnel 4…or 3. Anyway, you get the idea.

“They would build ladders up the side of a cliff,” Kennedy pointed out. “Typically Chinese labourers. It would be the worst of the jobs. They would light a fuse, scramble down the ladder and hope to get far enough away before it blasted.”

Then it would be a matter of using hand shovels, pick axes and pack animals to chip and haul away until a tunnel remained.

“I like to say they did it with magic,” Kennedy told me with a wistful look, then looking back and scanning the cliff face and tunnel path. “I can’t imagine using anything as imprecise as dynamite to create such precise measurements in tunnels. They’re not much bigger than a train I don’t think,” she exclaimed with a laugh.

And to test out her observations we walked the length of the path. Some of the tunnels are jagged, still demonstrating the rugged fashion in which they were hacked from the solid granite of the mountains. Kennedy believed it would have been terrifying to meet these tunnels on a train. There really doesn’t seem to be much more than a few inches of clearance to spare from a casual scan of the edges.

The Kettle Valley Railway was abandoned in 1961. A major washout in 1959, as well as the opening of the Crowsnest Highway, spelled certain doom for the engineering marvel. In the 1980s the tunnels were rediscovered and prepared for visitors. May 15th, 1986 saw the opening of Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, a place focused on a section of the Kettle Valley Railway bound to generate awe and wonder in anyone.



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Pulling into Coalmont, British Columbia

I had spent the morning wondering if I would be riding on pavement or gravel.

My map showed a yellow line for the Coalmont Road. Yellow indicates a secondary road. Sometimes that’s the asphalt less travelled and sometimes it’s offroad. I was about to find out as I visited one of British Columbia’s most interesting not-quite-a-ghost-town towns.

Coalmont is nineteen kilometres north west of Princeton. British Columbia. It’s by the Tulameen River, traditionally a placer mining hotspot. There aren’t many rich deposits left though. A hundred years ago or more you’d find prospectors pulling their packhorses or donkeys across wooden bridges spanning the river. Many would be spending their days panning for gold. Coalmont was also near a significant resting place for coal. And as a result, when the railway came through town starting in 1911, it became the equivalent of a fuel stop.

As I snaked my way along the Tulameen on the Coalmont Road, ponderosa pine and modest homes made way for open scrub as I descended the curves into the Tulameen Valley on cracked pavement. My introduction to Coalmont was via two aging and eccentric signs warning against undesirables coming into town, especially magazine and encyclopedia salesmen.

I met a man with shock white hair, full white beard and sporting sunglasses who was minding two Chihuahuas and holding a kitten. He welcomed me to Coalmont, full-time population of twenty souls. This is where the Kettle Valley Railway, otherwise called the Coast to Kootenay Railway, rumbled through on its way to Hope or Midway.

Further down the dusty road I came to the intersection of Coalmont & Parrish, where I found, almost looking like it did on opening day, the CPR-red Coalmont Hotel. It opened in 1912 with the expectation it would service rail travellers for decades to come. The hotel was closed on my visit. It is now sporadically operated it would seem.

I heard a familiar engine’s rumble. I was soon shaking hands with the driver of an all-terrain vehicle, Ralph. He was enjoying camping at the Granite Creek Recreation Site with family. It would seem many come from the Metro Vancouver area to camp along the Tulameen or a kilometre north of Coalmont at Otter Lake Provincial Park.

It would seem Coalmont’s locomotive travellers have been replaced with the outdoor adventure kind. The local Mozey-On-Inn boasts panning trips along the Tulameen and campers can find canoeing opportunities and rainbow trout fishing at Otter Lake.

I rode out along the dusty, twisty and broken pavement of Coalmont Road and climbed out of the Tulameen Valley in the bright noonday sun, keen to see the Othello Tunnels in Coquihalla Canyon.

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