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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Author: Trevor Marc Hughes

Trevor Marc Hughes is an author and travel writer. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife and two sons. He rides a Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle. If he can help it, he doesn't ride his motorcycle in Vancouver; he takes it out of town, where he enjoys exploring the province of B.C. and beyond, and writing about his adventures. He has written for magazines such as Canadian Biker, Rider, Motorcycle Mojo, Inside Motorcycles, and RidersWest. His two books are "Nearly 40 on the 37: Triumph and Trepidation on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway" and "Zero Avenue to Peace Park: Confidence and Collapse on the 49th Parallel".