By John Kinnear
Sometimes in-depth research can take a writer off on a tangent that proves to be most enlightening. Digging deeper into a story can lead to some fascinating revelations and more often than not one wind’s up going in a different direction.
Such is the case that started with an anecdote I found in the 1980 commemorative booklet entitled: “Hillcrest-Bellevue Early Days”, a marvellous 35 page trip into early Hillcrest, Alberta history. Amongst the personal recollections in this souvenir offering I found a piece entitled: “It Was Royal Coal”, a brief story about how Hillcrest was the best steam coal available in North America and claiming it was placed at strategic points along the CPR’s rugged mountain runs, “especially through the steep grades in the Rockies.”
The story went on to tell of the famous 1935 journey of the Royal Scot train across Canada and how it ran into troubles when it ran out of specially shipped Welsh coal in the mountains. It goes on to say that CPR officials rushed boxcars of Hillcrest coal to the Royal Scot whereupon it: “chugged through the grueling grades of the Rockies without further trouble—fired by Hillcrest Coal”.
Digging deeper I explored the story of how the Scottish high speed train and eight of its cars were loaded onto a boat called the Beaversdale at Tilsbury Dock in London and offloaded at Montreal. It then sped to Chicago to be part of the “Century of Progress Exposition” which opened there in May of 1933. There were dozens of whistle stops where huge crowds checked out this Scottish speedster. Because it had proved so popular it was decided to take the Scot west to Las Vegas and then north to Vancouver and across Canada instead of returning to Montreal to reverse its journey. When it journey was over, three million people had visited the train on its 11, 000 mile circuit.
On the net I found a very detailed eleven page document on its trip published by the Canadian Railroad Historical Association in 1965. It retraced the Royal Scot from England to Montreal, thru the States and back again to Montreal but nowhere did it mention the Hillcrest coal rescue. While it is entirely possible that Hillcrest coal was stockpiled in the mountains, according to the CRHA document the Royal Scot passed through the mountains without any problems.
While it was generally accepted that Hillcrest coal was one of the finest steam coals there were at the time, I was not been able to find any further reference to this Hillcrest coal rescue. As I researched even deeper I found an ad in a Spokane paper that announced that Hillcrest Steam Coal was: “The King Pin of the Bunch. The finest quality steam coal mined in Canada.” It went on to say that this particular supplier was the exclusive agent for it. Most people think coal was just coal but back then there were dozens of suppliers competing for sales and each product had it own desirable qualities.
As I dug even deeper into the net a pdf document popped up in my Google searches which indicated that the Western Development Museum (WDM) in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan was offering a Steam Locomotive Operation Training Course in 2013. What was written in their course offer I had to reread several times before I let myself believe it. It said: “This class is for people interested in operating the Vulcan steam locomotive at the Moose Jaw WDM. The Vulcan is the only operating steam locomotive in Saskatchewan. The Vulcan narrow-gauge 0-4-0 engine was manufactured in 1914 by Vulcan Iron Works in Pennsylvania, USA for Hillcrest Collieries in southern Alberta.”
Then it hit me. The amazing fact that one of the two original narrow gauge locomotives used at the old Hillcrest Collieries was still around and running! I rattled off an email to the WDM in Saskatoon to their conservation curator and sure enough old #5 (renamed Shortline 101) had been acquired in 1958; was recently completely rebuilt from the boiler up and was now running every summer season in Moose Jaw hauling visitors around their WDM Moose Jaw museum.
Another researcher sent me a 1999 article done on the train’s later history. It turns out that after Hillcrest closed down in 1939 old #5 wound up being run at a sodium sulphate mine at a salt lake near Alsask, Saskatchewan until 1958 when it was donated to the WDM.
According to the article a respected Saskatchewan author by the name of Bill Wardill had done some digging of his own. In the National Archives in Ottawa he found a 1943 letter from the salt mine’s owner to the then Federal Deputy Minister of Labour Arthur MacNamara that stated: “It occurs to us that there is a considerable untapped reservoir of labour in the interned Japanese in this country.” British Columbia officials were contacted by MacNamara’s office and the next thing you know Kusada Katsutaro, Maruno Hiroshi and six other Japanese internees were living in a military type barracks at Alsask. They laid the tracks for the narrow gauge rail line for old #5 between the alkali lake and the dehydration plant and then worked there mining the Glauber’s salts.
While official records suggest they sought employment there Wardill thought otherwise. In an essay I dug up entitled “Exiled to a Salt Mine” Bill stated: “It is difficult to believe their presence on the treeless shore of an isolated salt lake represented any real freedom of choice.”
In the process of rooting around in a lot of small gauge locomotive information I accidentally came across the fact that Heritage Park in Calgary has not one but two locomotives that came from Fernie. The first is an old 1909 air loco that started out in Quebec, then Canmore Mines and lastly worked for the Crowsnest Pass Coal Company at their Michel operation. The second was surprise, surprise, a saddle tank type 0-4-0 regular gauge ( 4 feet 81/2 inch) engine almost exactly like Shortline 101. It dates to 1902 and was also built by the Vulcan Iron Works. Vulcan made hundreds and hundreds of these small locomotives and they were shipped everywhere in the world to places like Australia, Burma, China, South America or anywhere at the turn of the 20th Century where industrialization was starting to take off.
Digging even deeper into locomotive records, which are a world unto themselves, I found yet another former Crows Nest Pass Coal Company 0-4-0 locomotive at the BC Forestry Discovery Center in Duncan. It was purchased by the CNPCC in 1920, finished up service at Elk River Collieries in 1958, was rescued then from being scrapped and eventually found a home at the Duncan Discovery Center. It is a 12 ton 36 inch gauge saddle tank built in 1900 and affectionately referred to as Susie in honour of a former conductor.
As I mentioned research can take one on the most amazing journey and for me this one took me from Scotland to Chicago to Spokane then Moose Jaw and Alsask, Saskatchewan and finally on to Calgary, Duncan, BC and in the end I wound up in Fernie at Rotary Park. There on its east perimeter is a rather beaten up 0-4-0T, bereft of its name plate with a huge coke oven larry (hopper car) attached to her. Research tells me she is number 2438 built in 1901 by H.K. Porter in Pittsburgh. Porter built over 8,000 light duty locomotives from 1866 till 1950. So it seems that all history fits together in the end; you just have to keep connecting the dots.
Editor’s Note: The numbers 0-4-0 refers to a locomotive’s wheel configuration. In the case of 0-4-0 it means there are no wheels under the cow catcher (pilot), 4 drive wheels and no wheels under the cab. BC’s famous Royal Hudson 2816 is a 4-6-4.