September 11th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 37
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Along the McGillivray Loop
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Pasquale and Venuta's Corbin house built 1910
In my last article I talked about the amazing Hutton family and their important connection to the Pass and Corbin. Recently I made a trip up to Corbin to attend the annual Teck sponsored tour of the now shut down Coal Mountain mine. I also joined in on their update on the mine’s closing direction meeting and luncheon held at the Hutton cabin. Interested parties including the Corbinites have participated in a planning session to define what the mine area will look like after closure.

It was interesting to tour what remains of that community and come to understand why those who still frequent the old town site find such joy in being up there. I got to go through Benvenuta (Venuta) and Pasquale Baratelli’s home, built in 1910, and discovered it has been maintained in its original state including most of the original furnishings. It was like stepping back in time. What struck me as amazing was that it was 28 centigrade outside that day but when we walked into the house it felt like it was air conditioned. The owner laughed and couldn’t give a reason why but did tell me that all the pictures hanging on the walls were there to cover up woodpecker holes. So yah gotta know that place has pretty thin walls. Either that or I don’t want to run into one of those pileated hole pounders.

As I headed out later that day down the Coal Mountain access road I happened to glance up at the railway tracks that run parallel and high above the road just before the Highway 3 connection. I remembered then that there is an amazing piece of history up there that is connected to the first access into Corbin. It was called the Grain Bin Tunnel.
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As the British Columbia Southern Railway (CPR) was being constructed in 1898 from Crowsnest on the border through to the Michel Creek Valley it was discovered that there was a severe grade problem to overcome. That problem is evident at a glance as you head east on Highway #3 into the canyon. West of the Coal Mountain Mine turnoff the highway now overpasses over the CPR tracks. If you glance upwards and to the south as you cross that overpass you can see that those same tracks are also visible a couple of hundred feet higher in elevation directly above you as you enter the canyon.

What you see then is the elevation problem that contractors faced as they pioneered the line through to the soon to be new town of Michel. The abrupt grade descent was overcome by running the line four miles south and then north along the upper Michel Creek Valley in a horseshoe-type loop. That allowed them to descend 200 feet and maintain a civilized grade. That loop was named after Duncan McGillivray, named for Donald McGillivray, an engineer and contractor who worked on this section of line and on many other projects in British Columbia.

The start of the McGill vary Loop is preceded by trackage that heads west just past the weigh scale and winds along the north end of "Loop Ridge." It travels over three marvelous stone built walls that are over a century old. They are visible sporadically as you drive through the canyon and they tower over that perky little, almost always clear green waterway known as Alexander Creek. The stonework is north facing with massive sandstone bluffs perched directly above them and they are most often in shade and hard to see.
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A few years ago I walked the upper loop trackage from just west of the weigh scales to a point where the track heads south towards the old Corbin "Show", the old name for Coal Mountain. On approaching the first of the stone walls I discovered the track to be yellow flagged, meaning there was a CPR crew at work up ahead. What I found then were two CPR employees from Cranbrook's B&B (Bridge and Building) crew who were busy installing brackets on top of the easternmost stone wall's edge. There is not much room between that edge and the tracks on the very east stone wall and a careless step at that point by a train crewmember could prove fatal. In fact that is exactly why those guys were up there. A few years back over in the Kootenay's some poor soul stepped off a train for an inspection at night and fell to his death. This no doubt led to some serious hazard assessment by CPR and ultimately to hand rail installations on places like the McGillvary Loop stone walls.

The walls themselves were in fact replacements for the original timber trestleways that carried the CPR line around those steep rock faces for a short time. They occur at miles 3.8 to 4.5 (mile 0 being the CPR yard at Crowsnest on the Alberta/BC border). A half mile past the most westerly stone wall (mile 5.1) the rail line passes through a sharp curving massive cut through fine gravels and sand. Sediments from a glacial drift. That drift material was seriously mined a few years ago to supply fill for the railway/highway over pass.

On the south side of that cut one can find the old remnants of what I referred to earlier as the "Grain Bin Tunnel." It is an underground passage that has an interesting history. In 1898 that southern turn was a tunnel with which they experienced extreme cave-in difficulties. During its construction, a temporary, wicked 20-degree curve system of four cliff edge trestles were constructed to provide a western by-pass until 1902 when a second and more successful attempt was made to tunnel through the gravel hillside which "flowed like grain".
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The engineers drove a timber lining horizontally into the hillside and then excavated the loose materials from the inside of the lining to form the tunnel. As materials were removed, a heavy timber lining, made of one-foot square mountain fir, spaced just three inches apart, were installed to support the roof of the tunnel under the heavy pressure of the overburden. Coal and some rock were encountered and because of the unstable conditions, no explosives could be used. The men worked by candle light as they dug through the mountain ridge. Pay was 35 cents an hour and C. E. Cantlee was the engineer in charge and Olaf Olsen was the contractor. Can’t you just see Olie Olsen in his coveralls and goofy hat and pipe watching the going’s on?

Despite subsequent concrete lining of the 900-foot long tunnel it continued to be a problem and it was eventually by-passed in 1948 by the open cut that exists today. You can hear the flanges of the wheels screaming like banshees from the overpass below as trains make their way around that curve and past the old tunnel. The ancient massive coastal fir timbers of its southern entrance are still visible alongside the new trackage but the "flowing grain" has long since swallowed up the rest of the tunnel.
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A Fernie old-timer, Buzz Bursato told me many years ago it was a favorite trick of the gang, way back then, to jump on the slow freight out of Michel and take a ride up to Crowsnest for the day. That trip atop boxcars would inevitably take them through the grain bin tunnel where they would be forced to lay flat on the box car roofs. On emerging out the other side Buzz said they were usually left black as coal miners from the smoke and cinders that the steam train left hanging in the loop tunnel.

The handrails are now in place on the McGillivary Loop stone walls, their bright blue posts standing in modern contrast to those wonderful stone monuments of Crowsnest Pass railway history. Should you decide to walk the McGillivary Loop trackage be forewarned. There are spots up there where your clearance between the sandstone cliffs and the edge of a passing train is enough to make you suck in your gut and leave your teeth chattering.

Back in 2007 I positioned myself up in those cuts to catch the iconic Empress 2816 steam locomotive as it made its way east to Crowsnest on a special tour. The spot I picked was a pinnacle that would put me above the train as it went by into the cuts. Of course I forgot it’s a steam train and as it went by I was swallowed up its steam exhaust and missed most of the shots as it passed me. Lesson learned.

Author’s Note: In 1908 the Eastern British Columbia Railway was incorporated and built by Daniel Corbin from the McGillivray Loop to the Corbin Mine. That 14 miles of track served for some time as the only access to the mine and town. The tracks were torn up in 1939 after the mine closed.
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September 11th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 37
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