Kelowna once had extensive rail yards and docks. This photo shows the CPR barge slip in the 1960s. In the background is the tug Okanagan and a railway barge.
When the CNR completed its Kamloops to Kelowna Okanagan subdivision in 1925, it marked the beginning of an era in which Kelowna became the Valley's main railway shipping centre for the next 45 years.
Records from that period show that while less than 20 per cent of the Valley's fruit was shipped via Penticton, the bulk of it, more than 80 per cent, amounting to tens of thousands of carloads by the time the last railway refrigerator car left the Okanagan in the 1970s, went out on the new line, either via Kamloops or via Sicamous, and mostly destined for the Prairies.
At the same time, Kelowna became the major transhipment centre for fruit from the south end of the Okanagan headed for the Prairie market. In the late '20s and early '30s, fruit and vegetables - cantaloupe, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, apricots, peaches, cherries, pears, and apples - from Oliver, Penticton, Summerland, Naramata, Peachland and Westbank - were taken from the CPR sternwheelers and the CNR boat at the busy Kelowna docks and reloaded by hard manual labour at the crowded loading bays of Kelowna packing houses and canneries into "mixed cars."
These were sent, often on special express trains, to cities and towns all over the Canadian West. Small town Prairie wholesalers could order a carload of Okanagan fruit and vegetables specifically tailored to their needs.
Kelowna actually had two railway yards and two sets of docks. There was the CPR sternwheeler dock at the foot of Bernard, the CPR barge slip located just north of the present day yacht club, and the early CPR yard that ran east as far as Ellis Street, about where the library parkade is presently located. The CNR had its own railway yard stretching from the railway station at Ellis Street diagonally towards the sawmill, and its own boat dock and barge slip side by side near the mouth of Brandt's Creek. Kelowna's railway docks have long since disappeared - decrepit and unwanted leftovers pushed out by the city's growth.
The extensive railway trackage that wound its way through the packing houses and canneries was largely shared by both companies; however CNR locomotives did not stray into the old CPR yard because the rail was too light to support their weight.
Railway cars in this area were shunted by Chapman's, who used special trucks equipped with large bumpers. The trucks carried cables that could be hooked to the corners of the boxcars to pull them.
CNR and CPR train crews overnighted at the bunkhouse across from the CNR railway station (still standing, but now the Old Train Station Pub). The CPR engineers slept upstairs, and the CNR crews got the downstairs.
Bob Webster, who worked on the little CNR diesel switching locomotive in the 1960s, remembers the hardship of being assigned to sleep in the caboose: there was a clause in the CNR labour agreement that segregated engineers and firemen, who got bunkhouse privileges, from the switchmen, who had to sleep in the caboose, which was parked in the CNR yard. Bob, a lowly switchman who had been assigned to Kelowna for the summer fruit rush, had to sleep in the caboose, and had to buy his own groceries at the downtown Super-Value on Bernard Avenue.
Although both the CPR and the CNR provided passenger train service to Kelowna, the CNR's service was definitely better: the company offered overnight sleeping car service to Vancouver and Edmonton. Passenger trains had to be turned around at Kelowna, an awkward task since there was no return loop in the yard. Trains had to be threaded through a triangle of track called a "wye," located near the present Bouchons restaurant, and then backed on to a track on the CNR boat dock before heading back to the station. The big CNR dock extended several hundred feet into Okanagan Lake. When the old dock became too rickety to be safe, engineers were forbidden to run locomotives on to it. The train backed its passenger cars over the water, but the locomotive remained safely on dry land.
Kelowna's pre-eminence as a rail centre during the Okanagan's railway era is a fact that is all too easily forgotten, perhaps because the romance of the Kettle Valley, with its lonely railway trestles and avalanche-swept passes, has long beguiled our imagination.
Ian Pooley is a historian and a retired teacher. His father,
Nigel Pooley, was an East Kelowna orchardist, and his grandfather, W.R. (Bob) Pooley, was a partner in the original Kelowna Land and Orchard Company (K.L.O.), formed in 1905. This article is part of a series submitted by theÂ Kelowna Branch, Okanagan Historical Society. Additional information would be welcome at P.O. BoxÂ 22105. Capri P.O., Kelowna, B.C., V1YÂ 9N9.