Railway Logging and Wycliffe

June 16th, 2022 6 Minutes
Railway logging in East Kootenay c. 1910

Otis Staples was a visionary. He came to British Columbia from Minnesota, having cut himself out of his timber limits there. He wanted new territory, sizeable merchantable timber, and access to the vast land.

The standard way of logging in East Kootenay in the very early 1900s was to use horse and water transportation. In many areas, long ice roads were built so that sloops could transport large loads with relative ease. Teams of horses powered the sloops, usually hitched two plus two. 

One of the problems with this mode of transport was that the sloop runners would often freeze to the ice road, requiring extra horses to break the runners free. Hills were also a problem, with the sloops increasing speed and threatening to run the teams over. Sand and block breaks were used but weren’t always satisfactory.  

Whether using sloops, trail dog skidding or ground chutes, log transportation was usually arranged to get the timber to a creek or riverbank, where the logs were stacked in huge piles to await spring run-off. The mill owners needed crews to clear the waterways of choke points and old log jams before the log drives and maintain pilings and booms to catch the logs.

Small jams had to be broken on rocks and bars during the drives, and larger jams had to be dynamited. All work was dangerous with the risk of damaging and losing large numbers of logs. The other downside to these methods, as Otis Staples knew, was that the mill could not be guaranteed to have a constant log supply all year long. So he introduced the first logging railroad into British Columbia. 

Otis Staples secured a wide array of timber limits and bought the Marysville Lumber Company in 1904, along with all its limitations and plant. However, he was careful to acquire all the timber rights he could to secure a long future for the company. James Brackett, acting as agent, peppered the papers in 1904 with Timber Notices of Staples’ intention to secure timber rights in the Southeast Kootenay district.

Interior of Otis Staples Sawmill – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Staples built his mill on a big flat close to the St. Mary’s River and the C.P.R. tracks. Then he constructed a railway siding along the log pond so that railway flatcars could dump logs directly into the pond. Peter Cox (2008), in personal correspondence, said. 

“There was a log pond fed by a flume, and the logging cars were brought down a spur from the C.P.R. rail tracks and were dumped into the pond and taken into the mill for processing.”  

Many miles of standard gauge railway track reached out as far as Wasa, stretching out from the mill. The company built its own railroads, with Bayard Staples doing much of the surveying and Charlie Quick helping with the engineering. Otis Staples had to negotiate running rights with the C.P.R. George James in “Wycliffe In the Early Days” says, “the hook-up was made about a mile north of the mill, and consequently running on the C.P.R. called for a C.P.R. train crew on the tail end. The running rights and crew cost them plenty, but it had to be done.”

Three Shay-type locomotives were purchased. The Cranbrook Herald’s 1904 Annual describes them: “The C.P.R. engines will not be needed to do any of the hauling on the Staples railway, for the line is equipped with its own locomotives and cars, all bearing the name Otis Staples in large letters, and numbered, all complete. The engines are of the Shay type, built by the Lima Locomotive Co., at Lima, Ohio, with three vertical, instead of horizontal, cylinders, which actuate the geared horizontal shaft, whence the motive power is applied to the wheels. Every wheel becomes a driver when running or retarder on a downgrade with this device. 

These engines have a hauling power much greater than those of the ordinary kind, but they are not record breakers in the matter of speed. They can haul freight up and downgrades which would scare a mogul stiff, no matter what amount of sand it laid claim to, and walk away with a load on the level that would break their old-fashioned brothers’ hearts.”  

There was the “1-Spot”, the smallest of the three and used to shunt in the mill yard; “the mid-sized “2-Spot” was used on the smaller lines in the bush, feeding loaded flatcars out to the larger “3-Spot”. 

This locomotive made the long hauls to the mill, sometimes with twenty-five or more loaded flatcars with a capacity of 50,000 pounds each and fitted with the most modern air brakes. The Shays were not as fast as the C.P.R. locomotives but were excellent for the more hilly terrain as they were geared very low. Otis Staples was willing to break the rules of the time and invest in machinery that would get the job done efficiently and well.

Otis Staples’ Railway along the St. Mary’s River with a solid yield – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Alf Erickson and Harry Robichaud were engineer and conductor in 1907, and Harry Caldwell and Dick Moore of Cranbrook were on the tail end for many years. Charlie Quick, when not engineering, was on the front end, and later Frank Charter took over that position until the mill closed. DeVere Hunt and C. Knocke also worked the log trains.

As the Otis Staples Lumber Company grew, its tracks sprawled out. George James gives a good description: “Their first logging camp was not so far from Kimberley on the McGinty Road. Camps two and three were in the Cherry Creek District; Camp four was at Meadowbrook, while Camp five was near Pighin’s Ranch on Luke Creek. Then they moved top Perry Creek for Camp six, then to Camp seven which was on the Concentrator Tailings Pond site. To get a change of scenery, they moved out to Cherry Creek again. Near the famous Trestle Bridge was Camp eight. The next Camp, nine, where all the modern improvements took place, was located at Springbrook near Pete Woods Ranch.” The Trestle Bridge that George James mentions, built by the Staples concern, was a hundred feet long and seventy feet high.

Building the Otis Staples Lumber Company’s railroads was not without danger. One incident in 1925 illustrates this dramatically. 

Near Camp one, eight workers were engaged in grading some new track. Carl Oscar Olafson was getting ready to blow up a stump in the way of the new track when inexplicably, a box of some twenty or thirty sticks of dynamite exploded, mutilating the unfortunate man. 

Olafson was well known as a good and careful workman, and no cause of the explosion was determined. The Kimberley Press of July 2, 1925, recorded: “… the foreman, Lee Johnson, made a stretcher to take the unfortunate man to Camp. 

Though in a frightful condition, the accident victim was conscious all the time and asked for water and wished to be allowed to die. He passed away supported by his companions, who did all they could to relieve his suffering.”  

Work was hard and dangerous, and several men were injured in the construction of this large enterprise.

The Otis Staples Lumber Company, using its far-reaching railroad system, cut wood in this area for almost thirty years and they were one of the largest employers in the Cranbrook/Kimberley area. After the mill closed in 1929, it is thought that the locomotives and cars were harvested as scrap for the war effort of World War II.

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