The Royal Hudson along the banks of Howe Sound.
The following story was published in the travel section of Vancouver's Province on May 6, 2000. Unfortunately, I rode the Royal Hudson Steam Train in 1999, which was the last season the engine ran. Substitute locomotives were used in 2000 and 2001 after which the service was ended. BCRail's other passenger services were discontinued that year as well, and since 2004, BCRail itself is part of Canadian National.
"If God had intended for us to fly, He never would have created the steam engine." That is how Les Wilson, Guest Services Representative aboard the Cariboo Prospector, expressed his travel philosophy. Les regularly rides trains of the British Columbia Railroad where, he points out scenic spots and tells the passengers about the railway and the countryside. Previously he worked aboard a real steam ship.
Almost ready to depart North Vancouver.
Only a few days before, my family and I climbed aboard North America's last, regularly scheduled, mainline, steam train for a scenic land cruise along the British Columbia shoreline to Squamish. "Royal Hudson" is the name for both the locomotive and the train of comfortable old Canadian National coaches with high-backed recliner seats and Dutch doors in the vestibules. Railfans, photographers and children all know the benefits of these doors - especially when there is a steam engine ahead.
First, a moment to visit the cab. The engineer sits on the right.
Landmark Lion's Gate Bridge stretches high above First Narrows, the appropriately named inlet that separates Vancouver (actually Vancouver's huge Stanley Park) from North Vancouver. Huge cruise ships, freighters, tugs with floating logs or barges in tow and small boats pass regularly under the great suspension bridge on their way to and from port in the Burrard Inlet.
The first landmark, right out of the station, is the Lion's Gate Bridge.
BC Rail's little station lies just east of the bridge. The journey begins by passing under Lion's Gate, over the Capilano River and into exclusive West Vancouver (West Van to the locals). We pass little shops and public beaches where children (adults too) wave at the train. There are expensive homes with fine gardens and views of the ocean. Tall Red Cedar and Douglas Fir trees soar above the houses.
Stainless steel jacketed, 2860 pulling out of North Vancouver Station.
Shortly before passing through the longest tunnel on the line, we spotted the lighthouse at Point Atkinson. This light is virtually at land's end here. We found Lighthouse Park an especially nice place for a hike through dense forest and berry thickets to the edge of the water.
The area really is a coastal rain forest; everything is lush green: trees, shrubs, tree-trunks, tree-stumps, tree-limbs, even rooftops - moss grows on everything. Ferns and berry bushes are everywhere. With all the rainy days, it is no wonder that coffee shops are so popular in West Van and throughout the Northwest. But we are lucky; the sun is out and the scenery is grand.
From the dutch door in the vestibule.
After leaving the tunnel, we see the harbor at Horseshoe Bay with many pleasure boats and one of BC Ferry's largest ferries just underway to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
The railway track closely follows the east shoreline of Howe Sound all the rest of the way to Squamish. Over 3000 eagles gather for the salmon run each winter. Although this is not winter, we see Bald Eagles in the air and perched on treetops. Waterfalls cascade down the mountainside. The sound of wheel flanges screeching is nearly continuous as the train heads into one curve after another.
The section of line between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish is very new. Although the railroad was chartered as the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1912 to run between North Vancouver, Squamish and Prince George, due to the difficulty of the terrain, this section was only completed in 1956. Prince George was not reached until 1953, and, in the meantime, frustrated local citizens claimed that "PGE" stood for "Prince George Eventually" or "Past God's Endurance".
Looking down at a ferry in Howe Sound.
The Hudson is a steam locomotive with four leading wheels, six driving wheels and four trailing wheels - also known as a 4-6-4. The New York Central had the first Hudsons and named the type for the river along their tracks. NYC's Hudsons pulled the renowned Twentieth Century Limited between New York City and Chicago. Engines of the type were typically fast passenger locomotives, but unfortunately 2860 doesn't have track straight enough to stretch her legs; it takes two hours to go the 40 miles to Squamish.
When Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 1939, specially painted Canadian Pacific, Hudsons Number 2850 and 2851 pulled the royal train and a pilot train from Quebec City to Vancouver and back. The 3224-mile trip required 25 crew changes. Both engines performed faultlessly, and the king granted permission for all the Canadian Pacific, streamlined Hudsons to be designated "Royal".
Number 2860, a sister engine, was built a year later in 1940 and was used for sixteen years pulling trains over the difficult terrain between Vancouver and Revelstoke, BC. BC Rail acquired and completely restored the locomotive in 1974. Since then, it has operated every summer. The engine has the further distinction of being the only currently operating Hudson.
Until recently, BC Rail's only connection between Squamish and Vancouver was by boat. Boats still serve Squamish - Royal Hudson passengers may chose to ride one way by train and the other via Howe Sound aboard the M V Britania.
Engine 2860 after arriving at Squamish.
Nearing the little lumber and railroad town of Squamish, we pass a huge old copper mine, the Britannia, now the British Columbia Museum of Mining. On approaching Squamish, we see rock climbers testing their mettle on the landmark Stawamus Chief, the second largest granite monolith in the world. People come here for all kinds of outdoor activities including rock climbing, boating, skiing, swimming, diving, hiking and white water rafting.
There was time for lunch and a visit to the new railroad museum, the West Coast Railway Heritage Park, located just outside town. (Bus transportation and museum entry are included in the train fare).
Business car British Columbia at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park.
The Royal Hudson doesn't go beyond Squamish, but the Cariboo Prospector does. This daily BC Rail train isn't just for tourists. Our little two-car train of self propelled rail diesel cars (RDCs) had passengers for the popular resort town of Whistler, a tour group from Taiwan going as far as Lillooet and a scattering of independent sightseers. Most stops were flag stops, and at a few remote places, people flagged the train for a ride into town. During the school year, children ride the train as a school bus.
The scenery beyond Squamish was different; we climbed steeply away from the ocean first following the rugged Cheakamus River Canyon. At one point, Les pointed out where the river seemed to disappear through a hole in the rocks. We had passed over the top of a waterfall.
With the gain of altitude, there was a change in vegetation. Trees were spaced farther apart. We reached an altitude of 2104 feet and saw snow capped mountains towering 8000 feet above us.
The tracks followed the edge of two huge, remote mountain lakes. A mother bear and two cubs scurried off the right-of-way. Mountain goats are often seen but didn't appear for us.
We arrived in Lillooet in time for lunch and a quick exploration of town. Margaret Lally "Ma" Murray was Lillooet's most famous citizen. She was the outspoken editor of the Bridge River Lillooet News until her death in 1982. We saw her ancient press and other artifacts in the basement of the Lillooet Museum.
The author's family poses at Lillooet with the Cariboo Prospector.
Les surely had a point when it came to riding the rails - especially behind steam. I didn't press him, but I am sure he would also give high marks to the Cariboo Prospector.