Crowsnest Highway

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Midway, B.C. : History

by DMWilson
With thanks to Michelle Emmerson, Frances Elliot, Tannis Killough, Trudy Freeman, Bob Attin, Jas. McMynn, Hal Riegger, Robert Belyk, and, especially, Ron Roylance and Wendy Olinger.
posted 2002
revised 2008/02/04

Approaching Midway
Coal
Midway
The Midway Railway War
        
Approaching Midway

        Heading eastward for Midway, having crossed the Ingram Bridge over the Kettle, the Highway courteously moves up onto a low, gently undulating terrace to let agriculture work the river-bottoms unimpeded. Through here in 1897, a waggon road roughly following Dewdney’s Trail from Grand Forks to Rock Creek was completed. It likely lies closer to the Railway right-of-way which, itself, continues to hug the River. On the far side of the Kettle, hidden behind the wooded hills, the roadbed of the VV&E chews its way through cuts and tunnels up Myers Creek searching for the easiest grades up the flank of the Anarchist.
        Breaking across the base of little mountain spur, the Highway gains momentum as it loses a few metres of elevation and begins its rush upon Midway. The contrast between the Valley’s sides is remarkable. To the south, the north-facing slopes are deeply green with forest and black-awning’d ginseng fields; opposite the ‘scarp is treeless except in the defiles, mantled in burned-yellow grass. Down by the River, the magnet which draws most of the eighteen-wheeled logging rigs—Kenworth, Pacific, Hayes—that howl up and down this stretch of the No. 3., is the valley’s biggest industry, the sprawling Pope and Talbot sawmill, screaming logs into lumber and filling “chip-trucks.” Come October of 2005, however, P&T, hurt by the continuing softwood lumber import duty unfairly imposed by the Americans to protect their effete lumber industry, and running out of handy timber, announced the closure of the mill, shifting business to its plant at nearby Grand Forks. The closure order was rescinded, however, in January of the year following, but the mill was reduced to but one shift per day, requiring only one-third, 60, of its of its former workforce.
        Formerly, wood chips and sawdust were burned as waste in the huge, conical, screen-topped incinerators like the old relic rusting by the Kettle River Road South Road near Rock Creek. For the last few years, environmental and economic concerns have dictated that this fibre be conserved and transported to factories for manufacture into papers and synthetic boarding. Enter the chip-truck; enormous, boxy, screen-walled trailers blown full of chips and hurried down the highways by tractor units equipped with an engine whose power far exceeds the requirements of the load’s weight. Speed and volume are everything for a chip-truck; the bottom line demands the biggest box permissible be moved at the highest speeds allowable. It is not only chips, however, that these vehicles are moving. Displacing tsunamis of air in their bow-waves as they roar along dragging voracious vacuums, these leviathans are the bane of light-weight vehicles, especially of the two-wheeled variety. Depending on wind direction and strength, the turbulence spawned in the wake of a chip-truck can instantly and dramatically affect the stability of even a fully loaded bicycle. The first shorts-dampening encounter with one of these juggernauts is a convincing argument for a good rear-view mirror.
        Beyond the mill, still down-slope, a tree nursery is a commercial reminder that this valley used to be the bread basket of the mines at Greenwood and Phœnix until Okanagan irrigation put it out of business.
        
        
Coal

        To the north of the nursery, in one of the valleys that winds back into the valley’s escarpment, is Pittsburgh. Around the turn of the twentieth century, John East found measures of lignite coal embedded in the Tertiary age shales and sandstones underlying the escarpment. With local smelters crying for fuel, the discovery attracted the attention of A.E. Watts, the lumber baron of the East Kootenays. In 1906 Watts organized the Boundary Exploration and Mining Company, Limited, and, having raised investment money by wildly exaggerating the quality and quantity of East’s find and suggesting that Midway would become a Canadian “Pittsburgh,” set crews to work on the property. Unfortunately, up to 90% of the main seam proved to be carbonaceous shale, and barely enough coal was found to keep the company eking out a living over the years. In July of 1913 an explosion underground injured two men and led inspectors to shut down the works after an investigation found that no qualified miners were employed by the company. Though they were picked at over the years, the mines were never again worked on an organized basis.

        
Midway

        The weather along this stretch of the Kettle River valley is nothing if not changeable. Cycling along without a care under a sunny sky one minute; the next, marble-sized rain drops come hurtling down out of a rogue cloud, blasting themselves onto the road’s surface, their splatter scattering like elfin ball-bearings across the dusty pavement. Though a cyclist might soon wonder if it wasn“t, in fact, worth the bother of digging out the rain gear, Midway is not far.

        At West Midway, five kilometres from Midway, the Highway used to bend abruptly southward to cross the right-of-way of the KVR and then right-angle sharply left. The tightness of these twin turns meant that several times a decade the yellow and black checker-board “Danger” signs at the back of each curve ended up a smashed wreck when some driver miscalculated. Finally, in 1998, the Ministry of Transport and Highways got busy and eliminated the angular “S” with an open, gentle double swerve. On the right, roughly parallel to the river, the Midway Aerodrome is a result of a 1936 “make work” project, an emergency field on the Trans-Canada Airway. At the east end of its 1,250 metre-long turf runway, a couple of Cessnas are lashed to the sod as a precaution against Æolus’s tantrums. Though only officially an airfield since 1936, this level tract felt the wheels of its first aeroplane likely on August 6th, 1919, when Lieutenant Ernest O. Hall, on a leisurely attempt to fly eastward over B.C.“s mountain ranges, landed here for fuel and oil. He didn’t know that he was in a race until the next day when Captain Ernest Charles Hoy in his “Jenny” passed over-head and circled in salute. Hall caught up to Hoy over Grand Forks and the two aeronauts flew together as far as Kootenay Lake when Hoy headed straight over the Purcells to Cranbrook and Lethbridge to finish his flying day in Calgary, while Hall opted to follow the Lake down to Creston to refuel. There he crashed his aeroplane, wrecking it, but walking away.
        On the left, the large, level tract north of the Highway is the abandoned KVR yards, for ten years a torn up no-man’s-land of splintered ties and clawed earth until Transport and Highways crews levelled and grassed the area when they straightened the curve. Towards the eastern end of the yards, approaching Midway, on a site some 50 metres south and west of its original location, the little russet shingle-sided, grey hip-roofed station that the Columbia and Western Railway raised in March of 1900 sits with its maple tree and tiny work sheds. The last train it saw was a work-train which departed on December 9th, 1990, its crew stripping the right-of-way bare as it rolled slowly eastward. On ten lonely metres of track in front of the Station, a plywood-sided caboose in oxide-red, a couple of Fairmont rail scooters and an inspection trike tough it out in the sun and snow and rain. Two or three stone’s-throws to the east of the Station, beyond a newly paved parking lot, a small Railway dormitory curls its mock-brick asphalt siding at the sun. The intention is to move it to the other side of the Station and restored as a hostel on the Trans-Canada Trail. Facing the Highway, at the head of the parking lot brightened by a dusty-red mid-’30s Massey-Harris GP-4WD farm tractor, Midway’s “new” museum specializes in local history and houses the overflow from the Station which itself exhibits artefacts of the B.C. Provincial Police and a typical railroad waiting room. In a large cage adjoining the new museum are displayed items too big to be sheltered indoors: a small threshing machine, a “fresno” horse-drawn scraper, wheeled rakes, plows, horse collars, ferrier’s tools, a brightly polished scarlet 1952 Austin fire truck.

        Midway (570m) is kind of an odd community to approach. Centred upon the big old hotel on the Kettle River’s banks about half a mile to the south of the Highway, it appears to keep the No. 3 at arm’s length, reluctantly offering the services of the cindercrete-plain Midway Motor Inn and restaurant, and a gas station or two. Neither did it reach out to the Railway; no old hotel gazes across at the right-of-way, nor ever did. Ancient aerial photos reveal the station in isolation on its property with its water tank, its three sidings and its wye connected to the community by a couple of trails weaving across the intervening mile of flat bench land. It’s not that Midway doesn’t welcome visitors, it’s just that it has always favoured its poplar-lined stretch of the River and refuses to desert its traditional core.
        A narrow concrete bridge which replaced its predecessor in 1974 carries the main north-south thoroughfare, Florence Street, across the River. Here the Kettle is deep and powerful-looking as it slips along between its thickly tree’d, tranquil banks, heading for the Boundary about a mile down stream. Immediately west of the Bridge, the Frank Carpenter Memorial Park and campground is confined to the River’s north bank by Dewdney’s old Trail, now paved and serving the Village as Fifth (Dominion) Avenue.
        Across Dominion from the Park, facing onto Florence, the big old wooden two-story Kettle River Inn, rebuilt in 1905 as the new Midway Hotel from the original 1900 structure and known also as the Old Thomet Hotel, anchors what little remains of the central business district.
        
        Probably the first community in this neighbourhood was Bunker’s Hill City, a rag-tag collection of miners’ shelters seen huddled on American territory on the left bank of the Kettle at the mouth “White Sheep”—now, Boundary—Creek by Charles Wilson, the Secretary to the British Boundary Commission, in November of 1860. The miners were long-gone by the time Henry Nicholson arrived to settle in the area by 1884, a few years before the Village’s founder, Louis Eholt, built his ranchstead on what is now the townsite. Come 1889 Eholt’s place had become a regular stopping place for prospectors and folks travelling the Kettle Valley waggon road or Dewdney’s Trail. Eholt built a few extra shacks to store supplies and accommodate visitors, and eventually subdivided his property and sold some building lots. The little settlement called “Eholts” came into being. In 1892 Eholt sold his holdings to Captain R.C. Adams and his associates from Montréal and Spokane.
        With fantastic lodes of gold-bearing cuprous ore being discovered in the mountains a few miles to the north, Adams and company hoped to establish a smelter at Eholts and grow rich. They were a few years too soon. Though lack of transport sabotaged that plan, Adams nonetheless laid out Boundary City on top of Eholt’s ranchstead in 1893 and offered lots for sale. Some geographer soon calculated that the community lay both midway between the Coast and the Continental Divide, and between Ft. Hope and Ft. Steele on Dewdney’s Trail. In 1894, the year that Ida McDonald opened the Boundary Creek School, the settlement adopted its present name.
        The province stationed a provincial policeman in Midway in 1895 to assist the growing community of prospectors who were anxiously combing the surrounding mountains for the next mother lode, spurred on by the rumour that a 250-ton pyritic smelter was to be built at the settlement. Two years later a customs-house was established just a mile down the Kettle where the waggon road to Curlew and Republic, Washington, crossed the Boundary. Property values likely soared in the spring of 1896 when F. Augustus Heinze announced that he would build his Columbia and Western Railway into the neighbourhood. Talk of smelters and mines raised Midway’s expectations. In February of 1898 the CPR acquired the C&W, decided its course and in June of 1898 a survey crew pounded the last of a line of stakes into the soil of what became Midway’s rail yards. Behind them, the right-of-way of the C&W snaked 100 miles eastward to Castlegar. The first construction locomotive whistled its way out of Boundary Creek’s valley in December of 1899, and by the time the tracks had been ballasted and the line brought into full service and officially turned over to the CPR operations department on March 1st, 1900, Midway was well on its way to becoming the region’s principal commercial node. In September of 1905, as Jim Hill’s Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern steamed up the Kettle’s right bank and into the settlement, Midway’s promoters were bruiting far and wide that their community was fated to become a great metropolis.
        
The Midway Railway War

        Paralleling the River south of the Florence Street bridge is the grade of the old VV&E. The rails were lifted in 1935 and since then the Grade has served as a useful and pleasant roadway. Left, towards the Boundary, somewhere under the Village’s present sewage lagoon, stood the VV&E’s station. Following the right-of-way westward five miles past farms and acreages, venturers come upon Midway’s dump, an unheroic monument on the battleground upon which Robert Belyk places “The Midway Railway War” (Canadian West, No. 6, November, 1986).
        Reputedly, upon this putrid plot was fought the second battle of The Great B.C. Railroad War. Not War in the European or American sense of the word, but Canadian war, with the actual battling resembling a hockey brawl, really. The first engagement had been fought up in the Slocan a decade before. The Battle of Midway lasted only a couple of days, no-one got killed or even permanently maimed, and though pistols were fired, it was for theatrical effect only, into the air. It was combat by proxy; like the altercation in the Slocan north of Nelson, the crews of Shaughnessy’s CPR and Hill’s G.N., muscles knotted by years of hard work and eager for any distraction from their labouring lives, enthusiastically battled on behalf of their respective bosses.
        It unfolded like this. In July of 1905, Hill won permission from the Canadian government to wend his railroad back and forth across the Boundary in his bid to open up southern B.C. and northern Washington state. His route was up the Kettle River valley, and he had built as far as Midway that same year when CP, not wanting at present to push its C&W farther west, but desirous of preserving the region for its later expansion, resolved to block the VV&E’s further advance. The Company decided that the most expeditious way to stymie Hill was tie him up in court when he sued to expropriate lot 2703, one of those properties which had fallen to the Company with title to the C&W. Knowing well Hill’s philosophy of “build now, legalize later,” CP encamped a crew on the lot and threw up a stout fence across the VV&E’s alignment. When, after a month of argument and evaluation, the court finally ordered the CPR to sell 2703, the Company began disputing the validity of the order. Exasperated, Hill sent a battalion of his workers to secure the lot. On the evening of Tuesday, November 7th, fortified with potable courage and inspired by rousing rhetoric, the GN men stormed their enemies’ camp. Initially overwhelmed and forced to retreat, CP quickly called up reinforcements and counterattacked a couple of days later. Unable to vanquish their foe, the CP men vandalized GN hardware and then settled down under the watchful eye of Midway’s town marshal, Charles Thomet, to out-glare the opposition. When a strong contingent of Provincial Policemen arrived to assist Thomet, CP grudgingly permitted Hill’s mining crews to continue work on the series of tunnels which would take their right-of-way up Myers Creek and westward. The excess rock, apparently, ended up on lot 2703. After another month of pettifoggerial performances, the VV&E finally won the support of the B.C. Supreme Court and obtained title to the lot on December 8th. On December 10th, 1905, GN commenced regular passenger service into Midway. 1

        Since the tumult of 1905, Midway has remained pretty quiet. The McMynns, who trace their residence in the Village back to W.G. McMynn, one of the first Provincial Policemen stationed here, own quite a bit of it—the hardware, the food store—and pretty well manage the community which was incorporated as a Village on May 25, 1967. Heritage buildings besides the old Inn and the C&W station are Boundary Creek School—now a private residence—that Mrs. McDonald opened in 1894, the original Police barracks dating to 1900 and now the Senior’s Centre, and the Boundary Community Church that Great Northern crews built in 1905.
        Travellers wishing to overnight in Midway have a choice. Many campers will find that the Frank Carpenter Park and campground is a little exposed and possibly too close to the River Inn’s beer terrace for a sound sleep. Despite its forbidding name, the Mobile Home and RV Park north of the railyards is tenter-friendly with deeply grassed sites, a pay shower and a location remote enough to ensure a restful night under the nylon. The cindercrete block-built motor inn on the Highway is your average motel.
        For atmosphere, however, buy the bed and breakfast package at the Kettle River Inn. The owners will tell you that the old edifice has seen its share of dramatic occurrences since it was erected there at the cross-roads in 1905. Parts of some of the stories are even believable and one can trade lies with the locals in the historic tavern. Things settle down at a reasonable hour, so early risers and the empress of the establishment, a haughty Persian “tortie,” can get a decent sleep.
Next: GREENWOOD

Notes


  1. Hal Reigger in The Kettle Valley and its Railways (Pacific Fast Mail Press, Everett, WA, n.d.) seems to disagree with the timing, stating that the VV&E succeeded in running trains—two a day—only as far as Ferry, Washington, the United States border crossing south of Midway, come February, 1906. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

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