Monday, May 28, 2012

Silk Train

Saturday I went to my parents' place in Kitsilano. While riding the bus there something happened that I cannot remember every happening before. We had to stop and wait for a train to cross. I have seen the tracks that cross Powell Street, have walked over them, but have never seen a train go by there.

Later on the way home, I met a woman who also happened to be an author. Sharon Rowse has written a book called The Silk Train Murder that has information on a piece of Vancouver's history, the silk trains. Trains seemed to be the focus of Saturday so I decided to let all my readers know about the silk trains that once ran through Vancouver.

From 1887 until the late 1930s, special trains ran from Vancouver through the Rocky mountains, across the Prairies to Montreal and Buffalo. These trains were filled with precious raw silk from the Orient. The material was perishable, expensively insured and bound for the National Silk Exchange in New York.
The trains carrying this expensive cargo - a full train's shipment would be worth upwards of six million dollars - were given every courtesy. All other trains, no matter who was on board, would let these speedsters pass. And rightly so. The insurance of the cargo was charged by the hour and the clock started ticking the moment the bales of silk were loaded onto the trains and would continue until the cargo reached its eastern destination.

The silk business was quite lucrative for both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways. Often freight agents would board a ship carrying bales of silk in Victoria so that they could get the paperwork started and the unloading in Vancouver would not delayed. Once in Vancouver ship Captains would be yelling orders from a megaphone while the silk bales were speeding down conveyor belts to waiting stevedores who would manhandle the ninety-kilogram bales from the dock to the warehouse where waiting customs agents would clear the cargo on the spot. The precious burlap wrapped bales would then be loaded onto the specially designed rail cars and off the silk would go to its destination.

Speed was most important here and the rail cars reflected that. They were made shorter than regular box cars so that they could take corners at higher speeds. These cars were lightweight, solid and fast. By the time the ship docked in Vancouver eight to fifteen of these cars would be coupled to an engine that was ready to go with an engineer's hand at the throttle.

These trains were fast but there weren't a lot of accidents. In fact, only one srious incident is recorded - on September 21, 1927 a car jumped the tracks just east of Hope as the train rounded a bend. Two or three bales followed and bales of silk ended up in the river. Fortunately, there were no deaths and the cargo was salvaged. There were also no robberies, perhaps due to the armed guards that travelled the train.

For a while, Vancouver was known as the 'Silk Port of North America'. The 1920s were our boom years, people were making money and silk was flying across the country. Alas, all things must come to an end. Black Friday hit in October of 1929, business failed, people lost money and the world was thrust into a depression. There was just no money to be spent on frivolous items such as silk. when World War II began, the silk was needed for parachutes for our soldiers. Then with the advent of fabrics such as nylon, silk was truly a luxury item.

Gone forever were the trains that sped along the tracks with cinder and smoke and steam billowing, much to the delight of those who happened to be in the vicinity. Now the silk train is part of our past.

I want to thank Sharon Rowse for filling me informing me of this piece of our history and to the website for the information. There is so much more information available on these trains if you want to find it.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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