TOM FLETCHER: One last holdup on railway tracks

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“Hands up.” That famous command is attributed to Bill Miner, an American career criminal who is also credited with B.C.’s first train robbery, at Silverdale on the Mission border in 1910.

A more genteel, and of course perfectly legal, trackside transfer of wealth is underway in the B.C. legislature. It’s called the Canadian Pacific Railway (Stone and Timber) Settlement Act, and it provides for taxpayers to hand over $19 million to CP Rail to settle a lawsuit over historic logging, rock and gravel rights given to B.C.’s pioneering railway builders.

Students of B.C. history will know that while Bill Miner got the headlines, it was the early coal, lumber and railway barons who really made out like bandits. And CP Rail inherited some of this by 1912 when it took over three early railways that had been granted vast tracts of provincial Crown land.

Deputy Premier Rich Coleman revealed the settlement in the legislature this month. It seems that when CP Rail took over the B.C. Southern Railway Company, the Columbia and Kootenay Railway and Navigation Company and the Columbia and Western Railway Company, there were some clerical errors along the way.

“I am pleased that Canadian Pacific Railway and the province have recently reached an agreement regarding the disputed ownership and value of timber and stone rights on 145,000 hectares of Crown land and 68,000 hectares of private land in the Kootenay and Okanagan regions,” Coleman told the legislature.

“The province granted land to three railway companies between 1892 and 1908 to subsidize railway construction. These railway companies reserved timber and stone rights for their own use when they sold the land to third parties in the early 1900s. These reservations were not recognized in many subsequent land transactions, and many of them were not registered in the current land title system.”

These discrepancies came to light in the early 2000s. They involve some 1,600 properties, so you can imagine the lawyer fees that would be accumulated to sort through those in court. And Coleman’s statement suggests that the government has conceded its records are in error, rather than those of the railways.

Given the Wild West ways of B.C.’s early settlement and railway development, it’s not surprising there were some loose ends. For a fascinating look at this period, I recommend Barrie Sanford’s book Steel Rails and Iron Men (Whitecap Books, 1990).

Sanford recounts the fateful decision of the CPR to turn north at Medicine Hat and push Canada’s defining railway through the Kicking Horse Pass, leaving the mineral-rich Kootenay region open to competitors for rail freight service.

A key figure of those days is James Dunsmuir, who inherited his family coal fortune and served as B.C. premier from 1900 to 1902. He ended up owning a large part of Vancouver Island in exchange for building the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, which he sold to the CPR in 1905, the same year he locked out miners in his coal operations for their push to organize a union.

Dunsmuir’s hard line provided a boost for a rival, James Jerome Hill, who built the Great Northern Railway in the 1890s and later quit the CPR board in a bitter feud. Hill was happy to supply coal from Fernie.

Dunsmuir took a turn as B.C.’s eighth Lieutenant Governor, sold his coal business and retired to his estate, Hatley Castle, which is now part of Royal Roads University.

He is buried at Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery. As Halloween approaches, it’s easy to imagine a chuckle from his grave as the railway barons once again rake it in.

 

 

 

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

 

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