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What if the Pacific Great Eastern Railway had been rescued?

By Allen W. McDonnell

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History (twitter) and the original article can be found there. Please check that blog for more like this.

The Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which would connect Vancouver to Prince George and so the rest of Canada via the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to Ontario, was a dream project of Premier McBride, leader of the British Columbia Conservative Party and he invested all of his political capital in its success but that success never happened. In 1915, after nearly three years of rapid construction, the war economy caused a financial shortfall to the PGE railroad and it had to call in the interest payment guarantee from the provincial government to maintain its bond payments. The Management of the railroad saw the profits of building the line to be extraction of natural resources from the interior and shipping them out through the port of Squamish which was considerably cheaper than the port of Vancouver. They dragged their feet on building the Squamish to Horseshoe Bay segment because they did not expect to need it, and when they developed money problems in 1915 they had no large population centres anywhere on their system except the 20 mile long Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay segment, meaning the railway earned the reputation as going from nowhere to nowhere.

When the provincial government had to cover part of the interest payment on the PGE bonds in 1915 it gave the Liberal faction the opportunity they had been looking for and they crowed about corruption and suspected kickbacks from the PGE company to the Conservative party for months before the election. This worked well enough, the Liberal Party won by a narrow margin. Once they were in control they sued PGE in court and won causing a fine of over a million dollars which forcing them into bankruptcy. At that point they nationalized the PGE railroad. As all that was going on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was also having financial troubles because there was not enough traffic on the northern route they had been coerced into building in 1909-1913 and by 1920 they were also in serious trouble. In 1918 the competing Canadian Northern line went bankrupt and was nationalized followed by the GTP in 1920 which left the liberal party government in BC in control of almost all rail operations and running them badly. It took all the way to the early 1950's before they finally completed the connection between Prince George and Vancouver, by which time many Canadians were shifting to road travel like their American neighbors.

A rail link to Alaska has been recommended and proposed numerous times since 1914 and was considered a vital link in World War II, but the USA decided to build the Alcan Highway instead and rely on truck transport. The cost of maintaining the Alcan Highway with Canada being responsible for two thirds of its length through British Columbia and Yukon Territory with the final third in Alaska is very high compared to the cost of maintaining a railroad. Heavily laden road vehicles do a great deal of damage to pavement compared to a heavily loaded freight train that distributes its weight much more broadly over a much harder surface made of steel backed with wood and then with fist sized rock foundations. As a result of government policy dating back to World War I the cheaper to maintain and more efficient to operate option still does not exist, though proposals continue to be made regularly for connecting the two networks.

The most recent proposal is for the rail link to be extended through Yukon and Alaska to Chitna, then follow the old Copper River and Northwestern right of way to Valdez so that Alberta tar sand bitumen can be shipped via rail to Valdez for export to Asia. In the fall of 1938 the owners of that Copper River and Northwestern railway and the mines in Kennicott that it served were closed because the world copper price was in a slump. Early the next year the owners gave the entire railroad and mining area to the US Federal Government to get out of paying further leases for the mineral rights. Little did they know that World War II was about to begin and the prices of copper would skyrocket fully justifying the existence of the railroad and the mines it served. When World War II began the US Army moved into the Copper River and Northwestern area and removed all of the easily removed rolling stock and then pulled up all the railroad track for use in other places to keep vital railroads operational without straining iron foundry capacity in use to build military equipment like tanks and warships.

It is not unreasonable to imagine that an investor with deep pockets could rescue the PGE in 1915 which in turn saves the GTP from bankruptcy in 1920. This would cascade and cause different political decision making by the provincial government and the completion of multiple connections between the Canadian and Alaskan railroads in 1942-43 with various knock on effects.

Below is one scenario sketching out a much more successful British Colombia railway network.


On February 27, 1912 the provincial government of British Columbia chartered the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) to construct a standard gauge railroad from Vancouver to Prince George 466 miles up the Pacific Coast where it would tie the Vancouver market in with the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) RR. The firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart were the contractors and only took on the project after the Provincial Government guaranteed the interest payments on the bonds they would be selling to finance the construction. The GTP already under construction to connect Prince Rupert, British Columbia on the pacific coast to Edmonton, Alberta ran through Prince George. Edmonton was a rail hub with several intersecting systems where goods or passengers could change routes. The GTP had begun construction in 1905 under great pressure form the national government when the Parliament had agreed to finance all the needed loans and would be completed in 1913 completing the entire route from Quebec to Prince Rupert as an alternate northern rail route from the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. The provincial government of British Columbia wanted to tie those market in northern BC served by the new GTP railroad to Vancouver which was their largest population region and would serve as an internal market for the new grains being grown in the Peace River Valley of northern British Columbia and Alberta.

When the Great War broke out in the fall of 1914 the public turned its attention to war taxes, many men leaving productive jobs to join the armed forces and investing money into war industries. As a result of the economic realignment by investors that resulted the funds for the PGE construction dried up and by early summer it was clear they would not be able to meet their interest payment and would have to rely on the government backing to pay the interest. At the last moment however Wilson Industries bought into the project with the stipulation. At that time the line which was in two segments, a short southern section from North Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay with a break in track between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish of 28 miles, then building from Squamish 164 miles north to Clinton leaving a gap of 263 miles to Prince George.

As Wilson Industries demanded the two segments were connected before the fall snows put an end to construction in 1915, but before Christmas you could board the PGE in North Vancouver and travel the 202 miles to Clinton easily tying that section of the western province to its largest city with convenient travel. Construction was averaging 65 miles a year and in 1916 despite the war Wilson Industries poured enough money into the effort to accelerate construction significantly building at twice the prior pace, another 130 miles, by setting a second track crew in Prince George building south while the crew working from Vancouver continued progressing north. As a result of the two team approach the 'golden spike' uniting Vancouver and Prince George was driven in October 1917, satisfying the contract under which the PGE had been constructed. In 1916 the Liberal Party of British Columbia had tried to make an issue of the PGE being backed by the Provincial Government, a plan they had opposed when the contract was let in 1912, but due to the fact that private investment was taking care of all costs incurred so far and the connection from North Vancouver 250 miles to Canim Lake when the election rhetoric was being used on the public allowed the Conservatives retained a narrow majority in the provincial parliament.

In 1898 the federal government in Ottawa had issued permission to the White Pass and Yukon railroad that had built a narrow gauge line from Skagway, Alaska over the White Pass into the corner of British Columbia all the way to White Horse, Yukon Territory.

This had been the impetus for the Conservative leader Richard McBride to develop his dream of a Vancouver to Whitehorse Railroad and force through the backing of the bonds for the PGE in 1912 to get at least as far as Prince George and tie Vancouver in with the GTP at that point. While it did not offer any significant advantage for a person traveling a long distance to say Edmonton, Alberta or points east of there the new rail connection made exploitation of the mineral and forest resources in western British Columbia between Vancouver and Prince George a great deal more convenient and stimulated growth in all the small towns now linked via rail to the largest city on the Canadian Pacific coast. Sadly premier McBride died just a few weeks before the golden spike was driven and his death took most of the impetus out of Provincial rail expansion policy. With the rail connection completed both the PGE and GTP railroads had a modest benefit, just enough to move them from moderate financial losses to small profits.

At the urging of Wilson Industries the PGE did extend their track north of Prince George as far as Summit Lake which not only has excellent fishing but flows through its drainage down the Crooked River through a series of lakes and rivers until it joins the Peace River which flows through the Rocky Mountain eastward eventually joining through other lakes and rivers into the Mackenzie River. The MacKenzie flows north as the eventual border of Yukon Territory to flow into the Arctic Ocean. Summit Lake is the absolute southernmost point on the west of the Rocky Mountains that flows ultimately into the Arctic, the nearby Fraser river where the city of Price George is located eventually winds its way south to enter the Pacific at Vancouver Sound. The extension is completed early in 1918 but after that not much happens.

After the Great War concludes the mood of the public shifts from infrastructure to enjoying life in the post war roaring 20's culture. Thanks to Henry Ford and his moving assembly line for Model T cars in Dearborn, Michigan the cost of private vehicles is suddenly low enough any common laborer can afford to buy one by carefully budgeting his earnings. Prohibition became the law in the USA leading to a lot of cross border smuggling of alcohol and other intoxicating substances. Rum runners in Vancouver can become fabulously wealthy smuggling alcohol into the USA provided they do not get caught by the authorities or killed by American gangsters who quickly rise to take control of the business of smuggling.

This is not to say all infrastructure improvements come to a halt, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED&BC) chartered in Edmonton, Alberta in 1911 began extending the rail lines from Edmonton north and west under that charter. Starting in 1912 the rails grew to include High Prairie in 1914, Spirit River in 1915 and Grand Prairie in 1916 totally 400 miles of new track to the northwest of Edmonton. After the war financial difficulties slowed the extension of the ED&BC but by 1924 they reached Wembly, in 1928 Hythe and in 1930 ED&BC crossed the border of British Columbia and reached Dawson Creek just before the end of the year.

The extension of the ED&BC into the Peace Valley and Dawson Creek did not pass unnoticed by the owners of the PGE and when the intentions were made clear by the 1924 connection with Wembly, Wilson Industries called a meeting of the directors of PGE. The government of Canada had seized the older Canadian Northern Railway in late 1918 when it went into financial difficulties and several other railways had followed being lumped together into Canadian National Railways under the theory that the state would be better at managing them than profit seeking companies had been. PGE and GTP had avoided this fate by barely managing to show a profit but the two railroads were like Siamese twins, if either failed it was almost certain to drag down the other because the only thing keeping each of them in the black was the trade between Vancouver and Prince George.

On the other hand the ED&BC was not turning a lot of profit either, but they were using what they did have to continue to expand under the theory that if your railroad was not growing then it was dying. Wilson Industries had continued to put money into PGE railroad because the owner was sure the railroad would fundamentally make a large profit as the settlers moved into the areas now connected by rail and exploited those resources. This was borne out to an extent by the fact that the small settlements now connected to Vancouver and Prince George had all grown since the railroad connected them to the wider world. However the Peace River Valley was a big deal in this future growth because British Columbia and Alberta had each declared it a settleent area with incentives for farmers, ranchers and others to move there. If the PGE did not act soon then ED&BC would corner the market on that expansion. Not to mention the potential for future expansion further north into the Yukon Territory. Now as the majority owner Wilson Industries called for a vote of the board, should they build Northwest up the Rocky Mountain Trench to Yukon directly, or build Northeast through one of the passes in the mountains to get into the Peace River Valley where the Provincial Government was giving land grants to settlers willing to develop that territory?

The discussion was a bit lively but ultimately the four investors agreed to play it safe and build the shorter connection with the Peace River Valley first because that route was almost certain to pay back its construction costs within a decade. Heading up the trench and into the wide Laird River Valley and the Yukon Territory was a great temptation because if that gamble paid off they would be the sole easy route for settlers moving into that valley, but it was a real gamble and failure would mean bankruptcy and the Canadian National Railway seizing PGE.

Fortunately a trapper named Monkman had made a fortuitous discovery in 1922, a pass through the Rock Mountain nearly due east of Summit Lake that was even lower in elevation than the Yellow Pass the GTP had taken to reach Prince George. Given how much closer Monkman Pass was to Prince George than the Yellow Pass that the GTP had used for constructing the line they would undoubtedly have used it instead if it had been discovered in 1902 instead of 1922. That was no reason for PGE not to exploit Monkman pass in 1924 so once the decision was made and the right politicians signed off on the construction the PGE proceeded to build eastward towards Monkman Pass.

After they made it through the pass, which turned out to be over a hundred feet lower than the Yellow Pass further south, they followed an unnamed creek that eventually fed into the Murray River. Once they reached the relatively flat ground east of the Rockies they set their sights on Fort Saint John and after seven years of hard work blazing a new path through the virgin forest of northern BC they reached that goal in 1931, the same year the ED&BC began regular service to Dawson Creek. Having reached their goal of Fort Saint John they returned in 1932 building a spur line to Dawson Creek where they could tie in with the ED&BC connecting the PGE northern branch to Edmonton. Fortuitously the surveyors scouting the route from Monkman Pass to Fort Saint John stumbled upon a massive coal deposit in the mountains just northeast of the pass.

By 1931 the Great depression was biting all the railroads, coupled with the fact that a lot of long distance travel was being superseded by private vehicles on public roads. While in the more southerly region of Canada population density supported road construction and maintenance, in the wilderness and rural areas of Alberta and British Columbia north of the line from Edmonton to Prince George passenger and cargo rail was still much more effective than road vehicles were. When the USA fully funded the Alaska Railroad even through the years of the Great Depression, and given the fact that the White Pass and Yukon railroad from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon had been in operation since shortly after the turn of the century providing rail access to the sea port in Alaska the Canadian Parliament paid attention.

When the owners of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad in Alaska decide to close up shop in 1938 Wilson Industries buys them out and keeps the Kennicott copper mine in production and the railroad running. This was done with hopes of some day extending the line into Yukon Territory and eventually connecting to the Canadian rail network.

When Canada joined in the war against Germany in September 1939 priorities changed and when the USSR was invaded in May 1941 priorities changed once again. Under the cash and carry policy in effect at the time between the USA and USSR the Soviet Union could buy military goods and supplies with gold or other minerals. As part of the shipping process Canada built a series of airfields in its north west wilderness of British Columbia and Yukon so that if aircraft being ferried to the USSR had some sort of difficulty, or needed to refuel, they could land at the new air strips for fuel and repairs. Accordingly in June 1941 the Canadian national government voted funds to extend the rail network from Fort Saint John, British Columbia to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory as rapidly as possible. To accomplish this task heavy equipment was sent to Fort Saint John via rail to start breaking the trail through the wilderness while a second set of heavy machinery was shipped to Skagway and then freighted to Whitehorse over the existing White Pass and Yukon railroad.

The men working from both ends cleared away the greenery with large bulldozers and leveled the path, then men with dump trucks poured deep beds of railroad ballast which smaller bulldozers compacted and shaped. Next the tie laying crews set out the 'sleepers' on top of the ballast, then the track crews set and secured the rails. Experienced men already in the military were assigned to run the project and other military personnel formed the labor force doing what the experienced men directed them to do. As a result the southern leg of the new railroad initially progressed at a rate of half a mile a day, limited by the quantity of materials that could be brought forward on any given day including fuel for the equipment as well as construction supplies.

The road bed clearing progressed at two to three miles a day, and the bulldozers do an excellent job of leveling the pathway selected. The problem is railroad ballast, ties and rail all have to be hauled in on the railroad itself and these shipments can not in any way interfere with customer shipping because the company can not afford to lose business. The Canadian government solves that issue by bringing in additional rolling stock from all over Canada along with the crews to run that additional equipment and scheduling experts to coordinate things. By September 1941 the rails are keeping up with the pathfinders building north at three miles a day.

On the other end of the system the White Pass and Yukon railroad is doing its best to ship all the required materials to Whitehorse. Unfortunately the international railroad is a narrow gauge track which inherently gives it much less capacity than a standard gauge track. It is also an isolated railroad with no existing connections to any other system. The White Pass itself is the boundary line between the USA and Canada and while the government can not force the American end to do anything it refuses to do, on the Canadian side, which makes up the vast bulk of the system, it can. Starting in August 1941 it is clear that using the existing railroad presents a serious bottleneck, but a solution is arrived at by looping the narrow gauge track just past the pass and creating a depot system. The narrow gauge units from Skagway climb the twisted path up to the pass and drop their loads at Fraser on Bernard Lake. From there in imitation of the Klondike stampede the materials are cross loaded onto shallow draft steam boats. Part of the materials make the entire trip to Whitehorse by boat where one construction crew is working but the bulk of the raw materials are deposited at the new airstrip called Teslin on Teslin lake. The railroad from Whitehorse will follow the Yukon river south to Teslin lake, then follow the shore to Teslin airstrip before turning east to cross through a mountain pass southeast into the Laird river valley. After reaching and paralleling the Laird river southeast to Nelson Forks where the Fort Nelson River is a tributary to the larger Laird just south of the British Columbia border. If the Northern crew reaches Nelson Forks first they will follow the Fort Nelson River south to meet the crew building north from Fort Nelson. If the southern crew are seriously delayed and have not already passed Nelson Forks, which is unlikely as they have much better supply access.

The White Pass section of the railroad can haul a lot of material if it only has to bring it the much shorter distance of 22 miles to Fraser than if it has to travel all the way to Whitehorse 110 miles and return for a new load. This causes the stockpile at Fraser to begin growing rapidly. As fast as a cargo ship from Vancouver or Prince Rupert can unload in Skagway the White Pass railroad can dedicate its crews to moving that freight and passengers if any up over the pass to Fraser. This loop trip is a little over 44 miles and takes about two hours of travel time each way plus loading and unloading at each end. To ease that situation a number of additional flat cars were brought in on one of the first ferry ships and the locomotives simply park the full string in the unloading area, then hook up to an empty string of cars and as soon as they get the all clear head back down the track to Skagway for a fresh load. Over the shorter loop scheduling is important because their are only two small sidings where trains can pass if they meet head on. When they were doing the full trip to Whitehorse and back the travel alone was 218 miles, five times the Fraser loop distance. At the insistence of the Canadian government all of the material loads get top priority and the railroad has to hire extra train crews and longshoreman to operate nearly 24 hours a day. In mid October the northern lakes start accumulating ice and by the 21st it is too dangerous to continue moving material over the water route, but the last boat trip brought many of the workers to Fraser.

While Canada kept half of the northern crews breaking new trail they shift the other half to Fraser where they use the accumulated materials to lay a parallel standard gauge track from Fraser to Whitehorse straddling the existing narrow gauge tracks. Because the right of way already exists and materials have been delivered to the stockpile at Fraser in large enough quantity the experienced crews were able to start laying the track at 2 miles a day even in the freezing weather. The White Pass Railroad continued to deliver supplies as fast as they could be shipped to Skagway and by the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor Sunday, November 30, 1941 the parallel track was just a mile from link up with the Whitehorse to Teslin section.

The next step at that point was shipping disassembled standard gauge rolling stock to Fraser where the mechanic crew put them together and set them on the new tracks. the inside narrow gauge rail set between the new tracks created a narrow gauge arrangement between the outside standard gauge rail and the inside narrow gauge rail, or the original style on the narrow gauge rails straddling the inside new standard gauge rail. This would allow both narrow and standard gauge equipment to use the double track, and the most important factor was a narrow gauge locomotive had been delivered to the mechanic shop where they had moved the coupler off center to match the center of the standard gauge track. This arrangement allowed the modified engine to pull or push the standard gauge rolling stock, but it exerted extra twisting forces on the locomotive and had to be done carefully. By December 14th, 1941 the stockpiles of materials were being loaded onto the standard gauge rolling stock and moved by the modified locomotive all the way to end of track east of Teslin airstrip. Though the river boats had served a useful purpose in late summer and early fall they were now superfluous as even handling just two standard gauge cars at a time the modified locomotive was able to haul materials all winter, much like the White Pass trains were doing. Finally in February the last of the broken apart standard gauge locomotive arrived in Fraser for assembly. For ease of assembly and testing the authorities had chosen to send a diesel locomotive as the first standard gauge unit. For simplicity sake they had shipped in two GE 45 ton switch units for assembly. Though not nearly as fast as a full size road locomotive the switcher could move several loaded cars in a string at a time and safely move them at 20 mph which allowed the modified narrow gauge engine to be kept in reserve and only used when one diesel unit was undergoing maintenance. Unfortunately this put the railroad back in the situation where the narrow gauge White Pass trains just could not move material fast enough to keep up with the building crews at end of track.

The crew building north from Fort Nelson was progressing at twice the rate of the crews building south causing the union of the rails to take place just outside of Watson lake near the east corner of the Yukon, British Columbia border line in June 1942. By this time the US had gotten involved in the project as a way to connect Alaska to the rail network of the rest of the continent and had given permission for the Copper River and Northwest railroad to build east to meet the Canadians at the border to the Yukon Territory from the Alaska side. With the rail connection at Watson Lake allowing materials to be shipped north by land through the Canadian rail network the materials that had been being sent through Skagway were shifted to entering through Cordova, Alaska on the Valdez arm of Prince William Sound. The crew that shifted to the Copper River and Northwestern section build north from Chitna where the tracks had ended along the Copper River until they are able to turn northeast skirting around the mountains to eventually reach the border across from Beaver Creek, Yukon. The other crew building from Whitehorse are able to reach Beaver Creek and continue on right up to the border on October 1, 1942. The American crew arrives three days later allowing for the wedding of the rails at the international border. With permission from the US Government the Copper River and Northwestern railroad then builds a second line north from Glennallen on the Copper River through a pass in the mountains to reach Fairbanks via an alternate route further east compared to the Alaska Railroad that transits from Seward to Fairbanks through Anchorage. This provides an alternate rail connection to the sea in the event that a Japanese attack disrupts the mainline railroad. This also provides direct rail access from Fairbanks, Alaska all the way to southern Florida in April 1943. Through Fairbanks it also allows traffic to reach Seward or any of the other towns and villages on the Alaska Railroad. This places four Alaskan sea ports, Skagway, Cordova/Valdez, Seward and Anchorage all on the international rail network, and in 1943 the government of Canada offers an interest free loan to the White Pass and Yukon railroad to upgrade their line to Standard Gauge. Doing so requires blasting more rock off of the mountain faces where the train winds around on its way up slope, rebuilding the bridges to handle the increased weight of a fully laden standard gauge train and cargo, and blasting larger tunnels through the mountains on the route which have a tunnel instead of a shelf in its flank.

Once the White Pass and Yukon segment is upgraded new businesses move into Skagway just as they have in Cordova to can sea food and ship it out via rail to markets in Canada and the USA. It is also now possible for tourists to board the train anywhere with a reliable passenger service and travel to Alaska in comfort. The feeling and view traveling through the north Canadian wilderness makes the train route a tourist hit in the post world war II economy. As the advertising goes, if you served in the south Pacific theater or North Africa what could be more restful than a nearly endless pine forest framed by high mountains with 20 hours of brilliant June sunshine lighting it all for your enjoyment? For those who suffered through the tropics or desert theaters it is a truly effective campaign, and for those who served in Europe the hunting and fishing opportunities are the biggest selling point. After the devastation and refugee camps of Europe a vacation in raw nature seems very refreshing indeed.

It is also true that in Alaska the US Homestead Act had been extended to cover federal lands in 1898 and for the rural European refugees in the post war period the ease of travel to Alaska is like a moth to the flame. The idea that a poor refugee can own for free a farm of 160 acres simply by moving their and improving the land seems like a dream come true to the displaced farmers. By August 1955 it is possible to buy gigantic vegetables grown in central Alaska in New York City or Washington D.C. where they astound customers. With the 20 hours of daylight and warm summer sun a Zucchini can grow as large as a weight lifters whole arm and the cucumbers are as big as their forearms. It becomes fashionable in certain restaurants to serve hamburgers with a single dill pickle slice as wide as the hamburger patty is. Immigrant farmers also discover that a five foot cabbage leaf can make a full crock of sauerkraut and the whole head of cabbage can make enough to fill a pallet of canned sauerkraut. With the blessing of warm summer sun a farmer wanting to grow small cucumbers for traditionally sized pickles can harvest all his vines and replant at least once getting a full second crop off the same plot of land because it turns out the key factor is the number of sunshine hours above the minimum temperature that determines how mature a crop shall get and the extra hours of sunshine make the date of the first frost less significant than many expected. Grain farmers quickly learn that Winter Rye can be planted not long before fall frost and grow so quickly once spring thaw takes place that it can be harvested, a crop of oats can be immediately planted, mature and be harvested quickly enough that winter rye can then be again planted shortly before fall frosts to repeat the cycle.



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