Nicola, Kamloops & Similkameen Railway

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The Nicola, Kamloops & Similkameen Railway was a railway between Spences Bridge and Merritt in British Columbia. It was originally chartered in 1891, but construction didn't start until 1905 when it was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway to become the Nicola Subdivision. Starting in 1915, it operated as part of the CPR's Kettle Valley Railway, later becoming part of the CPR's Princeton Subdivision. It was abandoned and the track removed in 1991.

NK&S Railway with surroundings

Early History

The region around what is now the town of Merritt and especially north along the Nicola River and Nicola Lake had been used for ranching since the mid 1800s. The Douglas Lake Ranch, the largest operating ranch in Canada is still operating in the area. Cattle could be herded north toward Kamloops and easy access to the Hudson Bay post there or to Cache Creek and the Caribou Road. Logging was also an early industry in the area. Coal had been discovered in the area in the 1870s during the CPR Surveys.

In the early days, Nicola was the major centre of the region and was not surpassed by Merritt (originally Forksdale, named for the fork between the Nicola River and the Coldwater River) until the early 1900s.

In 1891, two railways received charters to build into the area. The Nicola Valley Railway, back by the CPR, was to be built from the CPR mainline at Spences Bridge to Nicola, just north of what is now Merritt. An independent railway, the Nicola, Kamloops & Similkameen Coal & Railway Company(NK&S) was founded to build from Kamloops, to Nicola, south to Princeton and then on to Osooyos. Neither railway started construction and both charters lapsed.

First Construction: Coal

In the early 1900s, the province was looking for cheap sources of coal. A major strike on Vancouver Island was limiting the availability from that source. In 1903, the coal beds around Nicola inspired William Hamilton Merritt, a local entrepreneur to revive the charter for the NK&S. He started construction on the railway from Spences Bridge in 1905.

The construction received a major boost when the CPR leased the charter in November of 1905 and put its significant resources to work. Because of its coal locomotives, the railway required a reliable low cost supply of coal. The CPR also talked of connecting the railway through to Midway, the western terminus of its lines built west from the Kootenay mines (built in 1900 by CPR's Columbia and Western Railway). Construction to Merritt was completed by 1906. And in 1907 the railway crossed the Coldwater River to the major colliery - the first coal was shipped out on January 22, 1907 with full operation starting in April. At this time the line was a branch line off the CPR mainline at Spences Bridge.

Connections East: The KVR

Through the early 1900s, the Great Northern Railway and the CPR jockeyed for the dominant position in southern British Columbia. By 1910, the Great Northern had built its line west to Princeton by meandering back and forth across the Canada/United States border. The CPR was still only at Midway but was about to start building.

On May 10, 1910, Andrew McCulloch was appointed chief engineer of the CPR's KVR with orders to connect Midway to the coast. Construction started at both Merritt south toward Princeton, from Midway west toward Penticton. In 1914, the CPR has built west to Princeton and south from Merritt to Otter Summit. A track sharing agreement with the GN connected Merritt to Princeton. The KVR was officially opened in 1915 and the CPR transferred control of its Nicola Subdivision to the KVR's operation.

The Coquihalla Comes and Goes

In 1916, the KVR opened the Coquihalla Pass between Brodie and Hope. This meant through trains from the Kootenays would bypass Merritt by going through Brookmere, about 40km south of Merritt.

The extreme conditions on the Coquihalla line, including steep grades and incredible quantities of snow (average of 39ft per year) led to frequent closures and detours of trains through Merritt and Spences Bridge to the CPR's mainline.

The Coquihalla was finally closed in 1959 and abandoned in 1961 which meant Merritt was on the southern mainline.

Fade Out

Competition from the Hope Princeton highway (completed 1949) and fewer passengers led to a generally decline in rail traffic throughout the southern system. In 1964, the last passenger train operated on the KVR and in 1973 all trains were suspended between Midway and Penticton, severing the line. The industrial spur to Nicola, the original purpose of the line to Merritt was abandoned in 1980.

In 1988, the Merritt train station was abandoned and in 1991 the rails between Spences Bridge and Penticton were pulled up.

Additional Reading

  • Barrie Sanford, McCulloch's Wonder, Whitecap Books (2002)
  • Roger Burrows, Railway Mileposts: British Columbia - Volume 2, Mileposts Books (North Vancouver, 1984)