The Kettle Valley Railroad was built out of necessity to service the growing mining demands in the Southern Interior region of British Columbia. When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) completed the transcontinental railroad in 1885, the route cut through the Rocky Mountains at Kicking Horse and Rogers Passes, then followed the Fraser River for the remainder of the distance to Vancouver. This selected routing was significantly to the north of the mining towns within the Southern Interior. Those critical of the CPR believed that the railroad should have been routed along the Dewdney Trail, through the southern portions of British Columbia in order to fulfill politician pledges to keep Americans out of British Columbia should they ever attempt to dominate mining operations in British Columbia's South. However, geography was the main reason the CPR followed the transcontinental railroad route that it had selected. Too many mountain ranges stood between Alberta and Vancouver in the southern portions of British Columbia, and CPR had selected what they felt was the path of least resistance.
Once silver was discovered within the region in the spring of 1887, thousands of Americans flooded into the B.C.'s Southern Interior, and essentially took control of the region. These miners quickly found that it was much quicker and cheaper to get their supplies from the recently completed Northern Pacific Railroad that transited through Spokane. Once word caught on, British Columbia's Southern Interior essentially became a commercial annex of the United States. Provincial and Federal officials quickly agreed that a second railroad dubbed the "Coast-to-Kootenay" railroad within British Columbia was required in order to help preserve Canadian sovereignty of British Columbia, and to also retain the valuable mining revenues within Canada.
The route selected involved connecting the railroad with Vancouver. However, this was not an easy task, as two mountain ranges stood in the way. Construction was some of the costliest per track mile when compared against most other North American railroad projects, costing almost $20 million, and it took nearly 20 years to complete. Construction of the railroad was not undertaken all at once, or even by one single company. In the process of realizing a completed "Coast-to-Kootenay" railroad, a number of "paper railroads" emerged. These were railroads that never progressed beyond the proposed stage. However some railroads did progress past the proposal stage. The CPR initiated the Nicola Valley Railroad in the early 1890s. This railroad connected the town of Merritt with the CPR mainline at Spences Bridge. The Midway & Vernon Railroad was a paper railroad that actually started construction. It was hoped that the Midway & Vernon railroad would connect Midway (the westernmost station of the CPR owned Columbia and Western Railway) with Vernon. However due to funding issues, construction on this railroad was stopped. However portions of the completed railroad grade were included in the Kettle Valley Railroad when the section between Penticton and Midway was completed.
The core portion of the Kettle Valley Railroad started in Hope, transited through Brookmere, Tulameen, Princeton, Summerland, Penticton, Beaverdell and terminated in Midway. An additional branch line connected to Spences Bridge, and Merritt. This portion was eventually adopted as the main portion of the railroad when the portion of the original railroad between Hope and Brookmere via the Coquihalla Valley was abandoned due to high track maintenance costs. Additional spur lines connected Copper Mountain with Princeton, Osoyoos, and Oliver with Penticton. In addition, the Columbia & Western Railway from Midway, through Grand Forks continuing though to Cranbrook was also periodically referred to as portions of the KVR as well.
The railroad was built primarily in a mile-for-mile battle with the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railroad (VV&E). The VV&E was actually owned by Great Northern Railway. The competition between the KVR and the VV&E during constructions of both railways was intense and resulted in many areas within the Southern Interior being serviced by two railways, when one would have been sufficient. Eventually, the hatchet was buried between the KVR and VV&E, as they both were forced to collaborate when constructing their railways through the Coquihalla Valley.
The Kettle Valley Railway between Merritt and Midway was opened for service on May 31, 1915. On that date, the first two passenger trains commenced service. The Kettle Valley Railway was its own entity, however, the Canadian Pacific Railway eventually took over operations of the KVR at the beginning of 1931.
Rail service on the KVR consisted of both passenger and freight trains. Passenger service over the line consisted for many years of the Kettle Valley Express and the Kootenay Express, which carried passengers between Vancouver, BC and Medicine Hat, Alberta. Freight carried on the KVR consisted primarily of ore from the Kootenay region of British Columbia, as well as forestry products and fruit from the Okanagan. Finished goods were primarily brought into the Southern Interior on trains heading Eastbound. During the Kettle Valley Railway's lifespan, on numerous occasions it was called upon to act as "The Second Mainline" when washouts, avalanches and rock slides closed off the main CPR line through the Fraser Canyon. CPR recognized the benefit of having a second railway transiting through British Columbia, so in the 1950s, they set off on an upgrade program that saw the weight-bearing strength of the rails increased, as well as bridge and trestle improvements which brought the railway up closer to mainline standards.
The first portion to be abandoned was the Copper Mountain Branch in 1957. The loss of traffic due to the Copper Mountain Mine closure spelled the end for this line. The second part of the KVR to be abandoned was the Coquihalla subdivision. In 1959 there was a large washout and the line was closed for some time. The CPR officials in Montreal decided to close the line permanently. Many say that their decision was short sighted. In the late 40's/early 50's the CPR invested quite a lot of money in upgrading the line. including many new bridges. Through freight was discontinued throughout the line in 1962, and the last passenger train operated in January 1964. Effective 1964, the KVR essentially became a branch line. All rail service stopped from Midway to Penticton (including the famed Myra Canyon section) in May 1973, with the trackage officially being labelled as abandoned in 1978. Rails along this section were removed in 1979 as the result of a grant of abandonment from the Canadian Transport Commission.In 1977 the CP abandoned part of the Osoyoos Subdivision from Okanagan Falls to Osoyoos. This was due to the loss of fruit traffic to trucks. The remainder of the KVR was doing quite well. There were 3 trains a week serving the various saw mills. This all ended in the mid 80's when there was a downturn in the forest industry, and as a result the CPR lost all woodchip traffic to trucks. From this point the KVR quickly demised. The final abandonment was in spring 1990.
One of the major landmarks on the former line are the Othello-Quintette Tunnels, which are lined up in a straight line, cutting through the Coquihalla River's gorge near Hope. They are open in summer for sightseeing. Andrew McCulloch, who engineered the complex series of bridges and tunnels through Coquihalla Canyon was an avid reader of Shakespeare. As a result, many of the areas in the Coquihalla Region are named after characters in Shakespearean literature, such as Iago, Romeo, Juliet, Lear, Jessica, Shylock and Portia.
On the Smithsonian Folkways FW03569 1961 recording, "Bunkhouse and Forecastle Songs of the Northwest," Stanley G. Triggs sings a song called "The Kettle Valley Line" while accompanying himself on the mandolin.
One of the most popular sections of the hiking trail along the former Kettle Valley Railway line is the section through Myra Canyon. Myra Canyon is located South of Kelowna on Okanagan Mountain. The section of line originally transited between Midway and Penticton. When the railway was built, the section of railway between Myra station and June Springs station required 18 wooden trestles and two tunnels in order to traverse the deep canyon.
For years after the abandonment of this section of rail line, the area was a noted attraction, with its relatively gentle grade, it became a hiker and cyclist haven. Years of disrepair on the trestles began to take its toll on the line. In some cases vandals had removed railway ties on the larger steel bridges, thus creating large gaps. In some cases hikers and cyclists wanting to cross the trestles would be required to walk on sections of steel no wider than a foot across in sections where the ties were removed. This would not normally be an issue, but many of these trestles and bridges were hundreds of feet in height. However after a fatal accident involving a cyclist on one of the trestles, many people petitioned to have the bridges and trestles made safer. These upgrades included repairs after numerous years of disrepair, and the installation of handrails and planks so that people did not have to jump between each railway tie.
This section of the railway was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2002.
From August to September 2003, lightning sparked the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park. This fire rapidly grew in strength and size and made its way Southeast across Okanagan Mountain. This fire engulfed many portions of the KVR between Penticton and McCulloch Lake. Despite concerted efforts by the firefighters, the fire claimed 12 of the 18 trestles within Myra Canyon. In addition, the bridge decks of two of the metal bridges were also destroyed in the fire.
Soon after the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in 2003, the B.C provincial government announced that it would rebuild the damaged and destroyed trestles and bridges. In addition, safety improvements including stabilizing rock faces along the line and clearing rock also has taken place. The trestles have since been rebuilt and the trail is fully open to the public. There are indications that plans for further improvement are in place, such as a restroom located at approximately the middle of the trail.
When constructing the railway through the roughest portion of the Coquihalla Canyon, chief engineer Andrew McCulloch determined that a routing proposed by his subordinates through this section was unnecessarily long or complex. McCulloch recalculated the requirements, and decided that a straight section of track through this area was required, and in order to achieve this, five closely aligned tunnels would be required. He also determined that two bridges would need to be built between three of the tunnels. These tunnels were eventually known as the Quintette tunnels. These tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and are located along the existing Coquihalla Highway (however they are not visible from the highway). These tunnels are also known as the Othello Tunnels because they are near the Othello Railway station, named for the Shakespeare character, as is the case with other stations on this stretch of the railway.
The Kettle Valley Steam Railway has been operating a heritage railway along a preserved 10-kilometre section from Prairie Valley Station to Canyon View Siding, near Summerland, British Columbia. This is the only active remaining section of the Kettle Valley Railway. The last freight haul on the KVR was in 1989, after which CP Rail obtained permission to abandon and remove the final section of rails. A heritage society sprang up in a bid to save a portion of the rail line. In their efforts, they were successful in preserving the section, and then proceeded to prepare rail operations. In the original position of the Summerland station, a maintenance building was erected. Sidings were placed at Prairie Valley, and at Canyon View (North side of the Trout Creek Bridge). Temporary stations were built at Prairie Valley, Canyon View and at the original Summerland Station. Eventually a permanent station was built at the Prairie Valley station providing a great access point for the railway.
The railway initially operated with one 1924 Shay locomotive loaned from the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, British Columbia. It was originally operated by the Mayo Lumber Company on Vancouver Island, and was specifically designed to work on rough forestry trackage.
Rolling stock for the railway was donated from BC Rail. These railcars are originally Canadian Pacific in origin, but were used by BC Rail for service on the Royal Hudson.
The most recent locomotive addition to the Kettle Valley Steam Railway is a Canadian Pacific 2-8-0 N-2-a, b, and c Montreal Locomotive Works 2-8-0. This locomotive, originally delivered as number 3916, it now is number 3716 and runs on the KVSR. It was originally delivered to CPR, and operated primarily in the Kootenays. It was stored in Port Coquitlam in 1966, and was restored in 1975. It was used as a backup locomotive to the Royal Hudson until it was retired from BC Rail's service in April 2001.
The train now travels to the middle of the Trout Creek Bridge. Plans also were to extend the run to Faulder along the final portions of remaining original trackage. The Steam Railway owns track to Faulder. However, tours do not run to that location.
Kettle Valley Railway was featured on the historical television series Gold Trails and Ghost Towns, season 2, episode 8.
Because the CP route through the Rockies had been upgraded to modern steel bridges, the CBC miniseries The National Dream filmed its opening and a number of scenes where wooden trestles were wanted on the Myra Canyon section of the Kettle Valley Railway. The locomotive used was Canadian Pacific 4-4-0 No. 136, disguised as CPR 148.