A series of unused railway tunnels outside of Hope that have since become a popular hiking trail are celebrating 100 years this month.

The Othello Tunnels consist of five tunnels and a series of bridges through the Coquihalla River Canyon, a gorge lined with flat, vertical rock cliffs.

tunnel trail

The path through the Othello Tunnels is now officially part of the Trans-Canada trail system. (Courtesy Helen Kennedy/Hope Visitor Centre)

"The cliff walls are 3,000 feet of sheer granite that drop right into the river," said Helen Kennedy, the operations manager and museum curator of the Hope Visitor Centre.

"It's pretty incredible. Every time I go it blows me away."

Link to Canadian sovereignty

Those cliffs have been the setting of a number of movies. Arguably the most notable is Rambo: First Blood, in which Sylvester Stallone's character hangs off the cliff while a helicopter tries to shoot him down.

Construction on the tunnels was completed in July 1916. The tunnels were built by Canadian Pacific — which constructed the cross-Canada railway that was promised if B.C. joined confederation — to link the Kootenay region with the South Coast.

Kennedy said this was an important step in Canadian sovereignty, because before then many goods had to be shipped through the United States.

tunnels

The tunnels in 1914 (left) under construction, and upon completion in 1916 (right). (Courtesy Helen Kennedy/Hope Visitor Centre. )

"When silver was discovered in the Boundary region … American miners were flooding north in a bit of a silver rush, and all of the miners were getting their supplies from America," she said.

"So folks in B.C. said, 'We need a southern railway that can allow resources to travel within Canada and not go through the States, because America still wanted us — we weren't solidly Canadian."

Dark history

Though Kennedy said the tunnels are an "engineering marvel," she said there is a dark history behind them as well.

The most difficult and dangerous construction jobs were given to Chinese labourers to do — many of whom were killed while using explosives to blast through sections of the mountains.

The tunnels have been named the Othello Tunnels because Andrew McCulloch, the chief engineer on the project, was an avid Shakespeare fan.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Othello Tunnels outside of Hope finished construction 100 years ago this month