British Columbia

B.C. railroad stories told in new book Whistle Posts West

Whistle Post West tells of 150 ears of ingenuity, intrigue, disasters and close calls in the history of trains in Western Canada.

Authors Brian and Rick Antonson and Mary Trainer share their lifelong passion for trains

An engine from the Alberni Pacific Railway. Visitors today can still board a restored 1929 ex-logging locomotive, which winds its way through the City of Port Alberni and then the surrounding forests for 35 minutes each way. (Rick Antonson)

A train that sunk in a peat bog in Burnaby, tales of robberies (of money and coal) and silk trains that were of such high priority that all other traffic — including a train carrying King George IV on his 1939 Canadian tour — was pushed off the main line.

Those are just some of the incredible stories from the history of trains covered in the book Whistle Post West: Railway Tales from British Columbia, Alberta, and Yukon.

(Heritage House)

"It's rich — the history here, and the stories around the the building of the railways, or the robbing from them," said Rick Antonson, former CEO of Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Edmonton.

Rick penned the book along with his brother Brian, a retired broadcaster, and writer Mary Trainer.

"This fascination with B.C. history is something we've all shared for a long time," Brian said.

The train that disappeared

Brian said his favourite story from the book comes from Burnaby in the early 1900s, when a group of men came back from lunch and found that the train they had left sitting on the rails had suddenly disappeared.

"There were a bunch of bubbles coming out of the peat bog that the tracks were going across, and the track had sunk down. Obviously the engine had sunk," Brian said.

The authors of Whistle Blows West: (From left to right) Rick Antonson, Mary Trainer and Brian Antonson. (Rick Antonson)

He said that an "aha" moment for him was when he found an official map produced by the city of Burnaby that had a tiny stream labelled Sunken Engine Creek.

"That nailed it," he said. "Somebody historically has nailed that story and locate it, because that was the probable location of the actual event back in 1906, 1910 or 1912, depending on who you believe."

Dark history of railway construction

Brian said that they also don't gloss over the dark history of Canadian railroading — such as the Chinese labourers that were brought to B.C. by American construction contractor Andrew Onderdonk.

"He hired these people and then abused them, and put them in all the dangerous places. Then as we tell in the book, when the railway was completed around 1885 they had nowhere to go, they didn't have the money to go home, they couldn't bring their families here, and [Onderdonk] just washed his hands literally, of them,' he said.

Brian said that while passenger train travel is no longer very economical, there are many worthwhile trips that can be taken in the province.

The book also highlights places where people interested in train history can visit, such as museums and places where people can go to have the experience of riding a steam train.

"It's our backyard, we should be taking advantage of some of these opportunities to travel."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: New book features stories of B.C.'s eventful railway history


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