This weeks Hike of the Week takes us to Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park & Othello Tunnels near Hope, BC.
Hike Info:Rating: Beginner Distance: 1.75 km (One Way) Gain: 10 Metres Time Needed: 1 hour return Type: Out-and-back
Coquilla Canyon Provincial Park is in the Coquihalla Gorge where a straight line of tunnels were built as part of the now defunct Canadian Pacific Railway line that linked the Kootenay Region with the BC coast by rail.
Othello Tunnels Trail
There are spectacular viewing opportunities through the tunnels and on the bridges. From the parking lot trailhead the Othello Tunnels trail is a short, easy 3.5km return trip. You’ll pass through four old train tunnels and see the rushing river below as you walk over the bridges.
Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park History
History of the Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park and Othello Tunnels from the BC Parks website.
In the early 1900’s, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided a route was necessary to link the Kootenay region with the BC coast by rail. Andrew McCulloch was hired as the chief engineer in May 1910. He had been involved in many CPR projects, including the Spiral Tunnels near Revelstoke.
McCulloch took on the challenging task of building the railway over three major mountain ranges. The Coquihalla subdivision included 38 miles from the Coquihalla Summit to the junction with the CPR mainline across the Fraser River from Hope. This section boasts the most expensive mile of railway track in the world: $300,000 in 1914! The construction was done almost exclusively by hand with the assistance of a few horse drawn scrapers and some black powder. His assistant engineers nick-named the railway “McCulloch’s Wonder.”
The greatest challenge of this route was the Coquihalla gorge, just east of Hope, where the river had cut a 300-foot-deep channel in solid granite. Other engineers had suggested a mile-long tunnel by-passing the gorge, but McCulloch chose to build directly through it. Hanging in the gorge in a wicker basket, McCulloch surveyed the canyon for a straight line of tunnels that could be dug simultaneously. Cliff ladders, suspension bridges and ropes allowed workers to complete what is, to this day, regarded as a spectacular engineering feat.
The tunnels are known as the Othello Tunnels. McCulloch was an avid reader of Shakespearean literature, and he used characters such as Lear, Jessica, Portia, Iago, Romeo and Juliet to name stations of the Coquihalla subdivision. The tunnels in the Coquihalla Canyon were near the Othello station – thus, Othello Tunnels. Many of the passengers on the Coquihalla line came expressly to see and photograph the station boards and to send postcards from the stations’ post offices as a souvenir. This added an ironic touch of gentility to this adventurous journey.
The Kettle Valley Railway was officially opened on July 31, 1916. The line operated both freight and passenger service between Vancouver and Nelson, but the operation was plagued with snow and rock slides. In a two year period in the 1930’s, the line operated for only a few weeks.
On November 23, 1959, a washout was reported just north of the tunnels. The 400-foot washout was too large to be filled in one day, and numerous other washouts added to the troubles of the maintenance crews. The line was closed and never reopened; it was officially abandoned in July of 1961. The tunnels and surrounding area became a provincial recreation area in May of 1986.
Much of the modern four lane Coquihalla Highway is built upon the original rail bed of the Kettle Valley Railway. Travelling at modern highway speeds it is difficult to imagine the formidable task of constructing a rail route through this rugged section of BC.
As you drive along the highway, you may notice some small signs in the shape of an old steam locomotive, with Shakespearean names. These signs commemorate the approximate locations of the Kettle Valley Railway stations along today’s Highway #5.
Getting to Othello Tunnels: