UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 3 | Mar. 2, 2006
Okanagan’s Lost Trestles Rise Again
Canadian historic site to get help from UBC Okanagan researchers
By Bud Mortenson
Researchers at UBC Okanagan hope to unlock the past and help ensure a sustainable future for a popular historic site in the hills above Kelowna, B.C.
Built in the 1910s, a network of train trestles along a serpentine stretch of the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) once hugged rock walls and spanned yawning gaps in Myra Canyon overlooking the Okanagan Valley. Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world came to walk or cycle the route.
A forest fire in the summer of 2003 destroyed 12 of 16 wooden trestles and damaged two soaring steel trestles. The fire did its worst, but also opened up the landscape, revealing new discoveries such as a rail siding previously masked by the forest.
“There needs to be a better record of what’s there,” says UBC Okanagan Assoc. Prof. of Archeology Richard Garvin. “It’s clearly a unique opportunity -- you don’t get a chance like this very often.”
There are gaps in knowledge about the workforce that pushed the railway through the Okanagan, Garvin notes. “We know exactly when the people who built the railway were there, we know where the camps are, and that they were being supplied with the same type of materials,” he says. “Now we hope to find evidence of the different ethnic and social groups.”
The fire damage meant a loss of about $5 million a year for the B.C. Interior economy. Federal and provincial governments responded with $13.5 million to restore the trestles.
“They’ll open in the late summer of 2007,” Garvin says. “By that time, we will have a full field school up and running.”
In a project expected to take three years, starting this summer Garvin and colleagues Maury Williams, associate professor of History, and Russell Currie, assistant professor of Management, will begin archeological and historic fieldwork, and tourism management planning.
Working with B.C. Parks, the Kelowna Museum, the Atkinson Museum in Penticton, and the Myra Canyon Trestles Restoration Society, they will document how the KVR was built, and the historical and economic impact the railway had on the Okanagan and the rest of B.C.’s southern interior.
While Garvin and his team of graduate and undergraduate students explore the archeological evidence, other teams will be examining historic and economic aspects of Myra Canyon and its trestles.
“Here you have a major economic resource in the southern interior of the province that hasn’t really been studied,” says historian Williams. “We can look at what the record says, and see if it corresponds with the evidence.”
That historical documentation -- gathered from museums, public and private archives, and even dusty attics -- doesn’t always match the physical evidence archeologists find on-site.
“We’re looking for the evidence and the records -- we will have students finding records, identifying whether or not they are legitimate, and how they can be used. For history grad students and undergrads, there are all kinds of possibilities,” Williams says.
“One of the project’s missions is to educate the public on the importance of this cultural and historical resource. And we will mobilize the knowledge we acquire through research to help communities make informed decisions about tourism development.”
Tourism planning is a big deal for Myra Canyon. “There were 50,000 visitors a year before the fire,” says Williams. “With the reconstruction, the visitor count will jump to 100,000 very quickly -- and probably well beyond that figure.”
“Although the trestles are being rebuilt, there is not yet a management plan that addresses the socio-cultural, economic and environmental impact of this rebuilding on communities and organizations with a vested interest in Myra Canyon,” says Currie, whose research interests include tourism marketing and feasibility analysis for sustainable enterprises.
“We want the communities and stakeholders to decide what level of development they want. We will put forth several scenarios depicting different levels of development with the accompanying socio-cultural, economic and environmental impacts -- allowing stakeholders to make informed decisions and plan accordingly.”