Gateway Gazette

The Silk Train: Part of Canada’s History

 

(Contributed)

Unloading silk bales at Vancouver dock to be transferred to a waiting train. A whole train could be loaded in less than ten minutes. © Canada Science and Technology Museum (Collections Canada)
Unloading silk bales at Vancouver dock to be transferred to a waiting train. A whole train could be loaded in less than ten minutes. © Canada Science and Technology Museum (Collections Canada)

Do you know, the most noteable trains on the CPR mainline were the silk trains. Historically speaking, old railroaders still speak nostalgically of the silk train era, when super fast trains carrying costly, highly perishable raw silk, highballed it across Canada from Vancouver at speeds that are still records.

The era was fostered by American fashion demands for silk garments at any price. Bales of silk wrapped in straw matting left Japan on CPR`s express liners and fastest passenger boats plying the Pacific, and arrived in Vancouver less than nine days later; sometimes in a record breaking seven days.

Before passengers started to disembark, crews would be transferring silk bales to high-powered silk trains for a high- geared journey across Canada to New York. Ten or twelve dust- proof silk cars were pulled by locomotives of the 2500 and 2600 series, considered the fastest engines on the tracks in the silk train heyday. A regular coach replaced the caboose on the rail end since cabooses did not have the bearings for high speed travel.

Transferring the silk from steamship to train (Canadian Pacific Railway photo)
Transferring the silk from steamship to train
(Canadian Pacific Railway photo)

Speed was essential, as the cargo was perishable, and of such great value, that insurance rates were calculated by the hour. A more urgent reason, was the sharp fluctuation in price, for silk was usually consigned to banks and brokerage houses and traded on the stock market. A few hours delay could wipe out a fortune.

Armed guards were on these silk trains to prevent theft and vandalism, but no attempt was ever made to steal the silk on it`s eastern journey.

The speed of the silk train is legendary. They had priority all along the line. Passenger and freight trains clanked into sidings, and station agents moved their press wagons off the platform and locked them to prevent them from being sucked in by the speed.

Railroaders recall a “silker” that dusted downhill from Swift Current to Moose Jaw at 87 miles per hour at a distance of 110 miles in 77 minutes. One silk train reported to have travelled the 133 miles between Brandon and Winnipeg in 131 minutes. One train could carry silk worth $10 million or more. In Canada, silk had rights over everything. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia a train carrying Prince Albert and King George VI, had to wait for a silk train to come through.

A 13-car CP silk train picks up speed as it leaves Vancouver for Eastern fashion centres in 1928. (Canadian Pacific Railway Archives photo)
A 13-car CP silk train picks up speed as it leaves Vancouver for Eastern fashion centres in 1928. (Canadian Pacific Railway Archives photo)

The curve and grades in the mountains would have limited the speed of trains. But on flat stretches of the prairies, speeds of 110 km or more were common. No silk train was ever involved in an accident.

Silk trains made brief stops at Moose Jaw to check engines and crews, but they did not stop otherwise.

Then came the depression. Silk was a luxury commodity. Demand and prices plummeted. At the same time, a Japanese shipping line was taking silk through the Panama Canal to New York. This was in the early 1930’s. Second World War halted the silk trains, and with the development of synthetic fabrics which was cheaper, especially nylon, the silk trains would never again roar across the continent. The last two “silkers” went through Moose Jaw in 1935.

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