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Steamrolled | How Steam Colonized the West

The Okanagan Steamfest is a project being spearheaded by the Penticton Museum and Archives in partnership with the SS Sicamous and the Kettle Valley Railway Society in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Kettle Valley Railway and the launching of the steam-driven paddle wheeler, the SS Sicamous.

In providing background information on these two significant historic events the Okanagan Steamfest website recounts: “At precisely 2:15pm on Tuesday May 19th, 1914, a giant splash greeted the launch of the Okanagan's latest steam-driven paddle wheeler, the SS Sicamous. The graceful ship represented a long line of transport vessels that ran up and down Okanagan Lake since the 1890s, and for the next 23 years it connected small communities on the water to the commercial hubs of Vernon, Kelowna, and Penticton.

Just over a year later on May 31st 1915, KVR Locomotive #4 and three passenger cars arrived at Penticton Lakeshore Station to officially open the newly completed Kettle Valley Railway. More than 1500 people were on hand to greet the start of the age of steam rail travel in the area, and connecting the Okanagan to the outside world.”

It’s incredible to consider that it took over 20 years to construct the Kettle Valley Railroad and less than 50 years later sections of the railway were already being abandoned and by 1989 the railway was abandoned completely. It’s also amazing how vital and important railways are to this day across the globe and just how quick we were to rip up this incredible and vital piece of transportation infrastructure.

While the addition of the Rails to Trails initiative has helped to keep the majority of the abandoned rail grades public, it’s not without its controversy as ongoing land claim challenges can attest or the potential of increased taxation as seen recently up in Lake Country.

As we look for greener modes of transportation and for ways to increase tourism, the loss of this incredible piece of transportation infrastructure will become greater as time marches on. This resource would be the envy of the western world and would have gone a long way in helping move people and merchandise throughout the southern portion of British Columbia and keeping us connected to the rest of North America.

When you consider the role of the railway historically and how that has played out in terms of “Nation Building”, one can’t dispute the cultural, social, economic and environmental impact the railway and inland steam ships have had on the landscape, its original inhabitants and the flora and fauna. It seems more and more we are hearing of terrible environmental disasters and human tragedies due to derailments and other issues related to the poor maintenance and upkeep of this critical infrastructure. One can’t deny the incredible amount of negative press the railways have suffered as of late including many transporting oil in place of pipelines.

Eighteen months ago Peter Ord, the former Director of the Penticton Museum, approached me to see if we would be willing to partner with Steamfest by hosting a Steam related exhibition here at the gallery with the topic of Steam Punk being the one hoped for. Over the months that followed I wracked my brain trying to wrap my head around this exhibition and while I was excited about exploring the Steampunk aesthetic and culture something bothered me about this exhibition. Then while at a meeting at the En’Owkin Center, I was sharing our upcoming programing for the year when I was asked by my hosts to tell them more about Steamfest and at that moment it became clear what bothered me about this exhibition.

Looking across the table I suddenly realized that this exhibition was the celebration of a largely European driven history, save for the thousands of Chinese migrant workers who lost their lives doing the work that no one else wanted to do. Historians estimate several thousand Chinese were brought from China and many thousands more from California to work on the trans Canada railway where they were given the most dangerous jobs, including tunnel-blasting using highly unstable nitroglycerin. It is said that at least one Chinese worker died for every kilometre of track through the Fraser Canyon. Ironically, those building the KVR refused to hire Chinese labor and Penticton saw racial tensions rise with a movement to keep Penticton White. Interestingly enough the Okanagan remains the least immigrated region of Canada.  

In addition to their hiring policies these railway companies were also granted huge tracts of land by the Crown which superseded the rights of our existing First Nations communities and are still the subject of countless lawsuits which are ongoing between the federal government and the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands. Even today our governments are quick to transfer large tracts of land over to private corporations such as those looking to build pipelines giving these corporations rights that supersede all other land claims.

So as the Penticton Museum looks to mark the centenary of the arrival of the first steam train to Penticton, the Penticton Art Gallery invited artists regardless of nationality, race or gender, working in all media to examine the role the railway has played in the history of Canada over the past 148 years. We invited artists to cast a critical eye and explore the lasting legacies which remain and how they impact the way our government works with private and corporate interests, all in the name of economic development and sovereignty.

It’s an incredible history which encompasses so much of our nation’s identity, resilience, ingenuity, heartbreak, diplomacy, opportunities gained and lost, greed and so much more which remains untold and unexplored. This is your opportunity to examine this history and how it has impacted and affected your life today, the lives of your families and communities, along with the world they once knew and what could have been.