Canada’s Silk Road

THE BEAVER December 2005

It was in the early 1930s, when Mary Lynas was in Grade Six, that she and her classmates would race down to the Canadian Pacific’s train yard on the eastern fringes of Calgary to watch a spectacle that still captivates her. “That train came in at terrific speed,” recalls the granddaughter of Col. James Walker. “They stopped only to put water in, change crews and go again.”

The pit-stop action Lynas is talking of was to service Canada’s special silk trains that roared out of the port of Vancouver between 1887 and the late 1930s through the Rockies, across the prairies, through the Canadian Shield to Montreal and Buffalo loaded with precious cargoes of raw silk from the Orient. Bound for the National Silk Exchange in New York and the mills of the eastern seaboard, the perishable silk was given the ultimate priority over all rail traffic, even express trains, and, rumour has it, royal trains.

Adding to the rush was the exorbitant cost of insurance. A single bale of raw silk could easily fetch over eight hundred dollars in the 1920s. With about 470 bales to the car, a full trainload was worth upwards of six million dollars, a lot of money in the days when a brand new Ford cost less than a bale of silk. Insurance companies started the clock as soon the bales were unloaded—rates were charged by the hour from the time the cargo left the boat until it was unloaded at its eastern destination.

The silk business was so lucrative for both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific that every minute counted. Nothing was left to chance. Freight agents would often board a ship in Victoria and feverishly complete their paperwork so unloading could start the second they docked at Vancouver. There, as soon as the ropes cinched the ship tight at the wharf, the race was on. The captain was on the megaphone shouting orders. Silk bales were streaming off by conveyor belt even before passengers stepped on the gangplank. Stevedores whipped into action manhandling the ninety-kilogram bales onto the dock and into the warehouse for awaiting customs agents, who would clear them on the spot. Then the burlap-wrapped 1 x 2 x 3-foot bales were wheeled onto specially-built rail cars, that were sealed and paneled with wood.

As speed was of the essence, these special cars were built shorter than normal boxcars, to take curves at higher speeds. “They were totally different from the other freight cars, they had to be lightweight and fast,” says Jonathan Hanna, Canadian Pacific Railway’s Corporate Historian. Mounted on passenger car trucks [suspension and wheel systems], “they were solid, so they could put up with high speed,” says Hanna. At Vancouver, well before the ship approached, eight to fifteen of them were already coupled to an engine fired up to full steam, an engineer’s hand poised on the throttle.

Loading crew action was measured by the seconds per bale. For one eight-car train, a typical regimen reported by CN was: ship docked at 1542, commenced unloading at 1613, train loading completed by 1745 and train left dock at 1752—total time from ship tie-up to train departure of one hour and 39 minutes. Another reported an average time of 2.45 seconds per bale; anything much less demanded an explanation to management.

Train loaded, a couple of armed railway police jumped aboard (although no robberies ever occurred) and with a blast of the whistle, the engineer pushed the throttle forward. Smoke belching and steam hissing, they’d roll out towards Hope. It was more than an express train. As the Vancouver Daily Province reported on January 10th, 1903, the silk train “makes the regular express time appear as but a snail’s pace.” This particular CP silk train had left Vancouver at six the morning before and reached Kamloops, 251 miles to the northeast, ten hours and 45 minutes later—beating the regular express’s time by one full hour.

Coming out of the mountains with their steep grades and tight curves that limited train speeds, throttles were opened wide on the straight lines of the prairies where speeds routinely hit a mile a minute and more. “Steam locomotives didn’t have speedometers or governors like locomotives today,” says Hanna. “In those days you were supposed to go track speed which shouldn’t exceed 70 miles per hour but you couldn’t say if you did or didn’t because it was all in counting the time between mileage markers—if you knocked it off in 45 seconds that meant you were going 75.”

Sustained high speeds could be taxing on the locomotives and cars, so stops were made at every divisional point—about 125 miles apart. “They didn’t feel comfortable running them at speed with maintenance limited to a couple of shots of grease and some lube oil,” explains Hanna. “There’s so many thousands of moving parts and roller bearing technology wasn’t around yet.” Pit stop times averaged about seven minutes. As the hot engine hissed and squealed to a stop, it was quickly uncoupled and a freshly watered, fired-up engine snapped on. At the same time, a ‘car man’ was rushing around with his oil can, opening each journal box, shooting oil in and slamming it shut then moving on to the next one. “It was all wonderfully exciting to watch,” recalls Mary Linus.

Fresh crews took over at each stop. Silk train crews weren’t particularly special—but they were usually the senior men. “The senior crews had first choice of trains,” explains Hanna, “and if you chose a silk train that was your whole day’s shift and you got home sooner—you worked less hours than on a regular train shift. So it would have been the ‘A’ team on the silk trains but more for selfish reasons than pride in being the best.”

Steaming on through the Canadian Shield and south, CN silk trains completed their race against time crossing the Niagara suspension bridge to Buffalo, NY. There, US Customs quickly sampled the bales (silk wasn’t subject to import duties) and CN handed the torch over to the New York Central Railroad who made the final dash to the finish line at Manufacturers Terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Across the continent, silk trains followed no regular schedule, so it was an exhilarating moment to catch a glimpse of the fabled trains as they flew past unexpectedly in a cloud of cinders, smoke and steam. Especially for those who were taken by the intriguing myth that inside the bales silkworms were happily spinning their glossy cocoons as the trains sped across the country. That was pure myth, however—silkworms spin their full cocoon in two to three days, after which silk harvest timing is critical.

And despite all the rush, silk train accidents were surprisingly few. The only serious occurrence was on September 21st, 1927, when a car jumped the tracks as the train rounded a bend in BC’s Fraser Canyon just east of Hope. Two or three cars followed it, sending silk bales tumbling into the river. There were no deaths and the cargo was salvaged.


The first shipment of raw silk arrived at the port of Vancouver soon after the last spike of the cross-Canada ribbon of steel was driven. Sixty-three bales arrived on the afternoon of 13th June, 1887 aboard the 3,600-ton Abyssinia from Hong Kong along with mail and 80 Chinese steerage passengers. When Canadian Pacific’s fast Empress ships entered service in 1891, with their side ports for speedy unloading, Vancouver was soon vaulted into a leading silk port.

For example, on October 2nd 1902, the Vancouver Daily Province reported the steamship Tartar was due to arrive with 539 tons, or 2,156 bales, of raw silk—worth $1,500,000. Just six days later the same newspaper ran the headline “Large Cargo of Raw Silk”, reporting that the Empress of Japan was due in with $1,600,000 worth. On the 25th of that same month: “Vancouver, the silk port of North America: Over four and a half million dollars worth of raw silk will be received within thirty days,” making October 1902 the highest value of silk shipping to date. And in 1919, a CPR Bulletin stated, “all records for silk handling were broken with the arrival from the Orient of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Empress of Asia ….10,000 bales of raw silk….valued at $8,500,000…”

The pace grew, and Canadian Pacific with its fleet of trans-Pacific steamships maintained domination of the trade. Then shortly after its full formation in 1923, Canadian National entered the fray with its first silk run in July 1925. CN made silk top priority too: their best time of 83 hours 56 minutes was almost a day faster than their transcontinental passenger train. But CN lacked the ocean shipping advantage, relying on the British Blue Funnel line or Japanese ships to bring the raw product from the Orient.

With two railroads putting silk traffic ahead of every other shipment, business boomed with the1920s, and the profits rolled in. Nineteen twenty-nine was a tumultuous year—first silk shipments peaked, then came Black Friday in October when stocks plummeted and the world surged into depression. Consumer demand quickly flagged; luxury items like silk were soon out of reach for most. The price of raw silk crashed—by 1934 it was just $1.27 a pound, down from $6.50 a decade earlier, which precipitated a tumble in insurance rates. So speed became less of a priority and soon Japan was shipping silk in their own vessels through the Panama Canal.

The change was rapid: in 1928, 94 % of all silk from the Orient to New York had crossed North America by train; just six per cent went through the Panama Canal. Then, according to the B.C. Historical Quarterly of 1948, the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Steamship Line of Japan started Panama service in 1929. Results for the railways were disastrous: by 1931, their share had dropped to just 40 %; ships through Panama handled the other 60 %.

The ships wooed business away from the railways by dropping their freight rates to six dollars a ton, three less than the railways charged. CN Traffic Executive Officers held a series of meetings to look at the impact of matching the Panama shippers’ rates. Alas, the numbers were telling: based on 1929 silk tonnage, the railway would lose $211,902. Nevertheless, the reductions were made in 1931 but proved ineffective. Three years later they were back at nine dollars.

Now the proverbial writing was on the wall. CP stopped running single-purpose silk trains in 1933; instead hitching two or three silk cars onto to their regular trans-Canada passenger runs. Trips for both railways continued sporadically until the late 1930s, and by 1940 CN shipped just 504 bales. War with Japan was the final spike, killing all trade between the two countries. As well, the US Government had ordered all silk futures trading and production to cease, as demand for silk changed from fashion runways to wartime airfield runways as parachutes on the backs of aircrew.

But the silk trains have their legacy. “It did teach us how to keep things fluid, which is what we’re still trying to do today,” says Hanna. “But now it’s not a question of insurance or perishability, it’s just-on-time delivery for Wal-Mart and the Bay and Zellers and Canadian Tire. It still comes by the shipload from the Orient and we’re still trying to get it across the country as quickly as possible. What we learned from silk trains is that you’ve just got to keep it moving.”

Today, just a few kilometres south of where Mary Lynas and her friends played, rests CPR’s last existing silk car. One of an original 46 built, it sits forlornly in Canadian Pacific’s Ogden yards in southeast Calgary, “but it’s not in the shape of a silk car any more,” says Hanna. “It survived because we first converted some of [the silk cars] into mail express cars and then in the 60s we took five of them and converted them into robot cars that took radio signals from the head end to tell the mid-train power what to do.” He says this one survived because it was later converted to carry an experimental steam generator as a novel way to kill weeds along rights of way in BC. “This ex-steam generator, ex-robot, ex-express, ex-silk car is the only one left.” Hardly a silky smooth ending to an exciting chapter in Canadian railroad history.

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