Canada’s Silk Steam Trains

Bales of silk in the hold of a ship

From 1887 until the 1930s, raw silk from the Far East roared across Canada in trains from the port of Vancouver.  Within two hours of the boat docking at Vancouver, stevedores unloaded the 90-kilogram burlap-wrapped 12-inch by 24-inch by 36-inch bales of silk to waiting custom agents in a warehouse. Because raw silk is perishable, it is necessary to get the silk to the mills as quickly as possible. Special boxcars were developed that held 470 bales of silk each. Built on passenger car trucks for better suspension, the boxcars were also shorter than normal boxcars to take curves at higher speeds. 

The first shipment of 65 bales of raw silk arrived at the port of Vancouver on June 13, 1887, aboard the Abyssinia from Hong Kong. During October 1902, the Vancouver Daily Province reported the arrival of two ships from the Far East with silk cargos of more than 2,000 bales each, worth more than one and a half million. The same paper estimated on October 25, 1902 that “Vancouver, the silk port of North America: Over four and a half million dollars worth of raw silk will be received within thirty days”.

The following year, the Daily Province reported on Jan. 10, 1903, the silk train “makes the regular express time appear as but a snail’s pace.” The train the newspaper was referring to had travelled from Vancouver to Kamloops, 400 kilometres northeast through the mountains, in 10 hours and 45 minutes — an hour faster than the express passenger train. On the prairies, the steam trains could travel up to 90 kph where other trains rarely exceeded 70 kph. Every 200 kilometres there was a pit stop that lasted about seven minutes to add oil and water, or change engines and crew.

Canadian Pacific (CP) operated both a trans-Canada railway and a transpacific shipping line that dominated the silk trade and made Vancouver the major port for silk entering North America. Canadian National (CN) began to compete with CP with its first silk run across Canada in July 1925, however CN lacked ships and relied upon British and Japanese ships to bring the raw silk to Vancouver. CN trains crossed the border at Niagara Falls and handed over their shipments to the New York Central Railroad while CP carried their silk to Canadian destinations including Galt, Toronto, and Montreal. 

By 1929, rayon was becoming more used than silk for underwear, stockings, and ribbons. That October, the Great Depression began a series of cost-cutting measures that made shipping by ship cheaper than rail. The Panama canal, which had opened in 1914, began attracting more business and the railway’s share of shipping silk quickly fell from 94 percent of all silk in 1928 to 40 percent in 1931. The value of silk also dropped to $1.27 per pound by 1934, down from $6.50 per pound a decade earlier, making it less profitable.

CP stopped running silk-only trains in 1933, and instead hitched two or three silk cars onto their regular trans-Canada passenger trains. CN’s last silk-only trains ran in 1935. In 1940 CN shipped only 504 bales of silk for the entire year. The last shipment of silk from Japan arrived in August, 1941, months before the war expanded to include Japan. Existing stocks of silk were quickly used up or were requisitioned for wartime use. For more information on the silk trains see this article.

Express silk train, 1928