TURNER, Robert D.

Author Tags: Forestry, History, Transportation

"Bob's pure magic to those who've ships and trains in their blood." -- Charles Lillard.

Having written 19 books on railways and steamships, Robert (Bob) Turner is considered the foremost authority on transportation history in British Columbia. He was born in Victoria on July 10, 1947 and received his BA in Geography from UVic and an MA in Regional Planning from UBC. Having gone to work for the Provincial Parks department, he transferred to the Provincial Museum in 1973 to prepare exhibits for the Museum Train that began operation in 1974. He eventually became chief of historical collections. He received the Award of Merit of the American Association for State and Local History for the "continuing excellence" of his books in 1983. He has also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Railroad Historical Association.

Three of Turner's books, including The Skyline Limited co-authored with Dave Wilkie, have won the Canadian Railroad Historical Association's Book Award. Logging by Rail: The British Columbia Story is into its fourth printing. Turner is Curator Emeritus at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

Those Beautiful Coastal Liners: The Canadian Pacific's Princesses concerns the liners that broke all the intercity speed records between Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle. The Princess Victoria, Princess Kathleen and the Princess Marguerite, the last of the coastal liners, are among the ships recalled. The S. S. Moyie: Memories of the Oldest Sternwheeler recalls the last passenger-carrying, sternwheeled steamboat operating in western North America, in the West Kootenays. The Moyie is a National Historic Site and a Provincial Historic Landmark. The Sicamous & the Naramata Steamboat Days in the Okanagan recall when the Sicamous was the epitome of elegant, efficient travel in the Okanagan in 1914. For 23 years this Canadian Pacific sternwheeler carried passengers, mail, express and the prized fruit of the Okanagan. The Naramata served the Okanagan for 53 years and is now the last surviving steam tug in the Interior of British Columbia. The Skyline Limited: The Kaslo & Slocan Railway chronicles the Great Northern's narrow gauge line through the Slocan Mountains during the 1890s and early 1900s. It received the Canadian Railroad Historical Association's Book Award. Steam on the Kettle Valley is about the Kettle Valley Railway. Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs is about the CPR's lake and river service that connected mining camps, boom towns and settlements, featuring the Stikine River service. Spanning 125 years, The Thunder of Their Passing profiles one of the finest preserved steam railroads in North America, from its origins as the Denver & Rio Grande's San Juan Extension in the 1880s silver mining boom, to its present-day operations as the spectacular Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Vancouver Island Railroads traces railways from the 1860s, including the narrow-gauge coal lines, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo line and Canadian National Railways. West of the Great Divide has been revised in updated version to provide a complete history of the CPR in B.C., including more than 400 vintage photos. The intense competition between the CPR, Great Northern and Kettle River Valley Railways in the southern mountains of B.C., during the copper mining boom of the late 1890s and early 1900s, is the focus for Steam Along the Boundary. Mines and smelters at Grand Forks, Greenwood, Phoenix, Castlegar, Keremeos, Hedley and Republic all arose during this lively period.

Turner teamed with the late Don F. MacLachlan, a lifetime E&N railway worker, whose father and brother were also railway engineers on Vancouver Island, for The Canadian Pacific’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The CPR Steam Years, 1905-1949 (Sono Nis $39.95), a fascinating and comprehensive history of the railway that was started by the Dunsmuir coal mining family in the late 1800s. With almost 500 photos and 304 pages, this handsome companion volume to MacLachlan’s 1986 history of the E&N in the Dunsmuir era is a splendid tribute to the remote, westernmost end of the Canadian Pacific system and the lifeline of southern Vancouver Island. CPR replaced E&N’s steam engines with diesel in 1949, giving rise to a third and final era of the railway. The lavish volume on the steam era of E&N was a project of the B.C. Railway Historical Association.

“Bob Turner was the first author my father signed on when he bought Sono Nis in 1976,” said his current publisher, Diane Morriss of Winlaw, in 2013, “and here we are thirty-seven years later still publishing beautiful books together. His books have been the bread and butter of the press, helping sustain us through lean years that have felled many other small and large presses. The E&N history is his 16th on transportation history. Already we have many readers looking forward to volume two, coming out later this year. We have a huge list of people waiting to buy it.”

“Bob has the rare ability to write in a style that is accessible to a broad readership. Consequently he has a huge number of devoted fans all over the world—railway and steamship lovers and historians alike. He spends countless hours looking for unusual photos and studying archival sources from all across the country Our understanding of our province’s history would be much poorer without Bob Turner’s dedication and considerable skills not just as a historian but as a storyteller. His books are also beautifully designed are thoroughly researched, referenced and indexed. That’s why they are critically acclaimed and win awards.”

With more than 600 photos, Robert D. Turner’s The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam (Sono Nis $49.95) must surely rank as one of the most comprehensive studies of the remarkable Yukon River vessels and their vital services, as well as those who built and ran them.

Turner understands the importance of B.C. and Yukon history to the general public and it's a catalyst for his work. “Recently I did a talk on the E&N Railway for the Cowichan Valley Historical Society in Duncan,” said Turner in 2013, “and it was once again so rewarding to see the impact of my books at a personal level for people whose families and community histories are portrayed in the text or photos. I've met so many people whose parents or grandparents featured in my books. And when someone such as retired conductor Eddie Lee, who is now in his 90s, comes out on a stormy night to share the evening, that is really special."

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Canadian Pacific's Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The CPR steam years, 1905-1949
Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013
West of the Great Divide: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia 1880-1986


Vancouver Island Railroads (San Marino, California: Golden West Books, 1973) ISBN: 1550390775 $34.95

Pacific Princesses: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific's Princess Fleet on the Northwest Coast (Sono Nis, 1977) ISBN 0-919462-04-9 $34.95

The Princess Marguerite, Last of the Coastal Liners (Sono Nis, 1981)

Railroaders: Recollections from the Steam Era in British Columbia (Crown Publications, 1981)

The Pacific Empresses: An Illustrated History of the CPR's Trans-Pacific Ocean Liners (Sono Nis, 1981)

West of the Great Divide, An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia, 1880-1986 (Sono Nis, 1987)

Logging by Rail: The British Columbia Story (Sono Nis, 1990) ISBN: 1550390651 $39.95

SS Moyie, Memories of the Oldest Sternwheeler (Sono Nis, 1991)

The Skyline Limited, The Kaslo & Slocan Railway (Sono Nis, 1994) with David S. Wilkie ISBN: 1550390406 $55.00

The Sicamous and the Naramata: Steamboat Days in the Okanagan (Sono Nis, 1995)

Steam on the Kettle Valley, A Railway Heritage Remembered (Sono Nis, 1995; 2008) ISBN: 1550390635 $24.95

The Thunder of Their Passing: A Tribute to the Denver & Rio Grande and the Cumbres & Toltec Railroads (Sono Nis, 2003) ISBN: 1550391291 $44.95

Sternwheelers & Steam Tugs: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway's British Columbia Lake & River Service (Sono Nis, 1984; reprinted 2007).

Steam Along the Boundary: Canadian Pacific, Great Northern and the Great Boundary Copper Boom (Sono Nis, 2007). With J.S. David Wilkie. 978-155039-158-9 $49.95

The Canadian Pacific's Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway:The CPR Steam Years, 1905–1949 (Sono Nis, 2012) with Donald F. MacLachlan. 978-1-55039-204-3 $49.95

Vancouver Island's Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013 (Sono Nis, 2013) with Donald F. MacLachlan. $39.95 978-1-55039-213-5

The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam (Sono Nis 2015) $49.95 978-1-55039-242-5

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]

West of the Great Divide (Sono Nis)

“I’ve yet to go through Hell’s Gate in a stern-wheeler," says Robert D. Turner, "but usually I do try to get everywhere that I write about."

Everywhere, for Victoria-born Turner, has thus far meant the waterways and railways of the province. Currently employed as the Chief of Historical Collections at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Turner is unquestionably the leading authority on B.C. transportation history, having produced seven books, with two more on the way.

"I try to put myself in the positions of the engineers and surveyors and ferry captains I'm writing about," he says, "Being part of the museum community helps because I get introduced to some very special oldtimers that way."

In particular, Turner recalls one delightful gentleman in his '90's. "We were sitting in his kitchen in Penticton. He was losing both his sight and his hearing. I ended up writing words and phrases down and almost shouting them to him. I'd say, 'Rotary Snowplow!' and his eyes would light up. He'd start remembering wonderful stories about working in the Coquihalla back in 1915."

Turner's parents were born in B.C and his grandparents passed along stories of riding paddle wheelers in the Kootenays. He studied resource management, B.C. provincial parks history and regional planning at the University of Victoria and UBC.

By the time Turner was ready to release his first book in 1973, Vancouver Island Railroads (Golden West Books, California), there were no B.C. publishers for his work. Since then Victoria's Sono Nis Press has quietly produced a stream of steady sellers from Turner, including The Pacific Princesses, The Pacific Empresses and Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs.

Turner's most recent book is West of the Great Divide (Sono Nis $39.95), a comprehensive pictorial history of the CPR in B.C. from 1880 to 1986. Already into its third printing, this book has a scope almost as vast as the-province's terrain and history. And yet its author remains little-known beyond history buffs.

"Bob's pure magic to those who've ships and trains in their blood," says fellow historian Charles Lillard, "but perhaps he's too decent and intelligent to become widely known."

Turner has also published several hundred of his own photographs in books, journals and exhibits. He wants to produce another pictorial book on B.C. railroads, plus complete a new book on logging railroads, perhaps research the CPR's Atlantic service, update his earlier work and possibly investigate paddle wheelers of the Northwest Territories.

"I'm satisfied with the progress we're making in B.C. history," says Turner, "It takes time to develop interest in local material. I don't expect my type of books to be on the grocery racks.

"But I hate to think of kids growing up in B.C. and believing that paddle wheelers only existed on the Mississippi River."

[BCBW Summer 1988]

The S.S. Moyie: Memories of the Oldest Sternwheeler

WHEN THE S.S. MOYIE WAS A BARELY maintained hulk in the early 1970s, I spent a few hours prowling about her innards. She was marooned on the beach at Kaslo, having served Kootenay travellers for 59 years. Two or three times that afternoon I watched as men reached out and touched a piece of the ship's woodwork or machinery. It occurred to me this was the sort of behaviour you normally see in cathedrals or art galleries. Now Bob Turner has captured some of that reverence in The S.S. Moyie: Memories of the Oldest Sternwheeler (Sono Nis $11.95), a tribute to the oldest intact vessel of her type in the world. For nearly 60 years the mountains of the West Kootenay region echoed to the deep, resonant whistle of a steamboat called the Moyie," Turner begins. So much of daily life in the Kootenay Lake region focused, in one way or another, on the Moyie." Even if this book did not include dozens of exceptional photographs (and no one will start reading before looking at the photos), we could easily sense that Turner is inclined to provide a close-up view of the Moyie's time and place in our history. Included are diagrams of the ship, sketches of her ornamental woodwork, memorabilia and chapters on Kootenay steamships, captains and crews (including Columbia River captain James W. Troup) and the construction of the Moyie in Nelson and Nakusp in 1898. The Moyie was built in B.C. for $41,285 and was named for the B.C. mining community on the Crowsnest Pass railway. When she was finally retired in 1957, she was the last passenger-carrying sternwheeler running in Canada and the western U.S. Romantics will be delighted to learn the Moyie's story has a happy ending. She's now a National Historic Site, operating as a 'Museum on the Beach' at Kaslo. "She carried generations of settlers, travellers, miners, tourist and excursion crowds," writes Turner, project historian for the Moyie since 1988, "Immigrants seeking new homes, internees tom from theirs and dispatched to unknown parts, soldiers going off to war, vice-regal visitors on tour and Kootenay residents of all ages going to the big city all crowded her decks and lounges." A Moyie visitors centre, based on the design of Kaslo's CPR station, opened for its first season in 1991. Turner's commemorative book is a project of the Kootenay Lake Historical Society. 1-55O39-013-9
--by Charles Lillard

[BCBW 1991] “History”

Esquimal & Nanaimo Railway
Publisher's Promo (2012)

"The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway had a special character and charm like few others. Skirting the eastern coastline of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, it was separated from the rest of the national and continental rail network by the Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits. During the days of steam power on the railway, it was a distant and often rustic outpost of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s vast system, but it was a profitable one. It hauled logs and coal, fish and paper, strawberries and raspberries, beer and wine, automobiles and oil, and tons and tons of wood. The E&N carried soldiers off to two world wars, toured royalty on Vancouver Island and carried hundreds of passengers in stately parlour cars or rickety day coaches. The mail was sorted on the trains and could be delivered “Up Island” in a matter of hours. The E&N’s well-maintained steam locomotives were the pride of the railway.

"Engineers, conductors and other crewmen were known up and down Vancouver Island. The railway was like a family to many who worked on it; many stayed with it for their entire careers. It did much to shape the character of Vancouver Island and provided the key links between people, places and the goods and services they needed and produced. It was essential and irreplaceable."

"Carefully researched, sensitively written and beautifully illustrated, this book captures the E&N in its many moods. Hundreds of never-before-published rare photos, including some exceptional colour images from the 1940s, and an extensive and insightful text document the railway, the people who worked on it and all those whose lives it shaped."

Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway
Review (2013)

from David R. Conn

Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013 by Robert D. Turner and Donald F. MacLachlan (Sono Nis $49.95 / $39.95)

As every school kid is supposed to know— but of-ten doesn’t—the transcontinental railway made Canada possible and it remains a vital freight link.

Vancouver Island’s segment of our national dream was a 250-km ribbon of steel along the southeast coast. That Vancouver Island rail line over the Malahat and through the rainforest was originally constructed by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir’s syndicate. Donald F. MacLachlan’s The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway: The Dunsmuir Years, 1884-1905 (Sono Nis 1986) recalled that pioneering era. Property granted as an incentive totaled 4000 sq. km., one-tenth of Vancouver Island, including rights to minerals and vast stands of prime timber. More was granted later.

The Canadian Pacific Railway acquired the E&N and its lands, constructing branch lines to Port Alberni and Lake Cowichan, and extending the main line north to Courtenay. The railway serviced many logging operations and lumber mills, while distributing general freight and carrying passengers. CPR rail ferries connected the E&N to the company’s mainland lines. This period of growth and consolidation was the subject of MacLachlan’s and Robert D. Turner’s The Canadian Pacific’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway:

The CPR Steam Years, 1905-1949 (Sono Nis 2012). As the railway most remote from CPR headquarters in Montreal, the E&N was rarely issued new equipment. There was a lot of making-do with refurbished gear. Challenging terrain not only required extra bridge rebuilding and track maintenance, it kept average speeds low and led to a number of accidents. Turner and MacLachlan’s final volume Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013 begins with conversion to diesel-electric locomotives, then charts the long decline of the once-proud E&N. It’s a feast for rail enthusiasts, and also documents part of the industrial history of Vancouver Island.

After many profitable decades, the E&N’s steam fleet was suddenly scrapped. According to the co-authors, new Baldwin diesel-electric locomotives were much more efficient on this line. The rapid conversion was a cost/benefit decision made by CPR management. Other technical improvements included control of several locomotives by a single engineer.
The postwar loss of the railway’s mail and express package contracts was a major blow. In spite of improved technology, the E&N’s operations remained slow and geographically limited. The CPR’s own truck and bus lines were, in effect, part of the competition.

In 1955, the passenger cars on
the line were replaced by Budd Dayliners. They were self-propelled diesel units operated separately from the freight trains. Again, this change was implemented for the sake of efficiency. The CPR also hoped to attract more passengers with the faster, air-conditioned Dayliners.

Vancouver Island had become much more populous and developed since the Great Depression. New pulp mills generated welcome business for the E&N. However, by the 1950s, the Nanaimo coal mines were exhausted, and accessible old-growth forests cut down. Long-time freight customers gradually closed, moved away, or changed to trucking. Many passengers abandoned train travel to use the improved highways.

The authors describe and illustrate many hazards E&N crews had to cope with: floods, washouts, slides, blizzards, forest fires and fallen trees. In 1964, a series of tsunami waves, generated by a huge earthquake off Alaska, caused extensive damage to rolling stock and infrastructure at Port Alberni.

Used General Motors locomotives were an improvement over the Baldwins, but then the CPR applied to Ottawa to cease E&N
passenger service in 1975.

The Canadian Transport Commission ordered it to continue. Soon after, federal Crown corporation VIA Rail took over all CPR passenger service. Commuter trains might have been viable around Victoria, but VIA had no mandate for transit operations. VIA attempted to end E&N passenger service in 1990. Rail passenger numbers were in decline across North America, but all the uncertainty didn’t help business.

In 1998, the CPR sold a reorganized E&N to RailAmerica, a short line operating company based in Florida. RailAmerica tried a tourist excursion service, but there weren’t enough passengers to keep it viable. As freight volume continued to decline, the company attempted to close down the railway. Finally, in 2006, RailAmerica and the CPR donated all their E&N assets to a new nonprofit organization, the Island Corridor Foundation, in return for tax credits.

The ICF includes municipal, regional and First Nations governments. The Southern Railway of Vancouver Island now operates the line for the foundation. In 2011, passenger service was suspended, as the track bed was no longer considered safe.

Turner notes, “Some freight is still moving on the E&N, but only on the trackage between Duncan and Parksville. All the service is based at Nanaimo.”
That seems to be the end of the E&N as Islanders have known it. However, Turner believes the railway won’t disappear. There is still a possibility of funds for one-time upgrading. Many stations and some equipment are being preserved, and the right-of-way, if not renewed, may eventually become a recreational trail. According to Turner, “It is a complicated puzzle to put together, and the ICF is certainly trying to make it work.”
In its 125 years of operation, the E&N has experienced many booms and busts.

Most recently, suburban sprawl and proliferating roads have sidelined this stubborn holdout from another era. However, if that newer infrastructure is not sustainable, someday the island may require a prime travel corridor. Perhaps it will carry passengers once again, in electric trains, hyperloop air cushion capsules, or other post-carbon technologies.

Co-author MacLachlan, who had a long career as an engineer with the railway, died in 2011. Lead author Robert D. Turner’s meticulous research traces E&N operations, its equipment, and key personnel over decades. Many photographs (half of them in colour) illustrate everyday scenes, and some special events, along the E&N. Many are from Turner’s own collection. “It’s a little startling sometimes to think that photos I took 45 years ago are in the book,” says Turner.

hc 978-1-55039-213-5;
sc 978-1-55039-212-8

Retired librarian David Conn has recently edited Raincoast Chronicles 22: Saving Salmon, Sailors and Souls - Stories of Service on the B.C. Coast (Harbour $24.95).