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Shakespeare and the Coquihalla

Spanning over 500 kilometres, British Columbia’s Highway 5 is an oft-traversed north-south passage. The route is vital to connecting the metropolis of the Lower Mainland to the towns of the provincial interior, in addition to linking arteries that provide the most accessible land travel to some of Western Canada’s largest cities. While the northern section is officially known as the Southern Yellowhead Highway, the southerly tract is known as none other than the Coquihalla.

Recognized for its incredible views of mountains, gulches and waterways, travelling the Coq is a familiar custom for many British Columbians. Though beautiful, the highway is notorious for being one of the province’s most dangerous--this in a part of the country where treacherous roads and unpredictable conditions are the norm. A high number of accidents (at times fatal) are attributed to the roadway. The route sees vehicles, semis, motorcyclists and the odd, fearless bicyclist travelling the steep grades and winding curves that are hallmarks of the highway, not to mention the summit which reaches heights of nearly 1,300 metres.

Coquihalla Gorge, The Sunday Historian

But perhaps it’s this severe nature of the Coquihalla; its lanes snaking alongside a raging river, through the wilderness of a perilous mountain pass, that makes some of its signage all the more curious. Driving along the stretch between Hope and the summit, one might notice a pattern in the place names and exits off the highway.

Shylock. Portia. Jessica. Lear. Romeo. Juliet.

There is Iago Peak above the Great Bear snowshed and the ever popular Othello Tunnels.

For here, in one of the most rugged and unforgiving parts of the planet, where avalanches threaten to bury roads and headlights struggle to cut through nighttime fog, is a touch of Shakesperian refinement.

In 1914, 72 years before the first phase of the Coq would open, the Kettle Valley Railway would begin construction on a rail line that would connect B.C.’s coast to the Kootenays. A division of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the KVR was an engineering marvel. The track was built over mountain ranges and crews contended with extreme conditions, living and working under the threat of danger and death.

The most arduous section was the Coquihalla gorge. Through the millenia, the river bore a cavernous trench in the granite, creating a true conundrum for those working on the project. It’s said that many thought the best way to navigate the gorge was to bypass it entirely, but Chief Engineer Andrew McCulloch had another idea.

BC Parks maintains that McCulloch, then in his mid-forties, hung over the gorge in a wicker basket, evaluating the challenge it presented. He concluded that a series of tunnels be built straight through the granite walls. Indeed this was no small feat, but his plan worked. Amazed by his daring and genius, people nicknamed the system “McCulloch’s Wonder” and today the shafts are still there, solid and sound, but are officially known as the Othello Tunnels.

As the story goes, McCulloch was quite the fan of William Shakespeare, so much so that he named many of the stations along the KVR for characters from the Bard’s plays. The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Romeo & Juliet and King Lear all had players featured.

Andrew McCulloch was born in Ontario in 1864 to a Scottish farming family. The oldest of five children, he was intent on helping to support his siblings and parents, but rather than farm, decided to go to college. He achieved very good grades and was originally set for a career in accounting, but in his twenties decided to head west to British Columbia.

For years he worked odd jobs including at a Seattle area sawmill, as an axeman in Steven’s Pass and for the CPR along the Thompson River. He was a hard worker--a recent Penticton Herald article states that he once “walked 100 miles in three days to secure a job surveying the CPR’s Crow’s Nest line.” He would eventually take on engineering roles, even having a hand in the incredible Spiral Tunnels near Kicking Horse Pass. Ultimately, he would be offered the position with the Kettle Valley Railway by Thomas Shaughnessy, then-President of the CPR and for whom the moneyed Vancouver neighbourhood is named.

While McCulloch is generally considered to be the one responsible for the naming, two other theories do exist. One asserts that James J. Warren, President of the Kettle Valley Railway and good friend of McCulloch, was culpable, while another suggests it was his daughter who urged him to do so. While plausible, it is Andrew McCulloch who is almost always given credit.

By the summer of 1916, the KVR was in operation. Servicing both freight and passenger trains, the Shakespearian station names proved to be quite popular, with people apparently going to great lengths to view the theatrical signs. The track, though noble in its intent to connect the province, was regularly blighted by the elements. From heavy snow to rock slides, the Coquihalla line endured many closures and would eventually be dropped entirely by the CPR in the early 1960s. Nearly twenty years later, the last remaining section of KVR track, bridging Okanagan Falls and Spences Bridge would be discarded.

But by the time Vancouver was celebrating Expo ‘86, the Coquihalla Highway had picked up where the Kettle Valley Railway left off, providing a link between the coast and the interior. An impressive, large-scale project, it boasted more than 10,000 workers at one time and featured incredible numbers of interchanges, bridges, over and underpasses. It even followed much of the same course as the long-defunct KVR and, in turn, adopted many of the old station and place names.

Today, the Coquihalla is one of the most travelled highways in the province, seeing thousands of vehicles per day. Visitors, residents and workers navigate the route, contending with hazards, due both to the elements and other drivers. But every so often a signpost will crop up, perhaps green or blue, against some staggering, formidable view of mountain and forest. It might read “Romeo” or “Juliet” or even “Iago.” But more than some simple Bard of Avon reference, it serves as a reminder of humanness. Of how a love for something, an appreciation of it can exist in the most unlikely of places. How people tend to leave bits of themselves wherever they go--even an intrepid railway engineer with a penchant for Shakespeare.


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