Tuesday, May 17, 2005

silk trade trains

The silk trains are a fascinating paragraph in railway history. They certainly were much more than myth but the aura that surrounds them sometimes makes it difficult to tie down facts. Canadian Pacific held a commanding hand in this game as its ships ( the Empresses of ... ) were the fastest on the Pacific run, Vancouver was a day nearer the Orient than American ports, and CPR [Canadian Pacific] owned its own tracks for a greater distance across the continent than any other railway. Its apparent US partner to New York the ultimate destination, was the New York Central. The result was significantly faster times from the Orient to New York. It is true that Prince Rupert is closer to the Orient than other North American ports but the references I turned up make no mention of it as being a factor in the trade. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver were players in the game. Weber (below) quotes statistics on raw silk imports (from 1924 to 1933) by the Silk Association of America Inc in New York but Port Rupert is not listed as a port of arrival

CPR [Canadian Pacific] had an early start in the game in the mid-, late-1880s after the opening of regular transcontinental service in 1886. Early shipments were in baggage cars on the transcontinental trains, subsequently shipments grew to the point where full trains were used, and CPR actually built some special steel "through baggage" cars for the service. Canadian National entered the picture after its creation in 1923 and is the only line serving Port Rupert, but I have not seen any reference to silk trains originating there. Prince Rupert is one of those places which always seems to be on the point of "taking off". Maybe this time But ...

Webber, Bernard. Silk Trains. Word Works Publications. Kelowna B.C. 1993. ISBN 0-9696187-1-9
Cote, Jean-G. "Steam Hauled Silk Trains". Canadian Rail. August 1976.
Barnoe, Mike "Canadian Silk Trains". Canadian Railway Modeller. Nov/Dec 1996
Kennedy, W.G. "Car for the Silk Express". Model Railroader. Feb 1965


[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

A significant part of the "business plan" for the original Transcontinental Railroad (Central and Union Pacific) was "land bridge" traffic between the Orient and Europe. But the Suez Canal opened in September 1869 and nearly all of the expected European traffic went that way. Except high-value, time-sensitive items such as tea and (raw) silk.

This high value, high speed traffic was a regular feature on the transcontinental route for years. Southern Pacific built special "tea and silk cars" in 1904, one of which is preserved by the California State Railroad Museum.

As other, more northern transcontinental routes were completed, they picked up part of this trade. Northern Pacific, Canadian Pacific, Great Northern and others. Such trains were still a feature through the 1920s. I'm not sure just when the last silk train (or for that matter tea train) ran, but I suspect the introduction of nylon (and other oil and synthetic based cloths) had a lot to do with it, as did air shipments of goods.

Interesting now that through containerization the Oriental-European land bridge traffic has become a major business, although the high-speed tea and silk traffic are now long gone (at least gone from the rails).

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street

Sacramento, CA 95814

My work address is: kwyatt@parks.ca.gov
My personal address is: kylewyatt@aol.com

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]