Turning Back the Pages: A life in silk

Colleen Palumbo looks back at the history of moving silk across Canada.

Pictured is a photo of one of the silk trains that was used to transport silk across the country. Most of the time trains only had 10 or 11 cars on this speedy journey but on at least one occasion they had 21.

For many years the Western world had been intrigued, not only with the mysteries of the Orient, but also with its riches too. Its spices, tea and silk were very hard to come by and therefore wanted by everyone.

By 1902, ships carrying large cargos of silk were arriving in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.

Nobody really gave much thought to how the silk got here as long as it did but the process was really quite unique. The silk cocoons were bundled with the live worm still inside, into bales approximately 36 inches high, 24 inches wide and about 12 inches thick, each wrapped in straw, jute or burlap. Each of the bales weighed between 125 and 200 pounds.

These bundles were placed on board ship at their origin and the voyage to North America began. Because they were, to a certain degree perishable, the speed with which they were transferred to the mills where the silk was milled was important. Special trains were put together to make the move from the dock to the mill. Silk was not shipped in freight cars but rather in renovated passenger, equipment, baggage or express cars, all of which had special steel-tired wheels.

The interior of the cars were lined with varnished wood, coated in paper, made airtight and sealed to keep the moisture out. The trains were usually made of 10 to 12 cars but did, at one point, reach a record 2l.

Preparation for taking on the silk cargo began days in advance of its arrival. Yardmasters, locomotive foremen, trainmasters and master mechanics, roadmasters, etc., received several days’ notice by letter; telegraph operators and agents concerned, from several hours to a few days’ notice; crewmen had a day or so, or some hour’s notice, as crewmen took the run in their tum.

The train was usually waiting at least eight hours in advance of the arrival of the ship. The customs personnel went in motor launches out to meet the ship so that there was no delay once the ship reached shore. The transfer took about eight minutes. The lock-up procedure five to 10 minutes and then the silk trains were roaring along the tracks heading for the silk mills in New York.

Newer faster ships were brought into operation, which helped to speed up the arrival of the silk. The connection was important and in October 24, 1924, a record run from Vancouver to Field was set.

Leaving Vancouver on Monday, October 20, 1924 at 7:47, a Canadian Pacific silk train which carried silk cargo from the CPR ship, Empress of Russia, made the run to Field, BC, a distance of 504 and one half miles, in 14 hours and 26 minutes. The train consisted of 15 cars and arrived in Field at 10:13 am.

Silk was such a valuable cargo that it had its own place on the New York stock exchange, called the National Silk Exchange, which was established in the late 1920’s.

The most dramatic record for speed was set by the Empress of Canada, with a specific train that made the trip from Japan, across Canada, to New York, in just 13 days. The longest train ran in 1927, consisting of 21 cars, containing 7,200 bales of silk worth $7 million.


To read a previous Turning Back the Pages click here.

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