Ghost hunter: Norm Tandberg explores the Cowichan Valley for evidence of logging railway history
‘The sad thing…is it’s gradually disappearing. You won’t be able to find it eventually.’
Norm Tandberg recalls the walk in the forest that changed his life.
While leading a hiking group up Mount Sutton near Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island around 1980, he made a puzzling discovery.
“We came across an area that was flat as a pancake and cleared out,” recalls the retired letter carrier from Victoria. “I thought, ‘that looks like a rail grade.’”
It merited further investigation. He returned with his two sons and, sure enough, his hunch proved correct.
“We followed it and came across an old steam donkey and a fuel cart, and then a bridge that they blew up that used to cross the creek.
“A few years later, I went back again and I’ll be darned if I didn’t find a rail switch. That was an exciting find.”
More than four decades after his initial find, Tandberg hasn’t looked back. “It got me curious about rail history,” he says. “Once you find one thing, it spurs you on to find more.”
Some of the relics date back about a century.
He’s found old pipes and cables, steel spikes and rails, a skidder that hauled out timber for processing, and a “crummy” vehicle used to transport loggers to and from work.
Part of a coupler that once linked two rail cars together today sits as a souvenir in his home. “That thing was 60 pounds. I rolled it into my day pack and carried it out.”
These days, the piston that really drives Tandberg’s passion is the potential to discover old wooden railway trestles.
Restored railway trestles have become tourist hot spots, attracting tens of thousands of visitors annually, including Myra Canyon in BC’s Okanagan Valley and Kinsol Trestle in the Cowichan Valley.
But for Tandberg there is something special about doing the research, bouncing along rough gravel roads, and sleuthing out long-abandoned trestles hiding amongst the trees.
“The Cowichan Valley is a wealth of old railway history,” he says.
On this weekday morning, Tandberg steers his 2010 Mazda CX-7 onto the Caycuse Main Line, a gravel logging road near the southwest end of Cowichan Lake.
He pulls over at the 6.5-kilometre mark near Nixon Creek.
“It’s easy to miss. I’ve had to turn around a couple of times.”
Tandberg grabs his hiking poles and backpack and leads the way into the mysterious rainforest. Bigleaf maples swaddled in thick green moss dominate the stand, their leaves drifting down to form a golden carpet on the forest floor. Mushrooms— the fruity body of fungi, integral to the forest’s health — punch through the humid soil.
“I call it my church,” Tandberg says. “It’s like a spiritual experience.”
Our destination is Suicide Bridge Trestle, built around 1934 by Industrial Timber Mills, one of numerous logging railway companies that once operated on Vancouver Island.
Although our route is littered with deadfall and brush, it is discernably flatter than the surrounding landscape. “We’re on the rail grade now,” he confirms.
A 15-minute walk takes us to the lip of a ravine.
“We’re here,” says Tandberg, edging towards a viewpoint. “Every time I come here, more of the trestle is falling down. I hope there’s still something left. We’ll see.”
And there it is, Suicide Bridge Trestle, a haunting image of an industrial past, rotted, broken, teetering, hidden through camouflage, yielding reluctantly to the incessant gnaw of wind, rain and snow.
“It feels like a ghost from the past,” Tandberg says. “Like, where did this come from? It seems to be in the middle of nowhere.”
The trestle consisted of the upper railway deck supported by a series of so-called “bents,” each featuring up to six vertical piles, cross-hatched with support beams for greater strength.
Getting to the trestle is another question. The drop down is steep, and leaves mask potential holes. “That’s gonna be slippery,” he adds.
We retreat to his vehicle, drive a short distance up the road, and pull over to access the trestle from the other side.
The forest is more open here, but mined with the thorns of devil’s club. Fresh elk droppings hint at wildlife lurking close by. Nixon Creek burbles below us, emboldened by recent rains.
We follow the ridge of the ravine before carefully dropping down, and minutes later find ourselves standing amongst the toes of the trestle.
“As you can see, they are gradually starting to fall over,” Tandberg says. “I can almost knock down a plank with my walking stick.”
Around us we find a few relics, including rail spikes, a metal tub, and a section of rail growing out the root of a fallen tree.
And solitude. “We’ve never ever run into anybody here,” he says.
One can only imagine the hard physical labour — and dangers — that involved construction of the trestle and rail grade.
The spring 1986 edition of Whistle Punk, a now-defunct publication of the BC Forest History Magazine, reveals how Suicide Bridge got its name. Through death, yes, but not suicide.
(A whistle punk was a worker who sounded the steam whistle to signal it was time to pull fallen logs from the forest).
During construction, one worker was “bucking wood for the steam shovel” when the “skyline” cable snapped and killed him.
The next day a second worker died in a cable accident.
And two days later, a log rolled on top of a third man and killed him.
Three deaths in four days — a tragic testament to the lack of safety rules that characterized early railway construction.
“All were preventable, if people had been more careful,” Tandberg says.
(As fate would have it, tragedy dogged the railway logging industry to the bitter end. Western Forest Products closed Vancouver Island’s last such railway after a derailment near Woss killed three workers and injured two others in 2017.)
To find remnants of long-lost logging railways, Tandberg begins with old maps and history books. “It’s a mission to solve the puzzle as to where these are in relation to everything here now.”
His computer-savvy youngest son, Mark, who lives in Port Alberni and often accompanies dad, overlays the historic maps digitally against Google Earth and trail apps to help refine the hunt.
“Between us, we’ve found a lot of old rail stuff, some pretty good discoveries.”
Which leads to Tandberg’s vision for all these finds. He allows that most of what he knows is in his head. It would be good to have them documented, better yet put to a practical purpose.
“If there was the money and the wherewithal, it would be really nice to put up educational signs and turn these into rails to trails, where people could walk or bike them,” he says.
“The sad thing about the stuff we’re seeing today is it’s gradually disappearing. You won’t be able to find it eventually.”
Then he pauses.
“Unless you really know what you’re looking for.”
Those Lake People, Stories of Cowichan Lake, by Lynne Bowen.
Black Smoke and Timber, A History of Cowichan Lake Logging Railways, by William Gibson.
Vancouver Island Railroads and Logging by Rail, the British Columbia Story, by Robert D. Turner
Sawlogs on Steel Rails (with a focus on Port Alberni), by George McKnight.
4,000 Years, A History of the Rainforest of Vancouver Island's Southwest Coast, by the Sooke Region Museum.
Historic Hikes, Sites & Sights of the Cowichan Valley, by T.W. Paterson.
Research & Writing on Western History, by Nanaimo writer Tom W. Parkin.
Subscribe free to sixmountains.ca. More than 40,000 unique visitors.
— Larry Pynn, Jan. 12, 2024