An unlikely author: Revelstoke Railway Museum volunteer Doug Mayer publishes sixth book

Long-time Revelstoke Railway Museum volunteer Doug Mayer has spent the last five years unearthing and publishing information about CPR's Revelstoke Division to benefit the museum.

Author Doug Mayer stands in front of the Revelstoke Model Railway Club’s model train display at the Revelstoke Railway Museum. Photo: Nora Hughes

This story is part of a feature that first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s January 2023 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:

We sit in chairs behind the model display of Revelstoke’s favourite past-time next to a workbench littered with hobby knives, sandpaper, and a slew of tiny foam trees as Doug tells me about his 40 or 50 years of research into railway history. Technically, the love affair goes back 65 years, when Doug’s parents bought him a Lionel train set for Christmas.

Despite the long run, Doug’s career as an industrial electrician for BC Hydro makes him an unlikely author to have published six books — working on a seventh — about the railway.

“I wasn’t a great student,” Doug says. “If you talk to my old English teachers in high school, they would be shocked that I wrote books that somebody wanted to read.”

Doug writes for two reasons: to tell the stories people don’t know and to help the Revelstoke Railway Museum. Doug volunteers his time and knowledge to the museum making these books. He insists on all the proceeds going to the museum and even pays any licensing fees on photographs.

“The bigger picture is that museums are in the learning business, and part of learning is disseminating knowledge,” says Jim Cullen, Revelstoke Railway Museum Director. “There’s a lot of museums that never publish a thing, and here we are — this little railway museum — and we’re on our sixth book. We punch above our weight.”

Doug’s books have a following. The museum has shipped copies worldwide, the farthest finding a home in Australia. They’ve sold out and had to reprint volumes to satisfy demand. Jim says the books go beyond pictures romanticizing the construction of the railway. They tell stories untold with historical heft to back them up.

The cover photo of Doug Mayer’s latest publication for the Revelstoke Railway Museum, Canadian Pacific Railway on the Revelstoke Division: Volume Six — The Connaught Tunnel — 106 Years of Service is a Canadian Pacific Railway photo by Nicholas Morant.

The Connaught Tunnel

Doug gestures to the model of the Connaught Tunnel on the model railway display. It’s one of many impressive engineering feats housed along the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Revelstoke Division. Once the longest in North America, the tunnel opened in 1916 and is the subject of his sixth book, published for the Revelstoke Railway museum.

Doug’s series is called Canadian Pacific Railway on the Revelstoke Division. In volumes one through five, he tells stories of CPR’s Revelstoke Division which spans Field to Kamloops. Volume Six: The Connaught Tunnel — 106 Years of Service describes the history of one of Canada’s most remarkable engineering undertakings and forgotten stories of happenings on the railway.

Volume six is the largest book in the series, with three times the number of pages than the previous one.

When researching a book, Doug dives deep. He uncovers photos and information that were never published. He accesses private collections, seeks out far-away photographs and reads through archived communication letters.

The Connaught Tunnel portal is seen here in September of 1932. Photo credit: Revelstoke Railway Museum, photographer unknown.

When he started researching the Connaught Tunnel about 15 years ago, it wasn’t with the thought of writing a book; it was to figure out how to model the tunnel’s portal for the club’s modular layout.

The miniature building stands tall above the entrance to the tunnel. Two large fans sit inside the mill-like structure. Doug explains that a steam locomotive working east to west up the grade puts out a tremendous amount of exhaust steam and carbon monoxide. The fans blow air through the tunnel against the climbing train to protect engine crews and passenger trains.

However, the current building doesn’t look like the model anymore. The tall roof that accommodated cranes — used to work on the diesel engines they once housed — burned down in the 1970s. When they rebuilt, modern machines didn’t need the same clearance, so the building is smaller. The original fans from 1916 are still there.

While researching the tunnel, Doug found himself in possession of an enormous amount of information, some of it never told.

In volume six, Doug tells the story of a large steal locomotive stalling inside the tunnel because of slippery rails. No one knows how long the wheels were spinning, and the train was stationary, but the driving wheels on the locomotive were made from a much harder grade of steel than the rails they ran on and created so much friction that the rails began to melt.

The book also contains stories about the time a glacial flood roared down from the Illecilliwaet Glacier, broke the tunnel’s retaining walls and flowed down onto the tracks, filling the tunnel portal opening at 22 feet high.

Stories untold

Around volume four, Doug started including more human interest in his books. The stories shifted to include lived experiences, such as the story of railway engineer Matt Crawford, who went on to become the mayor of Kamloops.

“One of the key things in the book is that I didn’t want the books to be a series of really nice photographs with captions that really don’t say anything. Because there are lots of books like that,” Doug says. “When I look in the background of the photograph, I ask; what is that building? What is that person doing there? Well, why is that like that? You got to look at photos, not at the photo subject. That’s where the stories are.”

The construction of Revelstoke’s division of the railway was a massive undertaking. History was written and re-written as the rail snaked its way from Field, through Roger’s pass and on to Kamloops. Entire lives revolved around the railway.

For Jim, the railway holds a magnitude of meaning.

“All these prior generations grew up with railways. They sent telegrams through the railway companies, they stayed at railway hotels, they rode on trains, they saw brothers and uncles and dads go away to war on trains. There’s this really intense life experience,” Jim explains. “They have a strong degree of nostalgia, and they have the experience that allows them to understand this stuff. Generations after me do not have a lived experience with railways. They have had none of those interactions with railways. We have to make meaning for them.”

Today, the railway doesn’t impact life as much as it used to. When you order something online, it shows up at the front door or the post office instead of at CP’s Freight Sheds.

“It’s not how it was several years ago,” says Doug. “Everything that people bought in Revelstoke came to these freight sheds. Because the road from here to the Okanagan or to Kamloops was not a road that you drove lightly.”

While not everyone may have seen the construction of grand tunnels or waited anxiously for the train to pull into the station, residents of Revelstoke see trains every day. And while most haven’t dedicated a lifetime to the railway, the CPR’s Revelstoke Division has devoted its life to us.

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Nora Hughes is a recent graduate of the Thompson Rivers University Interdisciplinary Program, where she combined her passions for Adventure Tourism, Communications and Journalism. With a strong interest in community news, Nora is passionate about giving a voice and face to the people of Revelstoke through storytelling.