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 ...

References:
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

Knowles

[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]

16 Comments:

Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

I just had an opportunity to look at the Central Pacific's 1878 annual report, and find the following tonnages for tea and silk:

Silk - in 1877 1,300,100 lbs ; in 1878 1,529,560 lbs
Silk Worm Eggs - in 1877 82,600 lbs ; in 1878 137,650 lbs
Tea - in 1877 18,403,520 lbs ; in 1878 16,431,380 lbs

It is interesting to note that the tonnage figures for tea in each year are more than double those of any other single commodity – except wool, which is itself more than double that of tea.

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

5/21/2005 10:09 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

[The] ... Central and Southern Pacific also operated Tea Trains – generally using the same cars, and often also operated in the same train with silk (at least in the 19th century). Was the tea (and perhaps also the silk) just for US consumption, or was some of it transshipped to Europe? I suspect the latter.

As late as 1903-1904 Southern Pacific built special wooden ventilated baggage cars that they called "Tea & Silk Cars". (They were called "Fruit & Silk Cars" before the 1906 formation of Pacific Fruit Express.) These new cars replaced the earlier ventilated "Passenger Fruit Cars" in tea and silk service. I know of some SP steel baggage cars (in the 1920s?) that also had end vents added, which I suspect were for the same service.

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

12/16/2005 3:47 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

... The silk was transported in raw form as unwashed skeins. It was NOT silkworms. Some of the silk was in fabric form.

... The reasons for speedy shipments were – high insurance costs charged for every hour the silk was in a railway's hands based on the value of the shipment – interest rates on the letters of credit used to finance the operation – silk prices varied widely on the National Silk Exchange so shipper's wanted to get to market ASAP before the price dropped too far.

... Silk train operations ceased around 1935 solely because the price of silk dropped from ca. $7.50/pound to ca. $1.25 due to the financial crash of 1929. Railway freight rates were too high for the lower value product, so silk was then shipped by sea from Yokohama to NYC via the Panama Canal in NYK Ships (the NYK line was owned by the Japanese Government). Nylon was introduced to the market in 1940, so it was not a factor in the demise of silk trains. Viscose rayon and cellulose acetate were introduced to the market in the early 1920's, and creamed off the lower range of the silk market – but were never effective competition at the top end of the silk market – their properties just couldn't hack it against silk. ...

—Alan Vanderpool

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

3/31/2006 7:38 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: kylewyatt@aol.com

Thanks for the added Silk Train info.

Early press accounts of the trains in the 1870s appear to indicate that live silk worms (in cocoons) were being transported, at least for part of the load. (From memory, I seem to recall accounts of some mixed loads, including cocoons and raw silk both.) Speculating, transit times and conditions at sea might have had some negative effects on raw silk as opposed to that with the worm still present – and these problems may have been subsequently overcome. Note – this is pure speculation.

The Central Pacific/Southern Pacific cars that the silk was shipped in were all ventilated (not refrigerated). And I don't recall any provision for heating. What shipping conditions are optimal for raw silk?

In the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific accounts, the cargos on the trains typically were both silk and tea. In fact a special group of cars constructed by the Southern Pacific shops in 1904 were officially called Tea & Silk Cars. I've always wondered about the tea part of those shipments. What was the destination (US or Britain, or?) and what justified the high speed for the tea?

—Kyle

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

4/01/2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Alan Vanterpool" avtpool@shaw.ca
Subject: Silk Trains

How were CPRR silk trains despatched – as extras, as second sections to fast mail trains, or as second second to passenger expresses, or other? Was the phrase "with right over all other trains" included in the train order? Were locomotive changes made very rapidly at divisional points? If so, was this operation included in the train orders?

—Alan Vanterpool

9/08/2006 7:11 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

In the very limited interval when silk trains still ran on the Espee [Southern Pacific, "SP"], I recall seeing a few special instructions somewhere in documents at California State Railroad Museum Library (SP Books of Rules, perhaps?) that demanded these trains run as extras with rights over all other trains. This would suggest that these trains, when pausing for crew changes at division points, would also have swapped engines with normally advance-arranged protection motive power in the same manner as mail trains and hot passenger trains: the replacement power would have already been fueled, watered and spotted with its engine crew aboard on an adjacent track for rapid substitution, after which only a static air brake test would be needed before the train could get underway again.

I have been gone from CSRM staff for some years now, so there may have been historic documents that have come to light since governing silk train operations. It would take some diligence to uncover much information since dedicated silk trains did run only a very short time and specific records may not even still exist for these unusual operations.

—Kevin

9/09/2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

Good questions.

We have evidence on the Canadian Pacific that a Royal Train (with the British Crown Prince) was sidetracked to let a silk train by in the 1920s (as I recall).

On the Central Pacific, we know they were run fast. I think they exceeded passenger train speeds - at least in part because they didn't need to stop at stations (except for water and fuel, engine and crew changes). Their passage was frequently noted in local papers, so they clearly were something special. I'm also not sure how much the formal train classifications we are familiar with (extra, 2nd section, etc.) were actually in use in the 19th century. I suspect silk trains may have been considered specials.

Also keep in mind that the trains frequently carried tea as well as silk.

—Kyle

9/09/2006 8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandfather, George Lee King apparently held a record for the silk train time out of Edmonton. Is there info anywhere about the records?

5/24/2007 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See: "Silk trains had to go through and that was that."

5/24/2007 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the 1931 record, they must mean Vancouver, British Columbia.

6/05/2007 10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, see:

" 'CLEAR BOARD' ACROSS CANADA: The Story of the CPR Silk Specials" by Greg Cave, THE ORDERBOARD, Newsletter for the Calgary Model Railway Society, MARCH 2, 2007, p 7.

6/05/2007 11:35 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

My Gradfather, C.W. Palmer drove one (as 'engineer') out of Calgary in the late 1920s. They had oversized wheels, about 6'4" for the high speed - I have seen a photo of him by his engine drive wheel, but at the time didn't understand the significance. He was 6' 3" which was very tall at the time. The wheel size is documented in a lovely book of interesting small things by a former CPR historian. There is a shank of raw silk in a small musuem in a small town east of Vancouver BC (Called Hope I think). It was from a crash and was fished out of the Fraser river. My Grandfather crashed his train. I wonder if it was the same one, but it seems they probably had lots of crashes. The raw silk looked a bit like wool. I have a raw silk shirt from Hong Kong and it was exactly like that, with lots of 'slub' (I think its called) - knotty bits.

9/28/2007 7:26 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Alan Vanterpool" avtpool@shaw.ca
 
There is a picture of an early silk train, drawn by a wood-fueled locomotive, in Lucius Beebe's book on the Southern and Central Pacific Railroads (page 50?). When and where was it taken? Is there any data on the locomotive available? When was the first Southern Pacific silk train? When was the last one? Where did the SPRR pick up the silk? Where were the SPRR silk trains interchanged on their way to New York, and with which railroad(s)?
 
—Alan Vanterpool, Edmonton, AB

10/19/2007 1:51 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: kylewyatt@aol.com

The photo in Beebe was taken by J. J. Reily about 1875.  It is on the Central Pacific line over Donner Summit, but I am not familar enough with the whole line to say exactly where.

Central Pacific (and later Southern Pacific) silk traffic began almost as soon as the transcontinental line was completed in 1869, generally paired with tea shipments in the 19th century.  Ships either arrived in San Francisco for transshipment across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, or went directly directly to Oakland for cross-platform loading – I'm not sure which.  It's also possible that trains were loaded in San Francisco and then went down the penninsula and up from San Jose to the transcontinental line through Niles Canyon.

In 1879 the new shorter route via the car ferry Solano (carrying complete trains) shortened the route from Oakland to Sacramento.

Shorter routes via the Pacific Northwest - Northern Pacific, Canadian Pacific, Great Northern, and eventually Milwaukee Road, and Canadian National predecessors significantly reduced the transit time from the Orient to Eastern US and Canada, and this significantly reduced the Southern Pacific traffic.  I know that as late as 1904 Southern Pacific built new cars for use in the service.  My perception is that the silk traffic lasted at least into the late 1920s, but I don't know for sure.

The Central Pacific interchanged with the Union Pacific at Ogden, Utah.  Union Pacific interchanged with several lines at Omaha/Council Bluffs.  Trains followed different routes East from there.  It's possible that Central Pacific interchanged some traffic with the Rio Grande Western at Ogden, but I doubt very much of this high value traffic went via that slower route.  I also doubt very much traffic went via Southern California, either on the Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe, but it is possible some did.

—Kyle Wyatt

10/23/2007 8:30 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Also see the manuscript, Silk Roads Across North America.

7/28/2008 5:26 PM  
Blogger John D. Blair said...

My grandfather was a dispatcher on the Great Northern Railroad in Spokane, Washington. He had orders to high ball the silk trains through -- all other traffic waited/was side tracked. My father, as a boy in the 1920's remembered seeing the silk trains. The engines had red flags sticking out from them. He wrote an article about it for The Westerner. The stuff dreams are made of.

4/17/2009 2:36 PM  

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