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The Housekeeping trestle

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

One of the chief set pieces of the movie Housekeeping, filmed in the fall of 1986 in and around Nelson and Castlegar, was a huge wooden railway trestle.

The movie and novel of the same name that it was based on are set in fictional Fingerbone, Idaho, which is based on Sandpoint, Idaho, where author Marilynne Robinson was born. (And which became a sister city to Nelson in 2013.)

In the first few pages of the novel, Robinson’s protagonist, Ruth, describes her grandfather working as “a watchman, or perhaps a signalman” for a railway at some indeterminate time. But “his mortal and professional careers ended in a spectacular derailment.”

Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train … had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.

In the movie, we don’t see the derailment either — only its aftermath, with a gaping hole in the ice. The townsfolk, unable to help the victims, are reduced to keeping vigil around the hole, speculating on how the train might have come to rest, and posing for a group photo.

The bridge was perhaps based on the Sandpoint railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille, which is 4,800 feet (1,463 meters) long. But I’m not aware of any similar tragedies that befell it — I think that part was pure imagination.

When you see the trestle in the movie, you might recognize the setting as Kootenay Lake but be puzzled by the exact location. That’s because the trestle was actually built for the movie, disassembled, and then rebuilt at a second location.

Production notes included with the press kit called it “a partial full-scale railway bridge stretching halfway across Sunshine Bay, located 40 minutes from Nelson. The bridge extends 105 feet out over the water, 175 feet up the bank and stands 25 feet above the water line.”

However, that’s not the whole story.

Nelson’s Lou Coletti, who was a carpenter on Housekeeping, says the trestle was indeed originally built at Sunshine Bay, using George Vale’s pile driver for a few of the pilings. The rest of the poles went only a foot or so into the water.

Several scenes were shot at this location, including a sequence where Ruth (Sara Walker) and her sister Lucille (Andrea Burchill) are playing hooky and spot their eccentric aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) walking across the trestle.

In another shot, we see younger versions of Ruth and Lucille with their grandmother while some special effect makes it appear that a train is coming from the distance.

The film’s final shot is of Ruth and Sylvie crossing the trestle in the dark.

The trestle was also needed for the winter scene showing the disaster that befell Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather. And therein lied a problem.

“The production company was under the mistaken impression that the lake would freeze over,” Coletti says.

When it became apparent it would not, the trestle was cut at the water line, dismantled, and barged down the lake to a spot at or near Nelson where it was rebuilt on dry land.

The precise location was described variously as “Bealby Point Road beach,” “near the old Kootenay Forest Products plant,” and “at the old Westar sawmill site.” (Westar was what Kootenay Forest Products was latterly known as.)

Once the trestle was moved, more work was required to prepare the scene for shooting. As Coletti explains:

They built a U-shaped berm beyond it to the northeast to hide the background. They bought snowmaking equipment from the old Blewett ski hill and covered the whole area in snow to simulate the frozen lake. A plywood deck was built over a pond near the trestle. It had a jagged hole cut where the locomotive was supposed to have gone through. Chunks of white Styrofoam were cut to simulate fragments of floating ice.

All the pictures seen below are once it reached Nelson, including the colour shots by Al Peterson, and three in the Nelson Daily News on Nov. 21, Nov. 28, and Dec. 12, 1986, by Steve Thornton and Carol Wohlgemuth. (Touchstones Nelson has the Nelson Daily News negatives from this era, but unfortunately the trestle pictures are not among them.)

Here is how the scene looked in the movie:

The trestle was removed after filming. It was in the movie’s trailer and a photo of Lahti crossing it appeared on the novel’s cover when it was reissued in paperback.

But what puzzled me: why did the production company go to the trouble and expense of building a trestle rather than using a real one?

Perhaps they couldn’t find one that sat over water in the way they envisioned. But even if they had, the CPR wouldn’t have let them use it. In a Dec. 6, 1986 story in The Vancouver Sun, director Bill Forsyth complained about the difficulty of dealing with the CPR. As Marke Andrews reported:

The next calamity happened three weeks into the shoot when CP Rail refused to let Housekeeping use its tracks or equipment. This was a real blow because the movie is set in a railroad town, and trains play an important role. CP Rail executive were upset at some of the images in the script, particularly those of children walking along tracks and of people hopping freight trains.

Negotiations followed. Columbia Pictures found a lawyer in Washington, DC with railway connections and with the help of Nelson mayor Gerald Rotering and MP Bob Brisco, they convinced the CPR to relent. By that time, however, the faux trestle had already been built.

The CPR’s co-operation was announced in the Nelson Daily News of Nov. 21, 1986 — beneath a photo of the trestle at its second location — but there weren’t a lot of details.

“The railway motif is critical to the setting and storyline in Housekeeping and CP Rail’s participating is helping us realize the full dramatic impact of this project,” producer Robert Colesberry said at the time.

Mayor Gerald Rotering said: “CP Rail has helped to shown foreign filmmakers that all facets of BC’s economy and government will work together to make filming easy.”

(The belated co-operation didn’t earn the company an acknowledgement in the credits, however.)

When I asked him about it recently, Rotering couldn’t remember exactly how he intervened:

Although my daughter and niece were extras, I don’t recall much other than seeing the partial trestle sticking out from the shore over a bit of Kootenay Lake down at the KFP site somewhere. The CPR’s lack of interest rings a bell, but that’s about all. What struck me most about Housekeeping was that I had no communication with director Bill Forsyth.

An assistant to Forsyth’s agent said she would pass along an email on my behalf inquiring about the logistics of building and moving the trestle, but I haven’t heard anything back.

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