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A History of BC's Fraser Canyon, 1808-1966



    Historically, the Fraser Canyon stretches from Lytton to Agassiz, a distance of 85 miles. Geologically the Canyon is specifically that section of gorge, 24 miles in length, from Boston Bar to Yale. The modern traveller, however, thinks of it as that stretch of highway where the Trans Canada turns south at Cache Creek and twists through 112 miles of breath-taking magnificence to its terminus at Hope (see map).

    With the arrival of trading vessels on the west coast during the latter part of the 18th century, the Thompson Indians built a trail from their capital of Camchin, also spelled Kumsheen (Lytton) to the lower Fraser River. They bridged gaps and ascended cliffs using an intricate spider-web of primitive ladders.

    When Simon Fraser, the first white man to traverse this trail, reached Camchin on June 19, 1808, the spider-web of ladders was still in use, and he was guided over them by "Little Fellow", one of the Thompson chiefs. After reaching the coast on July 2nd, he made a return through the Canyon. His report was so discouraging that it was 16 years before anyone had another look at the Canyon.

    In December 1824, James McMillan, acting under hopeful instructions from Governor Simpson, explored the canyon with a view to a fur brigade trail from the coast to the interior, but his report was equally negative. Four years later Simpson made a personal survey of the route and decided that the Canyon: "... cannot under any circumstances be attempted by loaded craft ..."

    Nevertheless, the urgency of such a route grew with the passage of time. The only other practical method of freighting from Fort Kamloops to the coast was along the Columbia River, which flowed through the United States. Although the Oregon Treaty of 1846 guaranteed its use by the Hudson's Bay Company, no one knew how long this privilege might continue.

    As a result, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, pioneer pathfinder, explored two alternative routes in 1846-47. The first lay west of the Canyon and followed a chain of rivers and lakes from Lillooet to Harrison Lake to Fort Langley. It later became known as the Harrison Road. The second road was to cross the Cascades, starting from the Hope-Yale area. In preparation for developing this southern route, Forts Yale and Hope were built in 1848.

    That year, the Cayuse Indian War broke out in Washington State, closing the Columbia route. The fur brigades scrambled over the Cascades to Yale. But so disastrous was this experience that Governor Douglas abandoned Fort Yale and pinned his hopes on the southern trail leading east from Fort Hope.

Hope, BC, 1872     On March 23, 1858, the first big gold strike was made. A party of miners stopped for dinner on a sand bar 10 miles north of Hope. One, a man named Hill, noticed particles of gold in the moss at his feet. A panning yielded some nuggets. The bar, appropriately named Hill's Bar, was immediately divided into 25-foot squares and digging began. Before the end of the season, they had taken $2,000,000 from the sand.

    By June 1st, bitten by the gold bug, 10,000 men had struggled up the river to Hope and beyond. On June 7, the first steamer to reach Hope - the Surprise - docked with the advance guard of another 15,000. The river ran high that year and many of the makeshift rafts used for navigation between Hope and Yale cracked up with consequent loss of life.

    With most of the land claimed around Yale, the miners pressed northward through the treacherous Hell's Gate. Just below Spuzzum, they encountered Indians, and two French miners were killed. When news of the deaths was spread, a party of 40 riflemen started up on foot from Yale. They encountered the Indians at Spuzzum and in the ensuing battle, 7 Indians were killed. The miners completed the task by burning the Indian village to the ground.

    More gold-seekers poured into Spuzzum, over the charred earth and on towards Lytton, at the confluence of the Thompson River, which they reached in July. By the year end, there were 8 paddlewheelers plying the waters between the coast and Hope, as well as a conglomeration of smaller craft. Competition for freight and passengers became keen and in the races to amass fortunes many a captain over-stuffed the boilers. Explosions were frequent and many a body floated down the river.

    By the end of that year, also, many a miner turned bitterly homeward, convinced that the Fraser River strike was a hoax. With most of the area around Hope claimed, with the river running so high that many bars were constantly under water, and with the regions above Yale so difficult of access, the gold rush slowed to a crawl.

    But, there were others to take their places. As soon as navigation opened in the spring of 1859, a wave of swearing, sweating, straining humanity descended on the gap. Yale was revitalized into a gold-boom town capable of catering to every need of man from opium to ornate sin palaces. Saloons, gambling halls and dens vastly outnumbered the places of ordinary business. Former judge, newspaper man and legislator Ned McGowan, who had escaped his native California one jump ahead of the noose, ruled over a miscellany of thugs at Yale, and with the complicity of Canadian Gold Commissioner Hicks, victimized the townspeople and fleeced the passing miner until Matthew Begbie, newly appointed judge of the territory, dropped in with a handful of troops and restored order.

    Hope was by-passed and the steamers began running the difficult stretch of river to Yale. The famous Umatilla was the first to dock at Yale, but she was followed by the Enterprise, the Hunt and a host of others. Seabird, the sister ship to the Surprise which was the first to land at Hope, ran aground on a sand bar just below Yale on her first trip. The sand bar thereafter bore the name "Seabird Bar".

    While passage from the coast to Yale was relatively easy, the road northward from that point was still over the fur brigade trail. With little money in its coffers, the infant colony was in no position to lay out large sums of money for road construction. Consequently, when the rush of 1859 began, the miners, with inducements from Governor Douglas, began to improve the old trail. Farther to the west, miners still toiled over the Harrison Lakes route to Lillooet - pioneered by Anderson in 1846 - but the majority still preferred the more hazardous Canyon route.

    While many were still disillusioned about the wealth of the interior, the men who pushed north-east along the Thompson or northward from Lillooet along the Fraser were rewarded. "Doc" Keithley made the first of the Cariboo strikes early in 1860, and when news of this leaked out, the rush was on again.

    With the rush to the Cariboo, the picture changed. No longer was the access to the gold fields a matter of boating to Yale and traversing the Canyon. The Cariboo lay far to the north and any kind of trail petered out with scarcely one third of the distance covered. While some improvements had been made in the brigade trail from Yale to Lytton, running completely along the east bank of the river, freighters such as Billy Ballou preferred to drag boats through the Canyon by brute strength and towlines.

    It was becoming increasingly obvious that a better means of access would have to be constructed to meet the growing demands of the gold-seekers and those who sought to supply them with the necessities of life. Governor Douglas, an astute man, discarded the possibilities of the Harrison Lake route and concentrated on the Fraser Canyon. In June 1860, he awarded a $22,000 contract to Franklin Way and Joseph Beedy for the construction of a "mule trail" from Yale to Spuzzum. In August, another contract was let for a similar trail from Spuzzum to Boston Bar.

    Even before this adventurous project was firmly begun, it was apparent that it was obsolete. The traffic over the route was exceedingly heavy. Even with improvements, this road was terrible.

    In the autumn of 1860, Francis Barnard laid the foundation of his later famous express company by walking the 360 miles from Yale to the Cariboo carrying letters at $2.00 each and newspapers at $1.00. Then he walked back, packing the mail on his back. A dream began - The Great Wagon Road, 18 feet wide and 400 miles long.

Fraser Canyon - The Great Bluff, 1860s     With the colony in better financial condition than ever before thanks to the gold rush, Douglas ordered Captain Grant of the Royal Engineers to commence work in May, 1862, with 53 sappers to blast a trail. Forsaking the old fur brigade trail along the eastern bank of the Canyon, Grant chose a route on the west side. The present highway follows the same path.

    While the Royal Engineers bored and blasted their way from Yale to Spuzzum on the west side of the Canyon, private contractors undertook the construction along the east bank from Lytton to Spuzzum. Governor Douglas kept himself busy paving the way for more loans.

    By mid-1863 the road was completed to Spuzzum from both north and south and the only problem that remained was to replace the ferry which linked the two sections with a permanent bridge. Joseph Trutch undertook the task, though neither he nor any of his partners knew much about bridge building of this magnitude. His fee was to be a five-year charter to charge tolls on the bridge.

    Because of periodic floods, it was impossible to place footings at that point in the Canyon, and Trutch's solution was to construct two 4-inch cables of woven wire. These were then strung across the void at Alexandra at a spot selected by Sgt. McCool of the Royal Engineers. Anchored by rock towers at both ends, the cables were slung across the chasm and from them was suspended a deck of heavy wooden planking. When completed, the structure was tested by driving a 4-horse team and wagon carrying a 3-ton load. The Engineers reported that the span sagged a mere quarter of an inch during the passage.

    Even before the road was half completed, men were swarming over the route, among them Francis Barnard, the original mail-man. In 1862, he had established the first "pony express" - he still walked but his horse carried the load. Billy Ballou, his rival, still competed, but when Barnard got the government mail contract, Ballou went broke and left. On return trips, Barnard and his horse carried out gold.

    Beyond Lytton, further contracts were let for the road which would eventually link up with the Harrison route at Clinton. In 1864 the route was pushed along the east bank of the Thompson to Cook's Ferry (Spences Bridge). Most of the work was performed by Chinese, imported by the firm of "Ho Hang and Ab Yep", but epidemics of smallpox so ravaged the workers that the Great Wagon Road proceeded at a snail's pace from Cook's Ferry to Clinton. Finally, by the winter of 1864, the Great Wagon Road had conquered the Fraser Canyon from Yale to the Cache Creek area. There remained only the stretch from Yale to Hope itself.

    The steamer Umatilla still plied the waters between Hope and Yale, taking 5 hours on the up run and coasting back in 40 minutes. To overcome this hazard and reduce the cost of freight, the last segment of the Wagon Road was completed in late 1864.

Fraser Canyon - the Great Wagon Road     Scarcely was a section of the Great Wagon Road opened than Barnard put his Barnard Express and Stage Lines freight wagons on it. With the completion of the road, he introduced the 14-passenger stage, drawn by 4 or 6 horses. Establishing stopping places every 13 miles, the stages ran from Fort Hope to Soda Creek, 2 trips a week, with a run taking 48 hours. At the stopping places, eating-sleeping houses called roadhouses sprang up - one of the most famous of these was Ashcroft Manor. The steady demand for fodder created the satellite industry of hay farms.

    By the late 1860s, the costs of horse-drawn transportation were becoming weighty. In an effort to reduce costs, Francis Barnard and an associate, J. C. Beedy, attempted to introduce steam tractors. They imported 6 enormous road steamers from Scotland, together with Scottish engineers. The first was put on the Great Wagon Road in 1870, but despite its sound and fury it stalled on the grade of Jackass Mountain. Four of the machines were then sent back to Scotland; one became the first steam tractor in the logging industry of B.C., and the fate of the sixth machine is unknown.

    In his attempts to conquer the Fraser Canyon, man had used many modes of transportation up to that time - feet, boats, mules, horses, wagons, stages and eventually the steam-driven tractor. The oddest experiment, however, occurred on the Canyon's bypass road, the Harrison Road. In May 1862, Frank Laumeister, freighter out of New Westminster, tried camels. He brought 21 of them to British Columbia, but the experiment was short-lived. The camel foot that functioned so well on the sands of the desert was extremely vulnerable to the sharp rocks of the ill-constructed trails. The camels were eventually turned loose near Kamloops. As late as 1900, some were still to be seen, man-shy and gaunt, along the highway to Savona.

    At 9.00 a.m. on May 15, 1880, Mr. R. Bray ignited the first blast of dynamite at No. 1 tunnel, just north of Yale, marking the start of the western segment of the continent-spanning Canadian Pacific Railway. That first blast of dynamite also threw rock across the Great Wagon Road, and it was 70 years before the road resumed its dominant role in the Canyon.

Fraser Canyon - Yale, 1880     Andrew Onderdonk, a Chicago railroad builder, secured the contract to construct 128 miles of rail from Emory's Bar, below Yale, to Savona. Yale boomed, with the population soaring at times to nearly 7,000. Hotels, boarding houses and flop-houses sprang up to join staid old York Hotel, built in 1858 to serve stage-coach passengers. Railway machine shops and offices appeared overnight in vacant lots beside the stables of Barnard's British Columbia Express Company. Bishop Sillitoe's little church bulged with Sunday traffic, while the bordellos and gambling houses picked up the Saturday night business. As if to solidify its place as a town of note, Yale even produced a newspaper, The Inland Sentinel, whose first issue hit the main street on May 29th, 1880.

    Down towards Emory's Bar, on the flats, lay the Chinese tent village, carefully separated from the white sections. Farther down the river, Hope dwindled to a mere hamlet of 2 hotels and some lesser buildings.

    The first and most difficult stretch of the Canyon was that from Yale to Spuzzum. Tunnels were the only solution to the problem of rock outcrops that dipped their toes in the river. Within 1 mile of Yale, 4 tunnels had to be blasted. A second series of 6 tunnels had to be placed scarcely 2,500 yards farther along. Three more tunnels were needed to complete the access to Spuzzum. The roadbed was 17 feet in width, with tunnels and cuttings 22 feet wide. The rail laid was 60 pound, heavily ballasted. At places, men were often lowered 200 feet down a sheer rock cliff in order to set powder or dynamite blasts. It was inevitable that men would become careless in the face of such constant danger.

    On the evening of Thursday, May 27, 1880, 3 blasting shots were set at the east end of No. 1 tunnel. When triggered, it seemed that all three exploded simultaneously, and the workmen moved back to clear the debris. Just as William Flynn and two others reached the tunnel mouth, another explosion occurred, seriously injuring all three. While the other 2 recovered, Flynn died the following night, the first of 32 men to die on the first 19 miles of road alone.

    The whole stretch was literally hewn out of rock. Crevices were filled with concrete, creeks and rivers were spanned by trestles. One three-span bridge just below Lytton was 530 feet long and cost $250,000. While the old wagon road was used as the roadbed wherever possible, its use created bad blood between the railway workers and the stage coach line.

    Detours were frequent and dangerous for the stages. On March 3rd, 1881, a stage plunged over a cliff below Spuzzum. Two passengers suffered broken legs and 2 horses were killed, but the driver was unhurt. Two months later, the same stage driver tried to work his way past a fall of rockcaused by blasting, but caught the front wheel of his 4-horse stage on a rock and toppled the stage. A CPR workman stopped the coach from going over the embankment and into the river by putting his shoulder against it.

Francis Barnard     Though inconvenienced, Barnard got sweet revenge by charging the railway $10.00 a ton for all freight. Since all freight had to come in on his wagons or pack-animals, this was a lucrative source of revenue.

    In the early morning of July 27, 1880, an unknown arsonist set fire to the sidewalk outside Thomas York's hotel on Front Street in Yale. Racing to the rear of the building, the firebug lit a second blaze, then wrecked the town's simple water system. Whipped by a stiff wind, the fire engulfed the 22-year-old wooden structure, then raced along Front Street, gobbling up the railroad offices and warehouses, the stage coach line stables, Uriah Nelson's store with $20,000 worth of merchandise, the post office, school, and church, as well as many other places of business.

    Yale was without an adequate water supply because the government hesitated to grant a request to lay water pipes because the pipes would have to cross the CPR right of way. Although the Onderdonk offices and warehouses had their own water supply for fire fighting, that system had also been damaged, and those buildings were destroyed.

    Luckily, the wind abated and a light rain began to fall within an hour of the start of the fire, and the blaze, which at times had threatened to leap to Albert Street and engulf the main portion of Yale, died out.

    Throughout the summer of 1880, workmen were menaced by periodic floods. When these subsided, it seemed that work would progress rapidly, but on October 14, a massive landslide completely blocked the Thompson River 21 miles above Spences Bridge. The river rose 65 feet above normal, and fearing that the rock dam might give way and endanger the entire rail line below, Onderdonk's men worked for 41 hours to cut a channel through the obstruction and restore the normal flow.

    The death toll mounted as men were careless with blasting powder, were struck by falling rock, or slipped on icy ledges and plunged to their doom. To decrease the danger of transporting dynamite and powder over the detour-ridden wagon road, the material was manufactured on the spot.

    On July 4, 1881, the first locomotive was barged in and placed on the section between Emery Bar and Yale.

    In the Hell's Gate section, several men were killed during construction of a tunnel some 1,600 feet long - commonly called "The Big Tunnel".

    The year 1882 was a difficult one. On February 16, fire threatened to wipe out the ancient site of Lytton; on May 31, flames consumed the bakery, and stopped there only because there were no buildings near enough to catch. On December 7, only quick action averted another serious loss when J. Q. Romano's store burned.

    There was trouble with whiskey traders who were gradually infiltrating the district, using the numerous call-girl houses as distributing points. The over-worked police had scarcely cleaned out one "den of iniquity" than two more sprang up to replace their fallen sister.

    There was trouble between the stage coach line and the railroaders. Because of the numerous detours needed to maintain service where the railroad usurped the old wagon road, contracts had been let out by the government to private builders. A practice developed on both sides of dumping excess rock or dirt onto the rival roadbed. Wherever the railroad crossed the road, it was the responsibility of railroad engineers to finish the road bed. Railway inspectors seemed to hold the durability of the stage coaches in high repute, judging by some crossings which they passed as "satisfactory".

Frontier Guide to the Fraser Canyon, 'Valley of Death'     Tired of paying $10.00 per ton to the British Columbia Express Company for his freight, Onderdonk ordered the construction of the steamer Skuzzy. Under the supervision of William Dalton, a 120-foot steamer was built. Powered by 2 engines producing 100 horsepower, she had a hull divided into 20 watertight compartments, and a winch and cable system to pull herself through chutes and rapids. She was launched on May 4th, 1882. The intent was to take the Skuzzy up through Hell's Gate to Boston Bar, to handle freight between that point and Lytton. No captain, however, could be found to take her through the treacherous waters. To complicate matters, the river began to flood. By June 8, the rising waters had already covered the high-water mark of the previous great flood of 1876. At Yale, the stage coach offices were flooded out, the railway line was disabled, and all traffic stopped.

    Mindful of thousands of Chinese laborers working above Boston Bar, the railway re-opened an ancient fur trail over the mountains between Spuzzum and Boston Bar in order to bring in supplies of rice and other food.

    Not until July 17 did the water begin to fall. People, noting that the flood of 1882 rose only 2 inches beyond the 1876 mark, began to wonder about the wisdom of building the railroad in places below the level of either of these high-water marks.

    The long smouldering tension between white and Chinese workers finally erupted that summer. While the two races had maintained a respectful distance, it was no secret that the Chinese were more poorly paid and worked at the more dangerous tasks. On August 5th, a blast of dynamite knocked 10 Chinese down a hillside. While none was killed, the survivors chased Foreman William Ball into the hills. On August 14, another blast of dynamite exploded prematurely. The Chinese workmen attacked construction boss James Kerrigan and nearly killed him with sticks and stones. Eight of the men were arrested, and on November 22nd, 4 were sentenced to 4 years in the penitentiary, while the other 4 received 3 years. In December, a Chinese workman was killed by dynamite and foreman Miller escaped death at the hands of his irate laborers only by swimming into the river.

    After vainly trying to find captains brave or foolhardy enough to take the Skuzzy through Hell's Gate, Onderdonk finally succeeded in September when Captains S. R. and David Smith, famous for exploits on the Columbia, agreed to take the craft through for $2,250. On Thursday, September 7th, they started out. Provided with a crew of 17, with engineer J. W. Burse operating the winch, the Smith Brothers struggled up through Black Canyon. The most difficult portion of the 2-week journey up the river was not Hell's Gate, but China Riffle, beyond. At this point, with the engines churning full power, Engineer Burse skillfully manning the winch, 15 men on the capstan, and 150 Chinese hauling sturdily on a third line, the Skuzzy inched through the Canyon and into the relatively quiet water above. After two weeks of battering, the Skuzzy finally reached Boston Bar, her guard rails gone, her new coat of paint scraped clean to the hull, but still water-tight.

    On Friday, November 10th, a heavy rock-slide swept down over the east end of the Big Tunnel, completely blocking all traffic. First estimates were that the Chinese workmen could clear the roadbed in 2 weeks, but as the winter deepened and more and more rock slipped down, the weeks began to drag into months. A rough mule trail had to be constructed along the mountain side above the slide area and for weeks mules clambored along the cliffs above, sending small showers of rock down upon the workmen. Once, a mule slipped to its death, nearly taking several Chinese with it.

    With the beginning of 1883, another menace struck the project - beri-beri. In the Chinese community between Emory Bar and Yale, men began to fall ill and to die. With no medical assistance being provided for them by the railroad or by the Lee Chuck Company that brought the men over from China, the influential Chinese of Yale formed a benevolent society and secured the warehouse of Sam Sing for a hospital.

    Beri-beri was followed in early spring by recurring attacks of smallpox, and again, no medical attention was provided.

    On April 12, 1883, the final rock was lifted away from the Big Tunnel, and by June 14th, track had been laid from McColl's Lake, west of Hope, to a point 4 miles northeast of Boston Bar. In July 1883, the first tourist excursion train carried passengers between Hope and Yale.

    Accidents continued, but some were not as bad as they might have been. The bridge at Camp 23 collapsed in June, plummeting workmen 70 feet, but only one man was killed. On July 29, a bush fire which had been burning harmlessly west of Yale was quickened by a wind and swept down upon the powder factory. A quantity of nitroglycerin exploded, and later 360 cases of Giant powder went up with a whoosh. Windows in Yale were shattered, and as the populace hastily prepared to evacuate, the wind changed directions and drove the flames back over the charred ground. The sole casualty of the fire and explosions was a horse.

    Because of rain, snow and slides, the operation was shut down in early December, putting thousands of men out of work prematurely. While the whites experienced no great difficulty, hunger, beri-beri and want stalked the Chinese village at Emory Bar. It was a common sight that winter to see clusters of Chinese huddled at the back doors of hotels and restaurants for hand-outs.

    By the spring of 1884, the railway had conquered the Fraser Canyon, and crews pressed on up the Thompson River to Ashcroft and eastward towards Savona and Kamloops. While freight wagons and stage-coaches still travelled the re-constructed wagon road, powerful 2-6-0 Mogul locomotives began the task of hauling mail, passengers and freight from Ashcroft to New Westminster. At Ashcroft, freight, passengers and mail was transfered to Barnard's B.C. Express for points north along the Cariboo Road.

    On October 3, 1885, Andrew Onderdonk gathered his workers at Yale and paid them off. He soon sold his palatial home and left. Yale's heyday was over.

Fraser Canyon - Laying the rails, 1880s     Fog, rain, snowslides, rock slides, and flood-weakened roadbeds took a steady toll of lives. Flood was the ever-constant companion of early railroaders in the Canyon. In 1876, floods had washed out parts of the old wagon road, and in 1882 this high-water mark was surpassed with consequent damage to both road and rail. In 1894, the Fraser launched an all-out assault on the intruders.

    The preceding winter the snowfall had been heavy and the spring was delayed, preventing the gradual melting of upriver snows. Then, in late May, a sudden, prolonged hot spell swept the Canyon. The river level crept upward until, on May 22nd it reached the 1876 mark. Train and stage-coach traffic through the Canyon came to a halt. By the 29th it was approaching the 1882 mark and several bridges and railway fills were washed out between Yale and North Bend. The Hatzic Dyke, holding 18 feet of water, gave way and many cattle were drowned. In the night, the river rose 8 inches and passed the all-time high.

    Rising at an estimated 3 inches per hour, the rampaging floods ravaged the Canyon. The Alexandra Suspension Bridge, normally 100 feet above water, was battered and planks knocked from the wooden deck. Every bridge along the Great Wagon Road was washed out. Bridges, tracks, trestles and tunnels on the C.P.R. were rendered useless. By June 2nd the water, still rising, was 25 inches above the 1882 mark.

    A force of nearly 2,000 men was rushed in to halt the damage to the tracks, and in scenes reminiscent of earlier times, cleared slides, shored up tunnels and propped up shaky fillings. More than once, they left their jobs to retrieve the body of a victim along the shoreline. In all, 7 bodies were found, but it was suspected that many others were lost. Steamers were used extensively to rescue Indians, ranchers and some Chinese miners who still worked the sand bars.

    By June 11, the waters at Yale began to fall, and by the 15th the flood was over. From one end of the valley to the other was a scene of desolation. The bridges from Savona, Ashcroft, Lytton and Spences Bridge had been washed away. The Alexandra Suspension Bridge, the crowning glory of the Great Wagon Road, had been so severely damaged it collapsed. All the Indian ranches had been destroyed completely. The bridge at Hope was the only one to remain undamaged.

    Work crews arrived, and the old wagon road was re-constructed for the third time - with an interesting omission. The Alexandra Suspension Bridge was never rebuilt. For years the old highway existed with this gap in the middle. Someone erected a cable across the canyon, and for the price of a dollar allowed people to transport themselves across in a bucket. Not until the coming of the modern highway was the old route revived.

    At 3:29 p.m. on Sunday, August 13th, 1905, a large section of Arthur Seat, a mountain 2,000 feet above Murray Creek Falls at Spences Bridge, collapsed. Once, long before the white man had come, that same mountain ledge had collapsed, cascading rocks onto the flats and into the river. A second time, on New Years Eve 1900, the mountain had fallen again, throwing the channel of the river to the east bank and destroying the old wagon road to Lytton.

    At first it appeared that the slide would follow the path of the two previous avalanches, but as it reached the bottom of the mountain, it struck the debris from the former slides and veered suddenly towards the Indian village, burying it in a matter of seconds. Plunging into the river, the slide then created a giant wave that raced away in both directions. Chief Lillooet was caught in that wave and perished. On the rock-strewn flats, 13 people were drowned. Of the 18 casualties that sunny afternoon, only 5 had been killed directly by the rocks. From their vantage point of the elevated tracks on the east side of the river, the passengers in the train watched, helpless to assist.

    Arthur Seat, the mountain that collapsed, was named by Spences Bridge pioneer John Murray because it reminded him of Arthur's Seat, a 882-foot massif near Edinburgh. Today, along the highway that runs past Spences Bridge, a plaque commemorates the tragedy at Spences Bridge.

Fraser Canyon - Jackass Mountain, 1880s     By the end of 1910, the little town of Hope was buzzing with excitement. There were rumours that two more railroads were to be built. When Messrs Tierey and Theiry of the Canadian Northern Railway arrived to select sites for construction camps in early December, they were most welcome visitors. Even more heartening was the news that the C.N.R. planned to go right through Hope and up the east bank of the Canyon. The C.P.R. station, situated 1½ miles from Hope, had always been a source of disappointment and inconvenience to the citizens.

    In 1911, the Canadian Northern started work on several tunnels, the largest at Battle Bluff, west of Kamloops, being 2,837 feet in length. By early March 1912, the track was laid to Hope, and work commenced on the grade to Yale. By mid-February, some 3,000 men were at work on the C.N.R. between Yale and Boston Bar.

    A different atmosphere marked the construction of the railroads in the 1911-14 period. Where the early Chinese laborers had struck frequently over some trivial happening - or because of the careless disregard for their lives displayed by white foremen - the rail builders of 1912 were chiefly Swedes, Germans, and Italians, whose knowledge of English was scanty. Spurred on to demand higher wages by delegates of the International Workers of the World (the I.W.W., the "Wobblies") the workers struck on March 29th for shorter hours and increased wages from $3 to $5 a day. Adamant in the face of these demands, the contractors refused to agree and after 2 weeks the 7,000 strikers returned to their jobs.

    By the summer of 1912, the Kettle Valley line was pushing its way eastward from Hope through the Coquihalla Valley. The Canadian Pacific was also double-tracking large sections of its Fraser Canyon line. With more modern equipment, the Canadian Northern literally raced through the Canyon and beyond but, just as the first Great Wagon Road had encountered difficulty at Jackass Mountain, so steel wheels stalled again at this point. In 1913, a huge slide buried the C.N.R. tunnel at this point, In February and again in March of 1914, massive slides caved in the tunnel and covered the roadbed 15 feet deep for 100 feet on either side of the tunnel. The line, however, was completed late in 1914.

    By the time the First World War broke out, the Canadian Pacific, double-tracked in many places, ran north from Hope, through Yale, Hell's Gate and China Bar to Siska Creek. Here, it crossed from the west bank to the east bank and continued on through Lytton to Ashcroft and eastward. The Canadian Northern, starting at Hope on the east bank, passed northward through Yale, Hell's Gate and China Bar to Siska Creek, where it too crossed the gorge and continued on the west bank to Lytton. At Lytton, it too crossed again to the east bank of the Fraser for a short stretch, but at Lytton crossed to the west bank of the Thompson and followed it to Ashcroft and eastward to Karnloops.

    On March 6th, 1914, a huge rock slide at Hell's Gate altered the course of the river forever and blocked the path for spawning salmon. A fishway was eventually built to get them around the jumble of rocks.

    By means of slides, floods and rockfalls, the Canyon had killed off the Great Wagon Road by 1914. No longer did the 4-horse stages travel the trail; no longer did the ponderous freight wagons ply their trade. The paddle wheel steamers, too, had quit running the swift currents.

    The years of World War I were hard years which forced the consolidation of several rail lines. The picturesque Kettle Valley line was absorbed by the C.P.R., while the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific amalgamated with the Canadian National Railroad.

    With the advent of motor vehicles, the old wagon road up the canyon was repaired and revamped. It was a good-weather road only, but by 1925, a passable road had been constructed from Vancouver to Revelstoke; the old bridge at Alexandra had been replaced by a modern trestle; and, by-passing Ashcroft, continued north to a point some 6 miles further north. Here, at a place called Cache Creek (so named from the legend that a robber disappeared into the muskeg near there with a reputed $70,000 in stolen gold which has never been recovered), the Trans Canada turned eastward while another pair of dust-ridden ruts headed north for Clinton and the Cariboo. Dust-proofed motorists stopped at Ashcroft Manor, as had the travellers of the horse age.

    With the coming of the Depression, a poor-man's Gold Rush into the Cariboo began, and hundreds of men came on foot, by bicycle, on rafts, by car and by rail to grub in the sand bars above and below Quesnel. Though none made a fortune, many made a living - which was very important during the Depression.

Spences Bridge, 1960s     The Second World War brought no great improvement to the Canyon. If anything, it seemed to solidify the two railroads as the master carriers of freight. But in the 1950s, an infant trucking industry was born. Lines such as Midland Superior, Prairie Inland Pacific and Trans Canada were established, and their 13-ton monsters began to challenge the grades and the turns of the Canyon. At Cache Creek, a modest cafe was built to accomodate the truckers. Gradually, road-side gas stations, many with attendant restaurants, began to crop up along the way.

    A program of redevelopment of the old wagon road began. In 1958, Saddle Rock tunnel was built. The following year, with attendant paving and road widening, extensive work was done around the Nicomen River, and another tunnel was completed at Sailor Bar. Hell's Gate was conquered by tunnel the following year, and work was begun on the retaining wall around the great slide area 12 miles south of Boston Bar.

    Not until the opening of the Rogers Pass section of the Trans Canada Highway on July 31st, 1962, however, did the Canyon come into its own as a tourist attraction. Cache Creek blossomed, while its rival Ashcroft - by-passed by the modern ribbon of road - wilted. The former, tailored to meet the needs of a transient clientele contrasts keenly with the older town.

    Lytton, ancient capital of Indians and a focal point of commerce for nearly 100 years, now lies off the highway; Spences Bridge is a place to be by-passed at a 60-mile-an-hour clip; and Yale is merely a quaint looking hamlet that you attempt to glimpse as you round the curves. Pell-mell, the trucks and the tourists hustle through the Canyon, taking for granted the nearly 100 years of death, frustration and conquest that makes their passage so swiftly possible.




Frontier Guide to the Fraser Canyon, 'Valley of Death'     This material has largely been extracted from "Frontier Guide to the Fraser Canyon, 'Valley of Death'. The heavily-illustrated 56-page book, published in about 1966 by Frontiers Unlimited and printed by the High River Times, was written by Frank W. Anderson. A high-resolution pdf (110 MB) of the entire book can be viewed and/or downloaded at our Dropbox page.



Yale, 1860s