Road to Gold

Posted by Daniel on Apr 28, 2011

Vancouver's 125th birthday has been getting all the attention but it is worth recalling that 2011 is also the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Cariboo Road, BC's first "highway".

Gold had been discovered in the gravel beds of the Fraser Canyon in 1858 and then further north in the Cariboo region. The Canyon being impassable for steamboats beyond Yale, it became imperative to find a way to supply the gold camps and to transport the "golden gravel" down to the coast. The challenge was imposing: the BC interior is protected by a wall of mountains broken by steep canyons and high passes choked with snow.

The first attempt to breach the barrier was the Douglas Trail. Governor James Douglas thought to outflank the difficult Canyon route by pushing a trail from the head of Harrison Lake via Lillooet, Anderson and Seton lakes to Lillooet, a jumping-off place for points north. Work crews slashed out a route in 1858 and two years later widened it to accommodate wagons.

But this route had too many inconveniences to be anything other than a stopgap so in October 1861, 150 years ago, Douglas asked the Royal Engineers to survey a road from Yale north through the Canyon. At the same time a contract was let to begin construction of the first section. The project had begun.

Work on the road was shared between private contractors and the Engineers and progressed swiftly. By September 1863 an 18-foot-wide (5.5 metres) wagon road ran from Yale to Soda Creek, north of Williams Lake, at which point travellers and freight could board steamers to continue on to Quesnel and the trail east to the goldfields. Two years later the entire 492-km road as far as Barkerville was completed. (The photo above shows the Road at Spences Bridge; credit UBC:BC380)

The Cariboo Road not only allowed access to the goldfields. It also connected the interior of the colony to the administrative centres on the coast and marked the beginning of the integration of what was then a scattering of small communities into what became the province of British Columbia.