The Wagon Road Becomes a Highway

Posted by Daniel on Apr 30, 2011 - 1 comment

Last time I mentioned that 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of construction of the Cariboo Road, BC's first "highway". But what happened to this pioneer wagon road once the gold rush petered out?

For a while the road continued to serve as the main artery to the Interior. A few other trunk roads branched off it but there was not a lot of road building outside the Lower Mainland in the 1860s and 1870s. Then came the transcontinental railway in the 1880s and roads were completely overshadowed by rail. As the CPR pushed its way through the Fraser Canyon it actually destroyed the old Cariboo Road between Yale and Spences Bridge. Rail builders were supposed to keep the wagon road open but inevitably blasting for the rail line blew apart great sections of the original route or buried it under tons of rock and dirt. Whatever remained of the roadway and trestles was obliterated further by destructive flooding in 1894, and then by construction of a second transcontinental rail line, the Canadian Northern Pacific, prior to World War One.

The result was that from the mid-1880s the interior of the province was cut off from any road connection to the coast. There was no Hope-Princeton Highway and wouldn't be until late 1949, and certainly no Coquihalla. With the arrival of motor vehicles, if someone wanted to drive to the Interior they had to dip south of the border and re-enter the province farther east. For almost 40 years coastal BC was cut off from the rest of the province, and the country, except for rail.

By 1924, BC had 28,000 kilometres of roads, but 16,000 km were officially described as dirt trails. And only 250 kms were hard surfaced; the rest were loose gravel and dirt, virtually impassable in winter or during heavy rains. Nonetheless, the age of the automobile had arrived and the provincial government decided it was time to reopen the Old Cariboo Road. Work began in 1924 and on May 24, 1927 the Fraser Canyon Highway opened to traffic. (Of course all this time the section of the old road north from Spences Bridge had still been in use.)

Initially traffic was light, and seasonal. There was a toll booth at Spuzzum (later moved to Yale) and in August of 1928 only 81 cars passed through. And that was the busy season. In November the number was 15. The road was gravel-surfaced and narrow, often closed by rock slides, washouts or snow, so no wonder few motorists wanted to risk it. But at least it now was possible to drive into the Interior from the coast for the first time since the gold rush era.

Today, of course, the Trans-Canada Highway follows this same route that was originally a roadway for mule trains and freight wagons.