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The Fraser Canyon
(Hope to Lytton)

 
BC Archives # E-05577, Fraser Canyon Highway near Yale, c.1929
BC Archives # E-05577
Increasingly unfamiliar to British Columbians and visitors to the province since the opening of the Coquihalla Connector, which changed the main traffic routing between the Lower Mainland and the Interior to the Coquihalla Pass, the Fraser Canyon's role in the province's history and identity is actually unrivalled by an other route.  Originally perceived as a major obstacle to travel between the Coast and the Interior, the Canyon over time became the principal route for commercial and passenger traffic.  Originally dangerous in the extreme, travel through the Canyon was always a formidable prospect, although today's vastly-improved modern highway does not hint at the once terrifying and difficult journey that clung to the mountain's walls as if by sheer nerve.  Simon Fraser's journals speak of having to traverse sections of the canyon by a series of precipitous ladders and rock-climbs, and although several generations of road-builders had a crack at it (from 1859 onwards), the route remained a dizzying cliff-hanger until major highway improvements began in the later 1950s.  Today the trip from Hope to Lytton takes little more than an hour, perhaps an hour and a half with heavy traffic; I remember when it took a whole day, and it was known as nerve-wracking and exhausting even for experienced mountain drivers.  A hint of the road conditions of the time can be glimpsed in the series of other BC Provincial Archives pictures of old road construction farther down this page.

  Hell's Gate


BC Archives # A-05599
Hell's Gate is a throat of granite through which the entire flow of the Fraser is choked to a mere xx yards.  The date of this picture is c.1900, suggestingThis may be a survey photograph from before the construction of the fsecond transcontinental line through the Canyon in the 1880s (the first, the Canadian Pacific, is on the near shore, the photo probably taken from trackside, in fact).  In 1913 during construction of the Canadian National Railway on the farther bank of the canyon, a slide narrowed Hell's Gate severely causing an environmental catastrophe to the Fraser fishery which had lasting impact.  Fish ladders were added to the sides of Hell's Gate in the mid-20th Century in an effort to build back salmon stocks.  The site today has a suspension footbridge and restaurant, as well as a peripherique-type airtram up to the Trans-Canada Highway, which near as I can tell is up the near bank.  Both transcontinental rail lines flank its ramparts today.  In some ways, Hell's Gate is the main symbol of the Fraser Canyon and, at least until recently, was one of the images that defined "what British Columbia is".
BC Archives # A-03874, Hell's Gate Canyon, 23 Miles from Yale (very old photo)
BC Archives # A-03874
BC Archives # I-22437, Hell's Gate, Fraser Canyon, showing fish ladders, suspension bridge and CPR train
BC Archives # I-22437

 
 

The Fraser Canyon Highway
in the bad old days

(or: To Hell and Back)
E. Cleven Photo:  Fraser Canyon Hwy, looking uphill to Jackass Mtn

Photo: E. Cleven
BC Archives # H--00290, Fraser Canyon Hwy (Alexandria Br. area?)

BC Archives # H-00290

These pictures tell you everything you need to know about what British Columbia roads were like for the faint-hearted - except for the thousands of feet drop invisible to the left.  This was the condition of the main road connecting the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to the Interior for decades; indeed it didn't look much different from this in the early 1950s in many sections.  The Fraser Canyon was legendary for its difficulties, grades, narrow precipices, and torturous climate, ranging from icy winters and raging snows through to summer heat and heavy winds.  In a few short years the primitive road conditions depicted above were transformed into a series of modern highways, then bypassed by today's  freeway over the mountains via the Coquihalla-Coldwater, which departs from the Fraser at Hope to follow the Coquihalla-Coldwater route into the Plateau.  It has to be remembered that prior even to the construction of these images that the Fraser was so rugged it wasn't considered passable by packtrains or horses.  The first attempt at least a packtrail directly from the Fraser Valley from the Interior, the HBC Brigade Trail, cross the river at Yale and climbed the side of the Canyon's walls to reach the Coldwater and Tulameen districts, which seems like an extreme route nowadays relative the Fraser but reflected travelling conditions.  It was because the Fraser was such a tough area that the Lakes Route was surveyed as an alternative and was used as such until the colony finally had the cash to get an engineered road built from Yale northwards, so as to connect at Clinton with the older Cariboo Road which began at Lillooet.  Some of these pictures are from 20th Century construction and upgrades, or relics of older sections of the 19th Century Cariboo Road, which was actually abandoned between Lytton and Spences Bridge from the 1880s through 1900s through disuse, since all traffic had switched to the new rail line.  The cost of building the rail line through the Fraser is a whole history by itself, best represented online by a site called Onderdonk's Way.  The amount of blasting and bridging that was required through the Fraser and Thompson Canyons brought costs on the western "half" of the line from Vancouver to Craigellachie, near Revelstoke, comparable to the entire cost of the line from Montreal to the same point, including the work done on the Kicking Horse and Rogers Passes.  Even with huge improvements between the time of its reconstruction in the 1910s and '20s, and more in the 1940s and '50s - some of which I dimly remember from long journeys home through it as a child - the difficulty of driving the Canyon didn't really go away until the highway was majorly rebuilt in the '60s and in the decades since.   It's still a tough drive, but it's not what it was, and relative to the older version of the highway you're through it so fast you're not forced to appreciate it.  In slower times, before the '60s upgrading to the TransCanada Highway, even though huge improvements - especially tunnels - had been added since World War II, between the heat and the hills and the heavy traffic it was still slow going, and as a result a lot of the little places along the way were very busy and life in the Canyon towns flourished with business and visitors.  After the Trans-Canada improvements and some more extensive ones since, especially between Lytton and Spences Bridge, driving times became shorter and nobody stopped as much.  Business and populations in the Canyon were already dropping, but twhen the Coquihalla Highway was built the majority of traffic bound anywhere to the Interior (other than Lilloooet) went that way; it's even shorter to get to Cache Creek that way, apparently, than via Lytton-Spences Bridge.  The Fraser route's fairly quiet now but is heavily used by truckers who dislike the Coquihalla's steep hills, bad weather and high tolls.  Its geography is still tough, and every so many years it can close due to ice storms and heavy blizzards, which bring with them avalanches and rockfall.  Summer weather is as hot as anything in the Interior, and rains are more intense than the Fraser Valley - from Hells' Gate or so down.  From Boston Bar up the climate dries noticeably, though, reaching absolute desert at Lytton and staying that way to Ashcroft and Lillooet up the Thompson and Fraser, respectively.
BC Archives # A-03870, China Bar Bluff on old Cariboo Wagon Road, 1868
BC Archives # A-03870   (Photo: Frederick Dally, 1868)

BC Archives # A-03873    (Photo: Charles Gentile, 1865)
BC Archives # A-03931, Cariboo Wagon Road 1 Mile N. of Yale, ph Fred Dally, 1867
BC Archives # A-03931
BC Archives # A-04282, Fraser Canyon above Yale, 1890s, ph. H.H. Maynard
BC Archives # A-04282
BC Archives # I-23793, Fraser Canyon near Yale, 1960s, BC Govt Photo
BC Archives # I-23793
BC Archives # I-27779, Fraser Canyon at Yale, 1962
BC Archives # I-27779
BC Archives # C-07308, Fraser Canyon near Yale, 1860s (Maynard Photo)
BC Archives # C-07308
BC Archives # I-27781, Fraser Canyon Highway near Yale, 1954
BC Archives # I-27781
BC Archives # I-27782, Fraser Canyon Hwy near Yale, 1954
BC Archives # I-27782
BC Archives # F-06970, Cariboo Wagon Road, 18 Mi. N of Yale, 1870s
BC Archives # F-06970
BC Archives # I-21556, Engineers Rock Wall Monument in Fraser Canyon, 1966
BC Archives # I-21556
BC Archives # I-21557, Fraser Canyon near Yale
BC Archives # I-21557
BC Archives # A-05938, Construction at Fountain Bluff, 3 Mi above Yale, 1890s
BC Archives # A-05938
BC Archives # A-06835, Fraser River at Yale, 1880s
BC Archives # A-06835
BC Archives # C-01192, Fraser River near Yale
BC Archives C-01192
BC Archives # C-01325, Fraser Canyon Highway 18 Mi N of Yale, 1920s
BC Archives # C-01325
BC Archives # C-07851, Tunnel #2, 2 mi north of Yale, 1880s
BC Archives # C-07851
BC Archives # C-07853, Tunnel # 8, 16.5 Mi N of Yale, 1880s
BC Archives # C-07853

BC Archives # E-05578, Fraser Canyon upon completion of Yale-Lytton improvements, c.1926
BC Archives # E-05578
BC Archives # E-05579, Fraser Canyon Hwy after completion of Yale-Lytton improvements, 1926
BC Archives # E-05579
BC Archives # E-05581, Fraser Canyon Highway upon completion of improvements, 1926
BC Archives # E-05581
BC Archives # E-05583, Fraser Canyon Highway upon completion of improvements, c.1929
BC Archives # E-05583
BC Archives # E-05584, Fraser Canyon Highway upon completion of improvements, c.1929
BC Archives # E-05584
BC Archives # E-05585, Fraser Canyon Hwy upon completion of improvements, c.1929
BC Archives # E-05585
BC Archives # H-02886, Fraser River near Yale, 1890s
BC Archives # H-02886
BC Archives # D-04718, Cariboo Wagon Road near Yale, 1886 (ph. E.G. Deville)
BC Archives D-04718
BC Archives # A-09251, Excursion Train near Yale, June 1885
BC Archives # A-09251
BC Archives # I-22429, Fraser Canyon Highway near Lytton, 1967
BC Archives # I-22429
BC Archives # I-22428, Fraser Canyon Hwy near Yale, 1960s
BC Archives # I-22428
BC Archives # D-07688, Boiler on MacFarlane Dredge, Lytton, 1902
BC Archives # D-07688

BC Archives # E-00472, Fraser Canyon Hwy, Yale-Alexandria area
BC Archives # E-00472










 

Before the gold rush, the Canyon was home to thousands of people of the Nklapmx (Thompson) and Sto:lo First Nations, who thrived on the rich runs of salmon the Fraser is still famous for, but which in those days were immense beyond easy description.  With the discovery of gold at Emory Creek south of Yale in 1857, a wave of American prospectors descended on the river's sandbars and rocky banks, forcing the British to hastily organize the Crown Colony of British Columbia in 1858 to prevent annexation of the mainland by the United States.  At first welcoming the newcomers, natives were alarmed at the disruption of sandbars, which were known to be spawning beds for the fish upon which they depended.  During the winter of 1858-9, the Americans waged virtual war on the native residents of the Canyon in a series of shadowy events known as the "Fraser Canyon War", details of which are very sketchy and in which unknown numbers of natives (and non-natives) were killed.  The "war" was pretty well over by the time Governor Douglas arrived at Yale for a parley with the American miners, who promised "never to do it again" if they weren't investigated and prosecuted for the mass killings that had taken place in the course of the winter.  British officials never set foot in the Canyon to investigate what had happened, although Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie hanged some Indians at Lillooet in the wake of the disturbances; they were convicted as alleged cattle thieves, but Begbie's true rationale in ordering their execution was as a demonstration of the coming of "British law" to the Interior.  The picture at right shows an Indian graveyard clinging to the rocky cliff on the left side of the river; at one time there were hundreds of such sites throughout the Canyon, many of which were destroyed with the successive phases of railway construction, which tended to remain low on the Canyon's sides, unlike the highway which is often far above the river.
Bc Archives # E-05582, Tunnel in Fraser Canyon just after completion of Cariboo Hwy
BC Archives # E-05582
BC Archives # D-00047, Tunnel in Fraser Canyon Hwy
BC Archives # D-00047
BC Archives # H-00278, Construction, Fraser Canyon Highway (Anderson R. Bridge?)
BC Archives # H-00278
BC Archives # H-00283, Construction, Fraser Canyon Hwy, w. Tunnel
BC Archives # H-00283
BC Archives # H-00286, Construction, Fraser Canyon Hwy
BC Archives # H-00286
BC Archives # H-00285, Tunnel under Construction, Fraser Canyon Hwy
BC Archives # H-00285
BC Archives # A-05618, Fraser Canyon above Spuzzum, from CPR Line; native fish drying rack visible at lower left
BC Archives # A-05618
BC Archives # A-04284, Eight Mile Canyon, 4 Miles above Yale, showing native burial ground on upper bank at left
BC Archives # A-04284
BC Archives # B-09762, Mile 75 Cariboo Hwy, Fraser Canyon, looking West (looks more like Mile 7.5 to me!)
BC Archives # B-09762
BC Archives # I-21553, Old Alexandria Bridge, Fraser Canyon Highway
BC Archives # I-21553
BC Archives # I-30820, CPR Construction Crew at Tunnel 49, Fraser Canyon
BC Archives # I-30820


 
 
 

The stretch between Yale and Boston Bar was known in gold rush times as "the Black Canyon" because of its dark basalts and gloomy weather and murderous gorges - the most famous of which was the narrow throat of Hell's Gate.  Most people think this is the "Grand Canyon" of the Fraser, although that semi-formal designation is properly reserved for two other stretches of the river - that from Lillooet to Williams Lake, and in another area upstream from Prince George.  Despite the fact that most of the Fraser's length is canyonland, nearly all British Columbians think of the route of the TransCanada from Hope to Ashcroft as "the Fraser Canyon" even though much of the stretch of highway they're thinking of lies along the Thompson River, rather than the Fraser. Names along the route echo with the history of those who worked the river for its gold, and are preserved in the names of the many highway tunnels on the route - Boston Bar earned its name from the concentration of Americans in that area ("Boston" or "Boston Man" was the Chinook Jargon term for Americans), China Bar from a concentration of Chinese miners in that area, Kanaka Bar from a concentration of Hawaiians ("Kanaka" being the Hawaiian term for "local person", and the Chinook Jargon word for a Hawaiian), and Sailor Bar from a group of British sailors who had taken up mining.  Emory Creek takes its name from the dark black gold-bearing sand that was particularly abundant there (where the first strike was made); Spuzzum from the name of a reed-like grass (spatsum) used by the natives in their basketry and other crafts.  Hope, on the other hand, is said to have been named for the prospect enjoyed by travellers getting to that point from either direction - those arriving from the Interior "could finally see Hope", those departing into the Canyon were "leaving all Hope".  The Archives picture above shows Mount Hope in the background in a stretch of river that looks to be below Yale in the river's last rocky stretches before it issues onto its alluvial floodplain downstream from Hope.

The large image following shows the forbidding prospect looking upriver from the sandbar below Yale; this picture was taken before railway and highway construction began:
BC Archives # D-09922, Yale Pass, Fraser Canyon
BC Archives # D-09922

BC Archives # H-02891, Fraser Canyon from Cariboo Road, Yale
BC Archives # H-02891


 
 

 The picture at the top of this section was taken in the Saddle Rock area north of Yale - Saddle Rock being the rocky island visible in the middle of the river, which seemed to block the river when viewed from above or below it on the river. The road depicted in this image is not much improved from the original workmanship of the Royal Engineers of the 1860s, although the picture with the bridge in the foreground is better representative of their handiwork.  There's no easy way to talk about what this drive was like.  Some say that BC before serious road construction began in the 1950s was pretty much like rural Mexico - rough dirt tracks with only three-quarters of a lane, and heavy traffic in both directions. At least people drove slower then, old-timers will say, which accounts for the lower accident rate in those days despite roads that were indescribably worse.  Most of the pictures in this section so far pre-date the highway-scale reconstruction of the Fraser Canyon route that began in the later 1950s, but it's important to remember that they depict the province's major highway in the days when it was virtually the only viable one for motor vehicles connecting the Coast to the Interior - including some of the post-war era.    The tunnels shown here are typical of many that are now gone or bypassed, the newer highway tunnels numbering barely more than half a dozen whereas the older version of the Canyon highway had nearly twenty.  In both pictures of the Canyon tunnels shown here, there are precipitous cliffs below the rock embankments on the right (atlhough I'm not sure which tunnels these are; Sailor Bar, I think, or maybe Kanaka Bar).  The only other rock road-tunnel I know of that still is in use today is at Terzaghi Dam on the road to Shalalth from Lillooet.

 Jackass Mountain was named after a packer's lost animal, but also from the bucking that many vehicles experienced on the steep and narrow grade in an area where even the original wagon trail was forced to climb high on a mountainside in order to avoid an impassable gorge along the river below.  I remember seeing dozens of overheated vehicles in summertime along the roadside at Jackass Mountain, and the smell of burnt brakepads and overheating radiators was everywhere.
BC Archives Photo # A-04690, Construction Zone, Fraser Canyon, w. view of Boston Bar from N.
BC Archives # A-04690

BC Archives Photo # A-04691, Fraser Canyon Highway, Construction w. Steam Shovel
BC Archives # A-04691

BC Archives # I-27770, Fraser Canyon Hwy, 9 Mile Canyon
BC Archives # A-27770



BC Archives Photo # A-04283 - Three Mile Canyon, Fraser R. near Yale, showing Indian fish drying racks
BC Archives # A-04283
BC Archives # I-29055, Fraser Canyon upon completion of Cariboo Highway, Hope area
BC Archives # I-29055


BC Archives # I-22436, Fraser Canyon Hwy 9 Miles S of Lytton
BC Archives # I-22436
BC Archives # D-02653, Fraser River near Lytton 1950s
BC Archives # D-02653

BC Archives # I-22320

BC Archives # I-22321





 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Places:
 IntroductionBridge River Canyon   The OverhangSeton Lake  The Portage  The Golden Cache Mine The Golden Mile McNeilsSkimkaCraig Lodge Cayoosh Creek & Nkoomptch
Bridge River TownsiteLog Cabin Theatre The Hanging Tree   Pioneer MineBralorneThe Old Arrastra  Minto City
Mt. Sloan  RexmountTerzaghi Dam  Pacific Great Eastern Railway (BCR)Pavilion Ferry   The Diamond 'S'Grand Canyon of the Fraser (Fountain to Big Bar)   Tskwaylaxw Nation
Marble CanyonPavilion School Plane Crash
People:
Ma Murray  Artie Phair  W.G. Manson & Sons  Will Haylmore  Chief Hunter Jack The Noels


















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