While driving the Sea to Sky, Coquihalla, Cariboo Connector, or any other BC highway, have you ever been astonished that people were actually able to carve a clear path through the rugged Western wilderness? A bird’s eye view of the province shows a network of roads cutting between mountains, bracing cliffs-sides and crossing rivers – an impeccable display of human determination and ingenuity.
A strong will to establish connections continues today with the many Pacific Gateway programs around British Columbia, including the Cariboo Connector.
The Cariboo Connector refers to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s ongoing strategy to four-lane the 440-kilometre section of Highway 97 between Prince George and Cache Creek. The northern gateway began as rough trails blazed by First Nations and fur convoys in the 1800s, but transformed into a major highway that sees about 20,000 vehicles per day around each of the major centres alone.
In 1858, gold was discovered along the Fraser River near Yale and fortune seekers soon turned their attentions north. Perhaps hoping the Cariboo goldfields would be the ultimate jewel in the British colonial crown, Governor James Douglas instructed the Royal Engineers to build the Cariboo Wagon Road leading to the northern gold mining areas, which were already being frequented by thousands of miners, traders and adventurers on foot.
Imagine trekking through forests, navigating canyons and crossing rapids in an effort to reach the Cariboo goldfields. It was a treacherous journey and many travellers did not survive the trip prior to the Cariboo Wagon Road, which followed roughly the same path as Highway 97.
By 1863, the road connected people, equipment and supplies to Soda Creek just south of Williams Lake, where a sternwheeler called the Enterprise continued along the upper Fraser River to Quesnel. The road then turned east to the historic gold rush town of Barkerville.
Whereas 18-wheelers and passenger vehicles rule the road now, the Cariboo Wagon Road was well-trodden by a much different breed of travellers:
This popular mode of transporting freight consisted of up to 48 animals. The trains were able to cover about 24 km per day and complete three round trips per season. That’s not a bad pace considering the lack of motorized horsepower.
Imagine a big wheelbarrow, with one person pushing from the back and another pulling from the front. Teamwork and stamina were needed to cover good ground. It also helped to have a team of oxen contributing for particularly heavy loads.
That’s right, camels. Introduced to the Cariboo Wagon Road in 1862, the humped creatures were thought to be the perfect alternative to mules because they could carry twice as much but required far less food. As it turned out, however, the camels struggled on the rocky terrain and agitated mules, horses and oxen, which caused disruptions on the road. As a result, camels were retired from the Cariboo Wagon Road after only a year of service.
Horse Drawn Wagons
The most reliable and fastest mode of transportation, horse drawn wagons were the last to leave the road with the emergence of motorized vehicles.
It’s easier for today’s drivers to appreciate the scenery along Highway 97, what with gas pedals replacing fickle camels and heavy trundle-barrows. There are even a few must-sees for history buffs, such as the Cottonwood House Historic Site, which is one of the roadhouses that offered food and shelter to weary travellers. What’s another remnant of the past? The “Mile Houses” marking the distance from Lillooet acted as supply points for gold seekers, such as 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House. These destinations evolved into bustling communities thanks, in part, to the Cariboo Wagon Road.
Jump forward 150 years and the determination and ingenuity that helped carve through the rugged Western wilderness is alive and strong. This summer, work on Phase 2 of the Cariboo Connector four-lane expansion is set to begin. Now that we’ve brought the famous route back to its roots, we’ll explore the ongoing efforts to improve safety and traffic flow on Highway 97 in Cariboo Connector Part 2.
TranBC Trivia: Jackass Mountain near Lytton is named for the mule trains that ventured north to the Cariboo goldfields.