Captain John and the Alexandra Bridge

If it weren’t for Captain John Swalis, the Alexandra Bridge would have never been built.

‘Captain John’ as he was known, was an enterprising Stó:lō from the Fraser Valley. Having spent his summers on the gravel bars and islands in the Fraser River, Captain John was familiar with the area. So, he set up his own ferry service helping gold seekers cross the Fraser River at Yale.

At first he didn’t accept money as payment and instead asked for a hat or a shirt. Captain John began to see that money could allow him to purchase the things he needed, so he adapted to this new economy and started accepting coins and gold as payment.

The missing link on the Cariboo Wagon Road

By the end of 1862, the Cariboo Wagon Road through the Fraser Canyon was almost complete, running from Yale to Spuzzum on the west bank of the canyon, and from a point almost opposite on the east bank, up the river as far as Lytton. There remained now the important task of linking the two sections with a bridge two miles above Spuzzum.

On February 2, 1863, Joseph Trutch agreed to take on the bridge project and in return he would collect tolls on the bridge for the next five years. Considering the volume of people going back and forth, it was a lucrative deal.

Alexandra Bridge

Alexandra Bridge

Halliday & Company of San Francisco was given the job of building the suspension bridge with a span of a little over three hundred feet using two suspending cables. Spools of cable were carried by mules up the road but how to get the spools of cable across to the other side of the Fraser River?

Captain John told Trutch that he could get the cables across the Fraser River, and Trutch awarded him a subcontract. Captain John assembled a group of his relatives and they unwound cable from each spool and carried it on their shoulders as they made their way along the precipitous cliffs and slippery rocks. Each cable was four inches wide.

There isn’t a description of the event, but to bring back the words of Simon Fraser:

“In these places we were under the necessity of trusting all our things to the Indians, even our guns…Yet they thought nothing of these difficulties, but went up and down these wild places with the same agility as sailors do on a ship.”

What’s the hold up?

The Alexandra Bridge was completed by September 1, 1863. Trutch invited prominent dignitaries for the official opening planned for the following week. In the meantime, Admiral Kingcome of the Royal Navy made a special trip by steamer to Yale just to ride up the Cariboo Road and see the new bridge. Governor Douglas was not eager to see Alexandra Bridge, however, and the official opening was delayed several weeks until finally near the end of September, Douglas made the trip to Yale with Colonel Moody. On Friday, September 25, 1863, Alexandra Bridge was officially proclaimed open by Colonel Moody—Douglas stayed behind in Yale.

Captain John rose to prominence among his people and gained the name ‘Swalis’ which meant “getting rich”. At one point he was earning more than double the annual salary of Governor James Douglas. When Trutch became  Commissioner of Lands and Works, Captain John was elected as the Chief of Soowahlie.

In later years Captain John ran a ferry across the Vedder River (Th’ewálmel) to Cultus Lake and across to Vedder Crossing. In 1891, he helped with the construction of the Vedder Bridge.