Cariboo Wagon Road

Cariboo Wagon Road 1867

Cariboo Wagon Road 1867

The Cariboo Wagon Road is considered one of the main legacies of BC’s gold rush era of the 1850s and 1860s. The Cariboo Wagon Road started out as two separate routes: the first being the Port Douglas-Lillooet route that was created in 1858 and the second was a route from New Westminster up the Fraser Canyon.

Douglas-Lillooet route:

In 1858, gold seekers paid a fee to hack a trail through the wilderness north of Harrison Lake, following a route suggested by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mapmaker, A.C. Anderson. This route went from Port Douglas requiring a series of portages and canoe trips as it passed by waterways and lakes until Cayoosh—renamed Lillooet—was reached on the Fraser River. It came to be known as the Douglas-Lillooet route. When the Royal Engineers arrived in the Colony, Governor Douglas arranged for them to widen the gold seekers’ trail to accommodate wagons.

  • The Royal Engineers were instructed to deepen the channel of Harrison River and  improve and widen trail as far as Lillooet Lake;
  • A contract for building 24 miles of road between Lillooet and Anderson Lakes was awarded to Colquhoun & Co who only finished 8 miles; it was finished by Joseph W. Trutch;
  • 1.5 miles between Anderson and Seton Lakes were covered by tramway operated by P. Smith;
  • 4 miles of road from Seton Lake to Lillooet were completed by Watson in late 1860.

Lillooet to Clinton:

In 1862 Sergeant McMurphy of the Royal Engineers began supervising construction of a road northwards along the Fraser River, up and over Pavilion Mountain to Clinton, then northwards into the Cariboo.

From Lillooet the Cariboo Wagon Road was continued beside Pavilion Creek to the top of Pavilion Mountain (a gradual incline from the west to the summit followed by a sharp descent on the other side to Kelly Lake). This road was built by Gustavus Blin Wright and John C. Calbreath and finished in late 1861. The road continued through Cut-Off Valley to Clinton. By 1862, stagecoaches were running from Lillooet to Clinton.

Lillooet was designated Mile “0” on this new road and stops along the way were named based on the number of miles they were from Lillooet. This original route to the Cariboo was difficult (especially the climb over Pavilion Mountain) and time-consuming.

Clinton to Soda Creek:

In 1862, the Clinton to Alexandria road contract was given to Wright and Calbreath at a
fixed cost of $1,700 per mile. Alexandria was the site of the Hudson’s Bay Company fort. G.B. Wright decided the road should end at Soda Creek instead with the idea that steamboats would transport goldseekers between Soda Creek and Quesnel. Immediately after finishing the road in July 1863, Wright began work on a steamboat to ply the Fraser River. He later operated a sternwheeler with John Grant.

The Fraser Canyon Route

A common complaint with the Douglas-Lillooet route was that goods had to be handled many times as they were passed from trail to steamer to tramway. Merchants and goldseekers pressured the government  to establish a route where goods needed to be unloaded from a boat only once, then taken north by freight wagon.

Early in 1862 Colonel Richard Clement Moody, commanding officer of the Royal Engineers, and Walter Moberley, a road contractor, convinced Governor James Douglas that the best route would begin at Yale (head of steamboat navigation on the Fraser River) and follow the Fraser Canyon and Fraser River north to Lytton, then along the Thompson River to Ashcroft, then overland to Clinton. Work on this new road north from Yale began in sections in 1862. Work was carried out on the various sections at the same time; several were completed before Alexandra Bridge which officially opened in September 1863.

  • Captain Grant of the Royal Engineers took charge of building the first section north of Yale to Spuzzum along the west bank of the Fraser Canyon;
  • Just below Chapman’s Bar, a 300 foot suspension bridge was constructed (Alexandra Bridge);
  • Joseph Trutch contracted to build the section on the east side of the Fraser Canyon from Chapman’s Bar to Boston Bar;
  • Thomas Spence contracted for the section from Boston Bar to Lytton;
  • a three-partner team (Oppenheimer, Moberley and Lewis) was supposed to build the section northwards from Lytton beside the Thompson River to Cook’s Ferry (Spence’s Bridge) through the Bonaparte Valley to Clinton. After smallpox killed many of their workers, the colonial government cut their contract. Moberly continued to work on the road under the supervision of the Royal Engineers. This section connected with the road to Soda Creek that was being constructed by G. B.  Wright.

By the spring of 1864 Francis Barnard was running four-horse stage coaches between Yale and Soda Creek. In 1865 the road was extended all the way to Barkerville.

Today, only small sections of the original Cariboo Wagon Road remain. Most of the roadway through the Fraser Canyon was destroyed by the construction of the CPR railway in the late 1880s. One of the best places to view the old road is at Historic Hat Creek Ranch where stage coaches actually take visitors for rides along the road. The Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) from Yale to Cache Creek more or less follows the old route. From Cache Creek north through the Cariboo, Highway 97 also follows or stays close to the old route.

Other references:

Frontier to Freeway: A short illustrated history of the roads in British Columbia (Ministry of Transportation)

Memories of the old Cariboo Road – radio recording by Imbert Orchard in 1980 for the CBC