Breaking Trail on the Old Cariboo Road

Esther Darlington MacDonald's tale of engineer Walter Moberly's task of breaking trail in the Clinton and Loon Lake areas.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

That highway that we drive on today, some of which was part of the Cariboo Road, is a far cry from the trail broken by determined road makers in the 1860’s. Trails that climbed mountains, crossed valleys and canyons, and ultimately led to the tiny settlements as far north as Quesnel and Barkerville.

I had never heard the term, ‘breaking trail’ until I arrived in the Cariboo in the early 1960’s. I heard it for the first time in Williams Lake when someone was describing how a rancher named Olaf Satre “broke trail” – apparently, to find good feeding ground for his cattle. There was, in the intonation, admiration. “Breaking trail” was not for the faint of heart. It took a lot of determination and no less than a stoic type of personality to venture into territory that had either not been entered before, or if it had, the trail had been one of the most difficult for horse and rider.

That trail over Loon Lake mountain, for example. It is described graphically by Walter Moberly, a civil engineer, who had charge of construction of the section of the Cariboo Road from Lytton. Moberly established his headquarters in the court house, and work camps were established at Nicomen near Cook’s Ferry. Moberly had trouble getting labourers, and so he sublet part of the road building contract to a group of Chinese. As if the shortage of labourers wasn’t a big enough problem, Moberly had difficulty getting money out of the government to pay the labourers, and he was obliged to borrow money to pay wages.

The contract to build that part of the road had been let to Oppenheimer Bros. of Yale, T.B. Lewis, a friend of Oppenheimer, with Moberly acting as engineer and Lewis doing the clerical work. Oppenheimer would be in charge of getting the materials and the financial end of the outfit.

By putting the Chinese and some native Indians to work, Moberly began making progress and had four work camps established: one at Cook’s Ferry (now Spences Bridge), another above Cook’s Ferry and another at Nicomen, a few miles from Cook’s Ferry, and the fourth at Ashcroft Creek. (Presumably, well before the town had been built.) Work camps established, Moberly set about determining which route should be built to join the road being built by Wright and Callbrath from Lillooet over Pavilion Mountain, and thence to Clinton.

Moberly describes how he took a “splendid horse”, a blanket and some provisions in his saddle bags, and started alone to explore through the Maiden Creek Valley to where the town of Clinton is located. He aimed to cross the Bonaparte River. He’d learned from packers, that there was good grass land to feed the horses on Loon Lake Mountain.

The trip over the mountain was described as “execrable”, a trail through woods with stones and boulders, and black flies, that made very mile an agony of effort. But once through the forest, Moberly was gladdened to find a “prairie” of green grass. He was about to unsaddle his horse, when he saw a spiral of smoke at the far end of the prairie. He saw that it came from a pack train. He dismounted and was treated royally. A welcome visitor on that isolated mountain to be sure.

“Come on old man,” Moberly was called, and he was invited to join them in a good meal of bacon and beans, washed down with “grand old creamy Hudson Bay rum.

The following day, Moberly resumed his journey along the trail, and the steep descent on the southwesterly side of the mountain took him down to the Bonaparte River. Near this point, he encountered a small log cabin, known as “Scotty’s”. The Orkney man kept a few cows and supplied meals. Moberly again met packers, and tried to determine where he could establish the next work camp from Scotty’s, (now known as Scotty Creek). He could then break trail through the Bonaparte Valley.

Now, when you are driving north to Clinton on the highway, and you look to the right, you will see the mountain being described. On the left side of the highway, is the Bonaparte Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys in the whole of the Cariboo.

Back at Scotty’s, a famished Moberly ordered a meal. He was supplied with “a frying pan full of stale flapjacks and a pan of milk.” He devoured the “unsavory cakes” and drank the milk and was informed that he owed Scotty 50 cents for each flapjack and 50 cents for each cup of milk. Some prime language was the result of this fee.

Before Moberly could proceed with his journey, smallpox had broken out among the Indians. It is a tragic description by the engineer.

“‘I had procured a number of Indians and their little horses to pack supplies between the camps above Cook’s Ferry. They camped in a small bay on the Thompson River. On my way down from Ashcroft Creek to this camp, which I did not reach until some hours after dark, I heard the dismal wailing of Indian women on the mountainside above the trail, a certain indication that there was a death. I saw several Indian horses grazing on bunch grass along the Thompson River.

“The little bay below me with the tents of the work camp appeared to be empty. I saw no signs of life. I dismounted, and went to the tents, where I discovered the bodies of the Indians, some in the tents, and other bodies near the River, which they had evidently dragged themselves to to assuage their thirst. All the Indians had been dead for several days.”

Moberly had tremendous difficulty getting the money owed to the work camp labourers from the government. This is a story in itself. But what emerges from the travails of the engineer Walter Moberly is the amount of effort that whole undertaking had been back in the 1860’s. These difficulties, coinciding as they did with a civil service and government still in its infancy, make us ponder the determination and resiliency required to “break trail”, resulting a century later, in the paved highway we drive along today. Most of us little realizing what effort and tragedy that construction entailed.

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