Building a railroad through dangerous land

Esther Darlington MacDonald recounts some local train lore, when the C.P.R. was trailblazing through the province.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

When it came time to map the survey route for  Canada’s first national railroad, the C.P.R., surveyors and suppliers met their most formidable challenge when they entered British Columbia. For sheer rugged wilderness geography, the country’s western-most Province would present problems the planners behind their desks back in Ottawa couldn’t even imagine.

For one thing, in 1871, so little was known about the B.C. Interior. The mountain ranges, the valleys, rivers and lakes that lay between these mountain ranges were one deep, dark mystery. A mystery that only experience would unveil. And that experience would be fraught with misery for the men surveying the route, and for the pack animals that they needed to bring in their supplies. It was a case of ignorance of the land and of the climate in every segment of the route.

And, as it turned out, even the advice of those who did know the land where the routes were to be built wasn’t good enough for the “experts” from Ottawa.

Their inability to acknowledge the facts caused widespread delay in the rail lines’ construction. And those delays, in turn, caused impatient politicians in Ottawa considerable unease, trying to explain away the doubts about the rail line to their constituents.

The whole concept of Confederation lay behind the rapid construction of the national railroad.  It was one thing to extoll the virtues and benefits of a railroad spanning one end of the country to the other.  It was quite another to make that promised dream a reality.  British Columbia posed a juggernaut.  It is one thing, to lay rail track over a thousand miles of prairie, even through hills and dales.  It is quite another to forge a line through mountain terrain so rugged that even the lure of gold could stop men in their tracks.  Have a second, even a third thought about where they had brought themselves to.

That is what happened to two American former cowboys and ranch hands, who had finally realized that there was more money to be made taking supplies into the miners of Barkerville than there was in digging  and panning for gold.  Those two men were friends.  John C. Barnes was from Kentucky.  And William Brink was a native of Indiana.  Both men were well into middle age when they discovered that valley that lay along the Thompson River, a valley surrounded by mesas and canyons, with a plentiful supply of fresh water, and a long growing season for feed crops, grain, and finally, for producing cattle.

The two men settled down, built homesteads, married local native Indian women, and changed the landscape in and around the town that was eventually named Ashcroft.  Barnes damned up the creek that now bears his name, creating the lake that lies just a few miles above Ashcroft which also bears his name.  Barnes began acquiring horses and mules, and soon was busy freighting goods through the freshly built Cariboo Road.  Both men knew that the planning of the Canadian Pacific Railway would bring unqualified progress to the region. Barnes acquired a pack train of 45 horses, and offered his services to the Director of Geological Survey, Alfred R.C. Selwyn.  Selwyn’s lead surveyor was a Mr. Mahood.

The initial plan of the government surveyors was to build the C.P.R. through the Yellowhead, down the Fraser River, then cutting across the country to Barkerville.  Barkerville in the early 1870’s was still a lively progressive  town, largely because of the gold in the nearby hills and streams.   The town had boomed during the 1860’s and some had made their fortunes there.  Notably, Billy Barker, after whom the town was named.  It seemed logical to build the rail line to the town to transport the gold to the south. Vancouver had not yet been conceived in 1871, but Victoria and New Westminster were well established communities offering services and supplies.

The plan initially then, was to get to Barkerville, then return to the Fraser River, or to the Thompson River,  and to run the track through Lytton, at the confluence of the Fraser and the Thompson. Surveyor Mahood was thoroughly intrigued by the plan.  He reached Barkerville with his party in 1871 and was destined for Tete Jaune Cache (Yellowhead Pass.

But winter had already begun to settle in.  Mahood’s pack train owned by Barnes and Brink was being handled by Barnes.  Brink remained back at the Ashcroft site where he was looking after his ranch and grain field.

Mahood wanted to forge ahead north, but Barnes hesitated.  He knew that country would be well into winter and the snows would be heavy and deep.  He realized his train of pack horses would not be able to make it through to Tete Jaune Cache.  But Mahood was under considerable pressure from the Director, Selwyn, to meet Mahood at Tete Jaune Cache, where they would rendevous and plan the next moves.  For Mahood, delay meant   trouble with his boss.  Pressed to continue, the reluctant Barnes, insisted that the government guarantee any losses that he would suffer if they should be snowed in.  Mahood, knowing his report was expected by Selwyn at Tete Jaune Cache, telegraphed Ottawa, and asked for Barnes to be compensated for any losses it was almost certain he would sustain.   Authority was given and Barnes, and his pack train plowed ahead.

From Barkerville, the party went by way of Bear lake and Willow River to the Fraser.  But snow had begun to fall so heavily, that three feet of it had fallen in one night, stopping the survey crew and the pack train in its tracks.  Freezing temperatures added to the torture.  It was imperative that the party must get out of the territory, or they would be locked in for the winter.  The pack animals were abandoned.  They were turned loose to fend for themselves.  The survey crew and Barnes made their way out by snowshoes.  All the horses perished.

It took some time, but John C. Barnes and William Brink were eventually compensated for their loss.  The deal was $150 for each head.  That was a lot of money in those days.

Selwyn, meanwhile, made his way to Kamloops by pack train, but he faired no better than Mahood had done.  He failed to find Mahood at their planned rendevous site at Tete Jaune Cache, and he, too, had to abandon his horses.  He continued to Kamloops by canoe.  His men had made four canoes.  Two of them were lost, probably in the rapids.

It was delays such as this one that prolonged the building of Canada’s first national railroad.  The C.P.R.

Esther Darlington MacDonald