The town of Savona’s Ferry in its original location on the north side of Kamloops Lake in 1885. The hotel operated by James Uren and his wife Jane is the large white building at far left.

The town of Savona’s Ferry in its original location on the north side of Kamloops Lake in 1885. The hotel operated by James Uren and his wife Jane is the large white building at far left.

Ferry disasters, and a tragedy, prompt calls for a bridge at Savona

The shortcomings of a ferry become apparent, but government inaction leads to frustration

It was a federal government promise in 1871 that induced the Crown colony of British Columbia — which found itself in a spot of financial trouble — to join Confederation and become part of the country of Canada, which was less than five years old at that point. That promise was to have a huge effect on Savona’s Ferry, and the mode of transportation which gave the community its name, but that was still more than a decade in the future.

By the late 1860s the gold rush which had been such a boon to the young colony had — if no quite gone bust, certainly slowed down. The Cariboo Waggon Road, hailed as an engineering marvel, had been built at huge expense to the colonial government, but any tolls along the road were payable to individual contractors who had built bridges or sections of the road, not to the government. The financial situation was so bleak that a groundswell of support began to grow for annexation by the United States.

At the same time, there were very real fears that the United States might not wait to be asked: the U.S. government had purchased Alaska in October 1867, less than three months after Canada came into being, and many were worried that B.C. was the next logical name on America’s shopping list. Ottawa took heed and, not wanting to lose the land west of the Rockies, promised — in early 1871 — to construct a railroad linking B.C. with the rest of the country. On July 20, 1871, British Columbia joined Confederation, on condition that the railroad be completed within 10 years.

In 1872 a party led by Sandford Fleming travelled across Canada, to survey and report on the best possible route. As we have seen, his journey took him to, and through, Savona’s Ferry at the west end of Kamloops Lake. The townsite was located on the north side of the lake, and a ferry took travellers across the Thompson River at its mouth, to continue their journey by road.

Following the death of François Savenuex in 1862, the ferry remained in private hands. One early operator was Donald McLean, son of Hudson’s Bay Company chief trader Donald McLean, the founder of what is now Historic Hat Creek Ranch. By 1870, however, the colonial government had taken over the running of the ferry, and in that year James Uren was appointed ferryman.

Uren and his wife Jane had been successful hoteliers in Clinton starting in 1863, with Jane managing the day-to-day operations of the hotel while her husband earned a living as a packer along the Cariboo road; the quality of her cooking was known far and wide. By the late 1860s, however, Clinton had been affected by the downturn in the colony’s fortunes, with fewer and fewer travellers along the famed Waggon Road. It is not known how hard Uren might have lobbied for the new government position in Savona’s Ferry, but he and his family were quick to move to the community, where they rebuilt the hotel there; it soon became famous for its hospitality, good meals, and good beds. It was at this hotel where Fleming and his party enjoyed a meal in 1872, during their 14-hour trek from Kamloops to Ashcroft; 12 years later, when Fleming made another visit to the community, he was sad to learn that the hostess who had cooked such a delicious meal had passed away only a short time earlier.

The existing ferry operated on a rope, and had limited capacity. Shortly after his arrival, Uren imported wire cable, blocks, and tackle, and built a large scow capable of holding a four-horse team and foot passengers. Despite the improvements, however, the ferry at Savona’s was susceptible to the fierce flow of the water at the point where it crossed. In 1875 the cable broke, and the provincial government — possibly because it was cash-strapped, and possibly because the area had elected an opposition member to the legislature — did not send a replacement until the end of 1876.

During the long wait, people began muttering about the need for a bridge across the Thompson, to replace the ferry. These demands grew when, in 1878, high water caused the scow to break away from the cable, and in June 1879, when the cable once again broke. No injuries had been reported in 1875, but in 1879 Uren was only saved by a strong First Nations swimmer, and two other people — a First Nations boy and a CPR survey supply man — barely made it to shore. Charles Fortier, a Hudson’s Bay Company man, was not so fortunate: he drowned, and his death prompted more calls for a bridge.

No one appeared to be listening. Quite the contrary: although the government called for tenders for the five-year maintenance of the ferry in July 1880, more than a year after the tragedy, it was still not back in operation. Indeed, the situation grew so bad that in November 1880 there were complaints from the Grand Jury at the Kamloops Assizes that the lack of an operating ferry was causing hardship for anyone travelling along that stretch of road.

In the meantime, the railroad that had been promised to British Columbia had failed to materialize, or even get started. Just when things were at their lowest ebb, however — no ferry, no bridge, and no idea when the situation would change — Savona’s Ferry, along with the rest of the province, got some very good news indeed.

Next time: A bridge for Savona at last

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