It is an immutable fact of nature that while rivers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they share the common trait of only having two banks. The Thompson River is no exception, and when Thaddeus Harper relocated his grist mill from Clinton to the west bank of the Thompson River at the mouth of the Bonaparte in 1878, he did so in the knowledge that the Canadian Pacific Railway’s mainline would be coming past his doorstep. The question was, would it be on the mill’s side of the river, or on the opposite bank?
The Thompson is not particularly broad at its confluence with the Bonaparte — less than 200 feet across — but those 200 feet were crucial when it came to transporting the mill’s flour to market. The CP mainline on the mill side of the river would make transportation a relatively simple matter; a railway line on the opposite side of the Thompson would make things immeasurably more difficult.
Still, 50/50 is good odds, and Harper was doubtless cheered by the fact that surveys had been carried out on the west bank of the Thompson. One can only imagine his chagrin when it was confirmed that the CP line would be on the east bank, meaning that in order to access the station and depot in the new townsite of Ashcroft two miles south, a bridge would have to be built across the mouth of the Bonaparte, and another would be needed across the Thompson to get to the town.
It was the third major blow — after a huge landslide in 1880 that nearly destroyed the mill, and the failure of steam navigation on the Thompson from Savona — that Thaddeus Harper had endured, but to his credit, he did not give up. He began making plans for a cable ferry across the Thompson to the east bank and the CP mainline, but the plan fell through because of the swift current of the river, and the fact that there was no easy or natural approach or landing point on either side.
A bridge over the Thompson, connecting Ashcroft to the Cariboo Waggon Road, was eventually constructed in 1886, but although Harper’s Mill was still operating, the death knell of the mill, and almost all the others in the B.C. Interior, came with the advent of “roller flour” from the prairies. Starting in the 1860s, roller mills — which produced good-quality, inexpensive flour and were more economical to run than grist mills — had become more prevalent, and one by one grist mills bowed to the inevitable.
Harper’s Mill held out until 1890, but in that year ground its last flour and closed. By that time the mill, the land on which it stood, and the other property owned by Harper in the area had been acquired by the Western Canadian Ranching Company, from whom it was eventually purchased and then subdivided.
Ironically, in 1915 — 35 years too late for Harper’s Mill — Thaddeus Harper got his wish, with a railway mainline built right past the doorstep of the mill, which by then was beginning to fall into ruin. In 1928 it was noted that “Little but the skeleton now remains … The old building has been gutted of most of its vitals, windows and casings have disappeared after thirty-five years or more of idleness but the roof betrays none of the ‘Old Dobbin’ arch so characteristic of old age, which speaks out an everlasting praise for the pioneer mechanics who laid the foundations and knitted the timbers and lumber together.”
In 1939, former Journal editor R.D. Cumming wrote that “Valuable parts were removed, but much remained, and the heavier pieces stand today where they last saw service. Their positions have become so precarious, however, by the removal of beams, supports and flooring, that they may fall at any moment.” By 1946 the mill was in imminent danger of collapse, and there were fears that the huge and heavy “French burr” millstones that had been brought from France in the 1860s, and were among the few items remaining in the building, would “roll into the Thompson River and be lost.”
The Journal, with support from the B.C. Historical Association, arranged for the millstones to be salvaged, and they were installed beside the historic freight wagon which had been saved by a Journal initiative in 1928, and was on display near the bridge in Ashcroft. In its June 29, 1946 issue the ndewspaper noted that “The old Harper Flour Mill grinding stones have probably made their last journey on this earth.”
Not quite. The wagon (and stones) were moved to a new location in 1991, but the stones continued to deteriorate, and were eventually removed. They are currently in the keeping of the Village of Ashcroft’s public works department.
The rail line running past the site is now operated by Canadian National, which eventually dismantled what remained of the mill due to safety concerns. I wrote at the beginning of this series that only two tangible reminders of the mill — a sign from the building commemorating the 1880 slide, and the millstones — remained, but I am happy to admit that I was wrong. A sign erected beside the mill, noting the level reached by the floodwaters of 1880, is not “long gone”, as I previously wrote; it still stands beside the CN track, near the site of the old mill, and I am indebted to Ermes Culos — whose house stands a stone’s throw from the sign — for pointing this out.
“It has been there since we have lived here (1980), near the site of the long-gone Mill,” he writes. “What is true is that a number of years ago (10? 15?) I wrote to CN asking them to do something about the writing on the sign, whose letters had faded badly and were becoming hard to read. CN heeded my suggestion and a while later replaced the plywood sheets that made up the sign with new plywood sheets and freshly painted letters. And there it still stands, right across the tracks from our house.” The sign — the only tangible on-site reminder of Harper’s Mill — can be viewed from Evans Road on the east side of the Thompson.