We have seen how the construction of the second Cariboo Wagon Road gave new life to Yale in 1862, as the intensity of the Fraser River gold rush faded and attention switched to the Cariboo. Following fires that destroyed much of the town in 1874 and 1881, Yale could well have started another slow fade, as the goldfields of the central part of the province in turn lost their lustre.
However, British Columbia had negotiated with Ottawa to make a transportation connection with the rest of the country a prerequisite to the then-colony joining the Dominion of Canada on 1871. That link was originally envisaged as a wagon road, but by the time B.C. became a part of Canada there was another, much more attractive, option: a railway line, which would cross the prairies from Winnipeg and continue on to the Pacific coast.
In 1872 Sandford Fleming and a party of four others (including the Revd. George Munro Grant, my second cousin three times removed, who documented the expedition in the book Ocean to Ocean) was despatched to survey a route for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The route that was eventually proposed followed the Thompson and Fraser Rivers through the southern interior, paralleling the Cariboo Wagon Road. That meant that Yale—as the final spot on the Fraser River that boats could reach from the coast—once again assumed considerable importance.
It might not have been so. When the route of the railway was decided on, Emory Creek and Yale were both considered as headquarters for operations along the Fraser. Yale eventually won out, meaning that the already small community of Emory went into decline, while Yale received what amounted to a stay of execution.
When construction of the rail line started, the town became the home of Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor tasked with overseeing the construction of the CPR on the 127-mile stretch between Savona’s Ferry (now Savona) on Kamloops Lake and Port Moody. While 127 miles might not sound like a long distance, the railroad would be traversing some of the most difficult terrain in North America. The canyon of the Fraser River is made of compact granite striped with extremely hard veins of quartz, considered to be the toughest rock in the world. Four tunnels would need to be drilled through it within 1.5 miles of Yale; there were 13 tunnels in total in the first 17 miles upriver from the town, and the 60-mile stretch of rail built between Emory Creek and the confluence with the Thompson River at Lytton was considered to be the most difficult and expensive on the continent.
Onderdonk knew all this going in, and had been headquartered in Yale, and hard at work, for a year before the first sod on the rail line was turned on the prairies in May 1881. During that time the people of Yale had grown accustomed to the near-continuous sound of rock being blasted to create the tunnels that would eventually accommodate the railway.
If anyone minded, they didn’t complain, because that sound was the sound of money, as equipment, supplies, and workers sped to, and through, Yale. “It was hammers and drills, picks and shovels, blasting night and day, and work for everybody who wanted it,” wrote W. H. Holmes in 1936. Every establishment in Yale—from blacksmiths to saloons, and from general stores to hotels—profited from the boom brought on by the railroad.
It took 18 months to build the first two miles of rail line north from Yale, with the town playing host to contractors, engineers, and workmen throughout that time, and benefiting greatly from the increase in traffic, trade, and business. Onderdonk had had a spacious and elegant home which he called Brookside built at the southern outskirts of the town: a suitable abode for himself and his family, as well as a place where he could accommodate guests.
However, not all of the growth in Yale was welcome or wanted. Six months after Onderdonk began his contract, the hospital in the town had to be enlarged because of the increase in patients, due to the number of men who were victims of accidents during construction. Men were being mangled and killed by falling rocks, runaway horses, the incessant blasting, and carelessness, and often arrived at the hospital in bad shape due to the difficulty of conveying them there over the rough terrain.
Deaths occurred on an almost weekly basis. In June 1881 an article in The Inland Sentinel reported that “Our attention has been called to the neglected condition of the cemetery here [in Yale], of late… . It is rapidly filling up with victims and strangers from the railway works.”
The deadline for completion of the Canadian Pacific line linking eastern Canada with the west coast was 1891. On November 7, 1885 the lines being built concurrently from the Pacific coast eastward and through the Rocky Mountains westward met at Craigellachie, near the divisional point west of Revelstoke. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald was informed that day that “the first through train from Montreal is approaching Yale and [is] within four hours of the Pacific coast.”
It had taken five days for that train to get from Montreal to the west coast. Two weeks later the first through freight train reached Victoria after crossing the Georgia Strait by steamer: “Fifteen days from England, a fact that must be hailed with delight by Englishmen and Canadians,” as Sandford Fleming wrote to MacDonald from North Bend, B.C. on November 7, 1885.
A month earlier, with his section finished, Onderdonk had paid off his men, many of whom moved to the coast to work on the construction of railyards in Vancouver (and who gave the name “Yaletown” to the area). Shortly thereafter Onderdonk left Yale, going on to oversee many other major construction projects. He was, for a time, the partner of G.W. Ferris, and it’s believed that Onderdonk had a hand in building Ferris’s famous wheel, which debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
What became of Brookside, Onderdonk’s house in Yale? More on that in the next instalment.