How mechanized transport came to the Cariboo

Esther Darlington MacDonald's account of teamster Clarence Stephenson and the IT Stage.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Clarence Stephenson was one of the earliest teamsters on the Old Cariboo Road. As the stagecoaches gave way to mechanized transport, Clarence and his brother-in-law, Norman Glover of Ashcroft, bought a Dodge sedan and called it the IT Stage, or Interior Transportation Company.

As the late Jack Glover, a teamster himself, and son of Norman, tells it, “They jitneyed their way into the transportation industry.”

A jitney, for those who are not familiar with the word, is a taxi. The driver approached the passengers as they came off the trains, offering to take them up the Cariboo Road as far north as Prince George. It didn’t take long for Clarence and Norman to realize that it would become a lucrative business. There was no other means of transport after all. And most people in the 1920s and 30s didn’t own cars. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway had come into the country after the first World War, but this line went through Clinton, a good 40-odd miles from Ashcroft, and connections weren’t that reliable. A traveler might find himself waiting for hours, even a full day, at the small station house on the ridge high above Clinton. So it made a lot of sense to get into the IT Stage vehicle at Ashcroft if you were heading north any distance.

It was a big day in Ashcroft when the IT added five new Studebakers “straight from the factory”. People of the town gathered around the station to look over the handsome new vehicles, like they do today when vintage vehicles are driven into Ashcroft and Cache Creek at Graffiti Days. You might think Clarence and Norman were taking their chances, making such a sizeable investment. But the two men knew that they were on to something big. The demand was immediate, and the passenger trains came in like clockwork every few hours. In those days, trains stopped at every whistle stop, picking up passengers say, from Whitecourt, Alberta, to Prince George. People boarded the trains with loads of groceries and other supplies and they were dropped off where required. Those smoke belching steam driven locomotives chugged across the Cariboo, the uniformed conductors taking the tickets as passengers tucked themselves into wicker or horsehair seats.

But Stephenson and Glover weren’t the only teamsters on the Cariboo Road. In the early 1920s, the late Thelma Haddock of Ashcroft, and later, of Walhachin, was interviewed by the writer. She told me that she drove a 1916 Buick sedan taxi right up until the mid 20s. At that time, mechanized transport had to compete with horses on the Cariboo Road, and the vehicles had to wait to let the horse and wagons go by before proceeding. Maybe, horses, like pedestrians on city streets, had the right of way in those days. Thelma said she was often times precariously perched on the side of the road.

The IT hauled express freight as well as passengers. All mail was hauled free of charge. (How times have changed!) And the pick up of these letters was kind of tricky. Jack Glover recalled that people would stick their letters on the end of a willow, and the stage would come by without stopping, plucking the letter off the stake and putting it into a canvas bag. Jack admitted, if it was snowing or raining, the mail might be a little soggy. You couldn’t be too fussy in those days about things like that.

The Studebakers were used throughout the winter, except when snows became too heavy and high to travel through. And it seems, old timers told the writer, that there was more snow then, and winters were definitely much colder than they are today. Still, our improvising pioneer teamsters clamped runners on the car wheels to get through the snow. From Ashcroft, the IT went to Williams Lake, and another driver would take passengers to Likely, B.C., then, a thriving mining town.

Clarence Stephenson didn’t drive the regular stage. He drove a special sedan that catered to the travelling salesmen. These salesmen were frequent travellers, taking orders for all kinds of merchandise from not only individuals, but from hotel keepers, merchants, clothing stores and restaurants. Clarence drove these salesmen all the way to the Chilcotin. Getting into the Chilcotin country in those days was an excruciatingly difficult exercise. The territory was so isolated, and the ranches and the odd general store so far between. A major breakdown was always a possibility. When Clarence left for the Chilcotin he’d be gone for about two weeks.

Described by the late Julia Stephenson, Clarence was a tall, handsome man with dark eyes. She was smitten while she was living with her family at Soda Creek, then a hub of river boat transportation.  The village held hotels, school, a flour mill, and several hundred residents. But Clarence was driving a horse driven stage when Julia caught sight of him. The couple married some years later in November of 1920.

The roads weren’t “highways” by any means back then. And in winter, “They were just skating rinks,” Jack Glover told the writer in 1980, when she interviewed Jack, Julia and Jimmy Strand about transportation on the Cariboo Road. The good old buffalo robe and the hot water bottle and a few hot bricks helped keep travellers tucked in and warm enough to keep from being frostbitten. And, Jack had to add, the buffalo robe could always serve in a pinch when needed for traction on a particularly icy spot. The mufflers on the vehicles were lost with monotonous regularity, Jack recalls, and some times, a piece of straight pipe was a substitute. (O! those improvisational pioneers!)

The pioneer teamsters remembered grimly that the Road north of Margeurite, B.C. at Alexandria Flats, between Soda Creek and Quesnel, was a mire of thick gumbo mud. Another treacherous spot was “Hogsback” overlooking the Soda Creek canyon. This road is still in use and overlooks the Fraser River. In that period between the First World War and even up to the 1940s, an era hovering between horse drawn transport and mechanized, the challenge was doubled by the passing of cattle and horses over the road.

Sometimes it wasn’t just the condition of the roads and the animals that posed the hazards for the IT drivers, it was the passengers. The late Jimmy Strand, an IT Stage driver for many years, recalls a Chinese gentleman who became car sick, and instead of opening a window, opened the door and fell out and injured his head. Jimmy took the injured passenger to the hospital in Williams Lake.

Liquor, that all important commodity was definitely a popular stage item.

“We used to take orders from every rancher on the road,” recalled Jimmy. “There was no liquor available from Ashcroft to Williams Lake in those days. They would give you the order and pay you on delivery.”

In the case of one well known rancher, now departed this life, but in our history books, Jimmy was asked to “Just leave the bottle in the barn”, lest his good woman spot its delivery.

Naturally, vehicles broke down pretty frequently with roads being in the rough condition especially in the spring, which is referred in the Cariboo as “Break Up”. A broken axle was the most usual problem.  So the IT Stage packed what Jack Glover called, “Axles with bearings” and when an axle broke, a new one was installed, “Just like you pack a spare tire in your car today.”

The Lac La Hache plateau was the worst for drifting snow, the pioneer teamsters recalled. Drivers “punched their way” through the drifts, by backing up, and taking a run at the drift. Little by little, they made it through. Glover recalls that Lac La Hache could have a temperature of 60 below. The IT sedans were all equipped with heaters, a hot water type from the engine under the front seat. The back seat passengers suffered some discomfort, no doubt. The drivers shuddered when scantily clad ladies boarded the stage, clad in attire more suitable for a coastal winter than a Cariboo one.

In 1937, the IT purchased a fleet of DeSotos and the old Studebakers were put to rest. And, at the height of the depression the company also used five passenger Ford vehicles.

The vehicles were serviced by Norman Glover. The garage was situated at the corner of First Avenue and Railway Street, became a favourite hangout where the fellows would sit around the stove and talk, probably about the adventures on the Road.

Clarence Stephenson passed on in 1955, and Norman too, in 1966. Both men had retired some years earlier. The IT Stage was sold to Greyhound Bus Lines in 1943. Greyhound used the DeSotos until 1945. The cars were then sold to the CPR and shipped to Hope. After the Second World War, the stages were replaced by busses. Thus ended the pioneer era of the first mechanized transport vehicles on the Old Cariboo Road.

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