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Past, Present & Beyond - Road Trip revisited: Snake Pits and Auto Courts

Barbara Roden ponders how summer road trips around the area might have been in days gone by.

Our road trip through the area’s names may be at an end, but summer has almost a month left to run, according to the calendar. I’m sure a lot of people will be hitting the road in the next few days, to take advantage of the last weekend before students are due to head back to school. So we, too, will hit the road once more, to look at something we all take for granted – roads - and something that was once a feature of them: the auto court.

First, however, I want to look at three place names I overlooked in my road trip. Spatsum, on the east side of the Thompson River, is halfway between Spences Bridge and Ashcroft. Spatsum Creek flows into the Thompson there, and derives its name from the Nlaka’paxum word for Indian hemp. The plant was used by the First Nations people as a source of fibre for fishing lines and nets. The pumping station on the east side of the Thompson near Spatsum Creek takes water to the mine at Highland Valley.

South of Spatsum, and north of the campground and park at Skihist, is a section of the Trans-Canada known as “the Snake Pit”. Anyone who has driven through this section knows why it was so named, as the road twists and turns between the CPR track on one side, and the Thompson River on the other. It’s been described as probably the most sinuous section of the Trans-Canada’s 5,000 miles, and drivers who frequent the highway know to treat this section with care. In some places the narrowness of the route means that the road is built over the river itself, supported by steel retaining walls filled with gravel.

A place known as Carquile is still listed on several maps of the area, centred around Hat Creek Ranch but extending as far north as 16 Mile and east towards Marble Canyon. The name is a misspelling of the surname of William “Billy” Cargile (or Carguile, as it appears in an alternative spelling), who purchased the roadhouse and ranch at Hat Creek in 1881 and sold it (to BX Express driver Steven Tingley) in 1894.

Tingley would have been familiar with the roads through the area, and would have known at firsthand how rough and bumpy they were when experienced atop a stagecoach. When the Cariboo Wagon Road was completed in 1863 it was rightly considered a marvel of Victorian engineering, and many complimentary words were doubtless said of it; but “comfortable” would not have been one of them. Travellers on horseback and in stagecoach would have experienced many an ache and pain after traversing the road; and early motorists would not have fared much better.

In 1907 the first car in the area was seen in the streets of Ashcroft. Considering the fact that it was being driven on a dirt road, and that early motorcars had little in the way of shock absorbers and suspension and decent tires, one can only imagine what state the passengers were in by the end of the journey (the car had to be transported home by train). While many people thought that the motoring craze would be a flash in the pan, or the preserve of the wealthy, it proved to be neither. Henry Ford’s Model T cost $825 in 1908; by 1916 a Model T cost $360, and the introduction of the assembly line in 1913 meant that cars were readily available for anyone who could afford them.

By the 1920s there were millions of cars in North America, and these newfangled “motorists” wanted roads to drive them on. In B.C. the Cariboo Wagon Road had been left to its own devices; the advent of the railways meant it was relatively ill-used. When the original Alexandra Bridge was washed away in 1894, it was not replaced until 1926 (by the disused bridge which can still be seen from the current bridge on the Trans-Canada); and the 1926 bridge was only built because the provincial government, bowing to the demands and needs of motorists, built what was known as the Fraser Canyon Highway starting in 1924.

More motorists, on more roads, meant that many needed a place to stay while en route to their destination (my mother recalls that in the late 1950s, a trip from Vancouver to the Shuswap took two full days of travel; before the completion of the Trans-Canada in 1962, there were places in the Fraser Canyon that were single lane only, meaning that if two cars met in opposing directions, one had to back up until the other could pass). Hotels were few and far between (and expensive), and campgrounds were not to everyone’s taste.

So the 1920s saw the birth of the auto court, many of which featured a mix of campgrounds and cabins, along with features such as pools, stores, laundromats, and shower facilities. There was an auto court in Ashcroft (on the site where the River Inn now sits), as well as the T.U. Auto Court in Cache Creek (where the Post Office is now sited; a store was located at what’s now the junction of hwys 1 and 97), the Windmill Auto Court in Savona, and the Big Horn Auto Court south of Cache Creek (where my mother and her parents and sisters would stay on their way to the Shuswap).

In time the auto courts were supplanted by motels (the word is a conflation of “motor” and “hotel”) and died out, although their remains can still be seen by those who know where to look.

So if you take to the road this weekend, spare a thought for those who came before, and the conditions they endured. And if you’re driving through the Snake Pit, slow down a bit. That’s a treacherous bit of road, even today.

Barbara Roden