Summer staycation Part 2 – Rails and Roads

A car journey around our area that enables travellers to see the ghosts of transportation routes past.

For some travelers, the destination is everything, while others prefer the journey. This summer staycation combines both, as we hit the road for a trip that showcases how travel in the region has evolved, and also provides plenty of opportunities to get out and explore our transportation past.

Heading south on Hwy. 1 we come to Skihist Provincial Park, which straddles the highway just north of Lytton. Many readers have probably stopped at the picnic area and viewpoint overlooking the Thompson; but if you go into the upper reaches of the campground on the east side of the highway you’ll find a walkable portion of the original Cariboo Wagon Road. Constructed in the early 1860s to connect the coast with the goldfields, it was considered a marvel of Victorian engineering. Narrow and treacherous as it was, it was a vast improvement on what was there before, and made the journey north much easier for the thousands of people seeking their fortunes..

Back on Hwy. 1 we come to the small town of Boston Bar, named after the “Boston Men” (Americans) who were among the first to pan for gold on the Fraser River’s “bars” in that area. Just south of town we hit China Bar Tunnel which, at almost 2,000 feet in length, is one of the longest car tunnels in North America. It’s the first of seven modern tunnels, constructed between 1957 and 1964, on this stretch of the Trans-Canada. In some cases the new tunnels improved on existing ones, but the current Hell’s Gate tunnel was sited in a different location to the one it replaced. That original tunnel can still be visited; park at the Elvis Rocks the Canyon café and follow the trail which leads back to the old tunnel.

Not far beyond Hell’s Gate is what remains of Alexandra Lodge. A roadhouse was established on the site in 1858, and was originally known as Chapman’s Bar House. For many years it was thought that the current lodge incorporated portions of the original building, but such is not the case; the current lodge dates from the 1920s. Two cemeteries on the property contain the remains of early settlers and Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The lodge overlooks the second Alexandra Bridge, which was built in 1926, and replaced the original bridge, completed in 1863 and a crucial part of the Cariboo Wagon Road. The first bridge fell into disuse in the 1880s and much of it was washed away in the flood of 1894 (which also destroyed bridges in Ashcroft and Spences Bridge). The bridge was named in honour of Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who married Queen Victoria’s eldest son Edward in 1863.

The remains of the first bridge lingered into the 1920s, when the popularity of motor cars, and the demands of drivers, led the provincial government of the day to reopen the road through the Fraser Canyon and construct a new bridge across the Fraser. It lasted until 1964, when the third (current) bridge over the river was opened. Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park is a pleasant place to stop, and a trail—which follows the route of the old highway—leads from the park to the bridge, which can still be crossed, although the trail/highway on the far side peters out after a short distance.

Continue on to Hope, and take Hwy. 5 to exit 183 (Othello Road), then turn on to Tunnels Road. You’re now in Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, where you can visit another engineering marvel, the Quintette Tunnels. In the early 1900s the Canadian Pacific Railway recognized the importance of linking the Kootenay region with the coast, and a new rail line—called the Kettle Valley—was built. The Coquihalla Canyon, with its sheer granite cliffs and winding river, presented chief engineer Andrew McCulloch with a challenge: he could either go around it, at great difficulty and expense, or go through it, which would require all his engineering skills. He chose the latter option, and devised a series of tunnels connected by trestles which crossed the Coquihalla River.

There are five tunnels (a casual observer might only count four, but one tunnel has a break in it, so counts as two), hence the name. They are also referred to as the Othello Tunnels, after the station that once stood nearby (McCulloch, an avid Shakespeare enthusiast, named many of the stations in the Coquihalla subdivision after the Bard’s characters). A walking trail from the parking lot follows the old track bed and continues through all five tunnels, a distance of 1.4km. The trestles have been converted to walkways, and provide spectacular views of the Coquihalla River and Canyon, as well as a chance to appreciate why this section of the Kettle Valley line was known as “McCulloch’s Wonder”.

Drive north to Merritt and then head west through the Nicola Valley along Hwy. 8 to see more traces of the Kettle Valley line, a branch of which terminated at Spences Bridge. Several railway bridges and sections of the track bed still exist, although much of the right of way is on Indian reserve land; obtain permission before venturing on to these sections. A tunnel at the western end of the line, near the long-gone station of Clapperton (the last station before Spences Bridge), is still there, and features beautiful masonry work that’s unlike that of any other tunnel on the Kettle Valley line.

And now we’re in Spences Bridge, after a circle tour that takes in much of the transportation history of our area. As you make your way home on our sleek modern highways, be thankful for the work of those who blazed the way, by road and rail, to open up the Interior.

Barbara Roden