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What's in a name? Part 3: Spence's bridge and Cook's ferry

A trip south from Ashcroft to Spences Bridge looks at the stories behind some of the area place names.

We’re heading south on Hwy. 1 from Ashcroft, looking into the stories behind the names of many of the places in our area. On our right is the turn-off to Oregon Jack Valley, named after early settler Jack (or John) Dowling. He hailed from Oregon—hence his nickname—and when he was not running his roadhouse he was searching for gold in the valley which now bears his name. It was in this same valley that he reportedly hid the gold bars he obtained when he held up a stagecoach in the late 1880s; gold which might still be there.

The Basque Ranch, to the left, is named after Antoine Minaberriet (as the name was originally recorded), a Basque Frenchman who emigrated here in the 1860s. It was at Basque that the last spike of the Canadian Northern Pacific Railway—later the Canadian National—was driven home on Jan. 23, 1915.

Two roads lead west into beautiful Venables Valley. It derives its name from Capt. Cavendish Venables, a British Army officer who had served in the Crimean War and was also secretary to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, who had, in 1829, established the Metropolitan Police Force in London (hence the reason British policemen are called “bobbies” or “peelers”). Venables was rewarded for his services with a military land grant of several hundred acres in the region that now bears his name.

Across the river is an imposing talus slope, towering above the tiny Anglican church of St. Aidan’s at Pokeist (also spelled Pokhaist or Pukaist). “Pokeist” means “white stone” or “white rock” in the Nlaka’pamux language, and the area was sacred to the local First Nations people. At one time it apparently boasted a population close to 800, but a smallpox epidemic in 1852 devastated the community.

We pass through the split rock, not much changed since 1867 when a famous picture was taken showing freight wagons on the Cariboo Wagon Road making their way through the cleft. A few more turns and we are in sight of Spences Bridge, nestled along the Thompson River at the point where the Nicola River enters it. The latter derives its name from the great Chief Hwistesmexe’quen (“Walking Grizzly Bear”; 1785?–1859?), who was given the first name Nicolas or Nicholas by early fur traders. These men respected Nicolas as the most powerful and influential chief in the southern interior, and an 1849 map shows both “Lac de Nicholas” and “R.[ivière] Nicholas”. Other First Nations people pronounced the Chief’s new given name “Nkwala”, which is probably where the more familiar “Nicola” derives from.

While we are on the subject of rivers, we should acknowledge the one we have been following (more or less) since our journey began in Savona. The Thompson was named after David Thompson, who came to Canada in 1784 and was one of its most famous surveyors and explorers. In 1808, when Simon Fraser arrived at the site of what is now Lytton, he called the river heading north and east Thompson’s River, thinking that his fellow explorer was camped somewhere near the source of it (Thompson was actually on the Columbia River; in one of those twists of history, he never saw the river that was named after him). Although we now call the entire river the Thompson, the South Thompson was at one time known as the Shuswap River.

And here we are in Spences Bridge, which was originally known as Cook’s Ferry, after Mortimer Cook, who established a ferry service here in 1862 with partner James Kimball, and ran it until 1865. The ferry ran between the “old” community—near the mouth of the Nicola—and the “new” community, on the west side where the Cariboo Wagon Road ran. In 1864 Thomas Spence was commissioned to build a bridge; but he built it too low, and it was swept away a few weeks later. Nothing if not persistent—and sounding rather like a character out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail—he built a second bridge on the pilings of the first, and it stayed up (until 1894, when it was again swept away by high water; a third bridge was built to replace it). The initial bridge(s) cost $15,000—a vast sum of money in those days—and Spence was allowed to charge tolls (although natives could cross the bridge for free) to recoup his costs. Not only did Spence’s bridge effectively shut down Cook’s ferry, it supplanted the latter as the town’s name (although Cook’s Ferry remains the name of the local First Nations band). The bridge (now closed) that currently occupies the site of Spence’s first one was built in 1930.

As we cross over the bridge on Hwy. 1 at the south end of town we see, to our right, graceful Murray Falls. The waterfall was named for John Murray, who came to the area from Scotland in 1859 and founded and ran a general store here. He was also a successful orchardist who sold vegetable and flower seeds, and eventually his businesses included a stable and hotel. On the hillside near Murray Falls one can still see remnants of the irrigation system Murray built to bring water from Murray Creek to his orchards. In 1884 Murray’s niece, Jessie Ann Smith, arrived in Spences Bridge with her husband. They, too, were successful orchardists; indeed, Jessie Smith’s apples found favour with King Edward VII, far away in London, who specifically asked for the Spences Bridge apples grown by Mrs. Smith.

Next time: south to Lytton, on what I hope will not be a dark and stormy night.

Barbara Roden