When the transcontinental railway forged a national unity between disparate coasts, it was a remarkable feat of hardship, sacrifice, politics and unerring vision.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the treacherous landscapes of Lytton and the Fraser Canyon.
In 1808, when explorer Simon Fraser first battled his way through this rugged area, searching for an alternate fur trading route to the Pacific Ocean, he recorded: "We had to pass where no human being should venture". And when 20 years later Governor George Simpson of the Hudson Bay Company canoed the same route from Fort George (now Prince George), he concluded "I should consider the passage down to be certain Death, in nine attempts out of ten."
These were inhospitable lands, tamed only by the First Nations peoples who had long learned to maneuver through its canyons with ladders of twigs and twine, and trees suspended in such a way as to provide safe passage. They proved valuable examples that Simon Fraser, and the prospectors and railway workers to come, learned to adapt and follow. Today, those pathways are illustrated at the Simon Fraser Wall at Hell's Gate Airtram.
While the Sto:lo First Nations in Hope established trade with the Hudson Bay Company there, the Tait and Nlaka'pamux peoples lived in the Canyon and traded with the fort at Yale. As the uppermost choke point for sternwheelers, Yale was becoming a major trans-shipment point and, when gold was discovered in 1858 just 2.5km/1.5mi downstream, news of the strike traveled fast.
Hill's Bar, named for Edward Hill's claim turned out to be one of the richest river bars in the world and went on to yield over $2 million in gold!
Seemingly overnight, thousands of American miners crowded into the narrow confines of the canyon, some overrunning villages, others bringing in Western disease that devastated native populations. The result was war between gold-hungry Americans and Aboriginals trying to protect their land and families.
British Columbia – Crown Colony
The influx of so many Americans did something more. It spurred the British to formalize their claim over the New Caledonian lands and by the time they finally negotiated a peace, Parliament was well on the way to establishing British Columbia as a crown colony. Still, the American influence still remains in places such as Boston Bar, named by the First Nations for the men from Boston.
The Coming of Rail
But peace in the canyon was by no means quiet. In the 1880s, Canadian Pacific had begun railway construction and just as the gold rush started to wane, Boston Bar, Yale and Lytton experienced a second boom.
National Historic Monument
Many prospectors turned to the railroad for work yet many more were needed. Those needs led to one of the largest immigration ventures of its day. Over 2,000 Chinese labourers were shipped in from China; they worked for half the wages of their white counterpart and took on the most difficult and dangerous work. But they were inexperienced and records indicate that four Chinese died for every mile of railroad built. They are remembered with a National Historic Monument in Yale.
Fraser Canyon Today
Over the next 60 years, access to the canyon continued to evolve. In the 1920s, the Canadian National Railway also constructed a line through the canyon to Hope and today, the rivalry continues between the two companies which occupy tracks on either side of the canyon. Forestry roads cut across the mountainsides to access timber resources and the old Cariboo Wagon Trail has long since been replaced by the Trans-Canada Highway as it drives a path north and east to the Interior.
Learn more about Lytton's colourful past with self-guided tours of historic and heritage sites. Brochures and information are available at the Lytton Visitor Centre.