The following appeared in the Gold Rush Journal.
Written by Simon Sherwood and Timothy Watkins
(presented here by special permission from the authors)
The Royal Engineers were only a tiny military force in the midst of a vast gold rush. Yet they succeeded against all odds in laying the foundations for much of modern British Columbia. And it was road building which became their most dangerous, most frustrating, and ultimately their most important task.
The story of the Royal Engineers and their roads begins in 1858. At the start of that year, the European presence in B.C. consisted of some 300 colonists and a few fur-trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company. But in spring news reached San Francisco that gold was to be found on the lower Fraser River. In the next eight months, some 30,000 emigrants poured into the territory.
The new arrivals were mostly American, many of them ‘forty-niners’ heavily armed and desperate for gold. Conflict quickly broke out with natives in the Fraser Canyon near the gold-bearing gravel bars. Governor James Douglas demanded help from the Colonial Office in London.
The answer to his plea was the Columbia Detachment of Royal Engineers, 160-strong. The Engineers were an elite corps, the repository of scientific and technical expertise in the British army. Officers did not purchase their commissions as was the custom in the rest of the army, but earned their places by passing through Britain’s only military college. The Detachment's commander, Col. Richard Moody, had drawn up plans for the restoration of Edinburgh Castle which caught the fancy of Queen Victoria herself.
Even the rank and file were skilled tradesman. Among the soldiers selected for the Detachment were trained surveyors, carpenters, stonemasons, draftsmen, printers and musicians. The Royal Engineers were also among the best paid of Britain's soldiers, the privates - called "sappers" - earning the respectable sum of 1 shilling 2½ pence per day (about 30¢).
All the men sent to B.C. were volunteers, lured in part by the offer of 30 acres of land (later increased to 150 acres) upon completion of service. Their wives and children were also welcomed; when the sailing ship Thames City brought most of these sappers in early 1859, its passenger list included 31 wives and 37 children, including three born at sea during the six-month voyage. It was hoped such measures would give the sappers a stake in the colony's future and help prevent desertion.
The Columbia Detachment was intended to provide a highly visible British presence in the colony, to counterbalance the pervasive American influence. The sappers were instructed to maintain a "high social standard of civilization." This role they carried out with enthusiasm wherever they went, building churches, founding public parks, staging theatrical productions, and even playing cricket.
At the same time, the sappers were expected to carry out an extensive program of public works. They were to survey and lay out townsites, beginning with the capital at New Westminster and their own camp nearby known as 'Sapperton', and including such major centres as Yale, Lillooet and Vermilion Forks (Princeton). But above all, the Engineers were in charge of building the roads so badly needed to hold the new colony together.
Some of these new roads were for military purposes. For instance, the Engineers worried an invading American army could blockade the Fraser River and cut off supplies to New Westminster. To prevent this, they built North Road connecting the capital to Burrard Inlet, and a road called the King's Way leading to False Creek. Both survive today, and a glance at a map of Vancouver will show how Kingsway still cuts diagonally through the neat grid of streets created by later urban planners.
Much more ambitious roads were need to link the coast to the mining centres of the interior. Intense pressure was on Governor Douglas to provide cheap, safe and feasible passage to the gold-fields.
From New Westminster travellers generally caught a paddle-wheeler up the Fraser River. The journey upstream was an adventure in itself, as the steam boilers had an alarming tendency to explode, when the boats were not otherwise busy running aground. However, beyond Yale progress was blocked by Lady Franklin Rock and the rapids above.
To take up where the paddle-wheelers left off, the Engineers set to work improving existing trails to the interior on three routes - the Similkameen Road, the Douglas Road and the Fraser Canyon.
The first of these trails ran east from Hope through the Cascade Mountains to Princeton and beyond. This route was considered critical to connect new gold finds in southeastern B.C. to the coast. In July 1861 the Anglican bishop John Hills visited a camp of Royal Engineers along this trail in present-day Manning Park.
“It is interesting,” wrote Hills, "to see the wondrous change produced in a country by a road.” Describing the “tangled, rugged, pathless forest” which was the natural state of the land, Hills remarked that the coming of the Engineers meant a “…magic wand of skill and industry has passed over this chaotic mass. You see before you a beautiful road upon which you might canter a coach… Such was the pleasure afforded us today in tracing the progress of the transforming industry of this Noble band of British Heroes.”
Some of the "Heroes" may have taken a less romantic view of the proceedings. Hills visited with an injured sapper, whom he found in a precarious state after being crushed by a falling tree:
“His name is Babbage, the pride of the Corps. He stood some 6 feet 2, well made and of great strength. He was the best axeman and would use a lever which no other man could lift… A Leg and an Arm were broke with numerous other crushing bruises. His end has been expected every day since… I visited him ministerially. He expressed his thankfulness, and regretted he had neglected religion. When at home, he had attended service always, twice on Sunday. On asking if he could not get some comrade to read the Scripture to him, he replied, ‘I fear they are all novel readers here.’”
Fortunately Sapper Babbage would recover, although it is unclear if he ever overcame his dislike for modern literature.
Meanwhile, the chief obstacle to speedy communication with the Cariboo region remained the narrow and dangerous Fraser Canyon above Yale. The government's original solution was to urge steamships to make a left turn at the Harrison River, chugging upstream to Port Douglas at the north end of Harrison Lake. From there miners had built the Douglas Road, a rudimentary path winding from lake to lake until it arrived at Lillooet, bypassing the roughest part of the Fraser.
The sappers thus started in at Lillooet continuing this road northward, making Lillooet "Mile 0" on the upper road to the Cariboo. But the professionally-trained Royal Engineers were not impressed with the amateurish Harrison route.
They did persevere for a time making improvements to the Douglas Road under vexing conditions. First, the lower Harrison River near its junction with the Fraser kept silting up. The Engineers solved that problem with a series of cedar pilings and underwater bulwarks, forcing the main stream into a narrow channel which scoured itself clean.
It was a brilliant solution, and some of the pilings survive today. Unfortunately it meant that Sapper Strurtidge had to stand chest-deep in icy water for hours supporting these pilings as they were driven into the riverbed. Lt. Mayne of the Royal Navy called this “a very moist occupation,” and Sturtridge was often so numb he had to be pulled out of the river. Colonial officials would later complain at the size of the unlucky soldier's medical bills when he developed acute rheumatism.
At the same time, Corporal McKenney's party was building piers in the numerous remote lakes along the route and writing testy letters to headquarters complaining about the wild fluctuations in water levels. An even worse job went Sapper Duffy, exiled to the remotest section of the route, who contrived to freeze to death on a stretch still known as the Duffy Lake Road.
Meanwhile other Engineers were improving the trail up the Fraser Canyon north of Yale. However, changes here had to be hacked out of sheer rock faces and slides were a constant danger. One nearly buried Sapper Colston, who staggered back to Yale in shock with his hand badly mangled. The British army, true to form, charged Colston for his pickaxe lost in the avalanche.
With newer and bigger gold strikes in the Cariboo country, the colony’s attention turned north with growing urgency. Even after the sappers’ improvements, neither the Harrison route nor the narrow trail north of Yale would be adequate for the growing quantities of freight which needed to pass.
Finally Royal Engineer officers persuaded the Governor to give up on his beloved Douglas Road. They proposed instead to replace the trail above Yale with an 18-foot wide wagon road, right through the heart of the Fraser Canyon.
The Engineers would themselves construct the first stretch, working up the west side of the canyon to a spot near Spuzzum where a bridge to the east bank was planned. They began blasting a roadbed out of the sheer cliffs with gunpowder. Explosions and rockslides meant the men were in constant peril. Then began the backbreaking labour of hauling logs into place to make cribbing over crevices and ravines.
How did the men cope with the toil and danger? Sgt.-Major Cann may have given us a clue when he wrote to his commander from a camp above Yale on June 12, 1862:
"Sir, I require as early as possible for the Yale Waggon Road 1000 Feet of Fuze and 6 Crow Bars. We are also out of Rum. Captain Grant told me before he left for Lillooet that he had send by express for Rum which has not yet arrived, so I borrowed 3 Gallons from a Merchant at Yale."
Meanwhile Sgt. McColl had selected a site for the Spuzzum crossing, which was then built by private contractors. The Alexandria Bridge, a later structure built on the very spot chosen by McColl, survives today as a rest area in the heart of the Fraser Canyon.
North of the Canyon, most of the construction was done by entrepreneurs who bid for the right to build sections of the Road, being paid by the mile and with the right to collect tolls. These early public-private partnerships worked largely because the Engineers served as an incorruptible force of building inspectors. The road was rapidly extended north past Williams Lake, eventually reaching Quesnel and the gold fields beyond.
By the time the Detachment was disbanded in November of 1863, their road network was largely complete. The hard work had taken its toll - some 15 sappers had died by 1863, and 11 more had deserted. But most of the men were honourably discharged, settling in B.C. to become innkeepers and policemen, builders and businessmen. All could point with pride to the work they had done in the colony, and especially to their crowning achievement, the Cariboo Road.
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