The Historic Cariboo Waggon Road Restoration Project has been hard at work mapping and authenticating trails since receiving funding just over a year ago.
In April of 2019, the New Pathways to Gold Society received $54,500 to begin the first phase of the Cariboo Waggon Road Restoration project, cataloguing and determining the cost of clearing and restoring the trails for public use. It’s been the work of a whole year but for those involved with the project, it’s work they’re deeply passionate and enthusiastic to do.
This includes Richard Wright, a Cariboo journalist, writer and photographer of many years, who has been working as a project manager for the Cariboo Waggon Road Restoration Project. Previously, Wright spent 16 years living in Barkerville and wrote a book about the Cariboo Waggon road back in the 1970s.
“I’ve always had an interest in history, specifically Cariboo history, so this project is a natural tie in for me,” Wright said.
Assisting him is Don Hauka the communications creative director for the New Pathways to Gold Society, first established in 2007 to enhance tourism and multiculturalism in the region. Hauka is himself a former journalist, who, like Wright, got his start at the Williams Lake Tribune. In addition to multiple projects the society has initiated or organized over the years, Hauka said they have cleared and restored 230 kilometres of heritage trails since their founding.
The trails they’re marking for restoration, Wright said, were built following the Cariboo Gold Rush when gold was found in the Williams Creek area near Barkerville in the late 1850s to early 1860s. As towns sprung up and experienced miners came to work their claims, the problem of how to transport goods and services to the miners became a pressing issue. Wright said it can be easy to forget, today, how difficult it was to travel 600 miles up from Victoria and New Westminster up to the goldfields.
Initially, Wright said they transported goods via a steady stream of mule trains across a long winding trail system constantly through the summers of 1861 and 1862. In fact, during the winter of 1862 there was famine as the trails were so rough there were no ways to get supplies to those in Williams Creek. Following pressure from miners, merchants and the general public James Douglas, the governor of the then Colony of British Columbia, began to undertake what would morph into and become known as the Cariboo Waggon Road, or the Great North Road cutting travel time from three weeks to six days, by stagecoach.
“That was a huge technological change, we don’t recognize that today but the difference between mules and horses to wagons was a huge change. It changed the population and the whole story of the Cariboo Waggon Road,” Wright said.
Hauka said that for a number of years now, the road has been one of the heritage trail priorities for the society since they did an initial study, back in 2009, that found some intact sections of the road around Clinton. It wasn’t until 2017 that they began applying for money from the B.C. Rural Dividend Fund to survey more possible intact stretches from Clinton to Lac la Hache. In 2019, they received money from the fund to survey and authenticate the old road and determine if it’s suitable to be turned into a heritage trail.
“This road was built on an ancient network of First Nations and Indigenous trails, it’s not as if the royal engineers had a blank slate to work with, the First Nations have been travelling this province for millennia and they knew the best way to get from A to B,” Hauka said, adding that one of their society’s core values is reconciliation and working with Indigenous communities to tell a broader more inclusive narrative.
As they mapped out the old road, some of which is still in use today as recreational trails, Hauka said they hired Wright to oversee the project and worked with Montane Forest Consultants in 100 Mile House to get the mapping and GPS side of things going. They’ve ended up finding way more stretches of the road than they expected to find, many of which are intact and easily restorable today.
If they work with the various stakeholders in the area Hauka firmly believes they can easily turn these stretches of road into a world-class heritage trail network. This would be modelled off of the old railway trails that have been made across North America, where old redundant train tracks are dug up and a walking trail is put in its place.
This is also only the end of phase one, Hauka said, as phase two will “almost certainly” focus on the road remnants around Williams Lake, which bypassed the city for some reason. Wright added that these detours would often be made due to geographical concerns, such as the detour near 70 Mile House made due to a large boulder field.
To authenticate a section of road, Wright said they follow a process called ‘ground-truthing,’ where they rely on historical maps, local accounts, surveys and evidence found in the area, such as oxen shoes. District lot surveys especially have been very helpful with figuring out the route, including the work of one surveyor who walked from Cache Creek to 141 Mile in 1912 marking a surveyed route.
Moving forward, to wrap up phase one, Hauka said they are now preparing a report on how much it would cost to restore these trails and are consulting with locals about what type of amenities people would like set up such as washrooms, information kiosks and bike repair stands. While COVID-19 may slow down some of their efforts, he’s confident they will be able to finish phase one by the middle of May to the beginning of summer.
While the historical significance is important to them, both Wright and Hauka want the public to know they envision this project as a future economic driver for Cariboo communities. There are many examples, they said, of such projects helping to revitalize local economies and they hope to see the same happen here.
“If anybody is interested in volunteering or has a story about the road, by all means, get a hold of us because we’re collecting those stories,” Wright said with Hauka adding they can do so through Facebook groups like the Friends of the Cariboo Wagon Road Society and New Pathways to Gold Society page.