Dangerous work in Chilcotin country

Andy Motherwell tells the story of lives lost in the pursuit of power

In the period of 1955 – 1957, the provincial government was doing surveys to assess the value of large lake and rivers for electricity generation. Local examples, as shown on an old pre-emption maps were: Big Canyon of the Quesnel River – 52,800 HP; Little Canyon of the Quesnel River – 52,800HP; Spanish Lake (near Likely) – 500HP; Fraser River at Cottonwood Canyon – 270,500HP and the Fraser River at Soda Creek – 320,000HP.

Survey crews were sent out to install gauges to measure the generating potential. Many locations were in very challenging country, as Fred Phillips of Quesnel, revealed when he worked near Mount Waddington, Homathko Canyon and Tatlayoko Lake in the Chilcotin country.

The following are his notes.

From April 1,1956 to Oct. 31/1956 – setting up camp West at the foot of Mount Waddington; camp East on the east side of the Homathko River; on Mosley Creek above the Homathko; and the fourth main camp at the south end of Tatlayoko Lake. There were 10 men at Tatlayoko, four at Mosley, six at Waddington West and six at Waddington East.

Williams Lake Helicopters service the camps from pads at Waddington West and East, but Mosley Camp was too rough for the machines. Tatlayoko serviced it.

A shallow draft river boat was built at Campbell river in six weeks and it then motored up Bute Inlet which was 65 miles. Ten propeller sheer pins out of twelve attested to the difficulty of the passage up the river.

Chopper pads, 12X12 were cleared with room for a camp of men.

Fred arrived at Waddington East on May 15, 1956.

On the first week in June, as Fred reached Tatlayoko, the other chopper crashed killing the pilot. It was to have taken Fred to the next camp. That was Fred’s first near death experience. Later while cutting brush near evening, Fred cut his thigh with the machete, a helicopter took him out to Williams Lake where he was told the blade missed an artery by 1/4 inch and needed seven stitches – that was his second near death experience.

One camp was set up 200 feet from the creek and 20 feet above it. One early morning, at 5 a.m. a severe thunder storm occurred. The resident chopper was told to go up to a higher gravel bar on the Homathko River. The pilot did so in his pyjamas and was just off the pad when a 12-foot wall of water swept away all of the camp and its food supply and chopper fuel. By 6 a.m. a huge debris pile was evident containing moose, deer, bear and trees. Choosing a high camp site certainly paid off. A broken log jam caused the destruction but a week later they were back in business.

Waddington West camp was set up in late April at the foot of Tiedemann Glacier. Surrounding boulders were as big as houses with some as smooth as marbles. Fossils were found and on breaking volcanic rocks tiny red garnets were found.

While surveying, an old road was found from 1905 when Col. Waddington and his men built it. It was eight feet wide and 200 feet long. Near this spot the camp was attacked by natives and several of the crew were killed. Natives said the area was taboo country. An old survey post was found, still standing and covered in thick moss with the figures still legible – a span of 55 years.

At this spot, in September 1956, a red glow woke the camp at 5 a.m. and they could see the cook camp on fire. The cook was standing in the burning tent, in his burning pajamas. As the fire flash decreased he was pulled screaming from the tent. He begged for someone to give him a gun to end his pain. A chopper flew to Williams Lake for the doctor, but it was too late. The doctor said if it had occurred beside the hospital he could not have saved Paddy.

The job had to be done and they did it without today’s safety precautions, better equipment and advanced ways of doing the job. Much of what they did is still in place serving us well. Fred says it is a beautiful country but very dangerous and unforgiving. He would love to go back to the area some day.

Andy Motherwell is an amateur historian and regular Observer columnist.

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