The Cariboo Wagon Road is considered one of the main legacies of BC’s gold rush era of the 1850s and 1860s. In reality, there were two Cariboo Roads. The first one was an extension of the Harrison-Lillooet route that was created in 1858. It followed Harrison Lake and a series of portages and smaller waterways such as Anderson and Seton Lakes until Lillooet (called Cayoosh Flat until 1860) was reached on the Fraser River.
From there in 1862 Sergeant McMurphy of the Royal Engineers began supervising construction of a road northwards along the Fraser River, up and over Pavillion Mountain to Clinton, then northwards into the Cariboo. Gustavus Blin Wright was the contractor for a 224-mile stretch of this route from Lillooet to Fort Alexandria. Parsonville (on the east bank of the Fraser River across from Lillooet) was designated Mile “0” on this new road and stops along the way were named based on the number of miles they were from Lillooet. This original route to the Cariboo was difficult (especially the climb over Pavillion Mountain) and time-consuming.
Simultaneously with constructing the road from Lillooet, the Royal Engineers decided that a better route was needed. The main problem was the Harrison Lake to Lillooet section which required transshipment of goods many times. It would be preferable to have a route where goods needed to be unloaded from a boat only once, then taken north by freight wagon. Early in 1862 Colonel Richard Clement Moody, commanding officer of the Royal Engineers, and Walter Moberley, a road contractor, convinced Governor James Douglas that the best route would begin at Yale (head of steamboat navigation on the Fraser River) and follow the Fraser Canyon and Fraser River north to Lytton, thence along the Thompson River to Ashcroft, thence overland to Clinton. Work on this new road from Yale began in sections in 1862.
Captain Grant of the Royal Engineers took charge of building the first section from Yale north through the Fraser Canyon (the most difficult section); Joseph Trutch contracted to build the section from Chapman’s Bar to Boston Bar; Thomas Spence contracted for the section from Boston Bar to Lytton; a three-partner team (Oppenheimer, Moberley and Lewis) built the section northwards from Lytton. Their section would connect with a portion that was being constructed by Gustavus Blin Wright south from Fort Alexandria. Soda Creek, a few miles south of Fort Alexandra, was the place where the road met up with the Fraser River and from there riverboats at first would be used to continue the route north. By the spring of 1864 Francis Barnard was running four-horse stage coaches between Yale and Soda Creek. In 1865 the road was extended all the way to Barkerville.
The Cariboo road was 400 miles long. It followed the west bank of the Fraser River from Yale to Spuzzum, where it crossed to the east bank by a 300 foot suspension bridge. From Lytton it followed the Thompson to Cook's Ferry (now Spence’s Bridge) where it crossed the river and followed the Bonaparte Valley to Clinton. There it joined the road from Lillooet and continued northwards to Soda Creek. By 1865 stage coaches were carrying passengers as far as Barkerville.
Today, only small sections of the original Cariboo Wagon Road remain. One of the best places to view the old road is at Historic Hat Creek Ranch where stage coaches actually take visitors for rides along the road. The Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) from Yale to Cache Creek more or less follows the old route. From Cache Creek north through the Cariboo, Highway 97 also follows or stays close to the old route.
Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson, The Trail of ’58: British Columbia’s Gold Rush Past, Harbour Publishing, 2008.
Virtual tour, history and lots of activities about the Cariboo Wagon Road: