A Random History of the Fraser River Bridge – Williams Lake Tribune
Welcome to this edition of Haphazard History where you can choose to listen to the very first audio version of this popular Barry Sale column. Thanks to Heartland Toyota and Jason Ryll of Front Row Voiceovers for making this first Haphazard History podcast possible. Click on the podcast link further down in the story and enjoy!
The iconic Fraser River bridge some 25 kilometers west of Williams Lake on Highway 20, sometimes referred to as âthe Gateway to the Chilcotin,â has an interesting and colorful history.
For eons, a natural slowing of the current in this area of ââthe river made it a suitable crossing site. When the river is at its normal height, the current is usually calm enough for boats to cross, and when the water flow is low, there are places where animals can easily swim.
Before European colonization, there was a large Secwepemc village located at the mouth of Chimney Creek about 8 kilometers upstream from the current site of the bridge. The locals built wooden rafts there, which they used to cross the river. In the early 1800s, the fur traders and trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company crossed the Fraser on these rafts, which they called barges. The Aboriginal peoples there became known as the “People of the Barge” and were mentioned as such quite often in Fort Alexandria newspapers from the 1820s to the 1850s.
With the onset of the Gold Rush in the early 1860s, one of the most common routes to the gold fields was the Lillooet River Trail, which followed the Fraser River on the flatter west side. There were crossings at Canoe Creek or, further upstream, at Chimney Creek, and trails led east to the excavations.
The Chimney Creek Trail led east of the river, through Chimney Valley, along the ridge to St. Joseph’s Mission and 150 Mile House, then northeast to Quesnel Forks and Keithley Creek . A side branch separated from this road at what we now call Pinchbeck Hill and made its way into the Williams Lake settlement.
In early 1862, Amadee Isnardy, a young man from France, arrived in Chimney Valley and pre-empted the lands along the trail. He built a truck stop and saloon and cleared land for a farm. There he and his wife, the daughter of a Chief of the Stl’atl’imx Nation in Lillooet, raised 6 children. By the mid-1880s, Isnardy had preempted or purchased almost all of the land in the valley.
In the mid-1870s, with the end of the Gold Rush, there was something of a rush for the rich farmland of the Chilcotins. Settlers regularly settled in the area, but few stayed, finding the winters particularly too harsh.
Those who remained put down roots, establishing some of the historic ranches that still exist today. At that time, Soda Creek was the main town in the area and the main route to the Chilcotin was to cross the river on the Soda Creek Ferry, then follow the river south before moving inland. to exit at Becher’s Prairie.
A crossing to or near Chimney Creek was shorter, but considerably more difficult, by canoe to the west side, then up a steep, rocky hill to the top, after which there was a fairly flat run and easy to Becher’s Prairie.
Amadee Isnardy, seeing a good business opportunity, began a ferry operation across the Fraser in the late 1880s. Her “ferry” consisted first of a large cargo boat, then a barge of 6 feet by 12 feet, both of which rowed across the river. To transport the freight wagons onto the barge, the wagon was first unhitched and loaded, then the horses were led into the water and pulled by their halters behind the ferry as it crossed.
Isnardy’s eldest son Joe took over the ferry operation for a few years before selling it in 1900 to Murdock Ross. Ross was a former schoolteacher from Nova Scotia who had settled on the west bank of the river. He was a tall man, over 6 feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds. It had to be – rowing across the river was backbreaking work. For this work, he received an annual government allowance of $ 500. Murdoch served as Chimney Creek ferryman until 1904 when the first bridge was completed.
This first bridge began with a petition to the government of Victoria, written in 1898 by Fred Becher and signed by the 40 eligible voters in the area. They argued that such a bridge would bring prosperity to the Chilcotins and therefore to the province. Surprisingly, the government of the day agreed, and in 1901 preliminary studies were done and a site where the river narrowed downstream from the ferry site at the mouth of Chimney Creek was chosen for the crossing.
The bridge was uniquely designed, with a lower cable and counterweight to provide rigidity and overcome the lift and wind movement common to suspension bridges of the day. It had a span of 325 feet with wooden towers at each end. On the west side there was a long wooden approach trestle with a similar, but shorter, one on the east side.
The stone pillars on both sides of the river were built by a team led by Louis Boitano, a professional stonemason and cousin of Augustine, who had established a ranch in Springhouse. Louis had come from Favale, Italy, to visit his cousin, and he stayed to work on this project. The stone footings, constructed from large blocks of granite, were so well constructed that they still stand today, 120 years later.
In the late summer of 1902, work began on the structure of the bridge itself. Materials were shipped by train to Ashcroft, then transported to the construction site by horse teams pulling wagons in the summer and sleds in the winter. There were up to 60 workers employed on the project, most of them local and unskilled.
The huge 700-foot cables had to be shipped using large convoys of rail cars. The roads were bad and in some places nonexistent. It was a massive undertaking, built in September 1904, the bridge was finally completed. The total cost was $ 65,000, almost double the original estimate.
This new bridge was first referred to by several names. The official government title was the Chimney Creek Bridge, although it was several miles downstream from Chimney Lake. People called him by a variety of other names; Chilcotin Bridge, Fraser River Bridge, and Sheep Creek Bridge, past the steep Sheep Creek hill on the west side. However, most of the locals simply called it the bridge.
From the start, the bridge was an adventurous crossing. Suspended about 100 feet above the river, it swayed, squeaked and moaned. Noise and movement made people and animals nervous, and often the animals were reluctant to cross or refused to cross. People said moving so much it was like riding on waves. Holding pens were built at each end of the bridge so that only a small number of terrified animals could be driven at a time.
As the structure got older, it sagged more and more in the middle, so the vehicles had a significant climb to descend in both directions. Heading west, getting off the bridge was just the start of the nightmare. Ahead is the 4 mile long Sheep Creek hill with its 20% incline and 6 roughly carved switchbacks. Sometimes it was just impassable.
Over the years the bridge has seen yeoman service. It had to be repaired and reinforced several times, with cables replaced, woods, fasteners and planks renewed, and access to both ends was improved.
By 1960, however, he had reached the end of his life, and it was obvious to everyone that a new bridge was needed. The sag in the middle became noticeable, as did the noise the structure made when larger and larger vehicles used it.
A brand new concrete and steel bridge was erected just upstream of the old one. It was judged that this old bridge was too dangerous to stand, so the decision was made to destroy it. Ammunition specialists were hired to secure the charges and blow them into small pieces so that the debris did not cause problems further downstream.
The first attempt was unsuccessful. The old bridge shook a little, then came back into place. The charges all had to be replaced, this time with a lot more explosives. This time the entire east side was demolished, but the center span caught on and fell into the river in one big piece. He floated down the river with the guardrails still in place, never to be seen again. There has been a lot of speculation about where this could have ended up. The western section was badly broken, but would not fall, so it was set on fire and burned.
The new bridge was officially opened in September 1962, almost exactly 58 years after the old one came into service. This new bridge was officially named the Chilcotin Bridge, but, like its predecessor, it still bears several different names. For almost 60 years, this bridge has been a reliable and safe passage as well as the main point of access to the Chilcotin country. It is scenic and often photographed, and it is a testament to the strong work ethic and firmness of mind of those who opened up the west bank of the Fraser River.
For this article Barry drew on Irene Stangoe’s writing and her book âLooking Backâ, as well as photos from the collection of the late Dr. John Roberts, photos from the BC Provincial Archives and from the Williams Lake public domain website. and the story of Cariboo Chilcotin. And you can see all of those photos in this month’s edition of “Freedom 55” and / or the Casual Country special produced by the Williams Lake Tribune.