Articles

THE FRASER - Rich River of Fury

BRUCE HUTCHISON May 15 1950
Articles

THE FRASER - Rich River of Fury

BRUCE HUTCHISON May 15 1950

The lordly lonely Fraser guards a treasure of hydro power that makes its millions in gold, salmon and timber look like small change. It won’t give up its riches easily. With its raging floods and rapids the Fraser has never ceased its war against man. But when finally forced to yield it might shift the core of our wealth to the westward

THE FRASER - Rich River of Fury

BRUCE HUTCHISON

IN THE spring of 1792 a leaky schooner, under command of a sick Spaniard named Don Jose Maria Narvaez and sailed by a crew of 30 starving Mexican peons, was wallowing up the gulf between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Narvaez, like Drake, Cook, Bering and many others, was looking for the Northwest Passage.

No passage was found but as Narvaez’ schooner suddenly cut across a sharp line of green water and entered a vast smear of muddy brown he knew he was riding on the outwash of a great unmapped river. The Fraser had been discovered. Yet only in the last year, more than a century and a half after Narvaez blundered on the river’s mouth, have men glimpsed the full extent of that discovery.

Among the mountains and lakes of the Coast Range, some 400 miles north of the scene of Narvaez’ discovery, engineers are now exploring the ultimate treasure .of the Fraser—richer than its original gold, its salmon hordes, timber or farm lands. To generate power for the largest aluminum plant in the world some of the Fraser’s headwaters will be diverted by a 10-mile tunnel straight to the sea. When a portion of the tributary Nechako drops down half a mile through the turbines it will give Canada a million and a half new horsepower of electricity, British Columbia its first heavy manufacturing industry.

This is only the beginning. What neither Narvaez, the gold miners, the steamboat men, the railway builders nor the Fathers of Confederation could guess the engineers have now revealed—the Fraser is the largest untapped source of power left in America, must become the central engine of new industry beyond present calculation and is not unlikely in time to shift the economic balance of Canada.

Destiny in a Roaring Canyon

THE FRASER is more than a reservoir of power.

Like the St. Lawrence it is one of the primary economic and political facts of Canadian life. From 1608, when Champlain raised his Habitation beside the rock of Quebec, Canada was built on the east by the St. Lawrence. From the end of the 18th century onward Canada was built by the Fraser on the west. Without the Fraser there would be no Canada as we know it.

It was the gold of the Fraser’s sand bars which brought the first miners west of the Rockies and turned them into settlers to people British Columbia.

It was on the Fraser—in comic-opera fashion but with decisive results—that the power of Britain collided with the Manifest Destiny of the United States.

When Canada, fearing that northward thrust, decided to spread Confederation to the western ocean on the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Fraser, and the Fraser alone, provided a practical route through th^gnassive coastal mountains. Since there was no other outlet close to the American border only the Fraser, with its railway, could anchor the boundary line, a few miles south, on the 49th parallel. As surely as on the placid St. Lawrence the destiny of transcontinental Canada was sealed within the dark, roaring canyon of the Fraser.

Every Canadian schoolboy knows about the St. Lawrence, its battles, songs and legends. The Fraser, ferocious, lonely, untamed, has never communicated its secrets to man, has never ceased to war against him. It crushes his vessels, chews away his bridges, heaves its avalanches on his fragile railways, gnaws out his plots of habitable land, overwhelms his dikes, silts up his harbors and awaits the day of his going.

Though it has seen Indian massacres, the march of madmen ravening after its gold, millionaires, stagecoach bandits, soldiers, statesmen, dance-hall girls and even a pack train of camels, the Fraser has produced no poetry, no song, no legendry nor even a recognizable type of riverman. Its passengers have been forgotten as if the river could not tolerate their fame. From the beginning the Fraser has been man’s enemy. It remains one of Canada’s greatest untold stories.

On the map it lies like a gigantic S, nearly 700 miles from end to end, almost the exact parallel of the Columbia but farther north. It rises along the Alberta-British Columbia border, 250 miles west of Edmonton, and first heads northwest, in the direction of Alaska. After 150 miles it turns in its tracks and pours almost due south for 350 miles through the Cariboo country. Just when it looks as if it is going to flow into the United States it takes another abrupt turn to the west, skirts within 10 miles of the international boundary, and reaches the sea at the edge of Vancouver.

From the Canadian National Railway you can see its birthplace among the central Rockies in the swamps of the Yellowhead Pass. There a moose can stand astride a current which, at Vancouver, can float an ocean liner.

A few miles from the swamps the Fraser has swelled into a chattering mountain stream, milky with glacial water, and is moving steadily northward, faster and fiercer with every mile. On this torrent, in the late autumn of 1862, the Overlanders launched the flimsy rafts which carried them around the big bend and to the gold fields of Cariboo, in central British Columbia. Having walked across the continent (among them a woman with three children at her heels and a fourth to be born at the end of the journey) they slid down the Fraser, starved and half frozen, many drowning in the cauldron of the Grand Canyon. But not one of them found a trace of the gold which enriched so many others.

At the northward peak of the big bend Alexander Mackenzie crossed the watershed which separates the Fraser from the waters flowing to the Arctic, sâiled down the western river in his birchbark canoe, cut overland and reached Bella Coola on the coast, midway between what are now Vancouver and Prince Rupert. There, on July 22, 1793, he scrawled his name on the sea rocks, the first white man to cross America. The Fraser had carried the British flag to the Pacific.

Swinging south, the river sucks up the angry Nechako from the west at the junction where a later explorer. Simon Fraser, founded his post of F’ort George. Since the beginning it has always been a lively place.

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From Fort George Fraser set out by canoe to trace the river to its outlet, crawled on hands and knees through the coastal canyon while Indians showered him with rocks and arrows, reached the sea and. realizing that he had not followed the Columbia as he supposed, turned back brokenhearted to leave his name on his new river and to change the map of North America.

When at last the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway reached Fort George three towns sprang up in bitter rivalry, each expecting to be a metropolis and all bidding desperately for the leading local industry, the red light district, whose leading palace became the first city hall.

The railway boom didn’t last long but produced some of the gaudiest days and wildest characters ever known in the west. Prince George, under its modern name, has settled down, a solid community on the air route to Alaska. Only a few old-timers like Harry Perry, its perennial statesman (who emigrated from Emgland as a tailor’s apprentice and became a political power in British Columbia and a publisher of two newspapersi, and Pete Wilson, the venerable lawyer and counsel to everybody, remember when the town gambled all day in real estate and all night in poker games.

Civilization, it might be said, had caught up with Prince George when its most distinguished product, Mr. Justice J. O. Wilson, of the British Columbia Supreme Court, ordered Pete, his father and the crown prosecutor, to sit down and shut up during a murder trial. Wilson senior takes only a moderate view of civilization.

From Prince George the Fraser cuts a straight gash southward across the clay range of Cariboo. Mostly the water is quiet here, moving like a thick treacle, but in the narrow vertex of the Fort George Canyon it is hard LO imagine that any boat could live. Yet Mackenzie rode through it. noting in his diary only that he found on the banks some palatable wild onions to flavor his pemmican. Fraser was almost swamped here before he found the wild onions, too.

When I passed this way 30 years ago on the lopsided “Circle W,” last commercial craft to ply these waters, the bones of stern-wheelers and barges that had tried the passage once too often were bleaching on the sand bars.

Champagne on a Packhorse

Eighty miles south of Prince George the Quesnel enters the Fraser to drain an intricate network of mountain lakes to the eastward. In the bitter winter of 1860 four men. Doc Keithley, John Rose, Sandy MacDonald and George Weaver, were toiling across this lake country, carrying with them enough grub for a week. They slept one night near an unknown creek, awoke under a foot of snow, burrowed through it to the gravel and held in their shaking hands more gold than any man had ever seen

The Cariboo gold rush was on. Over the bills and down to Stout’s Gulch, Williams Creek and Lightning poured forty-niners from California, clerks from Toronto, New York and London, Chinese from Canton, dark men from India and Africa, hurdygurdy girls from Germany. No such crew had been seen in Canada before. None like it will be seen again.

They walked from the coast by the Fraser. They sank their shafts through the blue clay to bedrock and came up with gold by the bucketful. Around Billy Barker’s shaft they threw together the incredible scarecrow town of Barkerville, its single street wedged between the mountains and Williams Creek. They crammed the bars, dance halls and opera house. They drank champagne and played billiards on tables carried in by packhorse. They made Barkerville overnight the most famous spot in the world.

Cariboo Cameron took $150,000 from his claim in three months, dragged the bodies of his dead wife and daughter (preserved in a casket of alcohol) out to the coast on a toboggan, shipped them by way of Panama and buried them at home in Ontario. Back to Cariboo again, he lost everything and found his grave on the hillside above his forgotten shaft.

Barker, after squandering a fortune on a lively widow, died in the old men’s home in Victoria.

Red Jack McMartin brought $44,000 in gold into the Shuniah saloon, set up drinks for everybody, paid for all the glasses in the place, broke them one by one against the wall, danced with hobnail boots on a case of champagne until it all leaked out, smashed a $3,000 mirror with a last shower of nuggets and ended in the street, penniless.

The Argonauts, the men of the gold rush called themselves, and they earned their name. They are all gone now. The last of them, Harry Jones, once told me—looking wistfully at the churned gravel of Lightning Creek where many of his friends were buried in the oozing sludge—that those were “kind of jolly days.” But expensive. It cost $10, he said, for one dance with a hurdy-gurdy girl in Barkerville.

A Plow for the Cariboo

Thousands of men pushing up the lower river on steamboats and crawling over the slippery rocks of the canyon; Indians picking them off with bullet and arrow; Governor Douglas in Fort Victoria frantically inventing laws and governing an unmapped territory outside his jurisdiction; Judge Begbie administering such homemade statutes, with his own quaint variations, from the saddle; the British Government trying to find out what was happening to its little Pacific colony; Sir John A. Macdonald, in Ottawa, meditating transcontinental Confederation; the Americans, with their shout of “Fiftyfour Forty or Fight!”, confident that they would soon possess the western half of British America—this was the heyday of the Fraser.

Barkerville is still there, the perfect ghost town, as if built in Hollywood for a western movie.

Quesnel, on the Fraser to the west, old entrepôt of the Cariboo, used to be a ghost town, too, haunted by the wrecks of stern-wheelers and pilots who could navigate on “a heavy dew,” but it has gone modern like Prince George. Still, on its grassy bank it looks from the other side of the river like an empty stage set, and some old men lounging on its main street might have just arrived by stagecoach.

One of them, observing the sinking sun behind the western hills, once permitted himself a classic meteorological utterance. He said it was “a pretty damn fine sunset for a town of a thousand people.”

At Quesnel the Fraser has entered the ranch country. On either side rolls the inland plateau to the outposts of the Rockies on the east, to the jagged line of the Coast Range on the west—a country of fat cattle on every hillside, of sprawling barns and lurching ranch houses, of tiny green patches where the alfalfa grows under irrigation, of Indian rancheries pasted like green postage stamps on the brink of the river’s clay canyon.

It is a country of strange and lonely characters, among them Robert Carson. an Irish immigrant boy who, escaping from an Indian massacre on the Oregon Trail, found refuge on Pavilion Mountain and sank the first plow into the earth of Cariboo. Hard, able men. the pioneer stock of British Columbia, came out of this land. Carson’s son, Ernest, raised as a cowboy on Pavilion, is Minister of Public Works and British Columbia’s most respected public man.

By now the Fraser, still running south, has begun to edge diagonally through the slanting Coast Range. Its clay canyon has turned to stone. Its walls have narrowed. Its speed has increased. Its current boils in rapids which capsized Fraser’s canoes, almost drowned him and forced his expedition to walk down to Lytton, then the Indian metropolis of Camchin.

At Lytton the Thompson pours into the Fraser from the east, its clearer water cutting across the brown of the parent stream in a sharp blue line like a vein of precious metal on a bed of dull

Doubled in volume, the Fraser now finds itself squeezed tight within the mountains and it turns furious at its imprisonment. This is the black canyon of the Fraser where even the salmon is hurled bodily from the current, where the first Indians used to travel on dangling ladders, where Fraser was glad to wriggle along their spiderweb. where Governor Douglas built the Cariboo Road on cables and "toothpicks, where Macdonald's railway was hewn out of the vertical cliffs, where the modern highway must curl repeatedly from the river edge high into the hills and down again, must be shored up with countless fills and bridges, must plunge through two long tunnels to find a tortuous passage.

A Blast at Hell’s Gate

The canyon has been called beautiful. If this be beauty it is the beauty of nightmare. It has been called magnificent but it is the magnificence of destruction. It has been called sublime and so it is, with the sublimity of blind and senseless force.

In such a closed and wrinkled pocket man and his works are lost. The two railways and a single road have left only three minor scratches on the cliffs, a few feet of level space across the perpetual rock slides. A freight train half a mile long is a toiling worm, at night a glowworm, whose spark flickers for a moment and is snuffed out. Only a wink of light from some railway town on the canyon’s lip proclaims the presence of any life but the river’s.

The river is larger than it appears. At the gut of Hell’s Gate, where it finally reaches the central spine of the mountains, it is only 120 feet wide, but its constricted body bored a channel for itself 85 feet deep at low water and as deep as 175 feet in summer freshet. It moves here sometimes at the rate of 20 feet a second, too fast even for the passage of a salmon, until concrete fishways were anchored to the walls to restore the greatest salmon fishery in the world.

Since remote time the Indians of the river—and perhaps other unknown humans before them—lived on the salmon which every autumn swarm up from the sea to spawn in their native brooks and die. When the river’s gold was exhausted the salmon supplied a larger, surer source of wealth to the white man.

In the early years of this century he was canning more than two million cases a year on the F raser and earning $30 millions. But when the builders of the Canadian Northern Railway (now part of the CNR) blasted a cliff into the channel at Hell’s Gate in 1913 the blockaded salmon run almost perished, unspawned. The fishery was all but destroyed one season—a loss to date of some $300 millions. On the shore in tears, watching the salmon as they battered themselves to death on the rocks, stood old John Pease Babcock, British Columbia fishery administrator.

The channel was cleared but the damage had been done. The race of Fraser salmon was near extinction. Largely through the patient diplomacy of Babcock, Canada and the United States agreed by treaty—after years of futile negotiation and local politics—to restrict the annual catch among the survivors and to build the present fishway which carries the run through the Gate and, by allowing ¡imple fish to spawn, will finally restore one of Canada’s most valuable food assets.

It was through this nightmare of rock and water that the miners pushed up the river, washing the bars as they thrust a trail toward Cariboo. They even ran their stern-wheelers to Fort Yale, more than 100 miles from the sea, and one vessel actually was hauled through Hell’s Gate.

Yale, which snoozes peacefully today under the cherry and apple trees planted by the first townsmen, was once the centre of great events, little noted then or since. Here Ned McGowan. a desperado from San Francisco, rallied the American miners to defy the laws of Britain and if he had succeeded Manifest Destiny might well have possessed the Pacific Coast of Canada. But when Douglas steamed up the river, with a brass cannon and a squad of British sailors on the deck of his stern-wheeler, McGowan surrendered, paid a fine and entertained the governor with champagne at Hill’s Bar. In this test, and from then on, the King’s writ ran on the Fraser.

You Can’t Trust That Fraser

After the agony of the canyon the river at last has found its outlet to the sea. At Hope it bursts out of its prison, turns straight west and pours down the coastal shelf. Almost within a single mile it emerges from the mountains and the jungles of their western slope to find itself ample elbowroom in a lush and open valley.

On the silt dumped by the current before man appeared he now grows his crops and feeds his dairy herds on a green landscape, with a backdrop of blue mountains, like a Swiss postcard. Still the river is not to be trusted. It continually threatens and often overflows the dikes man has built against it. But after the madness of its youth it spends its last hours in relative peace.

Toward its mouth it tolerates the ships of remote oceans, the tugs and log booms of commerce and the hordes of sea gulls feeding on its refuse.

Thus through the busy port of New Westminster, across the delta of its own making, past the homes and factories of Vancouver, by three separate channels this weariest river moves somehow safe to sea.

The journey has been long and laborious. The Fraser has traveled 700 miles. With its tributaries it has drained two mountain ranges and 91,000 square miles of land, more than the area of many nations. It has laid the alluvial site and, by its commerce, has built Vancouver. Its waters have irrigated 100,000 acres. Its silt has provided some of the most fertile farm land in America. It has altered the course of man’s life and government on this continent.

White men have known the river for 158 years. Now at last they suspect its largest wealth—the river’s mere motion, the age-old wasted energy of water pouring from the Rockies to the Pacific. A particle of this flow of 3 trillion cubic feet a year has long been harnessed on the Fraser’s tributaries east of Vancouver and latterly on Bridge River in the interior. The bulk of the available energy has not been touched.

The makings of about six million horsepower spill down the Fraser, unused, enough to increase Canada’s present electrical supply by 50%. It is calculated the Fraser could produce $8 billions of wealth annually.

Engineers know how to impound the Fraser’s wasted energy. They would dam the river above the canyon at Lillooet, again at Moran a few miles north (the Moran dam would be as large as Boulder), near Quesnel and perhaps south of Prince George. These dams would pond the water back almost to Prince George, create a huge inland lake and, incidentally, irrigate large areas of arid land.

Such a scheme is beyond the present means of British Columbia or Canada. The easier and quicker development now being surveyed by the Aluminum Co. of Canada Ltd. will capture one of the western tributaries just east of the Coast Range, turn it westward through the mountains and drop it down about 2,500 feet to the sea. Both the Nechako system in the north and the Chilcotin system in the central interior could be diverted with minor dams and tunnels only 10 miles long with plenty of water left to follow its present course.

Turbines in 10 Years

The B. C. Government has given the Aluminum Company the right to impound part of the Nechako and its network of streams and lakes. Probably the aluminum plant will be established in Douglas Channel, at the mouth of the Kitimat River, or on Dean Channel, just north of Mackenzie’s western trail. Perhaps five years and a sum between $300 millions and $500 millions will be used to complete this work. The turbines may not turn for eight or ten years from now.

As the single tunnel will produce 1.500,000 horsepower there will be plenty of electricity to spare for subsidiary industries. Attracted bv cheap electricity, new plants are expected to create a substantial new city on the west coast of Canada.

Even then only about a third of the Fraser’s generating capacity will be in use. When the entire river system is harnessed, as it will be some day. it will support an industrial structure comparable to that of the St. Lawrence and must move the centre of the nation’s gravity westward, with results — economic, political and social — which no one can foresee.

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