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269 Highway 20
Box 726
Bella Coola, B.C.
V0T 1C0

Phone: 250-799-5767
(June-September)

Phone: 250-982-2130
(Archives)

Historic Theme Pages

Transportation

Plaque for Alexander Mackenzie

Packhorses

The Nuxalkmc and Native peoples from the Interior used a system of trails for hundreds of years prior to the contact period. The most famous route became known as the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail, as it was followed by Alexander Mackenzie on his completion of the first crossing of North America by land in 1793. In the 1860's, thousands of gold seekers traveled by ship up British Columbia 's coast to Bella Coola. This shortened the land portion of the journey to the gold fields of the Cariboo. Union Steamships later offered a weekly service between Vancouver and Bella Coola between 1906 and the mid-1950's. However, pack-trails were the main transportation route across the gap between the valley and the Chilcotin country until the construction of " Freedom Road ".

Union Steamship
Union Steamship, 1906-1950's
Union Steamships carried freight and passengers along the Northwest Coast .
Through the first half of the twentieth century Bella Coola remained relatively isolated from the rest of the province. Lieutenant Henry Palmer of the Royal Engineers surveyed for a possible wagon road, but the Chilcotin War cast doubt on the wisdom of this route as a government sponsored endeavour. The arrival in the valley of a group of Norwegians in 1894 added voice to the desire to build a road up the valley, servicing the farms that were being built in the forest clearings and beyond.

In 1912 the land boom in the Ootsa Lake district, northeast of Bella Coola, led the Pacific and Hudson 's Bay Railway to survey a rail route into the valley. The Bella Coola Valley was one of the locations considered as the Pacific outlet for a transcontinental railway. However, with the outbreak of World War One all resources were withdrawn. Finally in the early 1930's, the government made a survey for a highway, but the known route led through a rocky canyon of such terrifying dimensions that officials backed off, intimidated by the cost. During World War Two expedition Polar Bear arrived in Aniham Lake to build a road to Bella Coola, a route to connect the interior to the coast - money was no object. All action ceased when the decision was made that no roads were to be built that were not to be maintained by this unit after completion.

Freedom Road
Freedom Road

"Be sure to pack a lunch, because if you fall off the Hill you'll have time to eat it before you hit the bottom."

New energy arrived in the region including Alberta schoolteacher, Cliff Kopas. He spearheaded the formation of the Board of Trade, and in 1952 informed the government that, survey or no survey, they were going to build a road. The Board hired a DC6 Caterpillar tractor with only $250 in the bank. On September 14, 1952 their engineer, Elijah Gurr, pitted his lone tractor against the wilderness. Gurr convinced Thomas Squinas, an Ulkatcho rancher and hunting guide to lead the way. A new route down a 3,000 foot decline had been discovered, and the government was successfully petitioned for $10,000. Gurr added a TD18 International bulldozer to his equipment and a powder crew to his construction gang. Alf Bracewell was hired to run a Caterpillar from the Chilcotin side of the road.

Despite heavy snow and rain, work continued all winter. The government, impressed by this tenacity, meted out a further $20,000. When only 2800 feet remained to be blasted and gouged out of the mountainside, the government refused more money. So Bella Coola went ahead on its own. The road was completed. At that point government covered the outstanding expenses of an additional $20,000 bringing the total government investment in the road construction to $50,000. In 1955 the Honourable Phil Galardi officially opened the Road, the " Freedom Road ". Now connected to the provincial highway system, the valley became the "Third Outlet to the Pacific".

 

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