A man who influenced the direction of the settlement of British Columbia, Edgar Dewdney also had a role in the history of Canada. As one of the many young Englishmen who were drawn to the Canadian west in the mid 19th Century by tales of gold and unexplored territory, Dewdney came to British Columbia with great hopes and dreams.
Born into a family of middle-class means with servants in the County of Devonshire, England in 1835, Dewdney was educated as a Civil Engineer at Cardiff and gained a fondness for athletic endeavors such as cricket. He spent some time in London before the lure of unclaimed riches from the gold rushes in the western reaches of New Caledonia (now known as British Columbia) brought him to Victoria in May of 1859.
Quickly finding work, with the benefit of a letter of introduction from his former employer in London to Governor James Douglas, Dewdney began working for Colonel Richard Moody laying out the new mainland capital city, New Westminster. He also worked at cutting hay, auctioneering, land management and surveying before he began road building with Walter Moberly in 1860. Their first project together was the Hope to Similkameen mule trail, which ended in a dispute with Moody over money.
The next year, contracted by Governor Douglas, Dewdney and Moberly extended the Hope Trail to the new gold rush at Rock Creek to allow British authorities and merchants access to riches that American miners were finding and taking away. The road was to be 12 feet wide, bridged and graded to allow wagon travel, but these specifications were abandoned after the cost rose and the excitement on the creek dwindled. The next gold rush, in the Cariboo in 1860-61 at Barkerville and Williams Creek, resulted in more trail building for Dewdney as well as surveying claims.
In 1864, Dewdney married Jane Moir and they settled in New Westminster for a time. The next year, Dewdney left for the summer to complete the trail to the new gold fields found in the eastern section of the colony at Wild Horse Creek, near today's Cranbrook. The completion of this trail that crossed several mountain ranges became the lasting legacy for which Dewdney is now best known in the province.
After the completion of the trail, Dewdney pursued real estate and mining prospects until he was elected to the Provincial Legislature without knowing he was even on the ballot for the Kootenay region. This was his first taste of politics.
In 1872, Dewdney was elected to Parliament, representing Yale, British Columbia as a Conservative under Sir John A. Macdonald. He was appointed Indian Commissioner of the Northwest Territories in 1879. In the face of the decline of buffalo herds that had sustained Natives on the prairies, he implemented the government's authority by creating reservations, imposing regulated education and new forms of sustainability. The Northwest Rebellion occurred during Dewdney's term, and he became known as "the man who signed Louis Riel's death warrant". His relationship of mutual respect with Chief Crowfoot was a factor in the Blackfoot Tribe choosing not to join the Rebellion. He was then appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories in 1882. He was involved in the selection of Regina as the capital, influencing the location of the railway (apparently through his own land). He was no stranger to controversy and made decisions that may have skirted the boundaries of self interest.
In 1888, he returned to Ottawa as Minister of the Interior until 1892 when he returned to British Columbia to become the Province's Lieutenant Governor. He was then able to participate in the social and ceremonial aspects that both he and his wife enjoyed.
He was a generous man with his family, taking in his wife's mother and later her sister's children when they were searching for educational and employment opportunities. He also supported his brother Walter's children after Walter's death. Jane died in 1906 and he remarried in 1909 while in England to Blanche Kemeys Tynte. He had no children from either relationship, but many nephews and nieces who remembered him fondly.
Edgar Dewdney was one of the many educated young men who ventured from the genteel environments of the 'Old World' to seek fortune and fame in the wilds of the 'New World'. With adventure on his mind, Dewdney, a giant of his time at 6 feet 4 inches tall and blessed with robust health, was able to live a life exploring the unexplored and as a supporter and leader of the new Canadian confederation - although it was usually to a less than pleasant response from the press. While fortune eluded him, he lived life to the fullest, coming close to the 'Motherlode' many times - the rich mineral deposits in Rossland, Kootenay Lake, Nelson and Moyie. He continued to pursue avenues of interest - surveying, real estate and mining - until his death in 1916 at the age of 80.
His legacy remains in the trail named after him, now the route of much of the Province's major infrastructure. From Highway 3 that connects the area through all seasons, to the gas and power lines that provide energy to and from the area and the recreational activities, the Dewdney Trail has provided the province with a lasting legacy.