History of the Trail

The Dewdney Trail weaves itself in and out of the consciousness of the people of British Columbia. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains to the east, Monashees to the west, scored by the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges, and cradling the headwaters of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers and Kootenay Lake, the Kootenay area of southeastern BC has long been a fortress of unrivaled beauty and challenging terrain.

Dewdney Trail near Wild Horse Creek
Dewdney Trail near Wild Horse Creek

The last few kilometres, and remaining sections in the area of the Dewdney Trail as it followed Wild Horse Creek up to the townsite of Fisherville.

The mountains and rivers limited extensive permanent settlements for both the Aboriginals who hunted and fished in the area and the European/American explorers who scouted the area. Gold discovered at the mouth of the Pend d'Oreille River along the Columbia River in 1854 and the resulting influx of American prospectors underscored the need for a Coast to Kootenay route entirely within British jurisdiction. The government's goal was to maintain British sovereignty over the land and the riches that the North/South mountain ranges had managed to keep hidden for so long. The Trail was built in two sections in response to the clamouring of the merchants and politicians of the West coast to access the newly found riches in the gold rushes of Rock Creek in 1861 and Wild Horse Creek in 1864. The Trail was the first government sanctioned development in the southern portion of what was to become the Province of British Columbia.

The fact that the southern portion of the province was not explored until the later half of the 19th Century is due to the incredible geography that makes the area so unique. There had been earlier European explorers through the area, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, David Thompson, John Palliser and Simon Fraser had all ventured into the area, but no full time European settlements had been established in the area. There had been Hudson Bay Posts in the Kootenay area, but the driving force for the settlement of the area was the riches found in the ground. As the areas closer to the coast became more populated, adventurers began to spread out towards the east, penetrating the impressive geography, and settling in the valley bottoms that had been the traditional homes of the various Native bands - the Interior Salish in the Similkameen region, the Boundary-West Kootenay area and the Ktunaxa in the area east of the Columbia River.

The Trail over the Cascade Mountains eastward was built to access the gold rush in Rock Creek that was being supplied by the American merchants, as the access from the south was available. This was a great concern to Governor James Douglas and the merchants in New Westminster and Fort Hope, so a wagon trail was commissioned. The Royal Engineers surveyed the area and Edgar Dewdney was then hired to construct the wagon road - to be 4 feet wide and no steeper grade than one in twelve. The Trail was completed to the area now known as Princeton in 1860, and in 1861, Dewdney returned with Walter Moberly after the snow had melted to continue the Trail to Rock Creek. Dewdney and Moberly arrived in Rock Creek in the fall of 1861 to a relatively deserted valley, as the gold had played out and tales of easier riches had lured most miners away. This was to be the story of the Dewdney Trail - the gold reserves were already exhausted before the Trail could reach the area.

Although the use of the Trail was limited in the first half of its existence - the route has proved to be one of great significance to the Province of British Columbia. The route laid out by Dewdney and Moberly in 1861 to Rock Creek and the continuation of the route to Wild Horse Creek by Dewdney in 1865 has become the foundation for the main southern TransProvincial Highway - the Crowsnest Highway, Route #3. Named after the pass across the Rocky Mountains to Alberta, the highway is one of the Province's main transportation routes, fulfilling its mandate of allowing suppliers on the west coast to access the markets inland and attempting to reduce the flow of raw materials crossing into the United States unchecked.

With the discovery of gold in Wild Horse Creek in 1863, Dewdney was again called upon to survey a route to the gold field. Beginning in the spring of 1865, and arriving in the summer of the same year at Wild Horse Creek, Dewdney was surprised by the lack of activity in the area, and at the request of the government reduced the work that was to be done on the Trail to make it accessible year round. This was a repeat of what had happened in Rock Creek just four years before. The Trail was soon impassable in areas and the routes through the United States once again were the main corridors to the area.

Today the route surveyed by Dewdney most likely following already established Native trails, game trails and previously scouted routes, is the highway, secondary roads and the main corridor for hydro and gas lines. Dewdney's legacy remains with each consumable good that is transported over the 150 year-old route.

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