The Yellowhead Highway
By Jeff Waugh
As soon as the First World War was over the idea for a Yellowhead Highway came to light. Fred Driscoll, one of the railway surveyors, suggested that the abandoned railway grade would make a firm foundation for a highway. Charles Grant, President of the Edmonton Automobile and Good Roads Association, and Driscoll began to push for the Yellowhead Highway. The Edmonton Automobile Association offered a gold medal for the first drivers to successfully travel from Edmonton to Victoria through the Yellowhead. Charles Neiymer and Frank Silverthorne, sponsored by Lines Motors of Edmonton, began the first automobile journey (in an Overland Four) through the Yellowhead Pass on June 17, 1922. A week later George Gordon and J. Sims, sponsored by the Automobile Association of Canada, began travelling the same route with their Model T Ford. Both automobiles reached Victoria on July 4 and both groups received medals for their unique expedition. Later this route through the Yellowhead was developed into what became known as the “tote road.”
In 1923 a decision was made by the Canadian National Railways to move the terminal from Lucerne, a town of over three hundred people, to Jasper. By 1924 just about everyone had moved to Jasper and the once pleasant town of Lucerne ceased to exist. Red Pass, however, became the new divisional point and began to show immediate growth. The buildings in tow included a Post Office, store, hotel and police barracks. (The police barracks still stand and are used as the Park Headquarters.)
As the number of visitors into the Robson area increased, the appreciation of the area for recreational purposes also increased. Many of the old outfitters and guides (the Otto Brothers, “Curly” Phillips and two of his friends (the Pugh brothers) decided to embark on a cross-country ski trip though avalanche country. After travelling some distance one of the Pugh brothers stopped at the edge of an avalanche chute to adjust his boot-strap while his brother and Phillips slowly edged forward. “He heard the roar of the rushing slide and looked up to see his brother and Curly over-whelmed and crushed by tons of ice and debris and swept down the mountain” (MacGregor, 1974, pg. 239)
During the Second World War many Japanese-Canadians were removed from the residences on the coast and relocated in internment camps in other areas. Construction camps at Lucerne, Rainbow, Red Pass, Albreda, and Tete Jaune Cache housed over 1500 Japanese-Canadians, mostly single men. These people deeply resented being placed in such a condition and numerous sit down strikes were held. They were, however, able to upgrade 30 kilometres of the abandoned railroad grade into a truck road and constructed an additional 40 kilometres of new road over steep grades. A total of 19 bridges were built. By 1944 the “tote road” was open.
As the Trans-Canada highway was being constructed Reg Easton and Ed Neighbour made pilot-trip over “tote road” to emphasize the demand of the Trans-Canada Highway System Association that the route go through the Yellowhead Pass. In August of 1948 they organized a caravan of cars and trucks that passed through the Yellowhead Pass from Edmonton to Kamloops.
After the war, the Trans Mountain Oil Pipe Line Company began looking at the Yellowhead as a possible route for an oil pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver. Construction began in 1952. A helicopter was used in part of the construction equipment for the first time. During the construction of the pipeline much of the “tote road” was damaged of completely destroyed.
By 1969 the tote road had been more or less reconstructed and finally paved. In August of 1970, the Premier of British Columbia , W.A.C. Bennett, officially opened the Yellowhead Inter-provincial Highway.
Since 1970 the number of visitors to Mt. Robson Provincial Park have increased from 22,246 to 223,425 in 1980. Most of these visitors have been the average touring family and sightseers. Mt. Robson has also attracted backpackers, mountain climbers and other adventure seekers.
Two of those “adventurers”. Jacques Thibault and Peter Chranowski, attempted to ski Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face. It would have been the first ski decent of the mountain, a feat claimed impossible by some and suicidal by most. Hans Schwartz, a Jasper mountain guide and climbing teacher remarked, “we have trouble climbing that mountain. People rappel down those faces … It would be easier to climb up on the roof of some high buildings and jump off onto the pavement.” The promoter of this attempt, (Chuck Hammond) added, “A falling object on that slope, out of control, will come to rest in 45 seconds. Morphine will be on this site just in case.”
On October 23, 1980, a helicopter landed the skiers on the summit of Mt. Robson as 40 journalists and photographers looked on from the 2,400 metre level. The first part of the descent was attempted by Thibault. He lowered himself into the mouth of a chimney between two seracs with one-half inch polypropylene boat rope which they had purchased at the last minute from a hardware store in Valemount. He hoped to lower himself onto a ledge at least 100 metres below. When Thibault came to the end of his rope he was dangling by one hand (ski pole in the other) at least 60 metres above his objective. Photographer Pat Morrow said, “he just looked incompetent. He didn’t realise how close he was to death. You could see him down there just thrashing around.” Thibault pulled himself back up to the summit with the aid of Chrzanowski and the attempt was called off. However, the next week they were off again, hoping to climb the mountain and again attempt to ski down. They were turned back by avalanches and their own lack of experience. Fortunately, the survived.