A short stretch of road in southern British Columbia is a direct link to a time of Spanish explorers and gold rush stampeders. Follow Bill Gedye deep into the Similkameen Valley.
The gold-rich creeks and streams of southern British Columbia’s Similkameen region have lured prospectors and adventure seekers to its sage-covered hills for centuries. But, with a legacy of violence behind it, the Similkameen is now a land of ghost towns like Tulameen, Blackfoot and Granite City, where a cowboy named Johnny Chance once stumbled across placer gold nuggets in an unnamed stream and started a rush that lasted 10 years. The feeder creeks of the region’s two major arteries—the Tulameen and Similkameen rivers—have now lost their importance to big city promoters and prospectors, but the Similkameen is still a place of myths and legends that live on in the oral histories of First Nations and in the scattered remains of long-dead gold rush stampeders.
And nowhere is that tradition more pronounced than on the short, but historically significant, 32-kilometre Old Hedley Road connecting the town of Princeton, 300 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway Three, to Hedley—where the now dormant Mascot gold mine, set high on Nickle Plate mountain, still towers over the village of 400. The Mascot is said to have produced 271,654 ounces gold, 81,643 ounces silver and 1,919,803 pounds copper in its time, and Hedley was once an important boomtown at the very centre of the Similkameen. Today, you can take a tour of the mine and the 80-year-old buildings set on scaffolding that clings for dear life to Nickle Plate’s daunting cliffs, if you’re not prone to vertigo, that is—the buildings are 1554 metres feet above sea level and connected by a 500-step wooden staircase.
Local natives trading with plains Indians, gold miners, armour-clad Spanish explorers, stagecoaches, the US Army of the 1850s, Model Ts, and modern motorcycles—they all trudged, rattled or rumbled over the Old Hedley Road, which meanders along the north shore of the Similkameen River. From its western end in 147-year-old Princeton it winds gently eastward and passes through an area of retirement residences and small farms set on a broad plain. Eventually it narrows and is pinched between the Similkameen River and a line of 193 million-year-old granite/volcanic bluffs.
There are several points where the river comes very close to the rock wall and for generations the Similkameen First Nations used these places as defensive positions to protect their rich red, yellow, and black ochre deposits from the plains natives of the US. These pigments made from naturally tinted clay came from the Tulameen Bluffs, just west of Princeton, and were extremely valuable as dyes which were traded throughout western North America.
Amazing examples of early native pictographs are right beside the road, but may be difficult to see unless you slow down and look for them. This is the so-called “pictograph stretch” where some 50 rock paintings once adorned the valley. Many have been vandalized over the years, but each of the surviving, fragile and irreplaceable pictographs tell a story, or perhaps provide a warning to those who trespass—one depicts a fierce warrior marching prisoners strung together with rope around their necks. Another portrays the defeat of a Spanish expedition into the Similkameen Valley sometime in the middle of the 18th century. According to the “legend of the old Spanish mound,” the vanquished Spaniards were buried with their armour and weapons in an unmarked mound near the place where the Keremeos Creek enters the valley. First Nation elders still say their people have never been defeated by an outside force.
The “Drowned Warrior” pictograph near Bromley Rock features an overturned canoe and may be a tribute to lives lost in the water or possibly a warning to travelers.
“The eyeball”—there are several of these along the trail and they all face southeast—is posted along the path an intruder might take. If you look closely, there is a stick man drawing in the centre of the eye. It seems to be a warning to passersby: “We are watching you.”
Legend has it that a group of early miners traveling this path came upon some carbines and a sword stuck in the talus slope above the river. Here, First Nations of the Similkameen used to bury their dead by digging a small depression in the rock and covering the deceased with loose excavated rock, marking the location with a stick or staff. Curious, the miners dug under the carbines and found the remains of a US Army patrol, which had wandered across the then-ill-defined border.
The legend of the buried soldiers could not be substantiated by local archaeologist Brenda Gould, but she says there is a spot along the old trail that First Nations people have ominously long referred to as “The place where justice was administered.”
Though it crosses traditional hunting, fishing and camping grounds of First Nations people, the Old Hedley was essentially part of a coach road that ran between Princeton and the Okanagan, which also experienced a late 19th-century gold rush. The coach road basically followed a trail blazed by Edgar Dewdney and Walter Moberly in 1861—the ambitious “Dewdney Trail” extended beyond the Okanagan all the way east into the Kootenay region and became a vital bit of provincial infrastructure as gold miners, then ranchers and farmers flowed into the country and established communities that still flourish.
But, for a time, it was southern British Columbia’s most important thoroughfare for hauling freight and people. It enabled heavier wagon-borne equipment to reach the gold fields and discouraged miners from taking easier trade routes that led south from the Okanagan village of Keremeos into the United States.
And on the Dewdney Trail route, Welby Stage Line coaches established a passenger service that followed the miners to the interior—adding the genteel touches of civilization with hotels, schools, churches and saloons. By 1948, the Old Hedley Road’s role as a major thoroughfare was over with the construction of the present-day Highway Three. But what remains is a welcome relief from the frenzy of superslab motoring and it’s a brief foray into another era.
– Bill Gedye, June 2007 Canadian Biker