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History: A Confederation expedition

This July, 150 years ago, British Columbia joined the Confederation of Canada. Kamloops was at the time an insignificant place, but soon gained importance as the survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway began.
History: A Confederation expedition_0
Tranquille Mills photographed in 1871 by Benjamin Baltzly, showing Jane McWha and William Fortune at the door of their gristmill. The overshot waterwheel used Tranquille River for power. Courtesy KMA 1472

This July, 150 years ago, British Columbia joined the Confederation of Canada. Kamloops was at the time an insignificant place, but soon gained importance as the survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway began.

A transcontinental passage was one of the promises of Confederation.

Benjamin Baltzly, a 36-year old American-born photographer who was hired by the Notman Studio of Montreal, became part of the Canadian Pacific Railway project when, in June 1871, he was chosen to accompany the Geological Survey of Canada on an expedition through British Columbia.

The expedition was led by geologist Alfred R.C. Selwyn, director of the Geological Survey.

As his first task as director of the survey, Selwyn mounted an arduous expedition to investigate the geology and resources along the proposed railroad routes.

Beset with delays and other difficulties, the expedition left Montreal on June 26, going by train through the United States.

Upon reaching San Francisco, they missed their steamboat connection to Victoria and, after arriving, were further delayed for two weeks trying to find camping equipment.

Journeying by steamboat across the Georgia Strait and up the Fraser River, the party reached Yale on July 27, but was forced to walk along the Cariboo Road up the Fraser River Canyon, then travel by stagecoach from Lytton to Savona Ferry, where they met a group of the railway survey.

Baltzly and a few of his party explored Kamloops Lake by boat. At Tranquille Mills, they met William and Jane Fortune, who put them up. Baltzly took their picture at the gristmill.

It took two weeks in Kamloops to find horses and men for the expedition up the North Thompson River, Selwyn’s main objective.

The party now consisted of Selwyn (geologist), Baltzly (photographer), John Hammond (assistant photographer), John Peterson (packer), Philip Jaco (Secwépemc packer), Abraham LaRue (Secwépemc guide and translator), James Dean (cook) and Donald McPhail (axeman and general assistant). They also had 15 horses and a dog.

Throughout their ascent of the North Thompson, the survey party was plagued by almost continuous bad weather, fog, rain and snow.

Trails had to be cleared and cut in order to proceed. The poor condition of the horses due to lack of feed slowed their progress.

After reaching the Leather (or Yellowhead Pass) on Oct. 21, short on rations and due to the lateness of the season, Selwyn made the decision for the party to retrace its steps south to Kamloops. Many of the horses had died and the rest, too weak to travel, were left to fend for themselves.

Near Albreda Lake, south of present-day Valemount, they camped for four days and resorted to making dugout canoes, instructed by their Secwépemc guides.

On Nov. 2, they embarked in four canoes and, although they made good time down the river, their troubles were not over.

The canoe containing Baltzly’s eight-by-10-inch photographic negatives capsized in the Murchison Rapids and only a fluke of good luck saved them.

The box of negatives had lodged under the cross-piece of the canoe, but after drying them over a campfire, were found to be in perfect condition.

Reduced to only two small canoes, they loaded the non-essential baggage, including the photographic equipment, and sent them off under the guidance of the two Secwépemc in one canoe and two other Indigenous men from the CPR survey party in the other. The rest of the party walked, often in snow up to their knees.

At Clearwater River, they were able to find a boat and made the rest of the journey with relative ease, except for a few portages

They arrived in Kamloops on Nov. 17 and Baltzly and Selwyn reached Montreal on Dec. 26, travelling the same route as they had come, via Victoria and San Francisco.

As it turned out, the Kicking Horse Pass, not the Yellowhead Pass route, was eventually chosen by the CPR.

The railway would not be built for another decade and the physical promise of Confederation was not completed through B.C. until 1885.

Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and former curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum and Archives.