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Dewdney Trail almost went through Nelson

“The scenery on both sides of the lake is very bold and grand.” So said Edgar Dewdney in a letter after canoeing Kootenay Lake in 1865.
Edgar Dewdney is seen in 1912

“The scenery on both sides of the lake is very bold and grand.”

So said 29-year-old civil engineer Edgar Dewdney in a letter to BC colonial governor Frederick Seymour after canoeing for the first time on the north end of Kootenay Lake in early June 1865.

Dewdney was in the middle of his contract to build a four-foot wide mule trail from the Similkameen Valley through the Kootenays to the booming goldfields of Wild Horse Creek, about 10 km northeast of today’s Cranbrook. The letter, dated June 29, 1865, was sent from Wild Horse Creek.

He was selected in April 1865 by Seymour to head the project because of his success in building a trail from Hope to gold diggings in the Similkameen four years earlier. Standing six feet four inches in height and brimming with energy and enthusiasm, Dewdney stood out in any crowd, and impressed government authorities and trail-building crews with his engineering and surveying skills.

Dewdney’s primary mission was to build the trail, but Seymour also asked him to provide geographical details to aid mapmakers, as well as notes on timber, soil, rock and potential pasture land, and sketches of the various route prospects he evaluated. He was not asked to comment on scenery, but he did.

In late May 1865 Dewdney was designing the trail in some sections at the same time as construction was going full speed at other sections. About half the trail-builders were Chinese and half were of European extraction. Men and women from First Nations worked as packers and guides. Hearing reports of a good pass on the east side of Kootenay Lake through the Purcells, he decided to take a side trip from the construction base at Fort Shepherd (near today’s Trail) to check it out as an option for the trail.

Many years later Dewdney fondly recalled exploring Kootenay Lake in a birchbark canoe with two First Nations guides. They left Fort Shepherd in late May 1865 for the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers (near today’s Castlegar), and from there up the Kootenay River against rapids and waterfalls to Kootenay Lake.

After three days and 14 portages they arrived at calm waters at, or near, the current site of Nelson, where they camped and Dewdney sent a progress report dated June 2, 1865 to Governor Seymour before the trio paddled up the main lake.

They went into what later was known as Crawford Bay, examining potential passes by foot and canoe, and then paddled up the north part of Kootenay Lake hugging the east shore, before returning south close to the lake’s west shore.

While Dewdney was impressed by the beauty of Kootenay Lake and intrigued by lakeside outcroppings of mineralization — particularly near the future site of the Bluebell Mine — he concluded that miners and other travellers would object to paying for a steam ferry to transport them and their animals several miles from the west shore to the east side of the lake.

Instead, he chose to build the trail between the south end of Kootenay Lake and the 49th parallel, on a route via Summit Creek that the Salmo-Creston highway of today generally follows. In blazing the trail, Dewdney often chose from among walking trails established over time by First Nation tribes.

What became known as the Dewdney Trail was completed on time and within the allotted budget by mid-September 1865, but by then the White Horse Creek goldfields were mostly played out and miners moving on to new prospects. The trail was still valuable as the only all-Canadian travel route across southern BC, and as a statement of British — and later Canadian — sovereignty over the region at a time of United States expansionism. The US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 was a reminder of the threat posed by the neighbour to the south which had powerful voices preaching Manifest Destiny.

Had Dewdney chosen a Kootenay Lake route for the trail, a ferry service that depended on a substantial amount of traffic would have been in financial trouble after the gold rushers moved on to other prospects.

Dewdney went on to an eventful and controversial career as a government appointee and federal cabinet minister under Sir John A. Macdonald. He has the distinction of being the only person to serve as lieutenant-governor in two Canadian jurisdictions — the Northwest Territories between 1881 and 1887, and British Columbia between 1892 and 1897.

In July 1911 Dewdney, slowed down by rheumatism at age 76 but still keenly interested in the Kootenay mines, stopped in Nelson with his second wife Blanche on the way to visiting friends.

In an interview at the Hume Hotel with the Nelson Daily News, Dewdney declared his amazement at the tremendous changes in Nelson in the half century since he first passed through, when the future site of a bustling city did not even have a log cabin. He recalled that travelling up the Kootenay River was “no picnic,” but the return trip down the river was much faster, as they rode the rapids and only needed three portages.

One memory that stood out for him was encountering Bonnington Falls for the first time on the upstream voyage. Dewdney said he heard the falls in the distance while coming back to the river from a long portage.

“I made my way to the river and saw what I then considered and, in fact, still consider the most beautiful falls in the world. The scene was magnificent,” he said in a July 10, 1911 Nelson Daily News story.

He also recalled taking numerous trips from Fort Shepherd across the US border to Fort Colville to buy supplies for the trail project.

Today, most of Highway 3 between Hope and Cranbrook follows the Dewdney Trail. And Kootenay Lake — which Dewdney saw as a forbidding obstacle for the trail — is regularly traversed by free ferries. Like Edgar Dewdney 150 years ago, many West Kootenay residents of today travel to Colville on shopping trips.

Local historian Sam McBride is a descendent of Edgar Dewdney.