The Ghost Towns of Tête Jaune Cache

Leonard Lea Frazer

“You don’t have to travel very far to write a travel story.”

From the headwaters in Mount Robson Provincial Park, the Fraser River flows like a winding serpent through the Robson Valley, northwest to Prince George. Beside a bend in the river, near an isolated BC mountain community, lies a solitary length of rail, tipping and sliding from rotted, hand-hewed, railway ties, slowly sinking into the Fraser. The site is a visible reminder of a spur line that once ran off the Canadian National Railway to the edge of a railway camp. Here, one can find remnants of old Tête Jaune Cache, hidden in the present-day homesteads of the area.

One mile west looms a ghost town, old “Mile 53”, where lonely river-rock chimneys stand like sentinels guarding the original streets and backyards of a forgotten neighbourhood. Nearby, on the eastern bank of the river, a series of wooden posts mark the area where sternwheelers once tied up.

During the short-lived but colourful con-struction days of the Grand Trunk Pacific (later the CNR) men and women from all walks of life and nationalities were funnelled into different “end-of-steel” camps along the mainline.

Collectively the railway camps or “tent-towns,” contained several thousand labourers.

Observations of a travelling reporter in August of 1912 were recorded in the Victoria Times. “There were about 3,500 men working between Tête Jaune Cache and Fort George and 16 steam shovels and thirty-two locomo-tives with work trains,” the Times said.

The log and canvas buildings at Tête Jaune Cache and other construction camps along the line housed surveyors, carpenters, scow dri-vers, freight loaders, shopkeepers, “ladies of the night” and the ever-popular whisky traders and bootleggers. The labourers lived in bunkhouses and railway box-cars parked on sidings.

These railway residents in the old Tête Jaune Cache area lived in the communities of Mile 53 (a distance measured from the summit above Moose Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park) where the two main railroad contractors (Simms-Carey and Foley, Welsh and Stewart) had wharfs that boarded the Fraser, Mile 52; where the new train station, main street, and red-light district were located and Mile 51; where a ship-building yard had been set up to rebuild two paddle-wheelers.

The year 1912 brought many dramatic changes to the area. From a community, before railway construction, that consisted of only a trappers exchange, a stopping house, an old survey campsite and a Shuswap Indian village, Tête Jaune Cache became the head of nav-igation on the Upper Fraser connecting Edmonton with Fort George (Prince George). When the end-of-steel reached “The Cache” the river became alive and so did the town sites.

The Operator and Conveyor, two stern-wheelers from Vancouver Island, were disassembled and shipped by Canadian Pacific Railway from Vancouver to Kamloops, on to Edmonton, over to Fitzhugh (Jasper) and then as far as Red Pass. The steamship parts were ferried across Moose Lake on barges and from here all but two huge boilers were moved on a dirt tote-road by ox cart to Mile 51. The ship’s boilers were floated down the river, over two sets of waterfalls, to join the other material at the shipbuilding yards.

Water levels of the Fraser were at a record low that year (1912) so, when the two paddle-wheelers were reassembled and launched at Mile 51, steam-powered donkey engines were employed to manoeuvre the flat-bottomed boats over gravel bars in the river. The Conveyor and Operator finally arrived, two miles downstream, at the Mile 53 wharfs.

Although steamship companies started freight and passenger service on the 315 winding river-miles between South Fort George and Tête Jaune Cache, river scows were the predominant method of freighting. As soon as each wooden barge was constructed it was sent down river loaded with railway supplies. A slaughterhouse, several large warehouses, and a BC Police barracks were built near the docks. A new schoolhouse opened and most of the children in the area attended. A Boy Scout troop was established at Tête Jaune and the following year a curious group of Canadian women paid a visit to the site of Mile 53. Leaving the comfort of their Convention Headquarters in Edmonton, members of the “Women’s Press Association of Canada” boarded a westbound pas-senger train. The ladies, armed with their fountain pens, notebooks and sun-umbrellas and representing newspapers from across Canada, rode the new Grand Trunk Pacific to the “End of Steel.” With intentions of adventure and goals to record their journey for the hometown journals the women discovered Alberta and BC’s mountain wilderness and people first-hand.

Also, in 1913 the Fraser River flooded and most of Mile 52 was washed away. As the construction of the G.T.P. moved northwest to Fort George so did the residents in the railway communities. The tent-towns became ghost towns. The paddle wheelers eventually became derelict and were abandoned on the shores of the Fraser River at South Fort George.

Today travellers to the Tête Jaune area can see the remains of wooden posts (the old wharf) projecting from the banks of the Fraser. They stand as a reminder of railway construction days. Much evidence from the past has been erased due to the ever-changing course of the river. However, portions of a former railway camp lie protected in a thick forest of second-growth pine and poplar. The stone chimneys at old Mile 53 remain as a lasting reminder of an exciting and eventful part of British Columbia’s past. Historical tours, with private guides, are popular during the sum-mer months and may be available from Mount Robson Provincial Park and the Village of Valemount.

Discovering the ghost towns of old Tête Jaune Cache could be part of your next travel adventure.

The backwater marsh between old Mile 52 and 53 on the Tete Jaune – Croydon back road.
The backwater marsh between old Mile 52 and 53 on the Tete Jaune – Croydon back road.
 Old house site with chimney on “Snob Hill”  - Mile 53



Old house site with chimney on “Snob Hill”  - Mile 53
Old house site with chimney on “Snob Hill” - Mile 53 Old house site with chimney on “Snob Hill” - Mile 53

Old cook stove found at a house site at Mile 53, Tete Jaune
Old cook stove found at a house site at Mile 53, Tete Jaune
The site of the old wharf at Mile 53, Tete June Cache
The site of the old wharf at Mile 53, Tete June Cache