The Yellowhead Pass has been an important transportation route through the Rocky Mountains since the mid 1820s. Recognizing its significance to the fur trade, rail and highway travel and early tourism, Yellowhead Pass was designated a national historic site in 1971.
Located on the outskirts of the town of Jasper, the site is bounded on the east by the junction of Highway 93 and Highway 16. The boundary follows the existing Highway 16 and Canadian National Railway (CNR) routes through Jasper National Park and into Mount Robson Provincial Park in British Columbia to the Fraser River crossing. The imposing physical qualities of this pass evoke the pioneering efforts of the early fur traders.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated in 1821, the Athabasca, and eventually, the Yellowhead Pass, came to serve as main routes across the mountains. In 1824, Yellowhead Pass (elevation 1,133 m) gained popularity as a trade route to the Fraser drainage and the area known as New Caledonia.
Pierre Bostonais, nicknamed ‘Tête Jaune,’ (French for ‘yellow head’) led the CPR’s James Macmillan through the Yellowhead Pass on a surveying mission in 1825. This was one of the first expeditions through the pass. It is believed that the pass is named for the fair-haired, Métis-Iroquois trapper, Bostonais, who was killed by a rival native group in 1828. Historically, Yellowhead Pass was also known as Leather Pass or Leather Track as it was used as a route to transport dressed moose leather west into New Caledonia where there was a shortage of this valuable material.
The HBC’s discovery of the pass that Aboriginal people had used for centuries due to its low elevation (1,133 m, 3,317 ft) provided an alternate route to the rich fur trade country of the upper Fraser River and New Caledonia. Utilized from the mid-1820s to the early 1850s, Yellowhead Pass fell into disuse once the Hudson’s Bay Company began to use steam ships along the coast to access what is now northern British Columbia.
In 1858, Sandford Fleming, a surveyor for the Grand Trunk Railway, proposed a coast to coast railway connecting British North America. Soon after, the British government commited to a railway connecting the Maritime provinces with Quebec. Fleming was appointed as the sole engineer to supervise the survey. In 1872, the newly formed Canadian government decided to link the current railway to the Pacific Ocean, as part of a national program to unite the country. Fleming continued to survey the route and chose the Yellowhead Pass as the possible route through the Rockies because of its modest elevation and gradual approach. Brush was cleared to make trails for the railroad, employing more than 800 men with the preliminary work required to build a railway.
When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald fell into scandal concerning the railway, his successor, Alexander Mackenzie took a more cautious approach to construction, slowing development. In 1878, Macdonald was re-elected to power and returned to his aggressive building plans. Three years later, Fleming’s recommendations were overruled and Kicking Horse Pass, to the south, became the route through which the railway passed. The work that had been done to develop the Yellowhead Pass was abandoned at great cost in favour of the southern pass’s proximity to the United States and fertile agricultural land.
Use of Yellowhead Pass for railway travel was not revived until the early 20th century, when the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern were both routed through the corridor. These lines, established between 1906 and 1915, re-enforced Canada’s railway network, strengthened national ties, supported the economy and linked Canada via its two coasts to international communication and commerce.
In 1917, the two rail lines that passed through the Yellowhead Pass collapsed due to a lack of revenue and high construction costs shortly after the outbreak of World War I. Steel was permanently lifted from the abandoned lines and sold in response to a wartime appeal for rails and fittings. By 1919, the Federal Government had assumed control of the assets, consolidated the lines and established the Canadian National Railway. Abandoned rail grades were used for automobile road development, signalling a significant development in transportation patterns in Canada.
In the early 1920s, automobiles first passed through Yellowhead Pass, demonstrating the feasibility of linking Edmonton with British Columbia by road. Despite the desire for an all-weather road through the pass, the route was nearly impassable to most automobiles until the 1940s. During the first half of 1942, Japanese internment workers laboured on the roadway while occupying work camps in the area. Intermittent progress continued on both sides of the continental divide until the late 1960s when motorists were finally able to drive from Jasper to Vancouver on paved roads and bridges. In 1970, the narrow Yellowhead Road was replaced by the new Yellowhead Highway 16 alignment. Overcoming the rugged landscape of the pass is a testament to the feats of engineering and human labour required to construct this roadway.
Today, Yellowhead Pass continues to serve as a major national transportation
corridor for both goods and people. Constructed in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively,
the Transmountain Pipeline as well as a fibre optic route, traverse the pass
and have added to this modern national transportation corridor. Of significant
economic and social importance to Canadians, as well as trading partners in
North American and overseas, this contemporary highway, rail, pipeline, and
telecommunication route reflects the history of the development of western Canada.
Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
This pass was used for brief periods from the mid-1820s to the early 1850s by the Hudson's Bay Company, principally to transport leather, especially moosehides, from the Saskatchewan District to its posts in New Caledonia. It derives its name from Pierre Bostonais, called 'TÍte Jaune', an Iroquois freeman active here in the early 19th century. Originally chosen by Sandford Fleming for the CPR, the Yellowhead Pass eventually became part of the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Routes (now the CNR), and later still, a major highway crossing the Rocky Mountains.
From 1859 to1863, many parties of ‘Overlanders’ used the pass while en-route to the Caribou goldfields of British Columbia.
The Yellowhead Pass is one of several western mountain passes designated as nationally significant by the Canadian government. The importance of these passes relates to their role in opening up transportation links between east and west and in facilitating contributions to geographic understanding of the character of the Rocky Mountains. Other passes recognized include Howse Pass, Athabasca Pass, and Kicking Horse Pass through the Rocky Mountains and Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains.
‘Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site of Canada Commemorative Integrity Statement,” Parks Canada, 2006