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Jasper National Park of Canada

Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site

Plaque Text: The Yellowhead Pass

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 'Tête Jaune', an Iroquois freeman active here in the early 19th century. Originally chosen by Sanford 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 of the Rocky Mountains.

On the scene:

By the mid-1820's, the fur trade had expanded west of the Rockies. Beavers were plentiful and their pelts brought in the highest price during the winter when they were thick and luxurious. Native trappers needed good moccasins to stand up to the cold, snowy winters and since New Caledonia (present day central British Columbia) was scarce in large game, leather was in high demand.

When he heard of a low pass across the continental divide near Jasper House, Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson s Bay Company, ordered it surveyed by James Macmillan. Accompanying Macmillan was a fair-haired Iroquois trader named Pierre Bostonais, whose light-coloured hair earned him the nick-name "Tête Jaune", French for "yellow head." Quickly becoming the main trans-mountain route for supplying dressed leather to New Caledonia, the pass would be known as "Leather Track" or "Leather Pass". The name that would endure however would be "Yellowhead" after Bostonais' hair.

In the early 20th century, the Yellowhead would become the main corridor through the Rockies for not one, but two railways. Years later, road construction crews paved the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway #16 through the pass. The fur trade era is long gone, but Yellowhead Pass continues to be an important transportation route for many Canadians.

Timeline:

  • Prehistory - Aboriginal people have been aware of this pass for centuries. Its low elevation makes it an important prehistoric travel route.
  • 1825 - James Macmillan and Pierre Bostonais begin a survey of the pass to determine the feasibility of using it as a route to transport leather to New Caledonia.
  • 1826 - Sir George Simpson orders Yellowhead Pass to be used as the route to carry dressed leather from the Saskatchewan district to New Caledonia.
  • 1853 - Yellowhead Pass falls into steady disuse after shipping from Fort Victoria becomes the preferred mode of transportation for furs west of the continental divide.
  • 1859-1863 - Many parties of "Overlanders" use the pass while en route to the Cariboo goldfields in British Columbia.
  • 1872 - The pass is chosen by Sir Sanford Fleming as a route for the Canadian Pacific Railway, but is later rejected in favour of the Kicking Horse Pass route.
  • November, 1911 - Grand Trunk Pacific Railway construction reaches Yellowhead Pass. Regular freight service would not be available until August, 1914, with passenger service following in September.
  • December, 1913 - Canadian Northern Railway track is laid through Yellowhead Pass. Due to delays in construction of bridges and trestles, the railway line to the border with British Columbia would not officially open until 1915.
  • 1923 - The Grand Trunk Pacific becomes part of Canadian National Railways. Canadian Northern had been absorbed by Canadian National in 1917. The CNR would continue to operate this national railway through Yellowhead Pass from that day forward.
  • 1970 - The Yellowhead Inter-Provincial Highway is officially opened. It would later be known as the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway #16.
  • 1971 - The importance of Yellowhead Pass as travel corridor receives official recognition. It is designated as national historic site and commemorated with a plaque.

Tid-Bit

Follow Trans-Canada Yellowhead Hwy #16 west over the pass towards Fort St. James National Historic Site. When the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies merged in 1821, this fort was the headquarters of the fur trade district of New Caledonia in the northern interior of British Columbia. Isolation, severe winters, hard work, and a monotonous diet of smoked dried salmon earned Fort St. James the name "Siberia of the fur trade."

Getting there:

From the traffic lights at the west end of the community of Jasper, take Highway #16 west. You will find the commemorative plaque for Yellowhead Pass on the north side of the highway, at kilometre 9.5. The plaque is in a large vehicle pullout with a good view of Yellowhead Pass to the west. Continuing west from the pullout, the inter-provincial boundary between British Columbia and Alberta (as well as Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park) is found at kilometre 25.5. This is also the second lowest highway pass over the Canadian continental divide.

Bibliography:

Historical Sites and Monuments Board, Commemorative Integrity Statement-Yellowhead Pass (Draft). JG MacGregor, Overland by the Yellowhead. 1974.
Great Plains Research Consultants, Jasper National Park-A Social and Economic History.1985
Brenda Gainer, The Human History of Jasper National Park, Alberta. 1981
Susan Wolff, The Yellowhead Corridor. 1978