Premier W.A.C. Bennett at the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway bridge at Revelstoke

50 years in the making: the opening of the Trans-Canada

After decades of planning and talk, the Trans-Canada Highway opened through Rogers Pass 50 years this month.

Revelstoke was first connected to the outside world by road in 1922, when a highway opened through Eagle Pass, to Sicamous. The Revelstoke Review said the road “was without exception the best, prettiest and most scenic drive in the interior of British Columbia.”

At the time, it took several days to make the trip from Vancouver to Revelstoke and the road was closed during winter due to avalanches through Three Valley Gap. It wasn’t until 1942, when a Japanese internment camp was established at Three Valley Gap that the road was kept open year-round.

For years, Revelstoke was the end of the line for travellers heading east by road. Work began on the Big Bend Highway in the 1930s and unemployed men were pressed into service to help build the new highway. They were paid 20 cents per day and given room, board and clothing in return for working on the road.

The Big Bend Highway was opened on June 29, 1940, finally providing a roadway all the way through the Columbia Mountains. Still, the route was long and rough and was closed in winter. Plans began to build a highway through Rogers Pass.

In 1949, the Federal and Provincial governments signed the Trans-Canada Highway Act, which set out plans for a national, two-lane paved highway. A year later, a railway strike made the need for a modern highway between Kamloops and Field even more pressing.

On July 5, B.C. Highway Minister “Flying” Phil Gaglardi announced that the new highway would go through Rogers Pass, at an estimated cost of $22 million, despite the opposition of one group that promoted Jumbo Pass as the desirable route.

Surveyors set to work mapping out a route for the new highway and contracts went out for work to be done on clearing the path. The targeted date for opening the highway was Dec. 31, 1960, with 1958 and 1959 dedicated to grading the route and 1960 to paving. Meanwhile, an avalanche control system had to be developed to keep the highway open in the winter. Led by Noel Gardner and Fred Schleiss, a network of snowsheds was built and a system of avalanche control using a 105mm Howitzer was developed.

Meanwhile, people in Revelstoke dreamed big. Mayor Walter Hardman predicted the population of Revelstoke would increase 10-fold, to 40,000 from 4,000 within 20 years, reported business writer James Roe.

“Development of the area as a tourist and holiday mecca is only part of it,” he wrote. “But today Revelstoke is still just an attractive, sedate railway town.”

Naturally, the highway was delayed. First, into 1961 and then well into 1962. Business groups, especially those in the Okanagan, put pressure on the government to get it open. In the summer of 1961 The Okanagan Valley Tourist Association planned a caravan over Rogers Pass, where they would meet up with the Banff tourism group.

On July 27, 1961, a year before the highway opened, the first fatal accident occurred in the Pass when a car carrying two construction workers crashed into a gravel truck.

The Trans-Canada Highway Bridge over the Columbia River opened on July 28, 1961. Locals spent all night driving across the brand-new, 300-metre long suspension bridge.

Pressure mounted to get the highway finished over the course of the winter of 1961-62. Finally, on Mar. 1, the province set July 30 as the date for the official opening of the highway; a week later the federal government announced plans for a September opening.

Special permits started being issued for people to travel across Rogers Pass in early July, 1962. The highway was used to transport a truckload of strawberries from Salmon Arm to Calgary, allowing them to arrive fresh for the market, though the driver A.D. Booth had to return via the Big Bend.

***

One curious element of the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway was the fact there were two opening ceremonies. According to Cathy English, this wasn’t because of any beef between the federal and provincial governments, but because that’s the way each government wanted it.

So it was that on July 30, 1962, dozens of dignitaries, including Premier William Bennett, were in Revelstoke for the provincial opening of the highway at a location 13 kilometres east of Revelstoke. The City of Revelstoke declared a holiday that afternoon so resident could attend the ceremony and around 5,000 vehicles crawled up the highway for the ceremony.

With thousands in attendance, including more than 150 people from the press, and the thermometer hitting 35 C (that caused seven people to faint), B.C. Highway Minister Phil Gaglardi declared the road open.

“There has been a lot of talk about who should get the credit. We are not interested in credit for anything other than we want the people of B.C. and of Canada to enjoy the highway through this God-given scenery.  It’s yours to enjoy – you paid for it, you take the credit for it,” he told the crowd.

Back in town a massive barbecue was held where 3,000 pounds of Alberta beef was served to the crowd into the night. The newspaper quoted one American tourist as saying it was “the most successful affair I have ever attended.”

“We couldn’t match a picnic like this anywhere in the U.S. And such meat!” he said.

It should be noted there was some sniping in the press between the local media and the out-of-towners, who complained of the lack of accommodation and press facilities and greatly downplayed the numbers.

A little more than a month later, on Sept. 4, 1962, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker travelled to Rogers Pass for the second official opening of the Trans-Canada Highway. A massive ceremony was planned and mostly pulled off, aside from the fact the band’s instruments didn’t show up in time.

Diefenbaker made a short speech during which he said he hoped the highway “will always serve the cause of peace, that it will never hear the marching sound of war-like feet.”

A final patch of highway was filled in and the Prime Minister stamped it down.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I declare officially open, the Trans-Canada Highway,” Diefenbaker pronounced.

Well, almost – there were still some unfinished sections and an estimated 3,000 kilometres of the 7,821-kilometre route remained unpaved.

Still, the opening of the highway through Rogers Pass had a great impact on Revelstoke, making it destination along Canada’s national point and stopping off point for people on their way to and from the coast. By mid-November, it was estimated that more than half-a-million people had travelled through Rogers Pass on the new highway.

Special credit to Cathy English of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives for providing much of the background for this article.

 

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