Soda Creek in 1867 with the Colonial Hotel (foreground) and the Exchange Hotel next door. (BC Archives collection)

Soda Creek in 1867 with the Colonial Hotel (foreground) and the Exchange Hotel next door. (BC Archives collection)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The town of Soda Creek

By the spring of 1862, the Cariboo Gold Rush was in full swing

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

By the spring of 1862, the Cariboo Gold Rush was in full swing, and the government in Victoria had commissioned a wagon road to be constructed to the goldfields.

The road contractor who was chosen to build the road from Lillooet to Alexandria was Gustavus Blin Wright, an engineer, proven road builder, and also an astute entrepreneur.

Even while he was negotiating the terms of his road contract with government officials, Wright and a group of investors were also working on a plan to build a sternwheel riverboat to carry passengers and freight up the Fraser River to Quesnellemouth (now the city of Quesnel).

Shipping by riverboat would save time, money and wear and tear on animals and equipment.

Wright’s plans to add a riverboat component to the Cariboo Wagon Road were reported in the Victoria newspapers, and were received with much interest by merchants in both Victoria and New Westminster.

While the southern part of the road was under construction, so was a riverboat. It was launched in May 1863, and shortly after that, a site was chosen for its southern Fraser River terminus.

That site was a small bench of land, near the mouth of Soda Creek, some 10 miles north of Williams Lake.

This area was considered to be a “feasible place for the approach of mule trains” and provided access to a point on the river from which the boat could be safely navigated northward.

The riverboat which was built was the S.S. Enterprise.

It began operations in July, 1863, when the wagon road was completed to the landing site.

Within two years, it had earned its investors three times the $75,000-construction costs.

Most of the travellers on their way to the goldfields by foot, on horseback, by wagon or by coach chose to take the Enterprise upriver since the road to Quesnellemouth added hours of uncomfortable travel and would not be completed until 1864.

On the return trip, with Soda Creek as the southern terminus, passengers leaving on the evening boat from Quesnellemouth had just enough time to reach the 165 Mile Roadhouse at Deep Creek, in which, not surprisingly, G.B. Wright held a half interest.

With the launching of the Enterprise, the government placed a land reserve on the bench area immediately above the river.

Very soon after, lots were surveyed and sold, and the town known as Soda Creek was born. Robert McLeese and his partner, Joseph Senay, were two of the first to recognize the potential business opportunity which resulted.

That summer, they purchased lots close to the riverboat landing and constructed the Colonial Hotel, a two-storey log building with rooms for rent, as well as a saloon and a store.

By August of 1883, a second hotel, the Exchange, which also featured a saloon and a store, was constructed right next to the Colonial.

The principal owners of this hotel were Peter Dunlevy and his four partners Ira Crow, Tom Moffit, Jim Sellers and Tom Menefee.

This was the same group of men who found gold on the Horsefly River in 1859, thus precipitating the Cariboo Gold Rush. Dunlevy’s store specialized in outfitting goldseekers with mining tools and equipment.

He also did a brisk trade for furs with the local Indigenous people.

Peter Dunlevy also pre-empted and purchased a large tract of land about two miles north of the Soda Creek townsite.

This became one of the most valuable farms in the northern Cariboo, providing all sorts of meat, vegetables and grain to the goldfields.

This farm was a major source of provisions for the operation of the Exchange Hotel.

We know this farm today as the Dunlevy Ranch.

It is still in operation today, still producing excellent crops.

It did not take long for a substantial town to spring up at Soda Creek. By 1868 there were hotels, stores, blacksmith shops, a flour mill, a post office, saloons, brothels, boarding houses and private residences.

There was also a significant Chinese settlement on the bench to the immediate north.

Soda Creek had an estimated 300 permanent residents with hundreds more passing through annually.

In 1869, Wright added a second sternwheeler, the S.S. Victoria to the route. Even though the Cariboo gold rush had subsided, Soda Creek experienced a mine boom of sorts in the late 1860s as gold was discovered in the Omineca region of B.C. As word spread of this new strike, more goldseekers and opportunists arrived en masse.

Men, goods, equipment and food were all shipped upriver to the new and expanding markets.

In 1871, the numbers of men who were leaving the local area to take part in this new gold rush were so great that farmers in the region were worried that they would not have enough help to plant their crops for the coming season.

By 1872, the Omineca rush was over, and much of the population of Soda Creek began moving on. The town still remained a service centre for the riverboats and for the many farms and ranches in the area.

In 1903, Billy Lyne from 170 Mile House was contracted to build a new jailhouse for the town.

He completed the structure and received his payment, which he promptly spent on a binge at the local saloons.

He became so drunk and disorderly that he ended up becoming the jail’s first customer.

That jailhouse is the only old structure still left standing today at the Soda Creek townsite location.

A second population boom for the town began in 1909, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway announced its plans to build a route from Prince George to eastern Canada.

Soda Creek was uniquely situated to ship supplies and workers up river to the northern railway construction sites.

The B.C. Express Company built a new office and equipment marshalling area at Soda Creek.

In the winter of 1909/10, they built another sternwheeler, the S.S. BX, and in the following winter, a sister ship, the S.S. B.C. Express was constructed.

To connect the northern cross Canada route with the lower mainland of B.C., the Pacific Great Eastern Railway decided to build a line from North Vancouver to Prince George.

This project was postponed because of the First World War, but after 1919, there was a huge push to complete that line, and Soda Creek was right in the centre of this activity.

During the years of railway construction, the town prospered as a major stopping place on the Cariboo Road and as a supply and shipping centre.

After the completion of the PGE, the fortunes of the town once again made a downward turn.

During the mid to late 1920s, many of the old buildings, including the two original hotels were torn down.

As the country went through the great depression in the 1930s, the townsite was gradually abandoned and left to the elements.

In the spring of 1991, a bridge on the Old Soda Creek road collapsed when a cliff slumped, and road access became limited.

A new road was eventually built, but vehicular traffic slowed to a trickle.

Today, there is very little left to indicate this was once a thriving town.

If you known where to look, you can still find the branch road which led down to the river where the boats docked, the main street of the townsite, the remains of the flour mill, and a couple of old residences.

Otherwise, the place has become a small, sleepy rural subdivision nestled alongside the Fraser River, visited by only a few, and its history forgotten by most.

For this column, I relied on the writings of Branwyn Patenaude, Irene Stangoe and some information from the Internet.

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