Mile Houses of the Cariboo Road

You may recall that about two months ago I was inspired by Tom Howder’s post at Twelve Mile Circle on sequentially-named towns in Massachusetts, leading me to write about the alphabetically-named towns along the Canadian National Railway in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Today, I’ll bring it a bit closer to my home with a look at a rather sequentially-named set of communities in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.

Until the mid-1850s, the central interior of what would become British Columbia was largely the domain of First Nations and fur traders. This changed with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858. As prospectors moved their way up the Fraser into the Cariboo in order to find the source of the gold, the need for a road to accommodate the imminent influx of miners and settlers looking to make their fortunes in the region. In 1860, the original ‘Cariboo Road’ was commissioned by Governor James Douglas. Ultimately, there would be three versions of the wagon road constructed between 1861 and 1885, but it is the original version which gave rise to a set of numerically-named road houses.

The original Cariboo Road began at the town of Lillooet, stretching 198 miles north to the fur trading post and sternwheeler port of Alexandria before being extended within three years to the gold rush boomtown of Barkerville (at one point the largest town on the continent north of San Francisco and west of Chicago, today Barkerville is preserved as British Columbia’s largest heritage attraction). The curve in Lillooet’s main street was the zero-mile for the Cariboo Road. Winding its way out of the northern Fraser Canyon and onto the Cariboo Plateau, the road ultimately covered 365 miles (587 kilometres) of central British Columbia in its 1885 configuration.


The Mile O cairn in Lillooet.

The trip up the road usually took a week or more in those days. Travellers needed places to stay, places to buy provisions, places to get a meal. By 1863, roadhouses were popping up every 10-to-15 miles to service this need. Many of these hotel/store/restaurant combos were owned by the same people who built the road.For example, an enterprising Vermonter named Gustavus Blin Wright took up the contract for building much of the wagon road. Already charging tolls for travel on the road, Wright was quick to pounce on the roadhouse business to consolidation his earnings from travellers even further; in one case, even rerouting the road itself around an already established village simply to have it pass by one of his roadhouses.

Roadhouses were usually located in places where owner could grow crops and have access to water; self-sustenance was a key for these isolated outposts. While many did take conventional names, most of these roadhouses were named for their distance from Lillooet. Eventually, small towns would crop around the roadhouses, similar to prairie villages that grew up around railway sidings.


108 Mile Ranch Historic Site.

The legacy of those road houses remains today in the form of ten communities named after these original road houses and their position on the Cariboo Road. 59 Mile House, 70 Mile House, 83 Mile House, 93 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 103 Mile House, 105 Mile House, 108 Mile Ranch, 140 Mile House, and 150 Mile House all still exist as communities today. 100 Mile House (population 2 000) is the regional centre for the South Cariboo, with a large number of services that are well in excess of other towns of its size. This is in large part because it’s adjacent to 108 Mile Ranch, a rural exurb developed on the site of the original roadhouse ranch in 1970 with a population in the mid-2 000s (103 and 105 Mile are commuter subdivisions just outside the corporate limits of 100 Mile). 150 Mile House is a village of 1 000 that has gradually transitioned into a suburb for nearby Williams Lake, and 70 Mile House is a well-known, if quaint, waypoint on the Cariboo Highway. 59, 83, 93 and 140 are sleepy byways.


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A rather lonely 59 Mile House.


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70 Mile House today.

In addition to the towns, numerous localities and dozens of creeks and lakes were named using this scheme. For older Canadians and British and American tourists still thinking in miles rather than kilometres, this works in their favour when travelling along the Cariboo Highway 97 between Clinton (originally 47 Mile House) and Williams Lake, since they only need look at what town they’re travelling through to gauge what distance they’ve travelled (it doesn’t take much thought to see that it will take you half-an-hour to get from 70 Mile House to 100 Mile House, for example). Of course, the modern highway is far more streamlined; these days, it’s 25.6 miles (41.3 km) between the two towns.

The amount of history along the path of the old road is staggering, with plenty of historical sites and roadside attractions that draw in thousands of tourists a year. To me, the faded old buildings and farmhouses are even more interesting. As for the old road itself, you can still see parts of the old roadbed in farmer’s fields and ranches alongside the modern highway.

Further Reading

Barkerville Historic Town (2010). Concise History of Barkerville. Available at http://www.barkerville.ca/history.htm. Accessed 19 December 2010.

Industrial Art Internet Group, Ltd. (1999). The Cariboo Gold Rush. Available at http://bcheritage.ca/cariboo/contents.htm. Accessed 19 December 2010.

Kluckner, M. (2005). The Cariboo & the Chilcotin. In Vanishing British Columbia, 169-184 .Vancouver: UBC Press. Excerpts available at http://www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw.html. Accessed 19 December 2010.

Robertson, D. (2002). The Grand Scheme. 108 Mile Ranch Community Association, 23 December 2002. Available at http://www.108ranch.com/grandscheme.html. Accessed 19 December 2010.

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