1874 Bridge River Gold

Voices from Bridge River: The Bridge River Hydroelectric Projects, the People Who Built Them, and the Lives They Touched
by BC Hydro Power Pioneers with Kerry Gold

Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2022
$29.95  /  9781773271071

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


With her caustic wit and outspoken opinions, local newspaper publisher Ma [Margaret] Murray put BC’s Bridge River Valley on the map years ago, but she’s not the only reason the region found its place in BC’s history books. Gold mining and hydro power are among the region’s other claims to fame, as a new book documents, but there are winners and losers here.

Notoriety accompanied the fame as mining and massive hydro projects reshaped the valley west of the Fraser River and provided area mines and the lower mainland with hydro-electric power after the Second World War. In fact, the Bridge River project, begun more than 100 years ago, was by its completion in 1960 supplying half the power needed in the Vancouver area.

The project employed thousands of workers and gave rise to several towns, company towns and eventually ghost towns, but it also wrought environmental devastation and displaced First Nations by wiping out their salmon supply and other land-based goods ensuring economic survival.

Globe and Mail BC housing columnist Kerry Gold and the BC Hydro Power Pioneers collaborated on Voices from Bridge River.

The project had “a profound impact on the people of the St’at’imc Nation,” explains writer and Globe and Mail BC housing columnist Kerry Gold and the Pioneers team. It “altered watersheds and changed ecosystems, and the associated impacts on fish and fish habitat remain a very significant concern to the St’at’imc way of life.”

The authors take time to explore the history of the region near Lillooet, including what the St’at’imc Nation once saw as their “Valley of Plenty.” But dam construction ended it and the community members, living freely on the land and water, had their livelihoods diminished or lost. Some would get jobs and be forced to adapt to rapid industrial development in the new settler society.

The book also provides detailed descriptions of other valley residents over the decades, starting with those who built the town, the railway, the roads and people’s homes. It also recalls those who provided the services to the townspeople, people like George Yada, a Japanese man who’s Lillooett store supplied essential goods.

Gold seekers during the rush up the Fraser River in the 1858 are described among the early pioneers. When the Fraser Canyon gold rush ended, some prospectors went home penniless, but others found work in the nearby Bralorne and Pioneer Mines. Thousands of others came to build and operate the vast Bridge River complex and we learn directly from some of them about the experience of creating a new life. Perhaps it is an oversight that no mention is made of the strikes in valley mines in the 1940s.

Gold et al devote a chapter to the war-time Japanese interment in an almost unused Bridge River townsite. Ma Murray didn’t want them there and said so in her Bridge River-Lillooet News, but the newcomers added much to community life in this remote region. A section on Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki, for example, reveals his role in Lillooet. It led to his appointment to the Order of Canada.

“Here are the men in whose hands the success of the Bridge river project rests. The men are pictured around the testing machine, which is mentioned in the article by Mr. Blee. Left to right in the picture are: W.R. Bonnycastle, engineer in charge; H. Irvine, resident engineer; E. Rexworthy, boatman; E.E. Carpenter, civil engineer; Eric Lazenby, levelman; J.D. Galloway, consulting engineer, and C.E. Blee, assistant engineer.” B.C. Electric Employees’ Magazine, October 1926. Courtesy of BC Hydro Library and Archives

Some readers will find the abundance of technical information of less interest, but the colourful descriptions of the early pioneers going back to 1912 and the detailed accounts of what life was like in both settler and Indigenous communities recaptures our attention. To some, this will seem more a family history replete with an extensive family album. For others, it will be a community history that forms a critical part of BC’s rugged past.

Raising Lajoie Dam with the low-level outlet in the foreground and the clearing of what would become the Downton Reservoir in the background. Courtesy of BC Hydro Library and Archives, Jack Lindsay Photographers Limited

Righting some of  the wrongs of that past, BC Hydro and the provincial government negotiated a long-term agreement in the 1990s with the St’at’imc people that sought to ensure “the preservation of their culture and historical food sources.” Their Valley of Plenty may yet be restored.

Ma Murray, a Liberal, definitely left her mark on the valley with her critical comments about Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett, BC Hydro’s diviner, and others. But the St’at’imc Nation and the workers who built the community and maintained it, well deserve the positive recognition they get in Voices of Bridge River.

[Reviewer’s Note: The book’s publisher, the BC Hydro Power Pioneers Association, will donate proceeds from book sales to the BC Children’s Hospital.]

The Budd Car provided daily service from North Vancouver to Lillooet in the 1960s. Budd Car service ended in 2002. Photo courtesy of the Royal British Columbia Museum.


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His new book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), was reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), was reviewed by Mike SasgesEditor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by J. Edward Chamberlin, Glen A. Mofford, Derek Hayes, Keith G. Powell, Derryll White & Erin Knutson, and Lily Chow for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy. Ron lives in Victoria.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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