Evidence of the past lives on at Yale Historic Site

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One-tank trips. These are the buzz words for summer travellers bent on explorations closer to home than in past years. Chalk it up to triple-digit gas prices.

One stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that is guaranteed to satisfy runs for 170-kilometres between Yale and Cache Creek as it traces the historic Cariboo Road. A prime reason for making this journey through the Fraser Canyon onto the Thompson Plateau is watching the landscape transition from lush rainforest to arid sagebrush against a splendorous and ever-changing backdrop.

When reached by phone at his Vancouver studio, artist Michael Kluckner admitted to a long-standing fascination with this region north of Hope. The area is documented in his 2005 book, Vanishing British Columbia (UBC Press), which features watercolours of weathered buildings. “I’m attracted to travel painting by these roadside dots that are, in many cases, the only physical evidence of people having been there,” he told the Georgia Straight. “In the city, you can see layers of habitation, the old next to the new. In the countryside, unless you’re a total natural-history freak, there are only tenuous layers that tell the story of who’s been there. These signs enrich the reasons for being outdoors.”

Kluckner pointed out that First Nations people didn’t leave much evidence of their presence. Instead, they encoded the landscape by identifying natural features such as “transformer” rocks. “Knowing these things greatly informs the story of how they lived. It’s a different story with homesteaders. As you travel along the Fraser and Thompson rivers, watch for fence lines that lead down to groves of introduced species such as acacia that imbue the landscape with meaning even though all other evidence of pioneer presence has disappeared.”

Along with abandoned farmhouses and orchards, Kluckner also expressed an appreciation for withered signs of faith, such as the shuttered St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church beside Highway 1 in Spences Bridge, and a kindred chapel, St. Aiden’s, in the isolated settlement of Pokhaist that is visible on the far side of the Thompson River as the Trans-Canada heads farther north toward Cache Creek. “With a shingled steeple like a little brown helmet, St. Michael and All Angels is a very eccentric design,” he related. “Built around 1905, it apparently replaced an earlier church that was destroyed in a horrific landslide, which also wiped out the Indian village on the other side of the river.”

Of all the roadside dots on this stretch of highway, none experienced a more meteoric rise and fall than Yale. For millennia a Sto:lo First Nations waterfront community, Xwoxewla:lhp (“willow trees”), thrived at the mouth of the Fraser Canyon. When Hudson’s Bay Co. fur traders showed up in the 1840s, they were welcomed to set up camp, even if they did rechristen the site in honour of James Murray Yale, the HBC officer in charge of Fort Langley.

Nothing, though, prepared locals for the tsunami of 30,000 gold seekers who swept ashore and staked claims during the summer of 1858. Then, just as abruptly, the mob swarmed north toward the next El Dorado, centred in Barkerville. Little now remains of the saloons, hotels, rooming houses, and boardwalks that once lined the shoreline.

Since 1977, however, a slice has been preserved in the Yale Historic Site that opened for this season on May 12. That’s where the Straight reached supervisor Deb Zervini by phone. Zervini was excited to kick off the summer with the debut of a new on-site exhibit, the Sasquatch Mystery. “It’s been in the works since I arrived last year,” she said, adding that the display takes up more than half the showcases in the Victorian-era Creighton House.

As to what attracts travellers to visit, Zervini said it was a tossup between sheer curiosity and historical interest. “Most people have no idea what’s in store. They don’t realize how important Yale was in deciding to become part of Canada. Things could have turned out much differently if it weren’t for the Yale Convention, held here in 1868, that led to B.C. joining confederation in 1871.”

In the wrong hands, history can be terribly dry. Thankfully, that’s not the case at Yale, one of 11 provincial historic sites dotted across B.C. Much of the credit goes to student interpreters such as Dean Friesen, who toured the Straight around the grassy, shaded grounds of Yale Historic Site last August.

Midsummer temperatures in the Fraser Canyon soar to the hottest daily averages in Canada. A break in Yale is just the antidote as breezes waft off the nearby Fraser River. Mercifully, Creighton House is air-conditioned, tempting visitors to linger longer than they might otherwise. And that’s a good thing, because the site’s collection of well-preserved antiquities, both aboriginal and colonial, are worthy of extended admiration. Outside, Friesen and two cohorts attired in gold rush–era duds painted a verbal picture of frontier living conditions against a backdrop of artfully furnished canvas tents. With such enthusiastic help, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots between then and now.

Access: Yale lies 176 kilometres east of Vancouver via Hope. Details on Yale Historic Site are on their website. For a complete listing of B.C. historic sites, visit the Government B.C website. For examples of Michael Kluckner’s watercolours, visit his website.

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