Not far from Dave Abbs’ home in Lone Butte is an old wooden culvert.
When he was young, the roads were full of them, as they were used to drain water away from the road.
“Everybody that lived along the road used to work off their taxes by filling holes in the road,” says Abbs, 84, waving towards the current Highway 24.“The road to Lone Butte was nothing but bog holes, sinkholes and rocks back then.”
In Abbs’ childhood, Lone Butte was drastically different than it is today. Trains passed through twice a week, arriving at 4 a.m. going north and 1 a.m. heading south. Their steam engines were powered by the water tower, which pulled in 40,000 gallons of water from an open spring behind what is now Smith’s Antique store and the Sweet Ash Bistro.
Abbs knew the train schedule by heart. As soon as the water tower was pumped up, he and his buddies stripped off their clothes and went for a surreptitious dip. “There’d be about 15 of us boys and girls,” Abbs was quoted in a Cariboo Calling article in June 2005. “Cold water and kids mix just fine.”
The arrival of the rail line in 1919 marked a pivotal moment in Lone Butte’s history. At an elevation of 3,900 feet, the town held a key position because the railroad did not have to haul water to operate the engines. As the train came into the station, the spout from the water tower was maneuvered over the water car, filling the tanker. Two heaters inside the tower prevented the water from freezing during winter.
The tower and the railway station became the hub of the community, which grew up around it. Through an agreement with the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) in the late 1920s, water was piped in to feed the town water lines that serviced the hotel, post office and store.
The train meant residents no longer had to make their annual journey – a long and tiring trip – to Ashcroft to stock up for the coming year. They could order fresh fruit, building supplies, dry goods and other items. Mail was now delivered weekly. Newspapers were no longer out of date.
Ranchers also benefited. Cattle were brought in from Bridge Lake, the Bonaparte and all areas in between before being shipped via rail to Squamish and then by barge to Vancouver.
Cattle shipping day was a major event, Abbs says.
“The day before, Dad, the neighbour and all the kids used to drive the cows to Lone Butte,” he says. When they got to town the next morning, it was full of cattle. “Where the grocery store, the post office, all that is? It was all stockyards.”
Today, the town is a shadow of its former self. The water tower is still there but the spring has dried up. The stockyards have disappeared. The caboose no longer leaves the station. It is instead used as the meeting place for the Lone Butte Historical Society.
Construction of Highway 97 into 100 Mile House in the 1960s is blamed for the shift. Diesel-electric engines were more efficient and faster. The highway provided a reliable transportation link across the province. 100 Mile took on more prominence, pulling in the business, commerce and industry that had previously set up in Lone Butte.
The community still had its treasure, though, like the Lone Butte Hotel, where Anna Granberg would get up middle of the night to show travellers fresh off the train to their rooms. The Farmers Institute Hall, which had drawn the likes of Evan Kemp and other big bands, was still the heart of the community.
Patti Harper remembers the first time she met Tom Jones, manager at the Lone Butte Hotel,
“OMG! He looked at me and goes, ‘You gettin’ married to him?’” she says, pointing to her husband Ken. “He had this big mason jar and slid it down to me saying, ‘You better start putting money into this divorce fund right now.’”
The Harpers would play cards and pool. Jones would make them a burger and it wasn’t a case of “with or without ashes from his cigar – it was always with. But the fries were always good.”
“Tom was a character,” says Ken. “Always had a White Owl cigar in his mouth.”
Patti and Ken have lived in the area since they were teenagers. Over the years, they have seen a lot of changes. Places like the McMillan Mill on Watch Lake Road, The Roadhouse Cafe, Rose’s Cafe and Bistro, Gemini Services – all businesses that once operated out of Lone Butte but no longer exist.
But other businesses have moved in. Two new restaurants, Sweet Ash Bistro and High Ground Cafe recently opened their doors. Lone Butte now boasts a sporting goods store on the corner of Highway 24 and Horse Lake Road. Lone Butte Towing has started up.
The present-day Lone Butte-Horse Lake Community Association is still the heart of the area, where family and friends gather for seniors’ lunches, Christmas dinners, Halloween events for the kids and festivals like Lone Butte Rocks.
Abbs, who grew up on Unicorn Ranch on Horse Lake Road, no longer has to rely on a horse to get to where he’s going.
“When I went to school I rode from here to Lone Butte, six miles each way,” Abbs says. The school was located behind where the Sweet Ash Bistro is today. The children’s horses were stabled in the barn during the school day.
Everyone did their share. “All the families would haul a load of hay to the barn.”
The times have changed but the memories live on. Abbs pulls out a family album, the photos carefully preserved behind plastic. Names like Chris Horn, Jim McMillan and Howard Malm are scattered throughout, documenting the early people of the area.
“My grandmother had this big old camera she was forever taking photos with.”
A lot of the old buildings like the Lone Butte Hotel have burned down, but pieces of history remain. In 1956, a small part of the original hotel was moved and attached to the house where Mary Carter lives.
Built by the Gibson family, Carter said Shirley Canning once brought her mom, Anna Granberg, to see the house.
”It had been Shirley’s grandmother’s house and she hadn’t been in it since she was probably little because it was out of the family hands for a long time.”
Abbs’ grandmother once had a photo of a team of horses pulling the section of building down the road. Unfortunately, it has been lost over time.
While the town isn’t what it used to be, but is still home to Abbs, who enjoys watching the birds and feeding cheese balls to the ravens.
“I got nothing to do and all day to get it done.”