McConnell roots in 70 Mile House go deep

David and Isabelle McConnell, and their family, travelled from Montana by horse and wagon to settle at Whitehorse Lake near Lac la Hache.

In 2006

In 2006

When the news of gold finds in the Cariboo rang through North America in 1862, it not only drew gold seekers, but it also attracted enterprising people who set up businesses along the route to the north.

It also lured courageous people who were just looking for a better life, including David and Isabelle McConnell, and their family, who travelled from Montana by horse and wagon to settle at Whitehorse Lake near Lac la Hache.

David worked for several years as a teamster, driving freight wagons on the Cariboo Highway from Ashcroft to Soda Creek, where the freight was then transferred to paddle boats that took it north on the Fraser River.

He was on the spare board and was contacted when needed via telegram, which went to Percy Ogden at Lac la Hache, who would, in turn, deliver the message to David.

In those days, a round trip between Ashcroft and Soda Creek, for a set of wagons with 10 tons of freight on the front wagon and five tons on the back one, took six weeks. The journey from Ashcroft to 70 Mile House alone, took about a week, depending on road conditions.

David and Isabelle were the grandparents of Stallard McConnell who was born at the old 70 Mile Roadhouse in June 1927. At the time of his birth, the roadhouse was owned and operated by his other grandparents, Matt and Isobella Porter.

Isobella was better known as Ma Porter, and she gained fame for serving the best meals anywhere on the highway between Cache Creek and Williams Lake.

On the day Stallard was born, she was serving a road crew when she was called to the back of the roadhouse to help deliver her grandson.

The 70 Mile Roadhouse was built in 1862 and burned down in 1956, just six years shy of its 100th anniversary.

Stallard’s dad was employed by the highways department and worked on the Cariboo Highway, widening, straightening and filling in holes. Back then, the dirt road often turned to mud, making travel all that much more difficult.

When Stallard was two, his dad was transferred to the Lillooet area, and the family went along, but a strong connection with 70 Mile was kept as he and his siblings, Marie, David and Sharon were able to spend their summers at the 70 Mile with their other grandparents.

Stallard helped to man the little store that sat on the north end of the roadhouse, selling gum, chocolate bars and pumping gasoline from an old glass globe pump to travellers during the Dirty Thirties.

“On a good day, we’d see seven or eight cars stop if we were lucky.”

Much of the travellers people looking for jobs, and one day, a couple of fellows rolled in on bikes, which they had pedaled from Lillooet, and they had nothing to eat.

“They stopped at the roadhouse and grandma fed them and bought both their bikes. I got the one with the wooden rims.”

One of the men was named Earl Lena, and he ended up staying, and eventually married Katy Prydatok whose father was the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) line foreman on the Graham Section. Her family lived on the section property near the north side of Green Lake.

Another wanderer who put down roots was Howard Reauch, who everyone called Kinnick. He rode a horse from Prince George to 70 Mile, looking for work and he ended up finding a wife at the roadhouse and a job at the Flying U Ranch on Green Lake.

 

Some of the most memorable times for Stallard were those spent at the annual Green Lake Stampede, which he recalls taking place during the first week of July.

“It was the biggest rodeo in the country. In those days it didn’t rain much around here and it was always so dry and dusty that you couldn’t see the horses for the dust.”

According to Stallard, pilot and BC Aviation Hall of Famer, Russell (Ginger) Coote, would fly a seaplane to the stampede each year and charge people $3 a head for a ride over Green Lake and the area.

Stallard rode in the truck with Grandpa Porter, hauling plane fuel from 70 Mile to the stampede grounds. The Flying U band was a common sight at the stampede, with Eddy Dougherty on the drums, Stallard’s uncle Ashley McConnell on the sax, Charlie Prest on violin and Katy Prydatok on piano.

Mail was the strongest link to the rest of the world and weekly deliveries came on the PGE train every Tuesday at 1:30 a.m. In 1950, Stallard was given the job of meeting the steam-powered mail train at the 70 Mile rail station, which was 1.5 miles (2.4 km) southeast of town.

It wasn’t unusual for the train to be up to two hours late and that was especially inconvenient and uncomfortable in the wintertime when temperatures dipped. Stallard says that in 1950, the mercury fell to -72 F (-57.7 C) and stayed in that range for two weeks.

The mail route was a loop that went from 70 Mile, along North Green Lake and back on the south side of Green Lake. While doing deliveries during the cold spell, he stopped his truck at the Green Lake fork, filled mail boxes which were only steps away, and when he returned to his vehicle, the wheel cylinders were frozen tight and wouldn’t move until he rocked them loose.

Although the mail arrived on Tuesdays, the roads were only plowed on Thursdays, which made travel almost impossible when snow drifted onto road. Stallard did whatever it took to get through, ramming his way through the pile in places and shovelling the snow by hand in others.

One time, in 1930, the roads were so plugged with snow that it was decided to drive the mail truck across the ice on Green Lake as an alternate route. The truck hit a soft spot and went through the ice with the Christmas mail aboard.

It took Grandpa Porter, with a couple of teams of horses, to pull it out of the water.

Weather was the source of constant battles and Stallard says that in 1948, the water level of Green Lake rose by 12 feet (3.7 metres) and flooded all the way to the railway tracks in 70 Mile. He’s heard stories of how the same thing happened in 1908 and person could paddle a canoe from Green Lake to 70 Mile. He witnessed similar flooding again in 1958.

“That’s when they bulldozed a channel from Green Lake to Little Green Lake to let the water go to the Bonaparte.”

After the Second World War, traffic on the Cariboo Highway began to increase and Stallard saw opportunity to cash in on it. In the summer of 1949, he built the 70 Mile Cafe and he and his sister, Marie, ran the business.

Then, in 1953, he constructed a service station nearby, which still stands today. In 1957, the motel was built.

“We had more business than we could handle. The road was paved in 1952, by the cafe and it was busy.”

This growth of 70 Mile House took place during a time when there was no electrical power being supplied by BC Hydro. It only came up as far as Clinton.

Stallard prides himself in being an instigator in the push to extend the power lines to his community and he helped by measuring and staking out where the power poles would be placed.

He made other contributions to the community over the many years he lived there.

He and his wife, Marion (nee Schubank), were married in 1959, and currently reside in Ashcroft where Stallard enjoys building antique model trains. Several of his family members still live in 70 Mile House, including his brother, David’s, wife Mae McConnell and several of her children.