After several failed attempts in the late 1800s, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) began its quest to build a railway that brought hope of opening up a whole new world for some of British Columbia’s remote regions.
Construction began in 1912 in Squamish, and by 1915, the PGE ran 176 miles to Clinton and Chasm.
The First World War halted track construction until 1918, when the war ended, and the provincial government purchased the railway as a Crown corporation and funded the railway project.
A large construction camp was set up in Lone Butte to supply the labour needed for this endeavour. The camp boasted a kitchen staff of 25 cooks and helpers, which included 11 returned war veterans.
In 1919, the railway reached Williams Lake, and by the summer of 1921, Quesnel became the “end of the line.” It became known as “the railway from nowhere to nowhere.”
Lone Butte was an important stop because it was at the highest elevation point on the rail line. At about 3,800 feet, it was a crucial water-filling station for the steam-powered engines that otherwise would be forced to haul a heavy load water with them.
Helen Horn, now 87, recalls the excitement of the twice-weekly trips the train would make through town and how the engineers seemed to know everyone. Although the train often arrived in the night, the chug of the motor, the shrill of the whistle, the screech of the brakes and the billows of black smoke were implanted in the memories of area residents.
You could hear it coming for miles, Helen says.
The railway became an economic lifeline to the Cariboo and its initial purpose allowed local ranchers to ship their cattle by rail to Squamish and then by barge to Vancouver.
Cattle were brought in from Bridge Lake, the Bonaparte and all areas in between. Sometimes it would take several days to bring the herds in, but with everyone working together, they always made their way to the rail yards.
Loading days were filled with excitement because all the cowboys came to town. With the thunder of hoofs and the dust in the air, it was a day of action in Lone Butte.
Some children opted to skip school and climb fences, mindful to stay clear of the herds as they made their way down the centre of town to the stockyards, admiring the hard-working wranglers as they rustled their cattle.
The local hotel was a busy place, as buyers from the city and cowboys came in for a meal after some hard days on the trail. Often the train would bring in travellers who might stay for a night in the seven-room hotel before hiring the local taxi service, which was operated out of the hotel by Chris Horn’s mother who owned one of the few cars in town.
Anna Granburg recalls getting up late in the night with her lantern to show guests to their room at her aunt’s establishment.
James McMillan remembers the excitement and energy he and his brothers had when the idea of building their own mill came to them. After he and his brother sold their two ponies for $250, they were able to make a formal application and put up a bond to start their endeavour
Eventually, the McMillan Bros. was in business and the brothers had a good supply of fir that could be cut and rolled down to Horse Lake.
They also had a great location to mill them and get them to the Lone Butte railway to ship to Britain. In 1944, they began milling railway ties destined for Britain and South Africa to replace those damaged during the war.
With Lone Butte becoming the “hub” of activity in the South Cariboo, it also became home to a Red Cross outpost, which was staffed with one nurse who was able to look after all but the most difficult situations. Lone Butte has the heritage Alice Singleton House, which served as a nurse station as well as a post office at one time.
With the arrival of young families and the hope of more children, the railway hired Jack Davis as section foreman so his large family would help start Lone Butte’s first school. In the late ’20s, a school building was erected and students walked or rode their horse to attend each day.
Communication with the outside was improved dramatically with the coming of the rails into Lone Butte.
Before the railway, residents sometimes waited for many weeks to receive a letter from loved ones, as mail was brought to 100 Mile House by stagecoach and then distributed to various outlying stations.
In 1922, the old postal station at Fawn Creek was moved into Lone Butte to utilize the railway to transport letters. With the regular runs each week, mail could now be back and forth and families could easily keep in touch with relatives.
Even when no mail was expected, the stationmaster could always be relied on to bring the latest news. McMillan recalls the spring of 1940 when his father wanted to know if “they got her yet?” in reference to the Bismarck, German warship the British Navy was quite concerned about putting out of commission before it did more serious damage to its fleet. Although they didn’t hear the news that particular day, it was eventually damaged and put out of commission.
The train brought weekly newspapers from Vancouver, which was much better than the Winnipeg-based Free Press and Family Herald papers that would be out-of-date by the time they arrived. Now, local residents were able to keep up to date on happenings in the country.
To the excitement of men and women alike, the railway opened up the ability for shopping. Woodward’s catalogues were leafed through with anticipation and wholesale orders could be brought in for retailers in Lone Butte.
Fresh fruit, dry goods, hardware and other building supplies could all be ordered and delivered in a timely fashion.
Store owner Jack Spratt from Bridge Lake was permitted to build a small storage building on the railway siding so he could order bulk feed and have it dropped off where he would then haul it back to his store.
Prior to the arrival of the PGE, people would make an annual long and difficult trip to Ashcroft where they would have to purchase enough supplies to hold them over for the entire year.
With the “progress” of the main highway being built through 100 Mile House and diesel-electric engines replacing the steam locomotives of the past, Lone Butte’s importance to the transportation industry diminished, and it wasn’t too long until 100 Mile House became the new hub for the South Cariboo.
In its day, however, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway was the third largest in Canada with 1,441 miles of mainline track. In 2004, it was leased to CN for 990 years thus ending an era that started almost 100 years earlier.