Welcome to T&T – Theme is Transportation. So far we’ve had Tales about Life After the Railway came to Pemberton and the improvements that brought. We’ve also talked about the gold rush trail and Eric Andersen told us about the importance of the Howe Sound Corridor for commercial transportation. Last week we discussed Early Roads & Taxes and how these were improved slowly by lobbying. This Tale is about the Bridge River Project and how it was a powerhouse for the B.C. economy which led to improvements to the local area in terms of bringing electricity as well as the construction of roads to service the transmission line to the south.
Geoffery Downton was a land surveyor in 1912 when he envisioned the hydro-electric potential between the Bridge River valley and Seton Lake. From the top of Mission Mountain, he realized that the Bridge River was hundreds of feet higher than Seton Lake. If tunnels were built through Mission Mountain, water could be thrust downward at great speeds to spin turbines at Seton that would generate large amounts of hydro-electricity. Geoffery partnered with W.R. Bonnycastle, a hydro-electric engineer. Together with other influential people they formed the Bridge River Power Company. World War 1 stopped further development until 1927 when B.C. Electric acquired the company. Plans were made to begin the 13,200 ft tunnel and by 1931 Shalalth, the Bridge River Townsite and the Bridge River Valley had electric power. However the depression and WW2 stopped further development.
The project finally began again in 1946 with a crash construction program that saw ten years of work compressed into four. By 1949, three units were completed and in 1959 the second powerhouse was built and new transmission lines strung. Geoffery Downton was invited to push the button to start the new plant at a ceremony in 1948. Three more generators were added at intervals until 1954. The plant's total output of 180 MW was the largest source of power in the province at that time.
The transmission corridor running from Seton Lake to Vancouver became an important road system. Hydro service roads were built for B.C. Electric workers to access the transmission towers for routine maintenance in the 1950s. These roads were the first routes for vehicles out of the Pemberton Valley, though 4x4’s were strongly recommended. In the early days only the adventurous or desperate travelled the road. Eventually, by the mid-1960s, the route from Pemberton to Squamish became Highway 99 and was paved.
The Bridge River hydroelectric complex consists of three dams and stores water for four generating stations. The system uses Bridge River water three times in succession to generate 492 megawatts, or 6 to 8 per cent of British Columbia's electrical supply.
The Bridge River Project saves the P.G.E. Through the 20’s much work was done to make the power project a reality. In 1926 work began – a freight yard was built by the PGE and construction of a road over Mission Mtn was begun. A diversion dam below the Mission Mtn. road was also started. In 1927 the boring of the tunnel through Mission Mtn. began – the tunnel would be built on a slight grade to allow for a drop of 1200 ft. The total length was to be 13,200 ft and diameter of 14 feet and 3 inches. The first tunnel took 2-3 years to complete and cost $2 million. The exact time of the breakthrough was recorded for posterity on 8:28pm on July 8th 1930. When the two tunnel heads met the difference between the drills was 1 1/8 inches. The Pacific Great Eastern was costing taxpayers $2.5 million a year in 1923. But by 1926, the Premier John Oliver had several parties interested in purchasing the railway. “With so many admirers, the PGE is looking good right now, so good that Premier Oliver is suggesting the government ‘stand pat for a while’ in considering the future of the railway. He pointed out that electrification was possible due to the great water possibilities of the Peace, which could be developed to electrify the section of the railway through this country. He also added that B.C. Electric was spending millions of dollars in the development of power in the Bridge River area which could be used for electrification of the lower sections of the PGE. “This is not the time for hasty action or for making a decision about the PGE”. He added that “sometimes it takes more courage to stand still rather than advance.” Before the tunnel was in operation it was used as a throughfare by Depression victims who were heading to the mines in Bralorne to search for work. These men walked or bummed from Vancouver and through the tunnel to Bridge River and onward to Bralorne. Two great books on The Bridge River Gold Rush are The Great Years by Lewis Green and Bridge River Gold by Emma de Hullu.
The King Vein Strike in Bralorne in 1933 led to Shalalth becoming the busiest station on the PGE railway line. Bralorne B.C. was B.C.’s largest lode gold producer of rich gold bearing ore (5oz per ton); 4,178,363 ounces of gold were extracted by the time the mine closed in 1971. In 1933 the King Vein was discovered at the Bralorne Mine and a block of ore had an average of .5 oz gold per ton. The reserves at the end of 1933 were reported as 230,000 tons with an avg grade of .6 oz gold per ton. Shares in the mining company that year paid a 12 cent dividend and the boom years were on. The Bridge River Townsite became a boom town at the head of a new gold era in B.C. The gold in provincial coffers helped to inspire international investment in the power project as Bralorne needed power to keep the gold operation running.
The Transmission line to Vancouver is carried over 130 miles of rugged mountain and swampy muskeg country on 699 steel towers, averaging 60 ft. in height, each containing 10 to 20 tons of galvanized steel. Each tower carries three cables strung 26 ft. apart on 10 ft. hanging insulators. Over 400 miles of cable, one inch thick, weighing nearly 1100 tons, and 46,000 insulators went into this job.
Read Vancouver Sun article (Nov 1 1948) first paragraph “Here in the breathtaking Bridge River…” & 2nd last paragraph “Mr. Downton….”
Read excerpts of official speech from B.C. Electric Family Post Nov 1948 “Additional Power to Give New Impetus to Expansion of B.C.”….
The hydro tower service road was described as a “little bit scary in places” by Doug Clarke of Surrey who travelled the road in a semi-traile in 1964 hauling a pre-fabricated house. “The detours were a little narrow and the dual wheels were riding over the edges. We were very glad to see Pemberton”. Our Tale on August 18th will further explore the legacy of the initial hydro tote road and how it became Hwy 99 in modern times. We have very few pictures of this era and are seeking more pictures of early travel on this road.
“No words or pictures can describe the immensity of the Bridge River project, or illustrate the difficulties of a small army of men who battled terrain and elements to finish the task on time. There was only one single mountainous road leading to the Mission Dam site…over which equipment, supplies and man power had to be transported continually. No one has mentioned the divers who went down under soupy clay… to pump the clay cores into the base of the dam. The men who clung to the side of the mountain stringing and linking giant penstocks; and the ones who ran the machinery up the steep face to put them there. The exact engineering that enabled crews to tunnel from each side, …and meet inside at a precise measurement. The almost impossible task of erecting towers on craggy cliffs, …where there was no road to work from…and the dangers involved in stringing the giant cable on these towers, stringing it on and on, over mountains and across canyons. There were bad accidents and a considerable number of men lost their lives, so that we might have power.” Irene Edwards, Short Portage to Lillooet, 1977.
The Bridge River Hydro Project was a powerhouse for the province of B.C. in terms of revenue generation. Expenditures by BC Electric in the 20s through to the 50s ensured Bralorne mines had an unlimited supply of power which in turn led to a steady supply of gold into government coffers. The scope and breadth of the system was groundbreaking and there were many delegations from many countries over the decades who came to view the potential of large scale hydro electric projects. Though the project was very successful there were some adverse consequences. Despite some mitigation efforts, the salmon fishery on the Bridge River was ruined after the flooding of the Bridge River and the creation of Downton and Carpenter Lakes and their erratic ebbs and flows as dictated by hydro demands to the south. This has had long standing impacts on First Nation communities that depended on this fishery. Also, the historic gold rush town of Minto City envisioned and constructed by Big Bill Davidson of Bridge River was razed and flooded. At low water the faint outline of the town and its streets can still be seen emerging in the sand flats. Minto was also a Japanese Interment camp in the 1940s but sadly all physical evidence of this town are now under the waters of Carpenter Lake.
The Bridge River Powerhouses have a maximum generating capacity of 480 MW and an average generating capability of 2670 GWh per year - more than enough to supply the City of Surrey.
Lillooet News 2014: BC Hydro’s plans for its power systems in the Lillooet area could provide a significant boost to the area’s economy. The power corporation has already announced a variety of projects to upgrade its Bridge River system. According to Simi Heer of Hydro’s media relations department, the value of those projects ranges from $1 million to $60 million. But those projects are only the beginning of extensive, multi-year plans to recapitalize the infrastructure in the aging Bridge River hydro-electric power system, which supplies approximately eight per cent of the province’s power. Hydro has previously said that Units 5 and 6 in the second power house at Bridge River have to be rehabilitated or replaced because some of the equipment at the power station is 60 years old. “The idea would be to ensure the units can run at full capacity,” said Heer. Ray Stevens, B.C. Hydro’s director of coastal operations, was reluctant to attach a specific figure to the number of possible new jobs associated with the recapitalization. Rumours circulating in Lillooet say up to 400 new jobs could be created….. In anticipation of the ramp-up of work at Bridge River, in 2011 Hydro built 10 new quadruplex crew housing units at the site to provide accommodation for construction crews. - See more at: http://www.lillooetnews.net/news/local-news/bc-hydro-ramps-up-plans-to-upgrade-bridge-river-system-1.1052769#sthash.1VX787V0
As of 2014 BC Hydro’s stated earnings as per its Annual Report were: Revenues after regulatory transfers for the year were $5,392 million ($5 billion, 392 million), $494 million higher than the prior year due to higher domestic revenues of $281 million due to higher average customer rates and higher trade revenues of $213 million due to higher electricity and gas prices. Net Income was $549 million which was $40 million above 2013 due to higher domestic revenues from higher electrical prices. Capital Expenditures were $2036 million (2 billion, 36 million), a $107 million increase over prior year. BC Hydro will continue to invest to refurbish its aging infrastructure and build new assets for future growth.
An interesting connection between the Pemberton Museum and the Bridge River project is that Marjore Gimse who was the 1st museum president was also the granddaughter of Geoffery Downton. BC Hydro funded a big component of our Transportation Exhibit developed last year and provided many of the images used in this presentation as well as in the exhibit. A field trip to the power plant at Seton last fall led to the loan of a few artifacts from BC Hydro that are on display in the exhibit this summer. The Bridge River Project, despite its humble beginnings, had a huge impact on the local area as well as the Province – it saved the PGE in the 20s, created over 1100 jobs in the 40s, established the early road beds that became Hwy 99 and has continued to earn revenues for B.C. throughout its history. The Project was a powerhouse for the province in its early years and provided a foundation for growth and prosperity. Hydro generation continues to be a huge economic driver in B.C. to this day.
The Bridge River – The Powerhouse Project
1912-1947 – Initial Concept
1920s – Project saves the P.G.E.
1933 – The King Vein Strike in Bralorne
1940’s – The Transmission Line Project
1948 – Opening Day
1950s – The Hydro Tote Road
Yesterday & Today: So That We Could Have
Bridge River Project Saves PGE – 1920’s Initial