Yellowhead Highway pt. 2 – Paving the trail’s history

Before the advent of the automobile, the rail lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railway helped connect Canada from east to west. From the latter half of the 19th century on, the railways transported goods and travelers across the vast plains of Western Canada. In 1917, the GTP and CNoR combined both tracks roughly parallelling each other into one joint route. This route would later become part of a much larger Canadian National Railway network in 1924. Segments of the old Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern lines between Evansburg and Red Pass Junction were abandoned, but will find new life as part of an automobile route between Edmonton and Victoria. Much of the Yellowhead Highway’s route can be traced back to these early rail lines, and have indeed made the construction of the highway much easier with the already established grades.

View of Mt. Robson from the Yellowhead Highway, taken by the author in 2015.

In British Columbia, the number 16 was applied to the highway which would become the Yellowhead in 1942. Built along the route of B.C.’s section of the Canadian National Railway, the highway originally traveled from New Hazelton to Aleza Lake, just north of Prince George.  In 1947, the highway was extended westward to Prince Rupert, and in 1957 the eastern end was re-aligned to end in Prince George. By 1969, the entire highway in B.C. was upgraded and extended further east to the Yellowhead Pass, connecting to Alberta Highway 16. After being commissioned in 1984, B.C. Ferries provide another extension westward of the Yellowhead onto Haida Gwaii.

Yellowhead Trail through Edmonton near the CN Rail Yards. Photo by the City of Edmonton

Using the abandoned right-of-ways from the old rail lines, the Tote Road was completed by 1944. Five years later, the Trans-Canada Highway act was enacted to build and upgrade selected highways to form a nationwide network across Canada. Though the Tote Road was not part of this plan initially, it became eligible for federal funds after the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1957. By this time, the old Tote Road was demolished to build the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline. However, once federal funding became available, the old Tote Road was rebuilt near its old route and completed in 1969.

Map of former Yellowhead Highway alignments through Edmonton.
Approaching Saskatoon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In Saskatchewan, the route’s origins can be traced back to the Red River Trail, a cart dirt trail connecting Fort Gary, Fort Ellice, Fort Calrton, Fort Battlefort, and Fort Pitt. The rail line for the Manitoba and North West Railway (later part of the Canadian Pacific Railway), built in 1907, followed along this trail and connected Saskatoon and Winnipeg. At the same time, Provincial Highway 14 was built along these rail grades. West of Saskatoon, Provincial Highway 5 connected the city to Lloydminster, where it would continue into Alberta as Highway 16. The grading of both the Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk made construction of the roadway much easier.

Map of the Yellowhead Highway through Saskatchewan and Saskatoon old alignments.
Intersection of Portage and Main. U of Manitoba Archives

The Manitoba section of the Yellowhead was known as PTH 4 until 1977, when the highway was renumbered to PTH 16 to match up with the rest of the western provinces into one continuous route. First appearing on maps in 1928, PTH 4 generally followed the CPR line from the Saskatchewan border to Portage la Prairie. When the Yellowhead Highway was constructed, PTH 4 was then renumbered and the Yellowhead name continued cosigned with the Trans-Canada Highway 1 east into Winnipeg. After 1990, the route number 16 was dropped on the cosigned portion with TCH 1, but the Yellowhead name remains on this route where it ends at the corner of Portage and Main St in Winnipeg.

Map of Manitoba’s old Yellowhead Highway alignments

Join us next time as we explore what’s in the future for the Yellowhead Highway, as Edmonton plans to upgrade their section of the highway through town into a full limited access freeway.

Yellowhead Highway pt. 1 – Who is ‘Tay John?’

For those who live in the Western Provinces, the Yellowhead Highway is a vital link between British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Acting as a northern alternative to the Trans-Canada Highway, the Yellowhead provides a 2960 km route from Haida Gwaii to Winnipeg. So, where does the name Yellowhead come from?

The highway was named after the Yellowhead Pass, located in the Canadian Rockies near Jasper, AB and Tête Jaune Cache, B.C. The pass was named after an Iroquois Métis fur trapper and explorer who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company during the 18th and 19th centuries. He was also known to the First Nations people as Pierre Bostonais, as a probable reference to his mixed American heritage. Pierre Bostonais was given the nickname Tête Jaune (lit. “Yellow Head”) by French fur traders, referring to the blond streaks in his hair.

Illustration of Tête Jaune

Tête Jaune led a company of Hudson’s Bay workers through the very pass that would later bear his name during December of 1819. Here he encountered the Secwepemc people and established a cache on the grand fork of the Fraser River, in which the village of Tête Jaune Cache was named after him in 1902. Tragically during 1828, Tête Jaune and his family were killed by the Dunneza tribe in retaliation for encroaching into their territory near the headwaters of the Smoky River.

Though Tête Jaune was only one of many explorers travelling through Western Canada, The Yellowhead Highway seems to be a fitting moniker for the trails that exemplified the reach of the fur trading companies which helped shape the economy and culture of the west.