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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.