Gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest
Great Bear Rainforest Bella Coola

Bella Coola's Freedom Road, The HillFreedom Road – The History of the Hill

bella coola historyBella Coola Hill By Rene Morton, 2003
photos courtesy of the Bella Coola Museum

In a lonely jack pine forest in Tweedsmuir Park, 55 miles from the Pacific Ocean a group of jubilant onlookers stood by two small bulldozers as they pushed aside the last trees and rocks and inched forward to touch blades.  The third outlet to the Pacific was complete.  Against all odds and much public opinion a determined group of volunteers had conquered the mountain pass out of the Bella Coola valley to the Chilcotin plateau, September 26, 1953.

There had always been trails into the valley.  The most famous being the (Eulachon) Grease Trail followed by Alexander Mackenzie on his completion of the first crossing of North America by land, twelve years prior to the more publicised Lewis and Clarke journey of 1805.

In the 1860’s thousands of gold seekers took the ship up the coast to Bella Coola with its long fjord cutting into the Coast Range Mountains.  This shortened the land portion of the journey to the gold fields of the Cariboo.

Lieutenant Palmer of the Royal Engineers surveyed the route for a possible wagon road but the Chilcotin War cast doubt on the wisdom of this route as a government sponsored endeavor.

The arrival in the valley of a group of Norwegians in 1894 added voice to the desire to build a road up the valley, servicing the farms that were being built in the forest clearings and beyond. Then in 1912 the land boom in the Ootsa Lake district northeast of Bella Coola led an English firm to survey a rail route into the valley. With the outbreak of the WWI all resources were withdrawn to fight the battles in Europe. Bella Coola was left on its own again.

before2Finally, in the early 1930?s, the government made a survey for a highway but the known route led through a rocky canyon of such terrifying dimensions that the officials backed off, intimidated by the cost. During WWII expectations arose again.  Expedition Polar Bear arrived in Anahim Lake to build a road to Bella Coola, a route to connect the interior to the coast ­ money was no object. All action ceased when the decision was made that no roads were to be built that were not to be maintained by this unit after completion.In the intervening years, the Valley road had progressed forty-five miles along the lovely level floor beside the river.  Small valley farms raised cattle, grew fruit and garden produce.

New energy arrived in the region including far seeing Alberta schoolteacher, Cliff Kopas. He spearheaded the formation of a Board of Trade & in 1952 informed the Government that, survey or no survey, they were going to build a road. The Government received this startling announcement with a commendable absence of excitement.


The Board of Trade hired a DC6 Caterpillar tractor on the strength of $250 in the bank and a lot of optimism. On September 14,1952 their engineer, Elijah Gurr, pitted his lone tractor against the wilderness miles.

A new route down a 3,000-foot decline had been discovered, and the government was successfully petitioned for $10,000.  Gurr added a TD18 International bulldozer to his equipment and a powder crew to his construction gang.  He had to locate the road over an eight-mile long mountainside and drove himself beyond any normal human limits in doing it, knowing the success of the road depended on him. Despite heavy snow and rain, work went on all winter.  The Government, impressed by the bulldog tenacity of the community that worked by the ?do-it-yourself? pattern, meted out a further $20,000.

When only 2800 feet remained to be blasted and gouged out of the mountainside, the Government regretfully refused more money.  So Bella Coola once more went ahead on its own. The road was completed. Determination had motivated the people to succeed. At that point the government covered the outstanding expenses to the tune of an additional $20,000 bringing the total government investment in the road construction to $50,000.

gatherHillDetermination had won!

For the residents of Bella Coola the Spirit of Determination had built a 42 mile long monument over a mountain and through jackpine for all to travel. The world had watched in awe as this small group of volunteers supported an even smaller group of road builders as they constructed a road through the Coast Range Mountains ­ a challenge the Government had been unable and unwilling to attempt. But Kopas concluded, “If we had our way we would dedicate this victory to some government politicians who had the courage to throw away the red tape machines. Those intuitive officials had sufficient faith in humanity to depart from orthodoxy & give strength to an unknown group of men to build a road so their community might be part of the world.”

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