R.N. There were two trestles on the trail to Spirit River, one at Cache One, and one at Rock Creek. Cache One was the first camp, one day’s drive out of Spirit River, when they were building the trail. On this particular trip we had one hundred and forty-four head of cattle gathered at the old creamery corral. I was “riding point” most of the time; the cattle by this time were trail broke and they would string out nicely. We had to keep them from bunching on the bridge because the trestle was only the width of a railroad tie, with a wheel guard laid on top and a pole thrown in the gaps between the ties, so that the cattle and horses could walk across. When I was up on point, I would catch an old brindle cow, slip my lariat over her horns and lead her two-thirds of the way across the bridge just to keep them goin’ nice and quiet. She was pretty near always in the lead, this old cow.
DHC Did you drive her back and forth for each trip to Spirit River, or was there always a brindle cow along?
R.N. No, she was just along for this particular trip. As I say, I’d take her two-thirds of the way across and slip my rope off, go back and keep them from bunching or getting too many on the bridge at one time. Well, I just got turned around on the bridge and started back. The cattle were still going ahead. Old McLeod (an old trapper that used to run the stopping place at what they called the hay meadow) – he was in one of the old bunkhouses. What I didn’t know, was that he had two Husky dogs. When the cattle got pretty near across the bridge, one of those dogs woke up. They both came galloping down there baying and howling. The cattle all turned around and started back. By this time I was in the middle of the bridge with cattle coming at me from both ways.
DHC And how high up were you?
R.N. About one hundred and eight feet up off the creek (higher than the Peace River bridge above the water). The trestle went straight across from the top of one bank to the other. It was a railroad bridge so the grade was kept level. We were all the rest of the day crossing that bridge! The cattle went down over the bank but they would NOT cross that bridge. If I’d had my 30-30, Mr. McLeod would have had two dead husky dogs, ‘cause I’d have shot them both and been tickled to death to do it. We worked up and down that creek bank to get that one hundred and forty-four head across.
DHC How many men would be on a drive like that?
R.N. There were about eight of us, three wagons and a chuck wagon. We were hauling feed. Two men drove the horses on the wagon and one on the chuck wagon and then we would change off driving the cattle.
DHC As you emptied a wagon, did you send it back?
R.N. No, we strung it out so we could lighten the other loads, because there was an awful lot of muskeg on that trail.
We got to Spirit River on the 24th of May. They had a stockyard that held only one carload of cattle — that would be about twenty-four head, depending on the size of the cattle. Once we had some great big cows that belonged to Henry Hawthorn who raised cattle over on the Saskatoon Creek. He had some about seven or eight years old— he must have kept them for pets! One steer must have weighed 2300 pounds in Edmonton after the trip. He was one of the biggest steers I ever saw in my life.
Every time we would get a carload [rounded up], we’d have to hold the bunch together until we went to get the engineer and brakeman out of a ball game. They would stop the game to move the car so we could load them. We sorted them out on the prairie, put them in the corral then loaded them, all in one day.
DHC Did you have to stay up all night to sing to the cattle?
R.N. No, once we got them bedded down, they were so footsore they stayed unless something spooked them. We kept one man on watch usually. We had a bit of trouble on the odd time. Once we had two bulls and one heifer in season. They’d spend half the night fighting and roaring — we finally had to tie ‘em up to keep ‘em quiet.
DHC It sounds as if that was just hard work. You weren’t really romantic cowboys at all and we didn’t have any Wild West tradition at all.
R.N. When we were holding the herd on the prairie, one bull got into the town of Spirit River and I went after him. I had no trouble finding him; he was shortcutting through everybody’s back yard. Every woman that was hanging clothes or out in the yard would see this big Hereford bull come grumbling. They let out a scream, and I’d know he was over in another alley. After awhile I rode up alongside him and slipped a rope on him to lead him back. He was an old bull that belonged to Lineham with a big TJH brand on him — that was Lineham’s brand at that time.
What I remember mostly was that they had to have the train crew to make a ballgame. I believe that day the game was between Rycroft and Spirit River. On the 24th of May there was still ice, snow and water on the trail. I brought two wagons back from Spirit River. Mr. George Dudley went on into Edmonton with the cattle, also Bud Lineham and Adam Stutz from Kilkerran and Saskatoon Creek who had cattle in the load. I brought back five barrels of coal oil for the Dawson Co-op Union, which was quite a load on that trail at that time. We had to keep the barrels balanced in the middle of the hayrack. We had them tied and chained and everything. At night we stopped right on the road, picketed the horses and slept under the hayrack — we never tried to pull off for anything.
In the summer time I was on the trail with Bill Reasbeck as trail boss. We took a lot from the old town over here, everybody’s — the Russians, Dudley’s, Lineham’s and Reasbeck’s (he had the most in that herd.) We gathered the rest at Pouce Coupe and took them down the old Grande Prairie Trail to Horse Lake, then across on the Sexsmith road. In the summer time the drive went to Sexsmith. In the spring, while the frost was still in the ground we went by Spirit River, because it was quite a bit shorter.
DHC Was that what they called the “Emerson Trail?” I’ve heard about that trail since we came to this country and I think it ended over around Valhalla or Hythe.
R.N. The only part of the old trail I knew of was the old “Whiteman Trail”. That was cut through in the Goldrush in “98” – the old Police Trail. That crossed the Cutbank near where old Mark Devereaux’s stopping place was. The old Whiteman Trail you could still follow up on the divide where the old road to Fort S. John is now, seen coming down to the river. It was said to have angled across through Sunset Prairie and back out, till it got to the Peace River. The crossing was, at that time, where the East Pine comes into the Peace.
DHC That’s where Slim Gooding had his layout?
R.N. Yes, I think it was on the south side of the river. Ed Stewart or Wynn got a chunk when they put the railroad came. They put some cattle in there after they built the railroad. Whiteman Trail came through, where Mile 26 is now, then down to the Peace River.
DHC That trail didn’t come to Dawson Creek. I think, it went out through Shearerdale in the Rolla area. There are two graves on the old Bob Shearer place in the yard near their house. They were said to be Klondiker’s graves but they called THAT the “Edson [Emerson?] Trail”.
R.N. That could be.
DHC I’ve heard that there were many other troubles with the trestles on the Spirit River Road.
R.N. Yes – that episode with the herd wasn’t the only one. I hauled a lot of wheat on that road in winter. We all hauled our wheat to Spirit River in winter in those days. After a Chinook on those ties, the snow would all melt on the bridges and would run through. They’d be left dry. We always traveled in a bunch together. We’d stop at one end of the bridge and carry snow to two or three places so we could stop and “wind” the horses, and then get started again. [Lack of snow] made it awfully hard getting started again. There was no way you could swing your lead team or your wheelers. The horses would have to pull straight ahead.
I remember one time Frank Smolik was a little ahead of us in the morning. He pulled out and went a little too far. He had a nice little pair of roans on the lead. He hadn’t stopped soon enough and the little lead horse was just pulling his heart out. He choked right off and fell into the collar. I saw what was happening and grabbed my scoop shovel, batted one of the wheelers and let a yell out of me. [The wheelers lunged forward] I got enough slack or that horse of Frank’s would have died right there on the bridge before they could have pulled the sleigh up on him.
We’d pull to the middle of the trestle and then start packing from the other end, until we had three or four patches where we could stop and let our horses wind. Especially with a steel-shod sleigh it was awfully heavy pulling.
DHC Those trestles must have been awfully long and high, because of the nature of our valleys — cut very deep, but with eroded and slipping sides making them from a quarter to a half mile high.
R.N. Yes, those trestles were long and high, but very narrow — just the width of a railroad tie. They were like the old highway bridge between Pouce Coupe and Rolla, only that one was planked on the top. That was also a one-way bridge — you couldn’t pass on it, but it was wider, and planked. The [Spirit River Trail] trestles had only ties spiked on (with spaces between). We cut poles and threw them into the spaces between the ties. Some people can remember how we did that — like Emmett Miller at Rolla. There aren’t many left. There’s Norman Little.
DHC Jack Paul hauled wheat over there. He told me that one time he had pulled onto a stretch where two couldn’t pass. A team traveling empty pulled on from the direction in which he was going. I believe they met in the middle. I think his load tipped over. Jack told me that he made a notable oration at that time, because an empty rig was supposed to turn off.
R.N. Somebody must have been asleep because there’s no way our horses, who were accustomed to the trail, would have pulled onto a bridge if another load was on it. Our horses would have pulled off. When we were coming back empty, they would turn off. We had turnoffs on the trail all the way along. They wouldn’t have gone onto a bridge if there was a team on it — they’d be afraid to.
I’ve crossed there with a team on a wagon. If you had put a cigarette paper between two horses – if you’d got it there, they’d have held it there, from one end of the bridge to the other. They’d have been snorting a little bit and watching over the side, as the wagon bounced between every tie, they’d just crowd together in the middle. A sleigh wouldn’t make all the noise as the rig bounced over the ties.
DHC I don’t suppose you’d take a bronc team over there.
R.N. Oh yes! They’d stick right together. The one would push as hard as the other, into the middle. As I say you could put a cigarette paper between them and have it at the other end, because they wouldn’t open up one bit.
Horses were used to it — with a sleigh they’d just travel right along. Those bridges got into pretty bad shape. When the first one was burnt at Rock Creek they blamed it on the settlers from Blueberry Mountain. They (the government) built a good grade around there after it burned. Then the one at Cache One burned down too. So they would build another good road, down one side and up the other for the people from Blueberry, because they did all their shopping in Spirit River.
DHC Thank you Mr. Newby. These stories are relevant to our history because they illustrate some of the price settlers had to pay to get their land. There are not many people around who can tell them so well or remember them so clearly.