Golden Miles of History

The Pacific Great Eastern Railway

"There was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run. When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun."

- Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

Construction of the historic Pacific Great Eastern Railway was an epic undertaking vital to the development of 20th Century British Columbia. Promises it would transport endless stands of timber north of Squamish to Howe Sound, open up vast Cariboo ranchlands and join the cross Canada railway system in Prince George fueled a landslide victory in the provincial election of 1912.

Private investors planned the PGE would cross the Fraser River at Lillooet and began construction in two sections – a commuter line serving North & West Vancouver and from the steamship docks at Squamish northward to Clinton. By 1915, the tracks reached Lillooet but bypassed the town by crossing the Fraser on a wooden trestle south of the Seton River.

The wild, remote and rugged Coast Range terrain proved to be "no child's play" to cross and very expensive. Despite fiscal management that could "squeeze a nickel 'til the beaver screamed" and a $10 million loan from the BC government in 1916, the investors defaulted. By 1918, the government owned the PGE. They pushed the rail bed north to Quesnel by 1921 but the dream to reach Prince George became sidetracked.

In 1928, some of the bridges of the North Shore line were condemned and it was abandoned. The PGE infamously became "the railway from nowhere to nowhere" but images of the superlative scenery it traversed in the Saturday Evening Post drew tourists from across the continent.

In 1931, a steel bridge with a 600-foot continuous deck truss span 200 feet above the Fraser River replaced the old wooden trestle. The railbed was re-routed through Lillooet and a two-story train station built to serve the town.

The opening of gold mines in the Bridge River area in 1933 brought a local boom to the PGE. To bridge the road system gap between Lillooet and Shalalth, gas-electric cars sidelined by the closure of the North Shore line were put back into service to tow flat decks loaded with automobiles.

The government earmarked $20 million for PGE development in 1949 and, forty years after it was first planned, the PGE pulled into Prince George in September of 1952.

The missing link between North Vancouver and Squamish was finally blasted along Howe Sound and in the summer of 1956, the first train to travel the whole of the original proposed route passed through Lillooet.

The same year, the first of twelve Budd Cars arrived and the PGE began dedicated passenger service. Barring rock fall, landslides, floods, snowstorms and forest fires, Vancouver was now only five and a half hours from Lillooet.

The next three decades saw the construction of spur lines to several northern towns and the main line pushed northward as far as Fort Nelson. B.C. now had a railway that traversed the province from corner to corner.

In 1972, the PGE was renamed the British Columbia Railway.

A new train station was built in 1986 to serve the public including students from Seton Portage & Shalalth who commuted to school in Lillooet in a dedicated passenger car.

Following the 2001 provincial election, the Budd Cars were sold and their place taken by an excursion train and, between Seton Portage & Lillooet, the Kaoham Shuttle. As the town's only connecting public transit, the Budd Cars are fondly remembered and keenly missed in Lillooet.

The provincial government sold BCR to Canadian National Railway in 2004.

Want to learn more of the epic history of British Columbia? Pick up a map of Lillooet's Golden Miles of History Tour at the Lillooet Museum & Visitor Centre or at participating merchants.