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Report of a Journey of Survey, from Victoria to Fort Alexander, via North Bentinck Arm

From the above descriptions I trust you will be able to form your own opinions on the feasibility of a route from North Bentinck Arm to the Fraser. It but remains for me briefly to sum up the various advantages and disadvantages which the report is intended to illustrate, and to submit them respectfully for your consideration.

Apart from the questions of sea or river transport, the actual amount of land travel from North Bentinck Arm to the mouth of Quesnel river compares favourably with that by the other routes which at present conduct the trade to Cariboo. Quesnel is undoubtedly the point to which a line of road from the Slide would be directed, inasmuch as, at a cost of about 10 miles more land travel, a point forty miles nearer to the mines than Alexander is would be reached,* and since it is highly probable that an improved road from North Bentinck Arm to Quesnel would not exceed 240 miles in length, it and Lillooet may be considered as approximately equidistant to Cariboo. The country under discussion also presents many features favourable to road-making, such as the generally easy gradients, small timber, scarcity of brushwood and comparative absence of rock in situ.

On the other hand, the formidable slides in the valley of the Atnarko, the number and extent of the swamps on the plateau and the small size of the timber (which, though favourable in one respect, is a serious drawback where much corduroying and bridging are required) are obstacles deserving attention.

But, in discussing the practicability of a projected highway of commerce to an extensive and populous gold region, the graver questions of soil and pasturage claim attentive consideration, and in these two highly important respects it is impossible to speak favourably of the Bentinck Arm route.

You will have gleaned from a perusal of the report that the country traversed after leaving the Bella Coola valley is excessively sterile and unproductive, and usually destitute of interesting and attractive features. I cannot say that I passed on the entire journey a single tract of land likely to afford encouragement to settlers, though perhaps, as a desperate resource, it might be possible to reclaim at consider outlay portions of the swamp lands which, it can scarcely be doubted, possess properties of productiveness.

Again you will have noticed that the fifth section of the journey, 50 miles in extent, is the only portion that affords good bunch-grass pasturage. On the remainder there is either no feed at all, or merely the poor innutritive grass that prevails in elevated, thickly-wooded lands. Indian horses can and do subsist, and even work and keep fat on this food, but practical men will bear me out in the assertion that it is not sufficiently nourishing for mules and horses foreign to the country.

It may be urged that natural feed along a route is a comparatively unimportant item, for already we learn that the magnificent pasturage which skirts the roads from Lillooet and Lytton northward is not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the rapidly increasing Cariboo traffic, and can no longer be depended on as the sole subsistence for the animals. But these roads pass through favoured and highly productive districts, where civilization is steadily on the increase, and where active steps are now being taken to grow barley and other cereals in quantities sufficient to meet the increasing demand; it is found that, in the sheltered valleys east of the Fraser, the soil which yields an abundance of rich, luxuriant grass can be turned to improved account by the growth of more substantial and nutritive descriptions of forage.

After what has been written of the country traversed on my journey, it is scarcely necessary to add that the soil of the sterile plateau between the Cascades and the Fraser admits of no resources such as this.

It is the province of the navigator to discuss at length the merits of North Bentinck Arm as a harbour, and to weigh the relative advantages as ports for foreign commerce afforded by it and by Victoria or New Westminster respectively; and the latter question has, in all probability, received ere this the attention of officers of her Majesty's Navy. Apart from these considerations, as well as from the questions of climate and road-making, my own impression is that, viewed simply with reference to land travel, the Bentinck Arm route is, from its high continuous elevation and from the general absence of good soil and pasturage in the districts which it traverses, unlikely, for the present at least, to acquire importance as an arterial highway to the established gold mines of this country.

Bute Inlet appears to possess far greater advantages of geographical position, and we learn from the Admiralty survey that there is a passable anchorage at its head; but, without pausing to consider this question in detail, I will simply observe that the same grave objections of altitude, soil and pasturage which obtain in the case of the North Bentinck Arm route will, in all probability, apply to that from Bute Inlet, since similar and, for a large portion, identical tracts of country are in each case traversed.

Glowing accounts of both have from time to time been received; many men emerge from the obstructive forests of the valleys in the Cascade region and hail with pleasure the sight of open country and grass of any kind, but do not stop to consider the quality of the pasture or to study the reproductive powers of the soil that yields it. Similarly, the tides and winds of the ocean are matters which do not occupy general attention; the casual traveller arrives at North Bentinck Arm, and pronounces it a splendid land-locked harbour, easy of access, without, perhaps, bestowing a thought upon the difficulties of his recent voyage, or inquiring the depth of the water which surrounds him.

Partly to causes such as these, and, in a great measure, to the forgetfulness and, perhaps, the careless remarks of men who have travelled without pausing to make notes of their journey may be attributed the highly favourable impressions of the coast route prevalent last summer in Cariboo and industriously kept afloat by interested people, and, since the general idea in the upper country seems to be that but one highway to the mines can ever prove remunerative to those settled on it, there have been engendered a wavering and unsettled state of the public mind, and a general disinclination to settle or to invest property on the routes already in full operation that have had any but a beneficial effect on the country.

Hence it is inferred that a truthful report on the North Bentinck Arm trail will have some effect in settling a public question of importance, and I therefore hasten to submit this paper as likely to throw light on the matter.

At an early date I trust to have the honour of forwarding a report of my subsequent reconnaissances of the Cariboo and other districts of British Columbia.

I have the honour to be,
Sir,
Your most obedient servant,
HENRY SPENCER PALMER,
Lieut. Royal Engineers.

*An impression has hitherto been prevalent that the valley of Swift river presents a favourable communication from the Fraser to the present Cariboo mines, and that, therefore, a road from the coast should be directed to its mouth; I have ascertained that the mouth of Quesnel river deserves the preference with regard both to its geographical position and to the character of the of the [sic] country to be subsequently traversed.

Source: , , , Henry Spencer Palmer, "Report of a Journey of Survey, from Victoria to Fort Alexander, via North Bentinck Arm," 1863, 26-30.

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