Yellowhead Pass

Feature type: Pass (2)
Province: British Columbia
Location: Alta-BC boundary, NE of Yellowhead Lake
Latitude: 52°53’33”
Longitude: 118°27’50”
NTS map: 83D/16
Official name listed at BC Geographical Names

This pass is named for “Tête Jaune,” Pierre Bostonais (d. 1827), an Iroquois Indian who worked for the North West and Hudson’s Bay fur-trading companies. In 1825, he guided the first party recorded to cross the pass. From 1826 until the 1850s, the pass was occasionally used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to transport leather from the Saskatchewan District to New Caledonia. Despite its low elevation — at 1130 m second only to the Monkman Pass in the Canadian Rockies — and its mildly inclined approaches, it was used only sporadically during the fur trade.The route over the Yellowhead Pass stretched, without intervening posts, for more than 650 km between Jasper House, on the Athabasca River, to Fort George, on the Fraser. “The lengthy and uninterrupted isolation imposed on the brigades along the route, the unreliable navigability of the Athabasca and Fraser rivers, and the unpredictable weather of the usual mid-autumn journey presented problems,” according to historian David Smythe.

The fur traders who used this pass in the first half of the nineteenth century never called it, or any other mountain pass, a pass. They called it a portage. Infrequently called the New Caledonia portage in the letters and journals of the period, the Yellowhead Pass was almost exclusively referred to as the route or portage via Tête Jaune Cache. On a few occasions in the 1820s, the officer in charge of New Caledonia referred to the route as “the Leather track,” encompassing the entire distance between Fort George and Jasper House. After 1860, the pass was also briefly known as the Cowdung Pass, after an early name of Yellowhead Lake. It was also referred to at various times as Leatherhead Pass, Jasper and Jasper House Pass, Tête Jaune and Tête Jaune Cache Pass, Myette Pass and even the Rocky Mountain Pass. The actual English name “Yellowhead” appears to have first been used on an 1859 Arrowsmith map.

Sandford Fleming failed in the 1880s to persuade the Canadian Pacific Railway to follow the route of the Yellowhead Pass, but it was ultimately chosen by both the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway Companies. These were united in the 1920s into the Canadian National Railways, which has continued to use the pass as its main freight route to the Pacific coast. It is also used by Via Rail for passenger traffic between Vancouver, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. As well, the pass is the route of the Yellowhead Highway, which follows the same general route – Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, and on to the coast.

References:

  • Smyth, David. “Some fur trade place names of the Yellowhead Pass: west of the summit to Tête Jaune Cache.” Canoma (journal of the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names) Vol. 11, No. 2 (1985).

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