The Squamish Project of Walter Moberly

Walter Moberly's Squamish Project was a railway route from Burrard Inlet up Seymour Creek, down the Stawamus River and northward through Squamish and the Cheakamus valleys.

By Eric Andersen
Published: Feb. 25, 2012

Over the past century and a half, most of the attempts to make a Grand Project of Squamish have involved proposals for, or construction or use of a railway.

 A neglected Squamish Project story is that of explorer and civil engineer Walter Moberly and his plans for a railway to the north through our valley.

Since his boyhood in Ontario, Walter Moberly (born 1832, England; died 1915, Vancouver) was obsessed with visions of transcontinental roads and railways – “the Northwest Passage by land”. In Moberly’s own estimation, he ranked with Captain Vancouver, Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser as explorer of the Northwest Passage.

Walter Moberly is most often remembered for his 1865 discovery of the Eagle Pass route through the Monashee Mountains between Shuswap Lake and Revelstoke, where the “Last Spike” for the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven.

In a 2003 biography, Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock House) historian Daphne Sleigh gives overdue attention to this important Canadian surveyor, engineer and pathfinder:

“No other explorer had covered so many routes throughout the province in those early days – the Harrison-Lillooet route, Pitt Lake, the Fraser Canyon, the Squamish-Cheakamus area, the Dewdney Trail, Shuswap Lake, Eagle Pass in the Gold Range, passes in the Selkirks, Howse Pass and the Athabasca and Yellowhead Passes in the Rockies. His determination and endurance were phenomenal. His idealism in the pursuit of his dream was unique.”

Walter Moberly explored the Squamish and Cheakamus valleys in the Fall of 1859. He and travelling companion Robert Burnaby were not the first European or Gold Rush explorers of this area, and this ancient Coast Salish – Interior Salish “Grease Trail” route. However, their visit here is the best documented, in several interesting, entertaining accounts by Moberly.

Moberly’s real significance for Squamish history – his Squamish Project – was his promotion, through the last two decades of his life, of a railway route from Burrard Inlet up Seymour Creek, down the Stawamus River and northward through Squamish and the Cheakamus valleys.

Moberly's proposed railway route to Newport

Seymour Creek-Stawamus River route was, of course, another ancient trail – once known by early settlers as the “Moodyville Trail”. Moberly’s railway proposals for this route were not the first, but his promoting of these schemes was the most persistent, passionate and influential.

Moberly wrote several accounts of his 1859 visit here, some with interesting details of an eventful but enjoyable stay in a “very friendly” village of the Squamish people, on the lower Cheakamus River. From his book, The Rocks and Rivers of British Columbia (London, 1885):

“Shortly after the sale of the lots I left the Government service and went to explore Burrard Inlet for coal, &c. Mr. Robert Burnaby, formerly private secretary to Colonel Moody, accompanying me with a few men. We spent some time there, and

were for a short time in the position of hostages with the Indians.

…Learning from the Indians that gold had been discovered up the Squamish River, which empties into the head of Howe Sound, and prompted by a desire to see as much of the country as possible, Burnaby and I left our men to prosecute the work of sinking shafts, while we made a trip up the sound and river. The shores of Howe Sound we found sterile and barren, and the current in the Squamish River strong.

At the point where the Jeakniss [Cheakamus] River forms a junction with the Squamish River we left our canoe in charge of a young Indian chief, and crossing a portage obtained a small canoe for our journey up the lesser stream. At the juncture of the rivers was a large settlement of Indians, probably 2,500 in number, with several of the large Indian houses, and at the upper end of the portage lay a smaller village.

We went some distance up stream with the canoe, where the water getting shallow and very swift we pushed forward on foot, reaching at nightfall the place where the gold was supposed to be. One of the Indians pointed out with great satisfaction a prospecting hole about eight feet in depth, and a blazed tree with some writing on it. The writing on the tree was the work of some miners who had prospected the river the year before, and it informed us that they had been quite unsuccessful. We had a good laugh and camped, then retraced our steps, made our friend the Indian chief a present and ran back to Burrard Inlet.

The timber along the river was very fine and wild berries plentiful. At this spot I met an old acquaintance. Hearing the sound of an axe a short distance in the woods I went there and found a large, powerful Indian, who at once put his axe down, and came up and gave me a kiss on the forehead, shaking my hand in a most hearty manner. I could not at first understand what it was all about until he pulled out a curious dirk-knife, which I remembered giving an Indian, with some other articles, when I was at Westminster the year before. He made me a present of some dried bear’s meat, and I gave him a piece of tobacco. Always give a present to an Indian if he gives you one, for he expects it.”

In another account written after 1900, Moberly elaborates further on this first visit, which coincided with a large run of spawning pink salmon:

“At that time the river presented the appearance of being almost blocked in the shallow places with innumerable salmon. A person to have a correct idea of how numerous the salmon were at that time, before the exterminating traps that the whiteman’s civilization has introduced into the country, would have to see and not only read about the “runs” of salmon on their way to their spawning grounds. Black bears were numerous in this valley and much valuable timber for commercial purposes was seen by us but our quest for gold was unsuccessful.

When we could get the canoe no further up the river we proceeded on foot until I found that a good line for a railway could be got through the Cascade range of mountains by the valley I had followed but its course would be too northerly for the transcontinental railway I wanted to get.”

In his Early History of the C.P.R. Road (1909):

“We explored the country around Burrard Inlet, and then along the easterly shore of Howe Sound and up the valleys of the Squamish and Cheakamis Rivers, and ascertained that a favorable line for a wagon road or railway could be obtained as far as we went, but as it was not in the direction for the western section of the transcontinental railway I wanted to get a line for, I did not explore up the Cheakamis River beyond the 50th parallel of latitude.”

After years mostly spent in B.C. Interior road building, transcontinental railway surveying, and a lengthy stay in Winnipeg working as engineer and architect, Walter Moberly returned to Vancouver in 1898.

This return, and a revisiting of the Squamish-Cheakamus valleys route – this time, for a railway line to the north – was prompted by the discovery of gold in the Klondyke. When news of this gold strike broke out in the Summer of 1897, Moberly immediately set about producing a pamphlet, Eight Routes to the Klondyke. Not long after his arrival in Vancouver he had settled on his own preferred rail route to the Yukon, and organized a company, the Vancouver, Northern & Yukon Railway Company.

It was granted a charter by the provincial government on February 27, 1899, to build a railway “running in a northerly direction by way of Seymour Creek, or the most feasible route, to the Squamish Valley; thence by the most feasible route through the Pemberton Meadows to Lillooet …to the northern boundary of the Province.”

Among a number of prominent backers from the city business community, Moberly was supported by John Hendry (B.C. Mills, Timber & Trading Co.) and, interestingly, a few businessmen with longstanding interests in northern Howe Sound and the Squamish Valley – notably William Shannon.

Timber magnate John Hendry had led earlier initiatives toward building a railway to the north. His Vancouver, Northern, Peace River & Alaska Railway venture was incorporated 1891 with a charter (since lapsed) over the same route.

Junction of Squamish and Cheakamus rivers - where in 1859 Walter Moberly stayed in a friendly Squamish village of 2,500 people.

Walter Moberly, V, N&Y Ry Chief Engineer and energetic lobbyist, in one of many letters to the provincial government outlining the project’s rationale, explained:

“On the first section, extending from Vancouver to Lillooet, a distance of 150 miles, the proposed railway will pass through a country where the timber is of great value for commercial purposes and it is of a fine growth. It has been estimated by men acquainted with the district that the Squamisht and Jeakamis valleys embrace enough good land to support an agricultural population of several thousand. The Pemberton Meadows, the upper Lillooet river and other adjacent valleys are estimated as capable of supporting an agricultural population of upwards of 25,000 people.” (May 16th, 1899)

As the Klondyke gold rush excitement died away after a few years, the economic development advantages of this railway route concept that came to be more emphasized in Moberly’s thinking and promotional activities were those closer to home – with the development of Britannia mines, and increasing numbers of settlers in our nearby region.

As a candidate for a Conservative party nomination for the 1906 provincial election, Walter Moberly expounded on the railway proposal:

“This railway which I am now trying to get constructed to the valley of the Squamisht will render the extensive agricultural, timber and other resources of the valleys of the Squamisht, the Cheakamisht rivers and the Pemberton meadows tributary to Vancouver, what is of the very greatest importance will enable the enormous deposits of copper-gold ores that are situated on, and adjoining the valleys of Seymour, Furry and Stammis Creeks and the Indian river to be worked advantageously…”

Moberly was unsuccessful in his nomination campaign for the riding of Vancouver, but his railway corridor proposals and ideas were nonetheless topical during the election – not least in Squamish. At an all-candidates’ meeting held on January 2, 1906, even the candidate for the opposing Liberal party, J.W. Weart, appealed to the Squamish audience:

“ ‘…isolated settlements for years without a road, such as exists at Pemberton Meadows, where all the machinery and supplies entering that valley through the Squamish must be packed in on either the backs of the settlers or on horses. … the 2300 foot wharf – which is the acknowledged white elephant of the government – has cost the province upwards of thirty thousand dollars, and is now and always will be unfit for traffic unless properly constructed. Why could not the government, if they had such large sums of money to spend before the election, use that money in the construction of a light electric tramway from the Squamish to Pemberton giving access to and from that part of the country?’ (Applause).” (Vancouver World)

In 1909, Walter Moberly, together with lawyer F.C. Wade, engineer H.M. Burwell, and C.T. Dunbar organized the Vancouver and Northern Railway Company. Wade would be a close friend and supporter of Moberly in his later years; while C.T. Dunbar had extensive timber holdings in the Mamquam River valley he wished to develop with railway transportation. The company proposed to collaborate with the Howe Sound, Pemberton Valley & Northern Ry, interests who were establishing the townsite of Newport and planning railway construction in the valley, with a charter granted in1907.

On August 20, 1909, The Province newspaper reported:

“In a memorial which will shortly be presented to Victoria, the promoters of the Vancouver & Northern, the proposed 25-mile electric Burrard Inlet to Squamish line, will ask the provincial government to guarantee the interest in its bonds. …

“The charter, granted at the last session of the Legislature provides for a connection at Squamish, or Newport as the settlement at the head of Howe Sound is now called, with the Howe Sound, Pemberton Valley & Northern, whose preliminary work has already reached Lillooet Lake. Each will have running rights over the other’s line, together affording another railway for Vancouver.

“ ‘Together they will bring to Vancouver the trade and produce of the rich Pemberton Valley and the timber and ore of the mineral belt stretching from the Britannia mines on Howe Sound to the head of the North Arm of Burrard Inlet,’ said Walter Moberly, who is one of the promoters of the line. ‘There is also another important feature. It will make available for Vancouver the ample and wholesome waters of the Cheakamus River as an additional service for domestic use or as a waterpower.’

“Although the proposed line is but 25 miles in length its estimated cost is between $2,500,000 and $3,000,000. This indicates engineering difficulties. There are some. The chief is just beyond Loch Lomond, about 20 miles north of the Inlet. Here, the highest point between the sea level and Pemberton Valley, the land rises to 3200 feet. This will necessitate about three miles of tunneling at a cost of over $1,000,000.

“Easy grades and construction are predicted throughout the rest of the route. From this tunnel branch tunnels are proposed wherever the ore belt promises richest results. A mining engineer has already favourably reported upon this belt of low grade gold and copper ore.

“ ‘Through this tunnel also could be piped the waters of the Cheakamus,’ Mr. Moberly explained.


“ ‘Why,’ he concluded, ‘it is nothing with as great a city like this and a growing province, compared with that project of history, the Cariboo wagon road, when there were hardly 10,000 white people in the province and hardly a dollar in the provincial treasury. Sir James Douglas, if he were here today, would very quickly support this proposal.’ ”

Moberly explained the tunneling strategy in a 1910 company memorandum:

“…To take this railway over the top of the high ridge, in order to obtain moderate grades would necessitate a very great increase in the distance between Vancouver and Newport. To get over this difficulty and get an almost direct line I propose that a long tunnel – probably 7 or 8 miles in length – should be constructed through the ore belt and cut transversely through it at a great depth below the top of the ore. By adopting this plan a vast body of the ore can be stoped into cars and run down grade cheaply to smelters that can be established at the waters edge at North Vancouver or Newport to which coal from Vancouver Island can be conveyed by water.”

Walter Moberly and his associates were, in the end, unsuccessful in their Seymour Creek-Stawamus, Squamish-Cheakamus railway route ventures. However, Moberly’s tireless promotional work helped to bring about a climate of investment interest in transportation infrastructure and related mining, hydro-electric power, timber and agricultural development in this region.

Moberly’s proposals, ideas and efforts stimulated and influenced the evolving Squamish Project ventures of the Howe Sound & Northern and the Pacific Great Eastern railway interests.


  1. Tim Woodland says:

    Well researched, informative article Eric – thanks.

  2. Francois Leh says:

    Good job Eric. Good read. I hope to see more of your glimpses into history…in the future!

  3. mark says:

    Well-researched article..hope to read more in coming weeks. I can’t wait to get to the $9.5 million fiasco story

  4. Don Patrick says:

    Great article Eric.. just imagine what this place would have been like if we were connected to the lower mainland by rail in the 1920’s. knowing my own families history, Squamish would not be my home town.

  5. Jim Harvey says:

    Thanks Eric. I grew up in Lynn Valley and we used to sneak into the Seymour watershed as kids. I’ve walked a lot of the original trail as far up as Seymour Lake and saw the remnants of homesteaders cabins. I believe for awhile the trail was used to bring cattle over from the Squamish side.