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The word Shalalth (pronounced Sha-LATH and spelled Tsal’álh in St'at'imcets, the Lillooet language) means simply "lake" or, particularly, the lake, meaning Seton Lake, a freshwater fjord stretching twenty miles through a desert canyon westwards from the Fraser River at Lillooet.
At the western end of that lake is a short isthmus of land, beyond which is the similar-sized Anderson Lake and the start of pavement southwestwards through the resort areas of Pemberton and Whistler via the port, railway and logging town of Squamish to Vancouver. Located on the portage is the neighbouring community of Seton Portage, which contains the other main communities of the Seton Lake Band of the St'at'imc Nation plus a mix of residential and resort homes owned by non-natives (pop. 700).
These lakes figured prominently as part of the Douglas Road or "Lakes Route", a series of trails and portages from the head of river navigation from the Coast at Port Douglas on Harrison Lake. During the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, a horde of miners bound for the upper Fraser bars around Lillooet streamed through the valley in the matter of a few weeks. Estimates range from 15,000–30,000 in this migration, although official records of the time suggest there were no more than 5,000 miners active on the upper Fraser at its peak.
During this migration, Shalalth was largely bypassed as the "road" at this point was the waters of Seton Lake offshore from the benches above the lake forming the community. The Lakes Route was near-completely abandoned by the later 1860s due to the construction of the new Cariboo Wagon Road from Yale to the newer Cariboo Goldfields farther north via the lower the Thompson River and the town Ashcroft, where that route branches off from that river via the Bonaparte River.
By the late 19th century, an Oblate mission had been established at Shalalth, which as a result became known as "the Mission", a term which gaves its name to creek coming down from the high mountain pass above, and to that pass and the ridge from there to Lillooet along the north side of Seton Lake.
The steep, switchbacking packtrain route over this pass, 3500' in elevation above the lake, was the easiest route into the upper Bridge River Valley on the north side of the pass, and when that country's immense gold potential began to be increasingly prospected and exploited, the Mission Mountain trail evolved into the Mission Mountain Road, suitable for the first rugged trucks to replacement the old muletrains, although equipment for the mines being was still barged in by lake to Shalalth and then hauled piece-by-piece over the mountain. Then, before engines and freight wagons were brought in (a road along the route of the trail was not built until 1912) equipment and heavy supplies bound for the mines were rafted up the still-flowing Bridge River from a few miles west of the north foot of the pass (in order to avoid rapids and strong currents). Nearly all infrastructure costs for the development of the Mission Mountain Road and the Bridge River Road were born by local citizens, as the government would not invest; the same is true of the "New Road" through the canyon from Terzaghi Dam to Moha.
Survey and construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway along the lakes, completed by 1915, promulgated Shalalth as the "port" for the Bridge River goldfields beyond the pass, and a variety of cartage services and hostelries sprung up at the base of the road, just around the point from The Mission and the core village-area of Shalalth.
The traffic of professionals visiting the mines included Geoffrey Downton, a hydroelectric engineer who was the first to notice the hydroelectric potential resulting from the 1600' difference in elevation between the Bridge River and Seton Lake, which are only narrowly separated by Mission Ridge.
Bridge River Townsite (South Shalalth)
Development of the electrical potential was in full swing by the mid-1920s, with a "model village" erected around the west side of the bay where Shalalth is located, and one of the tunnels piercing the mountainside above completed, but construction came to a halt with the onset of the Great Depression and the collapse of the finances backing the project, and work ground to a halt in 1929. The townsite remained largely empty during the 1930s, although steady traffic to the mines in the Bridge River Country over the mountain kept the hotels busy.
When World War II came, the semi-abandoned village built for the hydro project at the rail stop of South Shalalth, which had gone dormant at the start of the Great Depression and colloquially known as Bridge River, was chosen for one of several relocation centres for Japanese-Canadians from the coast in the Lillooet area. One of the relocatees at Shalalth was Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki, a US-trained osteopathic physician who stayed on after the war and became one of Lillooet's two Companions of the Order of Canada.
Post-War Bridge River townsite
After the war, construction of the hydroelectric project resumed with a vengeance, and along with a new boom in traffic to the mines came a surge in equipment to finish the power project. For the next twenty or twenty-five years, Shalalth became the main transportation hub for the surrounding region, with nearly 24-hour heavy traffic over the pass, either to and from the mines or to the new, expanded damsite just over the pass at the head of the Bridge River Canyon. In addition to lakeside hostelries such as Seton House and Shalalth Lodge at Shalalth itself, a large hotel was built above the hydro townsite's railway station, adjacent to the managers' houses and the semicircle of barracks built for workmen (which had been used for the Japanese relocation, as had the empty houses in the townsite itself). The hotel's guests included not only project-related visitors but businessmen and investors en route over Mission Mountain to visit the Bridge River mines. The hotel sadly burned down around 1949.
During the 1950s, the population of the Bridge River Townsite on Seton Lake and Seton Portage area mushroomed into the thousands, mostly single men as is typical of construction booms but with enough families to boost the schools population into the hundreds. Other hydro townsites were located at Terzaghi Dam in the Bridge River Canyon, at Lajoie, below the site of Lajoie Dam 35 miles upriver, and also caused a building boom in Lillooet, filling in the formerly empty land between the old Main Street and the train station.
Building of the Mission Mountain Road
A medical crisis in Bralorne, the most important of the Bridge River gold towns, at the far upper end of that valley, prompted community efforts to build a road via the Bridge River Canyon directly to Lillooet, which after the hydro project was finished had the effect of reducing the importance of the Mission Mountain Road and therefore also of Shalalth, once the hydro project was completed in 1962.
In recent history, the Seton Lake Indian Band built a new residential subdivision named Ohin, further east than the traditional Shalalth rancherie area (beginning at the base of the Mission Mountain Road to a few coves east). The name Ohin, pronounced OO(kh)win means "frostbite", is a reminder of the bitter cold of the Seton valley in winter. Beyond Ohin the roads peter out towards Lillooet, and travel to the foot of the lake is possible only by rail or water (although fragments of the old cliffside catwalks of the Lillooet Cattle Trail remain in places). There is a private recreational property before the first point, and two isolated reserves on debris fans farther along the lake, all of which are only accessible by water or rail.
Along the lake to Lillooet
The distance from the end of roads in Shalalth and Ohin to roads out of Lillooet is only about 10 miles along the lake, but the cliffside of the lake is too severe to allow any road construction because of the railway – which is already built on trestles. Locals sometimes walk the line, to the disapproval of the railway company. Sections of the old Lillooet Trail catwalks still exist on the cliffs above the rail line but are not safe to use. Mountain goats and sheep remain common on the slopes of Mission Ridge above Shalalth, and particularly along the bluffs around Retaskit and at Seton Beach, at the Lillooet end of the lake.
Because of the obstacle posed by the lakeshore, the Mission Mountain Road remains the valley's only official road contact with the outside world, although the High Line Road to D'Arcy/N'quatqua is serviceable for most vehicles (but not recognized as an official roadway for insurance purposes). Water taxi service is available on Seton Lake, but has no formal schedule or licensed service. Most pleasure craft on the lake are from the Lillooet end.
In the years since, the valley has dwindled into quietude, with the native people once again the majority of the population in the valley, and especially at Shalalth itself. Their local economy is based on a small native-run timber milling outfit and various small businesses, and there is a native-run school dedicated to the preservation and encouragement of St'at'imc culture and the St'at'imcets language.
Regular passenger service to and from neighbouring native communities to the southwest and North Vancouver beyond ended in 2002, but service between Seton Portage and Lillooet (the region's main social and commercial centre) is available through the Kaoham Shuttle. The Rocky Mountaineer, a blue-plate tourism service, also operates along the rail line, but fares are prohibitive and the service only stops locally in Lillooet. Shalalth remains without easy road access to the outside world, the only two routes in and out of the valley being extremely difficult mountain roads – the Mission Mountain Road, and a powerline road along Anderson Lake known as the High-Line Road, leading to the native and recreational community of D'Arcy (N'quatqua) at the farther end of that lake, which connects by regular road to Highway 99 at Mount Currie, and from there to Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish and Vancouver.
|Climate data for Shalalth|
|Record high °C (°F)||16
|Average high °C (°F)||1.1
|Average low °C (°F)||−4.6
|Record low °C (°F)||−26.7
|Average precipitation mm (inches)||78.3
|Source: Environment Canada|
- Short Portage to Lillooet, Irene Edwards, self-published, Lillooet, various editions, out of print.
- Halfway to the Goldfields: A History of Lillooet, Lorraine Harris, Sunfire Books, one edition, out of print. J. J. Douglas (1977) ISBN 0-88894-062-9 ISBN 978-0-88894-062-9