McSnowWriter's Pamphlet

A journey around the fringes of Canada

Chapter 99 – Temple Frederick Sinclair


The following biography of my Great Grandfather, written in circa 1912, was extracted from:  


Biographical Illustrated, Vol. 4, Page 834  


by Judge Harvey and Schofield Provincial Archivist 


The life work of Temple Frederick Sinclair has not only been of the greatest significance to British Columbia, but his activities have extended to Alaska and the Middle West, where he also successfully solved intricate eng1neering problems as path and road-builder, and as railroad construction engineer. He has done eminent work in opening Northwestern Canada to civilization, building road beds across mountain passes which for many years defied the most audacious efforts of engineers, and guiding the shining rails across rivers and through tunnels to their destination. He has designed harbour projects and executed them in half the time specified for the purpose, corrected, narrowed and deepened river beds and has been instrumental in opening to navigation such important streams as the Fraser and Columbia.  

In later days he has executed many great sewers, sanitary and water systems in various cities of British Columbia, and is now engaged along these lines in New Westminster, where he makes his home.  

Setting forth from Scotland as a youth of twenty, he has met, like the faring knights of old, adventure, but has achieved deeds which overshadowed any valorous exploits they might have done, for he created and realized projects of practical value which have proven a boon to thousands, rounding out a career in which romance and success strangely mingle. His life record equals a tale which rivals the most vivid fiction.  

Travelling the trail for hundreds of miles, accompanied only by Indians, he brought succor to the suffering and dying and food to the starving. In the great mine discoveries he led the van of the thousands in search of fortune and blazed their trail. He is now considered one of the foremost engineers and builders of his time on the coast. A man whose experience has brought him a national reputation and whose name ranks with the Empire -builders of the West…. A man whose record would prove an inspiration and incitement to every youth as an example of what can be attained when ambition and energy lead the way.  

Temple Frederick Sinclair was born February 3rd, 1853 in Dunbeath, Caithness Shire, Scotland, a son of Temple Frederick Sinclair and Margaret (Finlayson) Sinclair, both natives of that country, now deceased. He was educated in the common schools of his native land and early took up railroad work, doing surveying and contracting under James Ross, who now enjoys an international reputation as the celebrated builder of Montreal. 

The attraction of Canada held out in her undeveloped possibilities exerted a strong influence upon his imagination, and when 21 years of age he decided to throw in his fortune with the development of the Dominion and came to Toronto with two others, the late John Carr and C. Dickinson. He set out for British Columbia in April, 1874, expecting to join the surveyors of the Canadian Pacific in this district, but when they reached their destination they found that all the parties had already been made up. For a time he had to content himself with any work that came to hand and about the middle of June, came to New Westminster with A.J. McClelland as foreman of his grading gang, the latter having a contract from the Provincial Government for about 16 miles of what is now known as the “New Westminster and Yale Road” from Langley to Mount Lehman, being the outlet of the Cariboo Road. Before this, however, he had already done work in the vicinity of the spot where now stands Vancouver, there being no settlement there at that time. After the work in New Westminster district had been completed he proceeded to Victoria, where he worked for a time on street grading and then on the 8th of November 1874, he left on the steamer “Otter” for the Cassiar mining district, where the news of the rich diggings in the region reached Victoria. After a stormy passage he landed at Fort Wrangel, Alaska, on the 14th of November, remaining there for a few days in preparation for the long trip up the Stikine River.

The party consisted of about 300 members and the distance to be made from the mouth of the river to Dease Creek was about 300 miles. As dog teams were not known in those days, each had to haul his own sledge, which was no easy matter as the sleighs were loaded with a weight of from 250 to 300 lbs. As it was of no use for a man not able to draw that weight to start on the trip, there were only 250 members left in the party when the beginning was made, some of whom attempted to draw as much as 500 lbs. During the first 15 miles many provisions and tools were abandoned, and as Mr. Sinclair expressed it, “Enough of a load was thrown off to fill a freight train.” When 40 miles of the journey was completed, 80 percent of the party had returned to the starting point, and only about 12 per cent succeeded in reaching their destination, the party consisting of about twenty members when Dease Creek was reached on December 27th. All were joyful at the successful completion of the trip, which ended at a place named Laketown, where a rest of several days was made. There they celebrated the incoming of the New Year, making as jolly an occasion of the event as a small place which contained three or four hundred people permitted. The place consisted of one hotel, three or four restaurants and five bar rooms, all the buildings being constructed of round logs as there was an abundance of good timber for such purposes close at hand. The price of a drink was according to measure, fifty cents to one dollar, and the restaurateurs on an equal basis fixing their prices according to the amount a man would eat. In the language of an old Missourian who kept an eating place there, a snack was one dollar, a meal two dollars, and a gorge three dollars.  

On about the 4th of January, two men of a party of thirty-five who had left in the fall to prospect for some mines that were supposed to be discovered two years previous by MacCulloch and Tibbet, came from upper Liard River about four hundred and fifty miles further north, and reported that their partners had scurvy and that if no volunteer would go to their aid at once with medicine they would not recover. At first several had volunteered to go, including Sinclair, but after all the medicine such as “lime juice”, potatoes and rum was collected by the Gold Commissioner, there were only two left, one of them being our subject, and as Mr. Sinclair would rather go alone, not being favourably impressed with the other man, it was he who set forth accompanied by three Indians, to bring help to the sufferers whose lives depended on his successful accomplishment of 450 miles of travel on snow shoes.  

We resume the narrative in his own words as follows: “The distance I undertook to travel was over 450 miles, and figuring the return trip, to about 900 miles in all. The whole journey had to be made on snow shoes in a temperature which was so low that the mercury in the thermometer was frozen in Laketown when we started, and about a third of the distance, or 125 mile, two of my Indians left me as the hauling and snow-shoeing was too hard and turned back. The other Indian, belonging to the Skeena tribe, remained with me and during the next day we made a cache, storing all our surplus provisions and anything we could possibly spare outside the medicine. On the fourth day after the Indians had left me near the junction of the Dease and the upper Liard Rivers, we saw in the afternoon a man coming toward us hauling a sleigh which seemed heavily loaded. He was tall and a strong man, yet he was pulling the sleigh with difficulty, and when he came upon us he told us that on the sled he carried his partner who had been taken with scurvy. He told us that he came from Delores, from the upper Liard River, and that he had brought his partner who was very sick all the way. I suggested to him to halt and camp there for the night, and we started a good fire, and getting some brush together warmed up the sick man and helped his partner to take him off the sleigh and giving him some lime juice and potatoes, and made him eat these raw with their skins on, which is claimed to be the proper thing to do for people sick with scurvy – before lying down for the night. I also gave him some hot rum and next morning when he awoke he felt better. We also left the two men some medicine and enough provisions to take them to McDames Creek, which was nearer than Laketown, and they reached the former safely. Bill Haley was the man hauling the sleigh and his partner was named Dan Campbell. The former belonged to Nova Scotia’s Haley family, and he left the Cassiar country in 1880 coming to Yale and proceeding from Yale to Langley where he remained for some years. Subsequently he went to the Kootenay district, coming later to Revelstoke, where he died in 1911. He would always be coming to see me when I was in Revelstoke. While there I heard that Campbell went to Alaska, and I subsequently heard of his being there, though I have never seen him, and I am sure that if he had known where I was he would have hunted me up.”  

“On the 26th of February, 1875, I arrived at the main camp where I found three quarters of the men ill. I distributed my supply of medicine and rested there for five days, beginning my return trip to Laketown on the 3rd of March. The hauling was lighter and consequently good distance covered, and I reached Laketown the last day of March. My snowshoes however, were all used up and though I had them twice re-felted and my last pair of moccasins (of which I used up four pair) were gone, and I had my feet wrapped in cloth – not a comfortable mode of traveling during the March days in those climes. I remained in the Cassiar district until 1878, or four seasons, my efforts being tended by varied success, doing mining during the warm months and whipsawing lumber during the winters. The men in the diggings were jacks of all trades as they hew and build and make their way everywhere comfortably.”  

In 1878 Mr. Sinclair returned to Victoria, engaging in work as foreman for Thomas Spence, one of the Cariboo road-builders. One of the remarkable feats he performed at that time was the removal of a great sunken rock in Victoria harbour, known as “Beaver Rock” which had long been a menace to navigation. It was named after the famous pioneer steamer “Beaver” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which sank upon it. Thomas Spence, for whom Mr. Sinclair was at that time engaged in work, was a foremost road and bridge builder of his time, and Spence’s Bridge, for which he had to contract, was named after him. To blow up Beaver Rock Mr. Sinclair sank a shaft from the surface running in three small chambers, but being afraid to use too much powder, the explosion did not prove a success and compressed air was then used for removing the rock, this being the first time that compressed air was used on the North Pacific Coast for such a purpose.  

In 1879 the news of gold discoveries in the State of Washington reached Mr. Sinclair and he snow-shoed to that State and to the claims. The winter was very severe and in the spring of 1880 a great rush was on in the upper Skagit where rich finds had been reported. Thousands were expected to make their way there from Victoria and New Westminster, and as they wanted to travel by the route of the Fraser River and Hope instead of Seattle, Mr. Sinclair was delegated by the government to inspect and report on the advisability of a road being built. His report was to the effect that the road from New Westminster was better than that from Seattle. Leaving Victoria he took under consideration the project of building a narrow road from the old sapper trail 23 miles from Hope to the boundary line and made an approximate estimate of the cost. When in Hope there were 500 men there waiting to break the trail, and after Mr. Sinclair secured the help of two Indians to haul his sledge he set out to break the trail on good snowshoes, and after three days from Hope landed at a place on the Skagit which was named Steamboat Landing, and located about 5 miles from the boundary line. He then sent back his Indians and was joined by three other men whom it took three weeks to make their way from Hope. One of them had been wounded, so his partners left him there as he could not return with them. At midnight eight famished men came up the Skagit from Seattle and their experience made Mr. Sinclair afraid to return that way, while the way to Hope was covered by a deep snowfall. Having no good snowshoes and their provisions running low, they were soon in a starving condition, but by good luck that evening a band of deer came up the river on the opposite side, and Mr. Sinclair secured one of the deer, of which the party made a feast. The next day they built a raft and floated down the Skagit five miles, lost and built four more before they arrived at Ruby Creek, about thirty-five miles from the boundary line. There they stayed two weeks and put in a few sluices, but as they found that the creek would not yield sufficient gold, sold the claim. Mr. Sinclair then located on a place which he thought at that time would turn out a real bonanza, but did not come up to expectations. Returning to Hope in the Spring he then secured the help of eight men to cut out the trail from Twenty-Three Mile Post on Skagit River to the boundary line, a distance of some thirty miles. His pack trains had been waiting for him with his provisions when he arrived in Hope, and they closely followed him on the trail, all assisting in making bridges which were generally constructed on one log with additional ones on each side, some spans being ninety feet in length. The road was intended for pack mules and splendidly served its purpose. Returning to Hope Mr. Sinclair found awaiting him a letter from an old friend, J.B. Harrison, from Yale, asking him to proceed there by first boat in order to take charge of a construction gang, and in that way Mr. Sinclair joined the Canadian Pacific contractors under Andrew Onderdonk.  

This gentleman at that time had charge of the building operations of the Canadian Pacific in the British Columbia territory and it was he who broke the first tunnel from Yale. Mr. Onderdonk was backed by a strong syndicate of capitalists including such well-known men as Morton Bliss, D.O. Mill Read and other New York millionaires. Mr. Sinclair remained in Mr. Onderdonk’s employ for nearly three years, doing much work in the Fraser Canyon, J.H. Cambie being engineer in charge. Mr. Onderdonk had the contract for the road to Port Moody and Mr. Sinclair was entrusted with doing the dangerous work of dynamiting and heavy tunneling of that section. From Yale Mr. Sinclair was ordered to Spence’s Bridge and worked from there west to the Thompson River. Mr. MacLeod was engineer in charge on this division and on the main line of the Canadian Pacific eight miles east of Lytton, known as the “Jaws of Death”. It was proposed to build a tunnel about twelve hundred feet in length, but at that time the cost of building the road had run to such a high figure that the government was doing all in its power to reduce expenses.  

Under Major Rogers, report was made to Van Horne that the road could be built with a grade of about 2% on a southern route, but it was found that the grade would be 5 to 5½ %. The road had then been built that far and a stop to operations meant ruin to the Canadian Pacific. For a time operations ceased but the government then guaranteed them twenty-five million dollars in bonds and the Canadian Pacific returned in lieu thereof twenty-five million acres of land. Under these conditions it was decided to reduce expenses by shortening the tunnel so as to run it nearer to the edge of the bluff. This proved a mistake however, as the retaining walls proved too thin. Mr. Sinclair the proposed a plan of blasting off a side of the bluff instead of tunneling and to do this a short tunnel was cut under the almost perpendicular cliff by Mr. Sinclair, the tunnel being 200 feet, and then was charged with explosives to equal about thirty tons of black powder and the whole face was blown away, displacing about 80,000 tons of rock. This was probably the largest blast ever set off in British Columbia, although a similar charge was used by Mr. Sinclair in the State of Washington in 1891 when the Northern Pacific planned a ferry to Vancouver Island, and in order to build a breakwater and a harbour at Port Crescent, he had to blow down a bluff to form a breakwater about 2,000 feet from shore. 

Mr. Sinclair often humorously remarked that it took Mr. MacLeod, the engineer in charge, a long time to forgive him for blowing the only tunnel on his section into the Thompson River.  

It is now 28 years since this construction work on the Canadian Pacific was completed, yet, though advancement in engineering methods has been steady, no improvement could have been made in doing this work. In 1883 Mr. Sinclair began contracting for the C.P.R. at the crossing of the Fraser River, where the first cantilever bridge in the world was built. The idea for this bridge was found in B.C. and taken from an old Indian structure which crossed Bridge River above Lillooet. This work was done in connection with Mr. Onderdonk.  

In the fall of 1883 Mr. Sinclair took a contract from the federal Government to clear obstructions and rock from the Cottonwood Canyon in order to improve navigation on the Fraser River, and successfully carried out this project to the entire satisfaction of the Federal Government, completing the work on March 4th, 1884. He then again engaged in contract work with the C.P.R. for a distance of ten miles from Savonas Ferry along Kamloops lake to Cherry Creek. He also had another contract from the Canadian Pacific at this time, building the road from Shuswap Station to Salmon Arm, a distance of 33 miles.  

When Mr. Sinclair took over the Shuswap contract, twelve months were allowed him for its completion, but when beginning the work at Salmon Arm he was notified that he would have to bring his task to an end within eight months, and that he succeeded in doing. This construction stands as evidence of his ability and energy, he earning thereby high commendation from the Canadian Pacific officials and Mr. Onderdonk. Twenty-two hundred men were used to complete this enterprise in the shortened period of time. The thankfulness of the Canadian Pacific officials however, was but short-lived, for when Major Rogers, who took over the work for the railroad was about to return his final estimate, he would not allow proper classifications and repudiated part of the contract. A long drawn-out legal fight then resulted, being carried on in the Provincial and other courts for five years, but finally the Canadian Pacific lost out. The legal costs ensuing from the litigation amounted to $50,000. Mr. Sinclair, however, was allowed all his claims, the court recognizing the justness of his cause. Major Rogers was one o f the characters in the history of the surveys and construction of the C.P.R., both he and Marcus Smith being widely known throughout all the camps of the Northwest, their picturesqueness and whimsical humor often bringing diversity to the monotonous life of the construction camps.  

Mr. Sinclair then took a rest from his onerous labours and returned to Scotland to visit his father and the places of his youth, but in a few months returned to British Columbia, engaging in contracting for the Dominion Government. In 1886 and 1887 he deepened the Fraser River – in 1887 and 1888 he connected the headwater of the Columbia with those of the Kootenay River by means of a canal 1 ¾ miles in length, built with a lock 30 by 120 feet and known as the Canal Flats. It was intended to make it possible for the steamers to go from Golden, B.C., straight through to Jennings, Montana, but the cost of this improvement was so great that the Government desisted from expending any more money on the project, although boats were enabled to go in the open season from Golden to Windermere Lake as a result of the engineering work done by Mr. Sinclair. From east Kootenay, Mr. Sinclair then made a trip from Groman up the Kootenay River to the east bank and ascended to Summit, and pressing over the mountain pass came out at what is now known as Kannask Pass. After a few days rest he then proceeded on horseback from Cochrane Point to Calgary. Returning, he the entered the mountains north of the route which he had taken near Canmore, passing through the territory which was then entirely unknown and passing by a pass, which he named “Cross of Whitman’s” pass, coming to what is known as Vermillion Pass and Creek to the Columbia River and to Sinclair Creek and pass, named after him. Later he there wintered his horses for some time and yet regrets that he did not purchase the place, as subsequently a valuable sulphur spring was found thereon.  

In September, 1887, he began to build by orders of the Federal Government the first mattresses made of brush and intended to close the South Channel, as it was then known, near the mouth of the Fraser River opposite Steveston, the size of the large mattresses being 125 feet by 6 ½ or 7 feet, these being transported there on scows and put in place and sunk with rocks. These brush mattresses were the first ever used on the Pacific Coast.  

Mr. Sinclair continued in Government employment of that character until 1893, with the exception of one year, and while doing work on Fraser River made his headquarters at New Westminster.  

At this time Victoria had no harbour, the boats landing at Esquimalt, and Mr. Sinclair took charge of the construction of the outer docks at Victoria for R.R.Rithet & Co. and completed the work in 1892. This was the largest harbour improvement undertaken at that time by private parties in British Columbia, its cost amounting to nearly $300,000. It saved great expense, as the deep draught vessels coming to Victoria had to discharge cargo at Esquimalt, whence it was transported by lighters to its destination. The dock wall rests on a concrete and rock foundation and extends 6 feet above the high water mark. It was built of large blocks of sandstone and cement, the submerged material being put in place by divers who had to work in three-hour shifts to put 18,000 yards of masonry down. It took sixteen months to put down the heavy stones which weighed from 6 to 10 tons each, and even the heaviest gales have not affected this wonderful work. Many engineers at that time doubted the feasibility of the project, but the confidence reposed in his ability brought it to realization. It was Sir Joseph Trutch, a famous engineer and the man who had charge of most of the railroad work in that part of Canada, who recommended Mr. Sinclair for the work. The harbour improvements were completed in 1892 and are today as stanch and solid as the day they were built.  

In 1893 Mr. Sinclair removed to Chicago where his reputation had preceded him, and took charge of the work of the first long tunnel built under the lake. It extended four miles and was accomplished by means of a plan of working known as a box heading, instead of a shield. The engineers and contractor, Mr. A.Onderdonk, had considerable trouble on account of what they called “expanding clay”, and for this difficulty had given up the work, which was completed by Mr. Sinclair, although serious obstacles had to be overcome, but the wide experience and knowledge which he had gained in his varied labours in British Columbia in the early years stood him in good stead and he was able to complete the work in 14 months, a labour which was estimated by the engineers to consume two and a half years. Mr. Sinclair remained in Chicago, taking contract work in partnership with Ross Brothers, to build a north side tunnel of 2 ½ miles and to connect it with the old short tunnel 1 ½ miles out in the lake. In 1897, however, he left Chicago, returning to B.C. in order to join the expedition for Skagway, Alaska but instead of going into the Klondike he made his way westward to the Copper River country. There he helped in work on a proposed road, and on the 26th of October,1897 reached Schola Pass, north of Mount St. Elias. Heavy snow storms however, drove the party back to the coast. He then returned to New Westminster; with Mr. Onderdonk went to Ottawa to get a charter for the MacKenzie and Mann contract, but found that this matter had been disposed of in a different way than they had planned. In the spring of 1898 Mr. Sinclair again proceeded to Dawson, Alaska, making his way from Skagway to Labarge to the gold fields at a time when 40,000 people were on the march to the fields. When in Skagway Mr. Sinclair became aware of a plot to rob one of the bankers, who was expected to come through there with a large amount of money. Sopey Smith, an outlaw who, with his gang of robbers held full sway of the passes from Saltwater to Summit, in which latter place the Northwest Mounted Police took charge at that time, levied a tribute from everyone passing. It was he who laid the plan to rob the banker, and this man happened to arrive in the very hotel where the gang was holding out. Mr. Sinclair warned the intended victim and assisted him in his escape overnight to the summit of White Pass. The following summer Sopey Smith was killed in a brawl.  

In 1901, 1902 and 1903 Mr. Sinclair built roads at Dawson for the Yukon Government, and also built about 15 miles of railroad inland from Yukon run to the coal (gold) mines. This was the furthermost northern road then built, it was in the latitude of 65°40’.  

Mr. Sinclair then returned to Vancouver where he made his work until 1912. Four years he devoted his attention to municipal contracts, installing sewage systems and building septic tanks at Fairview, Grandview and other places.  

In 1907 he completed the sanitary system in Kamloops, and in 1909 was engaged in similar work in Revelstoke, where he remained until 1911, in order to provide a water supply. He then removed to New Westminster, where he had a contract with the city for a new sewerage system and has since made that city his home.  

In October 1912 he completed a second contract with the city and still has two agreements with the municipality, running one for a sewer improvement and the other for providing rock for the harbour. He also has a contract for building the jetty at the mouth of the Fraser River, and though he is not alone in this deal and the agreement was made by a company, he will have to carry out the work as a responsible backer of the enterprise.  

On 1st March, 1883, Mr. Sinclair was united in marriage with Miss Theresa Loring of Lytton, B.C., who passed away (out of his life) leaving four children: Margaret, the wife of Allen Sanderson of Vancouver; Jessie, who married Samuel Rose of Vancouver; Mary, the wife of N. McLeod, an engineer of Steveston; and Frederick, who is employed with the C.P.R. at North Bend.  

In 1905 Mr. Sinclair was again married, his second union being with Mrs. Marie Kemp Sampson, a daughter of Jacob Kemp of Suffolk County, England, and the widow of John Sampson. By her first marriage she became the mother of one child, Olive Sampson, who made her home with Mr. And Mrs. Sinclair.  

Public-spirited and progressive, Mr. Sinclair takes a deep interest in all public questions, although he has but once actively participated in politics, serving as Reeve of Maple Ridge, B.C. Since the 80’s he has been a member of Vancouver Quadra No. 2, and is a charter member of New Westminster Club. He also affiliates with the Masons, being a member of the Blue Lodge and Chapter of Victoria.  

There is little to add in conclusion, for his life record gives ample evidence of the importance of his labours. The work he has done has brought millions of dollars and thousands of people to this region and it is to pioneers of his character, ability and indomitable perseverance that Northwestern Canada and particularly British Columbia is largely indebted for its present prosperous conditions.





One comment on “Chapter 99 – Temple Frederick Sinclair

  1. Frank Hastings
    August 20, 2013

    Hi Brian,
    I am descended from TF Sinclair’s 4th daughter, Georgina. I have lots of genealogy to share if you are interested.

    Frank Hastings

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2007 by in 13.0 - T.F. Sinclair.
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