- British Columbia by the Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape by Ben Bradley
In this thoughtful and deeply researched book, Ben Bradley explores the ways that car culture – and the vast infrastructure on which it depended – remade the landscapes of British Columbia’s interior in the period from the end of the Great War to the early 1970s. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the region had few roads and highways connecting British Columbia’s coastal population to the remote, mountainous, and thinly populated interior. With each new highway, motorists gained the freedom to explore the region’s mountains, valleys, and plateaus, allowing them both to commune with nature and to imagine a frontier past. Because of its difficulty and expense, road building became an important marker of state power, and “the extent and condition of a province or state’s network of roads came to be widely interpreted as a barometer of its modernity” (3).
Precisely because there were so few highways in the region, however, the picturesque drives that motorists interpreted as freedom borne from an open road actually took place within real constraints. “Everyone saw more or less the same thing, regardless of what kind of vehicle they were in,” Bradley writes. “They were all seeing the same landscapes, even if their readings of such shared experiences might be various” (11). In one of the key insights of this book, Bradley extends this point to argue that the government did not just build roads; it also carefully constructed roadsides as important places in and of themselves. It was almost exclusively “by the road,” Bradley argues, that motorists encountered the landscape of the bc interior. Attending to what did and did not appear there, and to what motorists could and could not see, thus became as much a part of the state-building and state-defining process – as much “a barometer of its modernity” – as road building itself. Roads were not just the material expression of state power, then, but they were also “province-building devices in the cultural sense” (231). [End Page 128]
To illustrate the significance of this point, Bradley devotes four chapters each to the two most important roadside features that received the government’s attention: “nature” (primarily in the form of parks) and “the past” (primarily in the form of historic sites and markers). In an unusual twist, Bradley instructs readers to “begin with whichever part most interests you, for they are intended to be read in any order” (12).
Following Route A, readers learn about two provincial parks, each connected to an important highway-building endeavour. The Hope-Princeton Highway connected the two towns via Allison Pass, creating a scenic motoring route across the Cascade Mountains, and set the stage for the creation of Manning Provincial Park. By carefully cultivating the route’s scenic qualities – while managing the aesthetic challenges posed by growing traffic, the ravages of forest fires, and the ugly consequences of mining and timber-harvesting operations – government agencies made Manning into “a crown jewel of the park system” (64). Officials had less success, on the other hand, with Hamber Provincial Park, whose fate was linked to the poorly conceived Big Bend Highway, a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that traced the path of the Columbia River. Doomed by low construction standards, slow speeds, a roundabout route, and monotonous forest scenery, the highway did not draw the motorists. As a result, Hamber never became a popular park, leaving it “open to incursions by industrial resource extraction and megaproject schemes” (89), especially after the Trans-Canada Highway abandoned the Big Bend route in favour of a new path across Rogers Pass in 1962.
In marked contrast to their efforts along Route A, where officials took pains to screen motorists from seeing industrial resource extraction at work, along Route B both state and non-state actors seized on traces of the province’s older extractive activities – including the fur trade, gold rushes, old...