Plank road image courtesy of Port Clements Museum (http://www.portclementsmuseum.org/index.htm)
By Jen Bailey
As you drive along Highway 16 from Queen Charlotte, you will notice the road hugs the coastline until just past Tlell. There, the highway hooks west into the interior and follows a path nearly arrow-straight, all the way to Port Clements. This part of the highway was affectionately known as the "Mexican Tom Trail".
In 1904, this route was roughly blazed by Eddie Stevens and William Cood from Stewart Bay (in Masset Inlet) to William Thomas Hodges' ranch at Tlell (now home of the Richardson Ranch). William Thomas was better known as "Mexican Tom", which is a story for another day. Shortly thereafter, LT 'Lucky' Watson came from Masset and followed the same route as Cood & Stevens. Upon reaching Tom's cabin in Tlell, Watson remarked to Tom that "It was some journey...they told me in Masset it was a trail." Tom teased him about naming the route 'Watson's New Trail' and Watson responded, "No, by gosh you don't Tom, because I am giving it to you. From now on its going to be known as Mexican Tom Trail."
And like so many things said in jest, the name stuck. Although the trail became widely known and used, no one ever heard of Tom using it himself - he preferred traveling by beach (Kathleen Dalzell's "The Queen Charlotte Islands 1774-1966 Vol. 1").
Surveyed in 1920, the first stage of the highway was built with two 2" by 12" wooden planks - complete with turnouts for passing (on especially difficult sections, the planks were laid side to side instead of end to end). The rule of the road at this time called for the driver closest to the turnout to reverse back - imagine the steady nerves and precision required to avoid falling off the planks and into the muskeg! A car that that floundered off the track tied up traffic until enough wood could be found to rescue it. Shortly thereafter to 'improve' the road, six-inch planks were added to each side. Imagine the heady thrill of achieving a high speed of 20km/hour on these planks! In the 20 odd years of operation, no one was killed or even seriously hurt on this wooden road.
In 1941, the decision was made to grade the road for gravel, and the old planks were taken up section by section - with the work being completed in 1951. In 1966, the route was paved over and widened to such a degree that would make it unrecognizable to those hardy pioneers who first traversed in in hiking boots.
Information provided with kind permission from Kathleen Dalzell's "The Queen Charlotte Islands, 1774-1966 Vol. 1", Harbour Publishing (1989 Edition)