by Dorthea Calverley
In 1879 two kinds of surveys were undertaken to assess the feasibility of running the mainline of the Canadian Pacific Railway from the Prairies to the Coast through the Pine Pass. Dr. George Dawson headed a large party which entered from the west through the Pine Valley as far as East Pine. They then travelled up the valley of present-day Coalbrook to its source, then over a low divide into Tremblay Creek which he followed to its confluence with the Kiskatinaw or “Mud” River. After crossing the larger stream, he struck off overland until he came to the small stream now known as Dawson Creek, but first named “Dawson’s Brook” by the engineers H.J. Cambie and H.J.F. McLeod who headed the regular survey party. Dr. Dawson was making another kind of survey or study of all of the features and resources of the country which would or would not supply the tonnage of freight to make the line pay. His report, published in 1881, assessed such things as agriculture, minerals and forest cover.
The engineers, on the other hand, were carrying on the more routine business of measuring and assessing the practical laying of the actual roadbed. Their report is interesting because it gave the proposed routes, and the positions, heights, lengths, and types of bridges necessary to cross the many streams. If their recommendations had been followed, the terminal would have been Prince Rupert and the mainline many miles north of the uneasy Canada-US border, through the lowest, easiest pass across the Rockies. It would have by-passed the incredible snow problems of the Kicking Horse Pass, the Spiral Tunnels and the terrible hazards of the Fraser Canyon. Other considerations — largely political — took the route through the dangerous and infinitely more expensive route it follows today.
This was not the first of the many railway surveys in our area, but certainly it was the most important. Dr. Dawson’s report and that of the engineers were circulated all over the North America and in many parts of the Old World. It was thirty years before any railroad came north, and fifty before the Northern Alberta Railway reached the British Columbia Peace River Block. It was then another twenty-eight years before the Pacific Great Eastern linked-up with the N.A.R. at Dawson Creek. This completed the right-of-way to the Coast at Squamish and finally to a major terminal at North Vancouver.
The crossing of Seventeenth Street and the railway in Dawson Creek is an unmarked, but significant “historic event” that occurred without any fanfare whatever when a small gap between the P.G.E. and N.A.R. was closed.
The first projected route for the Canadian Pacific mainline was from Winnipeg to Fort Saskatchewan, twenty miles east of Edmonton, then to St. Albert. It would then continue on to Lac Ste. Anne, then across the Athabasca River at Whitecourt, then northwest to the grande prairie which it would cross via the Wapiti and Beaverlodge Rivers to enter British Columbia. Either the Peace or the Pine Pass would carry it over the summit to the Pacific watershed. We know that the Canadian Pacific actually went far south, nearer to the American-Canadian border through the Kicking Horse Pass.
The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian National Railways had survey parties in this area before 1910. The few settlers were excited about the prospect of being on the second transcontinental route. The Pine, Peace or Wapiti Passes were all apparently more logical than the fourth alternative, the Yellowhead, where the Canadian National Railway from Edmonton to Prince George goes today. It was a race between the G.T.P. and the C.N.R. — both intended to use the Yellowhead Pass. Then a piece of corporation strategy inflicted a cruel hoax on the Peace River People. The directors of the Grand Trunk “let it be known” that they intended to use one of the Peace River Country passes and sent out survey parties. The settlers dreamed of cities at the places where it appeared most likely that crossings of the Smoky River and other major rivers would be located. The townsite of Bezanson was actually laid out in anticipation. Meanwhile a little, quite legitimate, skullduggery was going on back east. The directors of the C.N.R. were convinced that they would have the Yellowhead Pass to themselves, and chuckled over the “mistake” their rivals were making. There was no hurry, they decided, to do the preparatory detailed surveys of the Yellowhead route. Unsuspected, the G.T.P. had survey crews working in the Yellowhead route, and finalizing plans for the right-of-way which they rushed to Ottawa, and had accepted. The C.N.R. and the Peace River people had been hoaxed, but the latter were not left without hope. Surely now the third railroad, the C.N.R. would come north through the potentially rich farmlands of the Peace to exit through one or other of the three well-known passes or the newly discovered Monkman Pass. To them, as to us, it seemed incredible that the two mainlines would go side by side through the Yellowhead sometimes scarcely a stone’s throw apart — but they did.
A canny Indian Chief had made the first cry for a railroad in the Eastern Peace when Treaty No. 8 was being negotiated. He was a man ahead of his time. In the years that followed an incredible number of charters were applied for, and some were granted, but as progress was delayed and delayed again, hopes that had flared at each new rumor flickered out until the next election.
It is recorded that in 1907 the Edmonton, Dunvegan and B.C. Railway was chartered to go “near Dunvegan, then following the rivers to a point near Prince George,” (then known as Fort George). Construction was started in 1912.
A “divisional point” was established by a rather comical accident at McLennan. From there two lines were built, one on the north and the other on the south side of the Peace. Neither passed through the old established points of Grouard or Dunvegan.
The line to the North was incorporated as the “Central Canada Railway” in 1913, and got as far as Peace River Landing by 1916, stopping for a while at Reno at the top of the wide, deep Peace River valley. Here it ended until a combined traffic and rail bridge was built in the old fur trade settlement at the foot of the terrible hill.
Meantime the E.D. & B.C. struck off west from McLennan and made fairly fast progress for 80 miles to Spirit River. Thirty more miles of grade were built, trestle bridges were constructed, and ties were even laid on parts of it, but no rails were ever spiked onto them. The “sleepers” were taken up again, ending any hope of a railway — again. The farmers of the Pouce Coupe Prairie were quick to take advantage of the extremely narrow “road” to ship their produce to Spirit River, which soon found itself marooned on what looked like a “spur track” from a spot on the Spirit River Prairie, known as Rycroft.
A sudden change of plan sent the line south from the Rycroft junction towards the grande prairie towards which the E.D. & B.C. had been chartered to go in the first place. It is alleged that a large corporation that had rich timber reserves in the area persuaded the directors to build a long (and costly) loop to service their holdings. The line reached the present site of Grande Prairie in 1916. The thriving village of Saskatoon Lake picked itself up and moved over to the new townsite. There the railway stopped until 1924.
On the North side of the Peace the other line, having got access by the Peace River bridge to the fairly-well settled prairie beyond, moved forward to Berwyn (23 miles) by 1921, then to Whitelaw (13 miles) by 1924 and then to the Waterhole area (14 miles) in 1928. By-passed by four miles, the busy old village of Waterhole packed up and moved to a new site called Fairview. By 1931, the railway had proceeded to Hines Creek (15 miles), headed in the direction of Fort St. John. The extension to Fort St John was never built and, since railways are losing out to truck lines, it is not likely that the rail hook-up will be made soon.
Alberta Great Waterways Railway had entered the picture in 1919 when they reached Waterways on the Athabasca River. Waterways on the river became Fort McMurray on the railroad, outlet for today’s tar sands development.
In 1916 the Great Northern Railway promised an outlet through to the coast “next year”. The government of Alberta was interested. Surveys were begun, and a charter granted. The Alberta Government guaranteed the bonds. The proposed route was rather obscure — “Onoway to Grande Prairie, thence to Hog Mountain and the Pacific”. At the Pacific end, the Pacific Great Eastern was under construction in 1915, starting at Squamish, north of Vancouver, headed towards the Cariboo.
In 1919 it was announced that the E.D. & B.C. would be built from Grande Prairie to the Coast through the Pine Pass. This would have been effective opposition to the Great Northern plan. Neither would necessarily have come through Dawson Creek, Pouce Coupe, or Rolla. The E.D. & B.C. did, however reach Dawson Creek in 1931, but under another name.
World War I made railroad construction unprofitable, if not almost impossible because of the shortage of steel and other construction materials. The Alberta government chose a bad time to guarantee a railroad. They had to take over some of the lines, but could not make them pay. In fact, many small lines all across Canada got into deep financial difficulty and had to be taken over by the Federal Government under the name of Canadian National Railway. The E.D. and BC railway however, had been making progress toward the BC boundary south of the Peace River. After a pause of eight years at Grande Prairie, it extended to Wembly (15 miles) in 1924, then Hythe (24 miles) in 1928. Spirit River lost much of its trade from the B.C. Peace, but not all of it because of the general bad condition of the Hythe-Pouce Coupe route due to muskegs and some bad hills.
Alberta tried without success to sell its transportation white elephant to each of the transcontinentals. Finally two circumstances favoured extension from Wembly to the Pouce Coupe Prairie. The “Peace River Block” was to be released from the “reserve” imposed by the Federal Government and returned to the province of British Columbia. Also, the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National agreed to take over joint ownership of the confusing tangle of charters and operations.
The terminus of the line occurred by accident. Pouce Coupe was in line with the surveyed right-of-way. Rolla, much bigger, was theoretically in line with the much-desired extension to Fort St. John, although the means of crossing the Peace River seems not have been considered at the time. Pouce Coupe did have a water supply for the steam locomotives and a suitable amount of flat land for a townsite. Sufficient acreage was purchased for that purpose at a reasonable price. Part of it belonged to an early resident, Tom Jamieson.
Meantime, the Great Depression had settled over the land. Money markets dried up. Extension would have to wait again. But an end-of-steel needed a large flat tract for a “Y” or “wye” on which the trains could be turned around to head back towards Edmonton.
The gossip is frequently heard that Tom Jamieson tried to hold out for an unrealistic price for that part of his land that was needed for the townsite. This he emphatically denied, saying he got the same price as everybody else. Some old-timers recount, however, that the dispute really arose over the purchase of land for the “Y”. One story has it that he asked $20,000 for the quarter section — a huge price in those days. The purchasing agent scouted around, and found that Duncan McKellar’s quarter then two miles or more from the cluster of little businesses know as Dawson Creek or Bullenville or “Moonshine City” could be had for $10,000, of which Mr. Jamieson was duly advised. Mr. Jamieson pointed out that a high trestle would be needed over the Dawson Creek. “You can’t build a trestle for $10,000”, he is reported to have said.
But the railway did purchase the land for a wye and a townsite, and they did build a high log trestle over the Dawson Creek valley. They brought their rails to the wide valley floor that Dr. Dawson had so admired, and there they stopped short of the existing hamlet of “Old Dawson Creek”. The grain companies built their elevators as near to the agricultural hinterland as possible. Trade from the rich fields of Rolla began to flow to the new site, to which the businesses that had sprung up a few miles southwest at “Old Dawson” had moved. The railroad blasted out and dyked a huge reservoir for water storage for their locomotives at the southern side of its track. The town supply came from perpetual springs of clear, soft water near the summit of the Bear Hills, up present day 17th Street, and was drawn in to town by horse-pulled tanks.
Pouce Coupe, with the assurance of being end-of-steel, had many permanent-type services, including the government offices, hospital, bank, and liquor store. It had become a smaller rival of Rolla, the older commercial settlement on the road from Lake Saskatoon to Fort St. John, although the deep valley of Dawson Creek lay between, posing a severe transportation problem to horse and motor transport. In an effort to keep commerce flowing to Pouce Coupe, an immensely high trestle was constructed north of the village. People say Tom Jamieson, close to the political party in power of the day, “pulled strings” to get the Highways Department’s assistance. The trestle was in use for some years, — at least until 1936 to the writer’s certain knowledge, but shortly thereafter it was seen to be unsafe due to the shifting nature of the soil at its approaches. It was torn down. Since no such valley occurred between Rolla and the new village, trade was soon drawn to Dawson Creek, while government business still had to be transacted at Pouce Coupe — including access to a liquor store. In fact the last removal from the old Provincial headquarters took place when the Court House and Provincial Building opened in Dawson Creek in 1974.
The resulting forty year interval of tension between Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek is still felt by the older residents, especially of Pouce Coupe, and will likely be so until the “old-timers” are no longer around. It is regrettable that the alleged decision of the railway purchasing agent to defy Tom Jamieson should have divided the communities and held back progress. The conflicting interests, for example, nearly cost Dawson Creek the desperately needed new hospital and the dispute coming perilously close to closing down the Pouce Coupe hospital at the same time. If the conclusion that the decision of the railway was responsible for that situation seems far-fetched to present day residents they did not live in the area at the time of the feud.
We do not have a record of the name of the purchasing agent who flouted the advice of the doughty Scots ex-policeman, the late Tom Jamieson, but he played a larger part in local history — and community psychology — then even he might imagine. Figuratively we are still living in the evening of the day, December 29, 1930, when old-timers, Mrs. Fred (Fanny) Chase and Frank DeWetter drove the “golden spike” on the official opening of the Northern Alberta Railway, the first to penetrate northern British Columbia from the East.
Six months later, on June 3, 1930, Mackenzie King, long-time Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, made an ironic election-oriented promise that “if elected he would have a Peace River Outlet to the Coast within a year.” It was the Provincial government of British Columbia, and another political party that fulfilled that dream, twenty-eight years later, but that’s another story.