Today’s airways link Grande Prairie with the world in a relatively few hours of easy flying. Today’s modern highways link Grande Prairie with Edmonton and Vancouver in relatively few hours of easy driving. Ink that has written about the Peace River country’s newest chapter in road construction –relocating Highway No. 2 — is still wet.
The memory of settlers’ determination to hack themselves a road through Monkman Pass to the coast is still green and bitter.
But the saga of a pioneer people’s courage and faith in blazing the first dim trail from Edson through unsurveyed wilderness into Peace River Country 45 years ago, is written into the heart of every homesteader who swam his oxen across rivers, wallowed them belly deep through mud, knew the sinister meaning of early trail blizzards, fought summer clouds of mosquitoes or suffered hunger, cold and overwhelming fatigue.
Pioneers of the Athabasca Trail, the long route, met in the summer of 1910 at Lake Saskatoon, then known as Beaverlodge post office, to discuss the feasibility of a shorter route from end of steel into the Peace River country.
Considering Edson as the logical starting point from which to freight in over unmapped country, they formed a committee on the spot to locate such a trail.
The frontiersmen selected O.H. (Rutabaga) Johnson of Beaver Lodge valley, Henry Roberts of Bear Lake and Harry Adair of the Adair Ranch to blaze the new trail.
“Those who attended the meeting contributed $500 apiece to grubstake these men”, remembers V.C. Flint of Beaverlodge.
Some difference of opinion over the route arose so Johnson secured an Indian guide and went over the ground again. This time the route was approved and the government promised to start work on the new, long awaited shortcut. That fall, a start was made on the work and the Edson Trail came into being, shortening the distance to the railroad by 250 miles.
But the trail was a record of mud holes, steep hills, broken axles, winded teams, curses and tears as the great army of land seekers pressed on over its winding course. Many of them were forced to leave household and farm equipment at trailside to lighten the load for exhausted oxen or horses. Here and there, a grave told its own story.
By 1913, the first edition of the Grande Prairie Herald came off the press and carried a demand for roads into the Peace River country. “An agitation is on foot, we are informed”, wrote Editor William C. Pratt, “to have an auto highway built from Edmonton to Vancouver via Tete Jaune Cache and Fort George. The different governments, of course will be asked to foot the bill.”
“We think that if our government at Edmonton will concentrate their efforts to make the road between here and Edson more passable for settlers coming in the summer, that the money would be more wisely expended.”
The first edition also carried an item which read “Church and Weatherly are now operating their own outfits on this end of the mail route which will now make a complete relay of their own stages. It is the intention of this firm to shorten the time between Edson and here to six days this coming summer. This will certainly be a welcome change.”
When summer came, however, the mail contractors were unable to keep to their proposed schedule.
Editor Pratt in his July 1 edition, reported that Mr. Church of Church and Weatherly arrived with the mail Saturday, and quoted the gentleman as declaring, “There is 75 miles of trail between here and Edson that is the worst I ever saw!”
“It’s disgraceful the way the Provincial government at Edmonton is treating this matter. In the spring, early, I was assured that gangs of men would be put on the trail and the road kept in at least passable shape, but instead all they have on the entire route are about 20 men, including bosses, cooks and flunkies.
“Mr. McQuarrie, road superintendent is very anxious to improve road conditions, but officials at Edmonton are acting with absolute indifference.”
“We have 66 horses on the trail and find it impossible to carry out our mail contract on schedule time. In the future we will make an effort to bring through the letters and [registered items] only until conditions change.”
The item in the newspaper had repercussions.
“The article was not condemned in its entirely by those disapproving but we are told that one of its strongest features is impracticable. In order to assist in raising money on Alberta debentures in England and elsewhere the provincial government officials point with great pride to the wonders of Peace River Country. As an inducement to new settlers they advertise a good wagon road into the country with abundance of feed and water, and then present to him a trail that is hardly passable for a pack horse.”
Editor Pratt undertook to acquaint prospective land seekers with conditions they would encounter on the Athabasca and Edson Trails, the only “highways” reaching the vast Peace River country.
“There are two routes,” he wrote. “One via Athabasca Landing and Grouard and the other by Edson on the G.T.P. Railway. The former route is known as the long trail, while the latter is the short cut or mail route.
“The Edson – Grande Prairie trail is 250 miles long; for 70 miles of its length from Edson exceedingly hilly and during the summers … is treated with frequent and heavy rains. In the summer months we should not advise anyone to attempt to bring more than 1500 pounds to a team.”
“By far the most satisfactory way is to pack ponies as one cannot beg, borrow or steal anything in the shape of feed for animals other than nature affords if the voyager knows where to look for it at certain parts of the trail. A casual glance reveals nothing but jack pine and lichens.”
“To those who come afoot, we say be prepared, as you will not be able to buy food with any certainty for 200 miles, but will find a fair share of small game. Artillery should be confined to a .22 calibre rifle as there is very little if any big game encountered on this trail.”
“Winter travel on this trail presents a different aspect. Stopping places are generally to be found at the end of each day’s travel. The trail has been cleared of stumps and siding hills duly looked after. We advise intending incomers to choose the months of February and March because prior to this, snow falls are uncertain and Chinooks liable to be frequent, leaving much bare ground.
“The average load in these months for a good team and the help of a second team on the hills ought to bring in 4,000 pounds. Prices of feed are apt to be exorbitant and it is wise to lighten the load a little and provide against this contingency.”
“Edson, the starting place for this land of promise, will be found possessed of many up-to-date and well-equipped stores capable and prepared to outfit anyone for their journey.”
The press also carried a schedule for the Mail Stage for the convenience of such of the public as cared neither for making the trip by foot nor with their own team.
“Leaves Edson every Tuesday and Friday at 7 a.m.”, explained the advertisement”, and arrives at Grande Prairie on the following Monday and Thursday at 6 p.m.”