By Albert (Bert) Martin
In May of 1942 I was hired by the R. Melville Smith Company as a Cat operator along with five other men to unload machinery at the railhead at Dawson Creek. It was our job to unload trainloads of construction equipment for the U.S Army. In our spare time we would service the equipment in readiness for the contractors who would haul it west and north to the different construction camps already setting up. Seven other men were also hired for the same reason. We once unloaded 30 carloads of new Ford Tandem dump trucks from gondola cars, two on each car. We had to build two little bridges between each car because they opened at each end. That took us nearly two days.
The U.S. Army had already moved into Dawson Creek in February. They also had a spur line to the northwest of Dawson Creek in their tent town for unloading mostly new equipment and other supplies for their troops.
Soldiers were shipped in from the USA. Within a day or so these soldiers were shipped north to establish camps of their own. Most of these men were experienced construction workers, surveyors, etc. and bridge builders. They were the ones who built the first road to Fort Nelson and beyond. Private contractors followed behind widening the road, cutting down hills and improving the bridges as they went along. They were anxious to build the preliminary road as quickly as possible before the spring thaw. The original road was built with lots of switchbacks and curves as this would be safer in case the Japanese attacked convoys of trucks on the road.
There was an awful lot of muskeg between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson in permafrost. They quickly learned that clearing the trail and bulldozing the muskeg was the wrong thing to do. They ended up with a quagmire that was impossible to build a road on. They decided to cover the muskeg permafrost with clay, sand, rock and gravel – and anything else that was available – and leave the permafrost without disturbing it. They even corduroyed many of the swampy sections. Much of that highway today is still sitting on permafrost.
The U.S. Army and the contractors did their work well and very quickly. By September of 1942 my friend, Pete Taylor, and I were asked to accompany a convoy of 17 army trucks along with construction workers to set up a new camp at the foot of Summit Mountain, 70 miles north of Fort Nelson. Pete had a highway semi-trailer loaded with a medium-sized Cat and dozer so the construction crew could clear a place to set up camp. I drove a four-wheel drive pusher truck to help him up the hills and through the mud holes. This truck had been built for the desert originally. It had four large wheels like tractor tires. Lots of clearance and a very large bumper in front so I could pull up behind the semi and push him up hills and through the mud holes. There were places where the army trucks would get stuck. I would end up pushing every vehicle through some places. It took us 17 days to get to our destination [about 370 miles in all. We made the return trip to Dawson Creek in four days.
We stayed on with R. Melville Smith until November. By this time most of the construction equipment was in place. Not much work left at Dawson Creek. My boss was asked to set up a maintenance camp about ten miles this side [south of] Fort Nelson. He asked me to go along so I did. The Army had already set up a small camp for us, which consisted of wooden floors and four-foot walls with a tent set up on top of this.
There were only ten of us but we had an excellent cook with us and a bull cook who kept the fires going during the night. It was quite cold up there by this time but we were quite comfortable. We had quite a large outhouse with a wood heater in it. One morning, early, the bull cook lit up the stove for our comfort. After breakfast we came outside to find our outhouse in flames.
Our job was to build quite a large kitchen and sleeping quarters for the truckers hauling freight up the highway. We had a D-8 Cat which we used for skidding in those large building logs. We also used it for towing in broken-down vehicles on the road up to five or six miles from camp. You wouldn’t dare leave a vehicle on the road all night unattended or most of the parts would be gone by morning.
I stayed at this camp for a couple of months or until our new camp was almost finished. I talked to a lot of truckers during this time and they seemed to be making a lot more money than I was. By the way, I was making $1 per hour at that time but we were working 10-hour days including Sundays so it was fair money for those days. I told my boss I was going out to buy a truck and he wished me well. I stopped at that camp many nights when I was trucking. Our cook was still there when I made my last trip up the highway.
I caught a ride back to Dawson Creek with a trucker in late December. Back to Edmonton by train. The Journal advertised a tanker truck for sale – a 1939 Maple Leaf Chevrolet for $3150 owned by Mr. Wing Wong from Haynes, Alberta. The truck was in great shape so I bought it. I never changed the name on the truck door. So I was known as Wing Wong from Haynes.
My first load was kerosene from Edmonton to Dawson Creek. I hauled quite a few loads of aviation fuel to fort Nelson’s airport. Also, an odd load to Watson Lake airport or to other landing strips. Most of all I hauled diesel fuel to various contractors along the way. I was paid $1 per mile for hauling but our truck fuel and oil was supplied free by the Army. Our meals were also free plus a free bed at any contractor’s camp.
It was winter and the roads were good. There were some steep hills and narrow roads but the speed limit was 30 MPH and we were very careful how we drove. The truck was in excellent condition so I had very little or no problems. Coming back empty we did need chains in some places because it was quite often icy. Spring breakup came around May 1st. Then it was a different story. There were many washouts and floods along the way. Often times we would hole up at a camp for a week at a time waiting for roads and bridges to be repaired. While we waited room and board was free so it wasn’t so bad.
One of the big disasters happened that winter of 1942-43. On February 13, 1943 I was unloading fuel at the Fort Nelson airport late in the evening when a plane came in and landed. The pilot came over to where we were and told us Dawson Creek was on fire. It looked like the whole town was wiped out.
I drove back to Dawson Creek the next day, arriving late at night. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Two blocks were completely wiped out and fire was still burning in certain areas. The next day all I could see was a couple of brick chimneys still standing and the old Co-Op store, completely gutted, was still standing but the roof was burned, windows shattered and holes all through the walls. It had been built of cement blocks but all the other buildings were burned to the ground.
I found out that the telephone construction company had rented the old livery stable and was storing all their supplies in this barn. This included dynamite and detonator caps – stored separately but still there. Also, rolls of telephone wire, insulators, etc. for building telephone lines. It seems a fire started in the old hayloft. Perhaps a cigarette butt left by a transient worker on his way through to a job, but who knows for sure.
The dynamite was also burning and the U.S. Army was already there with several tanker trucks of water trying to put out the blaze. However, when the detonator caps got hot enough, she blew up. No one ever knew how many were killed. I heard the figure 17 at one time. This would have been mostly army personnel although our old bull cook from the Melville Smith camp was also a casualty. Apparently he had been watching the fire burn from a block away when it blew up. All this telephone wire was blown all over town. I guess my friend started running in the direction of our old camp but became entangled in the all this wire. He was no doubt on the street and all these tanker trucks coming in with tanks of water never saw him in all the smoke and dust and he was run over. He was quite a big man around 50 at the time. It was very sad. He was always such a jolly, happy fellow.
Within a couple of weeks after the explosion the U.S. Army boys, along with some of the contractors, started cleaning up all the debris left behind. They also helped rebuild the business area and this is what the area was. Believe it or not by May most of these places were rebuilt and back in business. No one will ever forget the huge hole the dynamite blew – it must have been 15 feet deep and 15 or 20 feet long and wide — but eventually it was filled in with rock and clay.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the explosion, there was scarcely a window that wasn’t broken in the entire town. At the liquor store in Pouce Coupe (6 miles away) it toppled liquor bottles off the shelf. Even cracked a window in the front of a building. The first reaction from the people in Dawson Creek was that the Japanese were bombing the town.
These days they wouldn’t be allowed to store dynamite and detonators in the same building – the detonators would have to be sealed in metal boxes at least half a mile away from the dynamite. There were trainloads of dynamite coming into town days on end. Trucks were unloading trains as fast as they could and I suppose, in a boomtown of such magnitude, would close their eyes to dangers that did exist.
About the author: Albert Joseph (Bert) Martin was born in 1920 in the Dapp-Jarvie area of Alberta. Bert worked on the Alaska Highway in 1942 and 1943 as an equipment operator and then ran his own fuel tanker business on the highway until 1945 when he returned to Jarvie and married Gertie Gray. They had three children – Sharon, Maureen and Jim. Between 1945 and his retirement in 1982 Bert farmed, worked as an auctioneer, ran his own real estate business and qualified as a steam engineer. He was an avid hunter, fisherman and camper. Bert Martin passed away in January, 2000.