January 15, 2006
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen and welcome to this informal celebration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first passenger train from Edmonton to Dawson Creek.
Before talking to you briefly about the Northern Alberta Railways and its part in Dawson Creek’s history, I would like to extend a special welcome to former employees of the railway who have joined us here today. I’m also pleased to see members of our City Council here and representatives of the Dawson Creek Heritage Commission.
Also, I would like to thank the organizing committee for this celebration. Led by our Curator, Anne Haycock, the committee of Historical Society members has made all the arrangements for today’s event and I thank them for that.
Now, then, a bit of the story of the N.A.R. and our town.
Many of us here today have fond memories of the sounds and smells of the old steam locomotives as they sat waiting in the station or passed by our small towns on their way to the exciting world far away. Railways were a very important part of the settlement story of western Canada and our own Peace region was no exception.
Peace River settlers’ dreams of prosperous homesteads and farms were soon followed by dreams of towns, roads and railways. Access to distant markets was absolutely essential if a grain farmer was to prosper and the railways needed a product to haul back to the east after unloading manufactured goods from Ontario. In the case of the Peace River area, railway surveyors had been here many years before the settlers — as early as 1872 — when the CPR was looking for a suitable route to the Pacific. While the federal government had accepted British Columbia’s demand for a transcontinental railway as the price for joining Canada, nobody knew if there was a practical corridor through the Rocky Mountains.
The very first railway survey party through the Peace was jointly led by Charles Horetzky, a civil engineer and surveyor and by noted botanist John Macoun. It’s significant that the railway was just as interested in determining the climate and agricultural potential of the area as it was in sketching out a route for the railway. After all, railways are in the business of hauling freight and passengers to make money. George Mercer Dawson’s explorations through the Peace in 1879 added more information and generated more interest in the region. Although not a surveyor for the railway, Dawson’s expert geological descriptions were of importance to the CPR’s plans.
One of the CPR’s possible routes, and one which excited much interest in the north, pictured the transcontinental railway going west from Winnipeg through Fort Saskatchewan to St. Albert, past Lac Ste. Anne to Whitecourt, on from there to the Grande Prairie area and then through either the Pine Pass or the Peace River Pass to the Pacific coast. Vancouver was an insignificant little sawmill town at the time and several other, more northern harbours were considered for the western terminus. The CPR did not, of course, choose this northern route for the first transcontinental line, but the dream remained in the minds of northerners.
For nearly seventy-five years the N.A.R. Station has stood at the head of 10th Street, a very visible reminder to us of why Dawson Creek is where it is. It was, of course, the arrival of the Northern Alberta Railways track in December of 1930 that prompted the town to move from its earlier location near today’s Newby Park on 108th Avenue.
Settlement on the fertile lands around present day Pouce Coupe and Rolla began in the spring of 1912 and by 1914 the hamlet of Rolla had a Post Office and showed signs of becoming an important centre.
The first railway specifically intended to serve the northern part of Alberta was the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, chartered in 1907. Its mandate and routing were a bit vague – it was to begin in Edmonton, pass near Dunvegan and follow some unspecified rivers to Fort George [Prince George]. When construction actually began, the railway split at McLennan with the southern branch reaching Spirit River in 1915, much to the delight of settlers pouring into the Rolla area, just 50 miles west. The railway grade was soon extended thirty miles west toward the Pouce Coupe Prairie, trestle bridges built and ties laid on part of the roadbed. Rolla was, in the mind of its citizens, destined to be the commercial capital of the BC Peace. But Alberta provincial politics and World War I took over and the railway retreated to Rycroft and headed south to the little town of Grande Prairie, arriving there in 1916.
The construction of the rail link to Rolla was completely abandoned and the ties removed, although the trestles were left in place. The roadbed, incomplete as it was, became a major grain-hauling route — the Spirit River Trail — as farmers in the Rolla area took advantage of the relatively easy access to elevators in Spirit River. It took only a week to make the return journey in winter.
The railway ended at Grande Prairie until 1918 but was extended to Wembley in 1924 and to Hythe in 1928. Most farmers in the BC Peace abandoned the Spirit River Trail at this point and began hauling their grain to Hythe. By this time, a road network of sorts was in place and trucks were rapidly replacing horse-drawn wagons in the hauling business. The Edmonton, Dunvegan & British Columbia railway, along with other unprofitable or “never built” lines was combined into the Northern Alberta Railways Company in 1929 under the Canadian National Railway banner and further extension of the line to British Columbia led to much speculation about the route and the terminus. Rolla lay on the route of a proposed future link to Fort St John while Pouce Coupe was on the existing, surveyed right of way and a well-established centre.
It was the railway’s intention to make Pouce Coupe its terminal but the cost of land and the need for large areas of flat land led the company six miles further west and to the north side of Dawson Creek itself by way of a long trestle. The rails did not go to the existing village of Dawson Creek but to Duncan McKellar’s oat field which became the “end of steel” and the site of the present City of Dawson Creek.
On January 29, 1930 old-timers Mrs. Fred Chase and Mr. Frank De Wetter drove the last spike and Dawson Creek became the end of the line for the railway. Pioneer businesses like the Co-Op, Harper’s Store and the Dawson Creek Hotel simply moved their buildings to the new town site.
On January 15, 1931 the first passenger trains on the new N.A.R. extension arrived from Alberta. Notable guests on the V.I.P. train that day included Alberta’s Lieutenant-Governor Dr. William Egbert, John Callaghan and other N.A.R. dignitaries as well as officials from the C.N.R. and C.P.R. and representatives of various Boards of Trade and newspapers. Regular train service, both for passengers and freight, began at that time and the N.A.R. remained the only rail link with the rest of the country until 1958 when the Pacific Great Eastern finally reached here from Prince George.
Before the Second World War, Dawson Creek was a major grain-shipping point – even in world terms – and First Avenue was lined with grain elevators and agricultural service businesses. Passenger trains rattled back and forth between Dawson Creek and Edmonton and when construction on the Alaska Highway began in 1942, our location at the end of steel put us in the spotlight. Thousands of American troops and unknown tons of equipment and supplies arrived by train, quickly disappearing into the temporary camps and warehouses west of the little town or up the highway leading to Whitehorse.
The modern ways of moving freight eventually caught up with the N.A.R. and led to its decline as trucking companies took over much of the freight business. The last steam locomotive left Dawson Creek in May of 1960 and the last passenger train pulled out of the station in June of 1974. Few people were willing to spend 26 hours on a train going to Edmonton when the trip took less than 8 hours by car.
We tend to forget that the N.A.R. was, in its time, absolutely critical to the growth and development of Dawson Creek and the whole B.C. Peace. Without the rail connection to and from Alberta and the grain elevators beside the tracks, the grain growing potential of the area would have gone unrealized and Dawson Creek would never have become a major grain-shipping point. Without the railway and Dawson Creek’s position at the end of the line, the Alaska Highway would have started somewhere else. There would be no Mile Zero Post downtown and no thriving tourist industry catering to Alaska Highway traffic in the summer.
While the N.A.R. no longer exists as a separate company and Dawson Creek is no longer dependent on road and rail links to Alberta, the legacy is still there for us to enjoy, remember and celebrate. The N.A.R. stations in both Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek are museums now but only the one in Dawson Creek is in its original location. Trains still rumble past several times a day and, in the summer, visitors often dash out onto the platform just to see the trains go by.
It’s that railway heritage and our historic links to Alberta that we are celebrating today, here in the original 1931 Northern Alberta Railways station. I hope you enjoy your visit today to Dawson Creek’s only official heritage building.
Please visit with our guests, wander about the Museum and enjoy the refreshments out in the Waiting Room of the original station building.
G.R. Clare, President
South Peace Historical Society