Warren Nelson began his truck driving at the age of sixteen in Kellington, Saskatchewan. He was hauling gas out of Regina for $20.00 a month and he slept in his truck. He was on this gas haul from 1937 to 1942, and it was all done on Saskatchewan’s high gravel grades which also were very narrow. In 1942 he came to Dawson Creek as he had heard of the good wages and the work to be had with the Americans building the Alaska Highway. At the age of 52 he is still doing part of the driving on his fleet, but as he said, “I only go out on the long runs now.”
When he first came to Dawson Creek he hired on with Mackay Construction from Weston Ontario. He told me “when I first started hauling out of Dawson it was on a supply truck and each trip meant lining up two deep down main street and wait till you could get what it was you were after — this was for just everything that you needed. It was nothing to see lines for two or three blocks and then after you got to the store you were lucky if they had what you wanted.” While working for Mackay he was at mile 22 on the Alaska Highway, better known as the Cut Bank. From there they moved up to Mile 463 and this was all related to the construction of the highway.
In the spring of 1943 he went to work for R. Melvill Smith Transportation Contractor from Ontario. He told me “you should have seen the trucks we had to drive. They were four-wheel-drive cab-overs with right hand steering and left handed shifting. The brakes were air over hydraulic and this made them extremely dangerous on the ice. The U.S. Army issued them for the American soldiers but they were not able to handle them so the army put several hundred out on consignment to the Canadian contractors. It was later learned the trucks were built to be used in the desert. It has always given me great pleasure to say I drove them for one year and never had an accident — just a lot of close calls”.
When the Alaska Highway was finished he bought his first truck and began working for Thomas Construction when they were working on the Fort Nelson Airport. “When that job finished in the fall of 1944”, he said, “I moved to Fort St. John and hauled coal from the Packwood mines in Hudson Hope and this went to DOT houses in both Fort St. John and Fort Nelson”.
In the spring of 1945 he sold his truck to Bert Smith Trucking. He drove for Smith Trucking which at that time was hauling coal that came in from the states. This also was for DOT at Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. “In the fall on 1945”, he said, “I quit Smith and drove for Archie Trail on tanker to the fall of 1947. I still had had no accidents, just close shaves. In the fall of 1947 I bought another truck and kept driving for Archie Trail. In January 1948 it was slack so I decided to lengthen my truck on the frame and put on a long deck. Then I went up on the Canal road at Mile 835 Alaska Highway to haul pipe. When the American Army was up there they built a pipeline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse. When they left they left everything in the camps — trucks, heavy equipment, dishes, pool tables — just everything they had in a camp. A firm from the states bought all this and we were hired to haul it all out to Carcross. While I was up there I bought a second truck and then I supplied Petro products into Haines, Alaska.”
In the spring of 1949 and also the summer it was fairly slack and all he did was drive odd trips for Archie Trail. As he said, “it made the grocery money”. Then he decided to trade both trucks off for a 700 GMC and he said, “I bought it in Grimshaw, Alberta, and it was the first one to hit the Dawson Creek area”. The first trip he made with the new truck was for Gordon Wilson from Edmonton to Whitehorse. He went on to tell me that “the weather on this trip was the coldest I have ever driven in — it dropped to 70 degrees below at Lower Post. I left my truck idle all night but in the morning I couldn’t turn a wheel and it took me four hours to warm the rear-end up with a fire going all the time. I was the only truck to pull out the same day. You just couldn’t see the sun for the haze due to the cold.” After a few trips for Alaska Freightlines to Anchorage he traded the big truck in for a 3-ton GMC. There just wasn’t enough work for the big truck. He said, “I could haul nearly as much on the little one, something like 9 ton of freight. With loads like this, I of course did have my problems. One time coming down a long hill at Mile 1050 I hit a frost heave and bent the housing and frame. This didn’t stop me though; I just kept right on going. It was necessary to have the axle welded several times, but I was able to deliver my load on time. In those days it was very important to deliver on time.”
In 1952 he started his own fleet of trucks by buying them from service stations on the Alaska Highway north of Fort Nelson. By 1958 he was operating eight tankers and some semi-trailers and some body jobs. He said, ” at the height of our volume from 1952 to 1958 we serviced 22 service station from Mile 147 to Mile 635 and 8 oil rigs scattered from Mile 137 to Mile 317. Some of these were 200 miles off the Alaska Highway and there were only cat trails to go in on. On spring we had six trucks tied together with a cat on in front. We walked from Old Fort Nelson to Clark Lake some seventeen miles. This was in the early spring and where the sun was shining through, the trucks would break through and the muskeg would roll over the saddle tanks. Coming back we had no trouble at all.”
He went on to tell me that in the years he serviced the service stations on the highway there were no banks in either Fort Nelson or Watson Lake. He said, “we had to carry all the bank deposits to Dawson Creek plus collect for the load for the Oil Co. Each truck would carry at least $3000 in cash and we were never short a nickel and we never had an accident.” He recalls that this was the best group of truck drivers he has ever had. In addition to the banking he built special side boards on his tankers and would pick up to as high as 500 pounds of merchandise for his customers — this was all done free of charge. Mrs. Nelson was responsible for the banking and also for buying the merchandise. He ended this with saying, “this is the period when I think of The Good Old Days and Good Drivers”. He then said, “come to think of it I paid all my wages and bills by cash, my trucker’s wallet held $1500 to $2000 at all times and I never lost a penny”.
In the fall of 1959 he sold his 8 tankers to Canadian Freightways and went on sales, plus traveled for them for three years. In the summer of 1963 he said, ” I bought back part of my old tanker fleet — there was one old Mack and 3 tankers. I also took over some of their contracts. By 1967 we were operating 5 axle diesel trucks”.
One of the most treacherous times he can remember, he said, ” was in the spring of 1966. We were hauling across the Stikine River to Burragh River, 50 miles south of the Stikine. We had to move 100,000 gallons of fuel in before spring break up from Taylor, BC. The last few days crossing the Stikine River ice bridge we traveled in 2 feet of water, finally I had to stay on the south side of the river. The trucks hauled from Taylor to the north side and pumped the fuel across to me through a 400-foot plastic hose. When we finished, I crossed on Easter Sunday April 11, 1966, by this time the water was 3 feet deep. Whirlpools on each side of the ice bridge made the crossing the most dangerous thing I had ever done. The ice bridge went out a few days after I crossed. On that river there was a 15-foot water current and one mile down there are 40 miles of treacherous canyons. I do believe this is one of the most dangerous rivers in the north. On this haul we also crossed on new grades that were 50 degrees washed out by high water and river banks 50 feet deep.”
Till 1966 he operated from Dawson Creek and with the railway going into Fort Nelson he found he had to establish trucks to operate from there to northern points. He still must stand ready to operate from there to northern points. He still must stand ready to operate from Dawson Creek if the railway runs into any problems, and then he must obtain his fuel from Taylor once again.
Just before ending this story he said, “I must tell you about a couple of my experiences on the highway. In the winter of 1949 the clutch went out of my truck a long way from nowhere. But as I always carried spare parts I took out my tarp and put it under the truck and assembled all my tools. Before I could get on with it though, I had to build a fire, as it was 30 below. Some five hours later I was on my way again. Then when I was up on the Canal Road we always drove with a little fear. An axe was a must at all times as we had to test the glaciers to see if they were safe to cross. Very fortunately we always got through by putting on chains. Sometimes we would break through in a foot of water but I never had an accident while driving there. We often drove on barren land above the timberline with 20-foot drifts on either side; it was like driving in a tunnel. We went up about 350 miles on the road to Norman Wells which was 510 miles from where we started. In all this time I never had an accident but the many close shaves aged me considerable”.
This is the story on one of our Pioneer Truckers in the Peace River Country that has seen the trails and roads improve to what they are today. He has been noted for the amount of petroleum products he has hauled on the Alaska Highway.