Then in March 1942, after the American army dumped trainloads of army vehicles in the startled village of Dawson Creek, the growl soon swelled to a roar that never stilled, night or day, while the Alaska Highway was being built. In those days, the main highway to Fort St. John was the present 102nd Ave. Those of us who lived alongside its mud-or-dust surface may or may not have noticed, shortly after July 2, 1942, a new name, “Wilson Freightways” on some of the trucks. Within a short time nobody could miss it. It represented a huge Dawson Creek to Fort St. John and north local enterprise.
Mr. J. Gordon Wilson, its founder, was born in Minnesota in 1900. At the early age of twenty-one he took the position of manager of the Vermilion Livestock Shipping Association, operating over a large territory. In 1924 he married Maude Patrick. In all ways Mrs. Wilson — known in Dawson Creek as “Mrs. Freightways Wilson”– had been a working partner in the many enterprises.
They first bought a one-ton Chevrolet truck to haul logs and cattle. Maude and he also hauled supplies for the railroad contractors putting in the grade from Lloydminster, Clandonald, and Myrvan. Later in the fall they bought a second truck to freight grain. In 1928 they were transporting building materials for the new C.P.R. and H.B.Co. immigrants and also got a contract to haul material for the new Agriculture College Building at Vermilion.
By 1928 the business expanded. About six extra trucks were hired to take grain directly to elevators in the threshing season. Since in 1926 and 1927 motor vehicles had begun to take over from the old horse-drawn convoys of “grain tanks”, the Wilsons showed an early ability to see a new opportunity and “get in on the ground floor”. A trade-in of the old one-and-a half-ton trucks was made for a one-ton, dual-tired International Harvester truck. This sounds like a small unit in 1973, but forty-five years ago it was not common in the West. With Mr. Patrick, Sr. as part-time driver, the truck was on the road eighteen or more hours a day. Later in the year two more vehicles were necessary.
The formation of Wilson Motor Transit and Distributing Co. Ltd. took place in January 1929, followed by a move to Edmonton. Their “fleet” consisted of an open one- ton International and one closed van, operating from one space at the rear of the Grand Hotel at 103 St. and 103 Ave. They could save the shipper twenty-four hours by running from the end of one day’s business to the beginning of another.
Until 1931 they had the Vegreville run, but then it was abandoned as farmers acquired their own trucks. Efforts to establish other runs failed because the railroads, which had hitherto had a monopoly on freighting, became aware that trucks could successfully compete, and now lowered their rates.
The Wilson’s reacted characteristically. There was need of an overnight fast freight service between Calgary and Edmonton. In Calgary, W.E. Dench saw the same need. They formed a partnership that captured the support of shippers at both ends of the route. Two-way payloads made for profit at classified rates of 89¢ for 1st class, 74¢ for 2nd class, 56¢ of third and 45¢ for fourth class freight. The agreement with Dench did not last long. The Wilsons hired a truck until they could purchase their first IHC Diesel truck for a milk carrier route in Alberta.
For two years they hauled milk to the Red Deer Dairy Pool. At the end of the two years the fleet had acquired several more trucks and a downtown office in Edmonton.
In 1936 a less profitable venture was undertaken — peddling fresh fruit along main country routes. This was a much-needed quick delivery service when delays of a few hours could result in great waste through spoilage. While the fruit was arriving at harvesting time when farmers could least afford to go into town to take it directly from the stores. Only about fifteen carload lots went out when heavy rains and early cold made travel on unpaved roads impractical.
In 1936, while still operating the Edmonton to Calgary run, Mr. Wilson took on the job of truck transport manager for the Swanson Lumber Company. He worked at preparing a winter road from a logging area on the Athabasca River near Whitecourt while supervising his own trucks and others to the C.N.R. siding there. The old Calgary to Edmonton run was profitable enough to finance additions or replacements of equipment as needed.
At the camps on the Athabasca River, Gordon had the experience of working out in 60 below zero weather. Work with men and horses was shut down. “I was able to work on the road,” he said quietly.
Summing up the years from 1929 to 1942, he said, “I was one of the first to establish common carrier service overnight between the two cities of Calgary and Edmonton. No part of the Calgary-Edmonton Highway was paved when services started and still not all of it was paved in 1934. As a result, driving time was usually 8 to 10 hours depending on road conditions. We had many of the best drivers in Alberta, some of whom established long mileage records without accident.
In the early months of 1942 I was appointed Truck Controller under the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, in which position our office exercised considerable control over truck transport in all Alberta. While in this position I arranged with our Calgary terminal partner Chris Mikkelson to manage the Edmonton-Calgary operation and our local Edmonton staff handled our northern office.
Early in the summer of the same year I had solicited contracts for haulage on the proposed Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek. In the latter part of the same year I had made a trip with a load of gasoline from Edmonton to the Fort Nelson airport where Spinney Transport had a sub-contract to haul for Miller Construction who were then building the airport. My driver and I arrived at the Muskwa River which we crossed on the ice on April 1, 1942 at about 4 p.m. Because we took the wrong turn and followed a newly bulldozed road, we finally arrived at the present site of Fort Nelson, the first truck ever to negotiate the steep hill into that location. There we were turned around and went back down the hill and took the road they were then using to the airport.
On the way out we met the first U.S. Army trucks on their way into the north near Sikanni River Crossing. On return to Edmonton the work with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board was started.
On receipt of our first contract for hauling from Dawson Creek we sent a man named Williamson to Dawson Creek as resident manager. A contract was obtained with a Seattle firm, who in turn had the job of erecting prefabricated buildings that had formerly been used as camp accommodations for relief of the unemployed in the United States. Called CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] buildings, they were quite substantial, prefabricated in panels in which inside and outside finish and insulation were all in place, lending themselves to rapid reconstruction into houses by the construction crews that followed. Probably half of the first post-war houses in Dawson Creek were re-reconstructed out of leftover army buildings at war’s end. An “old-timer” can tell by the proportions of the building and slope of the roof if it was once an army hut.
“The next contract was arranged by myself with Imperial Oil in Edmonton to haul gasoline and petroleum supplies to the incoming construction companies. Finally we secured our largest contracts with the joint construction companies — Metcalf-Hamilton and Kansas City Bridge. Operating jointly, these companies carried out many projects between Edmonton, Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. Our contracts, Edmonton to Dawson Creek and Dawson Creek to Fairbanks totaled 23,750,000 ton-miles. No record remains to determine how many trucks were used in our operations. One notice from the MHKCB traffic office in 1944, however, shows that Wilson Freightways had about reached the authorized tonnage and might have to sign an extension.
Our work for the United States Public Roads Engineering Division included haulage of perishable supplies — meats and vegetables — shipped by rail to Dawson Creek. At one time up to thirty-five insulated and refrigerated trucks were used on this work alone.”
Mr. Wilson told this writer about some of his difficulties. While the army fellows who built the tote road and fifteen other companies, most U.S.A.-based, were “fine fellows” and good to deal with, the government departments of the U.S. were something else.
Although the Canadian Bank of Commerce had been alerted to have cash to deal with the situation the local branch manager, either by his own decision or working on orders from higher up, was something less than cooperative. With a contract with the United States as backing and hundreds of thousands in collateral Mr. Wilson could not borrow money to meet day by day emergencies.
All his bills had to go to the Army Engineers Headquarters in Fort Nelson, thence to Washington D.C. Mr. Wilson was obliged to present thirteen copies of everything! Whatever route they followed, it took a year to get the pay back for the trucker’s wages. Wilson could not pay. The banker, dealing with a man who had a 27,000,000 ton mile contract would co-operate for short-term loans only on a day-to-day basis. He demanded a report every day! Sometimes the drivers would have no money to pay for meals at the camps along the road.
“Did you know we did something very illegal in Canada and got away with it?” said Mr. Wilson with a twinkle. “We printed our own money! A fellow at S [?]
G [?] Printed up folders two inches wide worth $17.50 in meal tickets in denominations of seventy-five cents to two dollars-and-a-half. We issued them to the drivers who used them in camps like Metcalf-Hamilton’s. The cooks would accept them, then send them to the office to be replaced with cheques. It ran from $15,000 to $20,000 a day.”
Another frustrating little incident was the refusal of an army officer in Fort St. John to give the trucking company a map showing the locations of the army camps in Alaska to which goods were consigned. “That’s classified information! You can’t have it”, he explained, and stuck to his decision. Finally Gordon, who by some method had got possession of another map, asked in the quiet soft-spoken way he has, “Would you trade the map of Alaska for one of the whole of the rest of the United States?” Gordon got his map! One knows that Mr. Wilson could tell hundreds of anecdotes of tragic and bizarre happenings in those hectic years.
At last the Alaska Highway and the war came to an end. Mr. Wilson had been participating in the Hasler Creek Coal mining venture and in local development in the Peace River area. The lumber interests of Gordon Moore on Taylor Flats were purchased along with all his timber limits. A second sawmill was then located down river from the old bridge crossing of the Kiskatinaw River. Timber limits included limits up the Pine River, one island about ten miles up the Peace, two at Bear Flats on the Peace and one down the Peace about two miles from Taylor. Over the next thirteen years this business was expanded to include a planer mill in Dawson Creek, also timber limits near Baytree and South of Wembley in Alberta.
At one time the company opened a strip coal mining project on Pinto Creek about forty miles south of Wembley. “That project fell flat when the Alberta Government canceled the lease that we were subleasing from the lease holder.” Mr. Wilson had a bad time with governments wherever he tried coal mining!
“It was shortly after the war, – I think, in 1945 – that this winter Roger Forsythe [and I] decided to form a new trucking company. We joined our trucking assets to acquire a 39% interest each, with 22% of the shares split between the Forsythe family and two other participants. Later Wilson Freightways decided to cease participation in Northern Freightways Ltd. and we took out trucks out of the joint operation.
From this point on most of the Wilson Company’s equipment was used in its own operations. A number of tractors were purchased, and these, along with other contracting equipment, were assigned to land clearing and excavating both in British Columbia and Alberta.
Finally to better control the two distinct types of Company interest, the equipment was transferred by mortgage to a Company originally formed by a partnership of Forbes – Sh?? [name uncertain] in which the J.G. Wilson Construction Ltd. had shares. This company handled several important municipal and private contracts — mainly water and sewer projects in Grande Prairie, Fairview, Grimshaw, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. The company was wiped out after the new right-of-way from Chetwynd to Peace River for the P.G.E. Railway was completed.
The lumber business had been terminated, and when the contracting business was also terminated Mr. Wilson’s interests were transferred to Fort Nelson in a large storage warehouse and garage which for two years was operated by the Wilson’s son Ronald. Then the business was sold to Leach’s Tire and Battery Company.
Mr. Wilson’s health had been poor for some years, forcing him to spend his winters in milder climate. Nevertheless, he and wife maintained a home on Swan Lake near Dawson Creek in the summer. But Mr. Wilson could not keep away from the trucks! Officially retired, he enjoyed operating the truck weigh-station east of Dawson Creek.
It is hard to imagine Gordon retired. In spite of all of the other business interests he was superintending he always found time for civic affairs. He was chairman of the village commission before Dawson Creek became the “Centennial City”. He also chaired the School Board during the expansion period, as well as serving on almost every fraternal and cultural committee that served education and cultural development. His wife, Maude, had also been an outstanding citizen, especially in the Horticultural Society, Red Cross, and United Church. For example when there were no beds for the early Blood Donor clinics, she arranged that the Wilson Freightways emptied one of its dormitories of cots and set them up in the clinic. Mr. Wilson is especially remembered for one of his favorite philanthropies, a generous provision of scholarships for outstanding high school students. The results of that interest may well be more lasting than any of the commercial ventures.
J. Gordon Wilson has been a good citizen.