Fort St. John had waited a long time for direct rail services to the coast, which had been promised at every election for decades. The line had been started by the firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart (Major General John W. Stewart) in 1912! A former Alberta M L A and northern transportation pioneer, Col. James K. Cornwall, –“Peace River Jim” — had supported it whole-heartedly for years. John Beatton, son of the famous fur-trader, drove the last spike. There was a notable celebration!
A note of comic contrast was recorded in the next issue of the Alaska Highway News. Major John Onslow came into town after the celebration. When asked why he had not joined the festivities he replied, “In my book there is only one kind of locomotive. It must have a huge smokestack. It must belch and snort. It must have a big bell you can hear for miles, and a huge whistle. These modern Diesel ‘locies’ take all the romance and joy out of seeing a train come in.”
James K. Nesbitt, a news correspondent, gave Premier Bennett praise for having drive and imagination, a sense of timing and a gambling spirit to carry the line so far. However, said Nesbitt, the first inaugural was actually in August 1921, when Premier John Oliver rode the first train into Quesnel. Premier Oliver wasn’t as happy about that event as Premier Bennett was. Oliver begrudged the $3,000,000 year it was costing the people, to the detriment of roads and schools. The Opposition didn’t like it either. In fact their leader William Bowser refused to accept an invitation to come along to Quesnel. One wonders how the railroad came to be built at all!
Starts and stops marked the whole history of the road. There was bickering, arguments, scandals, Royal Commission inquiries, long hours of heated debate in the legislature, and jokes about being the railroad that “started nowhere and ended nowhere”. This last comment was well earned because for many years it did not go into Vancouver to connect with that port. The charge was made that “The P. G. E. had always been tied up in politics and it always would be as long as the government owned it.
There is one undeniable fact. If the railway bridge across the Peace had not been completed when the famous Peace River Highway bridge fell down, traffic to Alaska would have been thinned to a trickle. As it was, planks were laid to bring a roadbed up to the level of the rails, and single lane traffic passed over it except when a train was on it. It was a startling sight, after hundreds of miles without a traffic signal, to be confronted with red and green lights in the wilderness. At almost all hours of the day and night from a dozen to a hundred vehicles would be lined up waiting for the light to change and reverse the flow of traffic.
So high was the trestle that it was frightening to many drivers to navigate big trucks or other large rigs with so little “shoulder” to spare. Guardrails and bumpers were installed more for psychological effect than necessity — unless the driver was under the influence or his steering mechanism broke. Until the new traffic bridge was completed the railway served the highway’s needs as well as its own.