Cross-posted: 14-031: From Edmonton to Pouce Coupe
By our Special Commissioner
Peace River Valley had its genesis as a settlement in the Klondike gold rush. In their efforts to discover an overland route to the Yukon, miners and would-be miners discovered that the plateaus north and south of the Peace River and the valleys along its tributaries were suitable for settlement by white men and of an extent that entirely baffled may of them in their attempt to reach the gold fields.
Disappointed in their hope of quick riches in the Klondike, unable or unwilling to turn back, a number of them settled in the country and formed the advance guard of what are now settled communities at different points in this great territory.
Their story and the story of those that came after them would provide a miniature history of the settlement of Canada as a nation, except that it was accomplished without the warfare, bloodshed and massacres that marked the early dawn of Canadian civilization. Its agricultural features were much the same. Houses had to be hewn from the bush, minor crops of grain sown, supplies packed in over the roughest of trails, etc., and, as with the first visitors to Canadian shores, poor provision for winters led to scurvy and other troubles in the case of greenhorns not familiar with the necessity of a varied diet. Many hardships were endured before those early adventurers developed their farms to even a moderate basis of self-support.
What a contrast today when the Peace River, with its 25,000 odd settlers, sends out thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and barley; hundreds of beef cattle, hogs and fowl; ships butter and eggs by the carload and can provide ample supplies of vegetables and small fruits for the settlers’ own use – just as Canada, as a whole, once dependent on the Mother Country for supplies, now acts as the granary for the Empire.
It was to study at first-hand the development that had made this production possible, and to gain for the Family Herald readers of other provinces an idea of the future possibilities of this “New West,” that I boarded the train at Edmonton and headed North.
Withal it is an agreeable journey. The trains carry Pullmans but no diner. It is said that when the C.P.R. first leased the line, they ran a new diner over the route “once”. It returned without a single window left intact. Since then passengers get their meals at restaurants, “cafes,” as they are blithely labelled along the route. “Twenty-five minutes for breakfast at McLennan,” says the porter, and you anticipate a lively scramble. But you have reckoned without the lunch server. Two minutes to the café, one to hang up your hat and coat and grab a chair. Before you can pull up to the table a huge platter of ham and eggs appears over your shoulder, lands deftly between the knife and fork already placed for service, and a voice in your ear says “tea or coffee, sir?”
Ten minutes later you pay your bill, saunter out to the platform and find your train split in two. One luggage car and passenger coach goes north, 71 miles to Whitelaw, 25 miles north of the Peace. Another train, with a Pullman and two coaches, travels nearly due West 95 miles to Spirit River, backs up five miles to Rycroft, crosses the outgoing train there and then travels southwest 48 miles to Grande Prairie and 12 more to Wembley, the latter a new terminal point to which the railway has only been extended within the last two or three years.
It is a twenty-six hour run from Edmonton, two hours of which were spent crossing the Smoky River, three miles in actual distance between adjacent points, but necessitating a journey of 20 miles to get there. This is the toll imposed by the Smoky, too wide with its valley to bridge at the desired point and requiring the twenty-mile detour to obtain passable grades.
One must go at least 150 miles West from Wembley before striking the Rockies, 200 south to the Canadian National through Jasper Park, and North? Well, no one yet knows how far North Canada’s wheat lands run. Fort Vermilion is about 150 miles north of Peace River Crossing and wheat has been ripened there for years. To say the least, the Peace River area is a vast expanse of territory. W.D. Albright, who has conducted careful experiments at Beaverlodge since 1913, and has travelled over a lot of the territory himself, says there are 30,000,000 acres there awaiting settlement. After covering nearly 1,000 miles of it by rail and motor car, I, for one, am ready to take his opinion. The million or so seen personally are certainly a wonderfully fine sample.
But it is a country still in the raw. Its railway as suggested is a pioneer railway, built and operated in the face of unbelievable handicaps through miles of bush and territory not yet producing a ton of freight and with grades that on the North line prohibit more than two or three cars of wheat at a trip.
At Beaverlodge, 12 miles west again, the crossroads centre is repeated, but here the well-tilled plots and substantial buildings established under agreement between Mr. Albright and the Dominion Department of Agriculture, differ but little in appearance from the other stations of the experimental farms’ system. The work being done there by Mr. Albright, some of which – notably the haying operations – have been described in previous issues, is a story in itself and will be treated as such. The farm lies, however, on a long, gradually rising slope, very typical of much of the land in the Grande Prairie and Pouce Coupe sections. It is really part of the valleys of the Beaverlodge and Wapiti rivers that join nearby and form the drainage outlets for the district.
On the way we passed the Lee and Borden Ranch and the Gundy Ranch, the latter operated by two Toronto businessmen and comprising a leasehold of 33,000 acres. At this time, in common with many ranches in the west, cattle holding are small, the present range herds containing only 600 head of Herefords and Shorthorns. For miles the road through the ranches passes by nothing but poplar and spruce bush with an occasional opening to pasture lands or small areas of crop. Yet the road is well travelled by the trucks and cars plying between Pouce Coupe and Grande Prairie with their loads of hogs, butter, eggs, and wheat going out and mail, store-goods and general supplies coming in. No less than four trucks are on the road between these points, we were informed, travelling almost night and day when the roads are good.
Pouce Coupe like many of the towns in Western Canada is laid out with ample room to grow. Montreal’s Bleury Street traffic could manoeuvre freely in the main street, but it has an up to date hospital, a commercial hotel, bank, school, church, mill, police barracks, land office and all the appurtenances of a thriving pioneer town. Incidentally it is in British Columbia, but has to do all its correspondence with Victoria by way of Edmonton, a decidedly roundabout route.
Several of the biggest hog breeders were visited, one of whom has had 29 selects out of 60 hogs marketed and is breeding 10 sows this year. Another had 250 pigs last summer. On the way back a call on the local drover, Mr. Bullen, of Dawson Creek, brought the information that over 100 cars of livestock had left the district since last November – 70 cars of cattle and more than 30 of hogs. He had himself taken out 19 carloads in one trip on May 28, and most of the cattle, he stated, were grain fed stock.
“They did not know quite what to expect,” said Professor Ottewell. “They were not sure whether it was a movie, a lecture, or a talk on education, and I did not tell them in advance.” He never does, and I don’t know yet what the lecture (or movie) was about.
From Dawson Creek we motored back to Beaverlodge and I accompanied Mr. Lyne to Grande Prairie – 250 miles and a dozen stops in eighteen hours, four hours’ sleep and a fresh start with Mr. A.R. Judson, agricultural representative of the district, for Waterhole and Berwyn, north of the Peace. But that is another story.