Recent History 2000-2002
June 13, 2000
By Gerry Clare
From the Archives – a series of historical articles
About two weeks after the first South Peace homesteaders broke land in 1912 they began demanding a road to connect them to the rest of British Columbia. The demands were ignored, of course, and didn’t get much attention at all in Victoria until the middle of the 1930s.
The arrival of the Northern Alberta Railway in Dawson Creek in 1930 gave the area a link to markets and big cities, but only by way of Alberta. For some, the extension of the railway to the coast by way of Hudson’s Hope seemed like the logical solution to the region’s isolation from the rest of B.C. The publisher of the Peace River Block News, C. S. Kitchen, stated in April 1936 that there was little likelihood of a rail link ever being built to the coast but that an extension of the NAR from Hines Creek to Fort St. John was a distinct possibility.
Clive Planta, MLA, asked pointed questions in the Provincial Legislature about such familiar concerns as the amount of money taken out of the Peace in taxes compared to the amount put into the region in the form of roads and other services. In Ottawa, Member of Parliament Gray Turgeon urged the House of Commons to assist in building the outlet to the coast. Answers and promises were offered by the governments concerned, but no action was taken.
There was a plan for eventually building a road into the B.C. Peace and this plan was trotted out from time to time to show that the region’s concerns were being considered. It would have been an interesting, if rather roundabout, route from the coast to the Peace. The Cariboo Road had reached Prince George and a road of sorts headed west from there toward Prince Rupert. The grand plan called for a new road to turn north from Vanderhoof, passing through Fort St. James and on along the Manson Creek to Finlay Forks. From there it would turn east along the Peace River to Hudson’s Hope where it would divide, with one branch going to Fort St. John and the other to Dawson Creek. The short stretch from Vanderhoof to Manson Creek ate up all the available money for northern roads.
Interest in a direct link between the grain fields of the Peace and the grain port of Vancouver crossed provincial borders. In 1936 a Monkman Pass Highway Association was formed in the Beaverlodge area of Alberta. The purpose of the Association was simple: “support your own shortcut to tidewater.” By 1938, a season’s worth of trail blazing was complete on the route between Rio Grande and Hansard, on the Fraser River. A branch of the Association formed in the B.C. Peace in early 1938, dedicated to helping with the project in any way possible. The actual road building began in 1938 with a pledge to “get a car, covered with posters, through to Prince George this year”. The work started at Stony Lake and lasted until the outbreak of World War II in September of 1939 but no car ever made it all the way on the trail and the project was abandoned.
Of course people drove from Vancouver to Dawson Creek before the Hart Highway opened, but it was a long and adventurous trip. Murray Ryan, long-time teacher in Dawson Creek, came here in 1951 by way of Edmonton and remembers that the road south of Lesser Slave Lake was more like a muddy trail than a highway. Deep puddles frequently drenched the spark plugs bringing the car to a halt until the plugs were removed and carefully dried. Shortly after the Alaska Highway was completed, Premier John Hart visited the Peace and decided that a road should be built connecting Prince George directly to the beginning of the Alaska Highway. The inevitable delays pushed the completion schedule back and it was not until 1952 that a road was actually opened to connect the Peace to the Pacific.
It’s interesting that the route finally selected for the long-awaited highway was different from either of the earlier proposals — the Peace River Pass west of Hudson’s Hope or the Monkman Pass south of Beaverlodge. Instead, the Pine Pass was selected, a pass first mapped and described by Joseph Hunter in the summer of 1877 while working for the CPR.
On July 1, 1952, hundreds of people made the trip over the new highway for the official opening at a temporary bridge across the Parsnip River. Speeches were made, film footage was shot by the National Film Board, newspapers covered the event and local radio stations recorded the ceremonies. Then the ribbon was cut and the Dawson Creek Pipe Band proudly led a parade of vehicles across the bridge. After forty long years of broken promises and bitter disappointments, it was finally possible to drive by an all B.C. route from the Peace to the rest of the province. And in just two years from now, we will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the John Hart Highway Ñ how time flies!
To contact the local archives, use this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org or to find out more about Peace River history, go to this web site: www.calverley.ca