Nearly every settler, from as far back as 1916, had been lured to the country by the almost-certainty that the railway would go on to the Coast and its markets, and soon. Since 1900, when the land was taken from the Indians, the Surveyors had been swarming over the country. With each group a new certainty grew that this time the railway was going to be built.
The highest hopes petered out slowly after the election of Mackenzie King in 1930. The provincial government and the two big transcontinental railway companies had been tossing the problem back and forth. As an election promise, King brought the Federal Government into it by promising, “If I am elected, an outlet will be constructed in six months.” The six months stretched to six years.
Then an old-timer once more proposed an idea that solidified the whole area into a unit with a drive like a modern crusade — to build the Monkman Pass Road. The man was Alex Monkman. It took a world war to top him. He came within a hairsbreadth of realizing his dream.
Gertrude Charters, who traveled the road in 1939 as far as the Murray River, told the story for the Victoria Colonist, June 27, 1971.
Alex Monkman spent his boyhood around the Metis settlement at Fort Garry, where he grew into a tall, handsome man. Adventure was in the atmosphere of the place, including the last great buffalo hunts of his people. He drifted into Montana, where he became known as a broncobuster and rodeo-rider. He followed the lure of gold until he ended in Edmonton on the Trail of ‘98 and succumbed to the challenge of the Overland Route. Five men started with nine Red River carts. Between Dunvegan and Fort St. John the experienced horseman knew that they could never make it, and had the good sense to turn back. He never heard of the others again.
At Peace River Town he met two of the greatest free trading and transportation characters in the North, Bredin and Cornwall. He hired on to drive dog-teams through the Grande Prairie country carrying freight and furs. When his wife came, he had a team of dogs for her to drive around the settlement. Monkman had the flair for good living that urged him on to new enterprises as long as he lived.
In July 1899 the partners decided to build a post on the Grande Prairie, where the present town of that name had not a building at that time. Monkman was to select a site, which he did at Lake Saskatoon, now a pleasant park a few miles from Grande Prairie. It was then the crossing of two well-worn Indian trails, where Beaver and Cree Indians had permanent summer camps, and traditional places for ritual meetings and tribal reunions.
It accomplished its purpose – to cut off furs from the HBCo. who built another post not far away. Then a village sprang up with mission churches, bank, post office, stopping houses, etc. The settlement was at the time called “Beaverlodge”, which was transferred to the present village on the railroad.
By 1903 or ‘04 Monkman had a place of his own on Flying Shot Lake, which was also near Grande Prairie. He had purchased a herd of good cattle, and had sent away for seeds of wheat, barley and oats that the Government was distributing free to settlers. When the eminent botanist Prof. Macoun passed through, he reported that the country was not fit for agriculture in spite of the grain growing tall and heavy! Monkman harvested it, and also the first Early Rose potatoes, as far as we know, grown west of Dunvegan. Monkman was the first agriculturist in what became the World’s Fair first-prize grain belt.
Mining still lured him. He penetrated into the Rockies looking for tungsten and ran a trap-line there. In 1922 his trapping carried him back to a river which the Indians called “Kiwichawan” which meant “waters running home”, near the Kinuseo Falls. He was struck by the fact that the river ran into the mountains instead of out, and that this undoubtedly meant that there was a mountain pass. He followed the river over fourteen falls, some of them thirty-five feet high, where the river drops seventy-five feet in ten miles. He had been preceded into the area by a young man, Spencer Tuck, late of Pouce Coupe, who with a small party had been hired to cruise timber.
They had discovered nearby Wapiti Pass, and had undoubtedly penetrated into the Monkman area, when severe privations drove them out. Mr. Tuck went back to England until after World War I, and when he came back he did not follow up his former explorations.
Monkman explored the pass that afterwards bore his name. It was nowhere more than a thousand feet above the surrounding terrain, although magnificent mountains towered above it. There were no steep grades at all, no rockwork at all, and there was a wide base on which a road could run, far away from the danger of snow slides. Moreover, there were the supremely beautiful Kinuseo Falls, and many other beauty spots. None of the rivers required a ferry. It cut one thousand miles off the seventeen hundred miles that grain had to be freighted by rail via Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary to the seaport at Vancouver. Monkman was sure of himself. He had led a party of surveyors and engineers in working on a route for the Grand Trunk Railway to reach Prince Rupert. The engineer recommended it as the easiest pass through the mountains, but politics overruled common sense, and the infinitely more expensive Yellowhead Pass was selected.
On October 30, 1936 a farmers’ meeting at Halcourt near Beaverlodge was discussing the perennial problem — the freight rates which not only ate up all the profits, but sometimes brought a bill for freight in excess of the proceeds of sale. Only one hundred and fifty miles separated them from the mainline of the CNR through Jasper, and onto either Vancouver or Prince Rupert.
He pounded the table and shouted that repeated petitions and delegations had failed to get help. Then the sixty-eight year old Monkman dropped a thought. “We chopped our way into this country. We can chop our way out.” It was an indescribable phenomenon, the way the idea caught fire and spread. A Monkman Pass Association was formed to cut a toll road across the Monkman Pass. If a road could go through by manual labour, surely a truck road and even a railroad would follow.
Probably there was never a winter like 1936-37, and probably there will never be one again. Dances, rummage sales, plays, card parties and bake sales — anything by which a few dollars could be earned — followed all over Northern Alberta and into British Columbia. In spite of the Depression never had there been so much sociability and fun. Farmers hung signs on wire fences — “This field for the Monkman Pass Highway”. “M.P.H.” was painted on the sides of steer calves. Merchants donated tools, food and equipment. Men who had no money turned up to do the hard labour of chopping down trees, grubbing out roots, and building grade with wheelbarrows and a couple of horse drawn scrapers. There was no “road building machinery” at all. Women donated their time to work in the cook shacks on the cabooses that formed the “camp”. Alex Monkman on his famous horse Tramp was everywhere.
There was already a dirt road from Beaverlodge to Rio Grande. By the spring of 1937 the volunteers had solemnly saluted the Alberta-BC boundary marker, and pressed on into BC, clearing light timber. Someone asked permission of the government at Victoria to cut a road on British Columbia land. Nobody in Victoria knew where it was and in any case, “they wouldn’t get far,” so permission was granted.
In July, two trail blazing groups were sent forward to select the best route beyond Monkman Lake. The McGregor River lay in the way, and would have to be bridged. One group missed directions for fording it. They missed the portage, were caught in the rapids, and escaped with their lives and one pair of shoes and one pair of pants between them. When the battered men, who had subsisted for three days on some flour that had been dunked in the rapids, turned up at Aleza Lake on the railway, they startled some railway workers, who took them to Prince George, where they received a royal welcome. The other party made it through to Hansard on the same line. Assistance from the Prince George area began to flow in.
By September a road eight feet wide and between fifty and sixty miles long was just passable for a two-ton truck and a load of seventeen people, seven of them women, to get through to Stony Lake, and an abandoned trapper’s cabin.
One might expect the project to lag a little during the next year. If anything, enthusiasm was greater than ever. By the following July, six trucks and fifty people, young and old, made the trip again, hoping to get to Kinuseo Falls. There was a good dirt road to Stony Lake, three new log cabins, and a pier for boats, boats on the lake and camping and a fishing resort in the wilderness.
Thirty miles beyond Stony Lake they took to horses, for pole bridges had not all been finished. They walked, carrying bedrolls, for ten miles, but they saw the wonder of Kinuseo Falls, two hundred and ten feet high between solid rock walls three hundred and fifty feet apart.
A year later in August 1939 a truck actually got three miles from the falls. In a year, a rough road had become passable not only for trucks but cars. Three young men from Beaverlodge had pooled their resources and built on the Murray River a recreation centre with five log cabins, a larger log building to serve as restaurant and recreation centre as well as stables and corrals for horses. It was a “dude” fishing resort — the word “Kinuseo” properly pronounced with the accent on the “e” in Indian means “many fish”. A trail led to lovely Monkman Lake.
All that summer the three young fellows had hosted parties of businessmen and pioneers. They had obtained a lease from the BC government to operate a resort. Under the circumstances it rather irked them when a BC game warden from Dawson Creek used their road to come into camp to check the guests for BC fishing licenses. In fact they were outraged. That particular game warden tended to provoke outrage at times, it was alleged.
The lady who wrote of that journey described what happened. One host used delaying tactics while every sign of fishing tackle, every fish, including those frying in the pan for lunch, disappeared to safety in a nearby ravine.
The warden found another young host busy frying bacon and eggs, while everybody relaxed reading week-old, local papers. He must have smelled the fish because a few days later he came back again, “but this time there were enough licenses to go around with a bit of sleight-of-hand”.
By September 1, three girls were left who had arranged for horses and guides to take them through the Pass, then by boat to Hansard, and by rail to Prince George. It would have been a terrific publicity stunt. It was raining. On September 2, they heard over the little radio that the Germans had sunk the British passenger ship, the Athena. England was at war. Canada would follow. The three young enterprisers locked their cabins and went away to war. One lost his life in the skies over Britain.
After the war one tried to reopen his resort but the BC government advised him that the site had been “reserved” for some unstated purpose. In later years the search for oil maintained a good dirt and gravel road to Stony Lake. Now forestry roads have penetrated the area.
Then in 1971 another burst of Peace River energy was unleashed. The government of both Alberta and British Columbia were giving lumbering and mining permits that could spoil one of Canada’s most magnificent scenic areas, and the closest recreation area to the vast Peace River country — one which the inhabitants had opened by their own efforts. A similar area just across the Alberta boundary, the Kakwa area, is a wilderness of lakes, glaciers, rivers and waterfalls.
Conservation groups on both sides put up a vigorous fight to save them. As of the winter of 1972 the British Columbia government has been moved to take action, not too soon as some potentially dangerous leases have been granted.
In the summer 1971 an ancient hulk of a car was brought back. It was the one in which the Stogryn brothers of Sexsmith, had tried to be the first to “make it” to the mainline of the railway. It had to be abandoned when a river was impassable because of flood, and the absence of the one bridge too big for the volunteers to build. It is to be hoped that it or some, other symbol of three years of dedicated, backbreaking labour, will be preserved as a memorial to the man who inspired it.
[Editor’s note: the Government of British Columbia did indeed establish Monkman Park to protect the lake, Kinuseo Falls and the Monkman River. Traces of the 1938-39 road were still visible in the area in 1974 and a Forest Service hiking trail from the Murray River to Monkman Lake followed much the same route]