Fort St. John had waited a long time for direct rail service to the coast — it 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. (Peace River Jim, Cornwall, 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.”
News correspondent James K. Nesbitt praised Premier Bennett 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 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 a 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 a litany of arguments, scandals, Royal Commission inquiries, long hours of heated debate in the legislature, and jokes about being the railroad. It was referred to scornfully as a railway that “started nowhere and ended nowhere” because for many years it did not go into Vancouver to connect with that port. The charge was made that “The P.G.E. has always been tied up in politics, and it always will, as long as the government owns 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 in 1958, traffic to Alaska would have thinned up 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. However, 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 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 highway bridge was completed the railway served as the highway and did it well.