Somebody else made a decision that a wagon road eight feet wide with rest houses every thirty miles would be a good thing. The Northwest Territories were under Dominion Government jurisdiction and the Northwest Mounted Police were a Dominion or Federal police force. Since the Indians had settled down on their reserves by 1905 and the Klondikers had gone home or settled down to trapping, times were dull. There were all those Redcoats getting a dollar a day in wages without much to show for it. Also they were mounted policemen and not withstanding that all of their Northern posts could be reached by boat or dog team, it seemed desirable to do something in the interests of horse transport. So, in March 1905, a force of thirty-two men and sixty horses and mules (!) set out from Fort Saskatchewan near Edmonton to do that little job.
By June 11 they had crossed the North Pine [Beatton] River. Much of the country they had traversed was muskeg and the road had to be corduroyed for miles. Anyone who has driven up the hill at the Cecil Lake Crossing will understand why that point is as far as a wagon ever got in the Klondike Rush. Having got the four wagons up that hill, they were obliged to cut a grade down again to Fort St. John, then situated on the banks of the Peace River. Apparently they were without scrapers or fresnoes and had to do it with picks and shovels. One who was a member of the party observed in his memoirs what must have been the understatement of all understatements, ” There was considerable growling”.
At Fort St. John the party split up. Inspector Richards, two corporals and thirteen constables were detailed as a ” trail party ” to follow the old blazed Moodie Mounted Police trail and widen it to eight feet. Superintendent Constantine and two sergeants along with five lucky constables stayed behind at the post to build winter quarters and stables and to put up hay. One wonders why this job needed three officers, but so it was. Two constables who must have been good horse wranglers were assigned as a pack train to supply food and supplies to the trail gang. One luckless constable had the monotonous job of “carrying the chain” — this being a surveyor’s chain which he spiked down at one end, walked forward, spiked down the other and then walked back to release it, meanwhile recording the distance. What Constable Bowler said is not recorded.
The road must have followed very closely the present paved road to Hudson’s Hope [from Fort St. John] since it went over the hills to come out above Bear Flats, dipped down there to river level, crossed Cache Creek and the Halfway River and on to The Hope.
Corporal Profit’s crew built 12 by 16-foot shelters every thirty miles, laid corduroy and built bridges where necessary. This involved much muscle work with axe and saw. Packhorses reluctantly turned into harness teams snaked logs out of the bush. Raising them may have been done by team up inclined slopes to build walls and roofs, but unless they had whipsaws to make planks for the skids, that was unlikely.
Comfort for the men was the least consideration. Officers and noncommissioned officers had saddles, but constables either rode bareback or walked. To make riding more interesting they had neither bits nor bridles — just a halter and halter shank to ” steer” the horse. It is unlikely that the police bought neck-reined mounts for the constables! As the halter shanks wore out the riders used the hobbles.
No “frivolous” complaints were entertained. One morning a constable had no riding horse. The grass and peavine was waist high and dripping wet. He asked Inspector Richards for a packhorse to ride but was refused. Three times he had to wade across Cache Creek which was in flood. He was wet to the waist when he caught up with the mounted party. It was his job to cut trees. They too were dripping wet. At the first chop the rest of him was drenched. His partner suggested that he ask Corporal Profit whether he might return to camp and put on dry clothes. Presumably he could have borrowed a horse to ford the river. Corporal Profit reported him to the Inspector who had him ” arrested!” and ” admonished” — which would mean having his magnificent pay cut on the charge of making a
There was a comic-opera air about the whole performance. One wonders what urge to perfectionism Inspector Richards was plagued with. At the end of a day’s work the party would mount and place their axes as they would their rifles at the “advance into combat” order. The blunt end of the head was pressed against the thigh, the haft angled just so at the proper slant. The whole troop would ride back at full gallop. Every night the performance was carried out. How the unfortunate constables on foot got back in proper form was not recorded.
The lack of the customary spit and polish of Mounties’ appearance must have distressed the Inspector. During the mosquito, black fly and no-seeum season the only protection for face, neck and arms was a rind of bacon smeared over the bare skin. They constantly smoked strong tobacco and probably didn’t wash too often. At night they lit smudges of twigs overlaid with damp vegetation, so that with bacon fat and smoke, they must have smelled like over-cured hams.
When winter came, they returned to barracks at Fort St. John.
It would be interesting to know whether any remains of the big log building still survive. Each man had to build his own bed; his only tools being a saw, an axe and an auger to bore holes for pegs. Twenty head of steers arrived on the hoof one day, and were tended until freeze-up when the men turned butcher. Then there was wood to cut for the long cold days ahead. For this labor they received none of the extra pay allowed for ” bush
Inspector Richards pushed on to Fort Graham with a small party. Doubtless he was not mourned around Fort St. John. In spite of all the problems, ninety-four miles of road and roadhouses were completed in the first year.
The next year Inspector Richards was replaced by Inspector Cormier. Progress seems to have been faster for, following the old trail blazed by Inspector Moodie in 1898; they completed two hundred and twenty-eight miles from Fort St. John on an ever-lengthening supply route. That winter they were allowed to return to more populous and more comfortable quarters at Peace River Crossing.
During the third year, after crossing the Laurier Pass and proceeding through mountain valleys, they slogged through another hundred and fifty-one miles, very near their objective. They were a hundred and four miles north of Hazelton when work was called off for the season. Many of the horses had been lost in muskegs or snow slides or worked to death. Bulldog flies, mosquitoes and no-seeums had fed well for three seasons. The men were exhausted but were looking forward to completing the few remaining miles….
And then the government called the whole thing off! One of them who worked on the project wrote in his reminiscences that the British Columbia government refused to put up the trifling sum to take the road beyond the Stikine. The men were bitter about it but in the Force, orders are orders.
Thirty-five years later Uncle Sam’s army complete with thousands of men, bulldozers and what-have-you built another tote road to the Yukon and on to Alaska. Books were written — radio flashed news of the famous
“Alcan” Highway all over the English-speaking world, telling of the terrible hardships and difficulties. The road was opened with great fanfare, which it deserved. But no more so than that deserved by the young men who almost barehanded built the first “Alaska Highway”.
Now trappers and hunters occasionally stumble on the remains of shacks and bridges. Until much was flooded by Lake Williston it was a great convenience for the long-legged moose that could step over the windfalls that came down over it. A road to nowhere, travelled by nobody.