November 4, 1978
10532 Alaska Rd.
Fort St. John B.C. VIJ 4H7
Dear Mrs. Calverley,
Your query of 10/29/78 [October 29, 1978] just to hand. It brings up a “sleeping dog” matter at which I have wondered since Tommy Hargreaves [?] and Mrs. Pickell have on occasion been credited with that first car episode. Marshall Miller’ trip has never come to my attention but knowing Marshall, I am loathe to rule out its timing. There is, however, no question of the timing for Harry’s trip north for I built the road there the bush east [?] of Three Mile Point. And it was never possible for even the best of cars to negotiate the Halfway River without the assistance of either a team of horses or a truck or before we operated the boat ferry. I have no memory record of Marshall’s trip.
Because of my intimate knowledge of the factors involved, I have no hesitation in [stating] that Harry Gils did in fact drive the first car that made the trip over the road from our place to Hudson Hope and I made the trip with him. The trip sparked no excitement in the in the Hope but it cost us good deal of labor and doubtless too a good deal out of the car which belonged to the R. A. Lester Co. of Winnipeg with whom both Harry and I had had business relationship.
I trust that the matter does not gather heat for I, at least, have never given it much importance.
With my personal regards.
Sincerely, Philip F. Tompkins
Introduction: This is the story of the first car driven from Fort St. John to Hudson’s Hope. It was reputed to be a 1926, two door model 490 Chevrolet, brought into the country by Marshall Miller. The story was told by the driver. Old timers will recognize the voice of the late Mr. Henry Giles [on the original tape]. At that time he was a salesman of Lister Electric power plants. Later he was a nursery man and newspaper reporter. The interviewer was Mrs. Marjorie E. Coutts, Public Librarian in Dawson Creek at the time. Dorthea Calverley, 1978
MRS. COUTTS: When did this happen?
MR. GILES: I think it was either September or October 1929.
MRS. COUTTS: Why did you go on that trip then? There can’t have been any roads up there.
MR. GILES: I couldn’t go on roads, but a lady bet me a bottle of wine I couldn’t do it, and I bet her I would.
MRS. COUTTS: Who was the lady?
MR. GILES: Mrs. Carl Donis.
MRS. COUTTS: Did you have any business connections with Donis’s?
MR. GILES: They were my agents at Taylor.
MRS. COUTTS: What size was Fort St. John in those days?
MR. GILES: There were about six buildings there. Finch had his store where the Co-op is now . There was the Post Office and the Police Station. Dr. Brown was there, and the Northern Hotel, run by the Carmichaels and I think . . . Yea, there was a bank there at that time, the Royal Bank.
MRS. COUTTS: Were there many people in the district?
MR. GILES: There were quite a few. It was pretty well settled, up as far as the Montney, probably up as far as Rose Prairie.
MRS. COUTTS: That would be the Soldier Settlement?
MR. GILES: No that wasn’t there then. (At that time that area was a Beaver Indian Reserve.)
MRS. COUTTS: What sort of roads were there? What kind of road led to Fort St. John?
MR. GILES: Well, it was one of our dirt roads. It was dusty when it was dry, and up to your neck in mud when it was raining.
MRS. COUTTS: How did you get across the river?
MR. GILES: There was a ferry at Taylor.
MRS. COUTTS: What kind of road was there beyond Charlie Lake?
MR. GILES: There wasn’t one. There was the old Telegraph Trail. That’s all there was.
MRS. COUTTS: How wide would the Telegraph Trail be?
MR. GILES: Just room to get through with the car.
MRS. COUTTS: How wide were those cars?
MR. GILES: The standard, same as now. Same as the small cars are now.
MRS. COUTTS: Six feet. There would be a little trail through the woods and the telegraph line beside you, all your trip.
MR. GILES: Sometimes they couldn’t get the telegraph trail up alongside the poles. We had to detour.
MRS. COUTTS: Are we thinking of the same place . . . that great big hill down to Bear Flats?
MR. GILES: Yes, and there was a good hill down Tea Creek and Deep Creek, and Bear Flat was really a good one! Both down and up again. After we got back on the top we had to cut stumps for quite a while. Through the bush the stumps were too high for the car. Then down into the Halfway. That was a hill, I would say over fifty percent grade.
MRS. COUTTS: Fifty- percent grade! Downhill?
MR. GILES: Both down and up.
MRS. COUTTS: What time of day did you get to the Halfway River?
MR. GILES: At dusk.
MRS. COUTTS: How fast would that be? That’s about 20 miles.
MR. GILES: It would be a little father than that. It would be close on thirty miles.
MRS. COUTTS: That’s the whole of six miles an hour.
MR. GILES: Sometimes. Sometimes not that.
MRS. COUTTS: Pretty good speed! What was there at the Halfway?
MR. GILES: Tompkins had a place there. He had a stopping place and a Post Office.
MRS. COUTTS: Were there homesteaders there too?
MR. GILES: He had practically all the land in the flat except the land that Cadenhead owned, adjoining him.
MRS. COUTTS: Did you go on at night?
MR. GILES: No, we stayed there overnight.
MRS. COUTTS: Do you remember anything about that night?
MR. GILES: No, except that we were darn glad to get a bed! Next morning I don’t know just what time we left the place but we had to ford the Halfway River. There was no bridge there then, no ferry. And I got stuck in the river, but we had a team to pull us out. The water was a little too deep for me. Then from there we went on up [past] the Ardills over some pretty good roads. Some of the hills were almost as steep as the ones we’d been over. All those roads were very, very narrow. Where they were cut out of the side of the hills you didn’t have any more than a foot of space between the bank and the cut. I remember going up the hill towards Ardills, it was very steep. By the way there were four of us in the car at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Phil Tompkins, and the schoolteacher that was there. I forgot her name, she married Jack McDougall after that and then married Joe Holt after Jack died. We got very nearly to the top. The ruts were pretty well filled up with leaves. I hit a stump. It was a root that was sticking out. Stopped! I had to back down and get another start on it.
MRS. COUTTS: You had some pushers, though.
MR. GILES: I didn’t. I left them up at the top. I wasn’t going to haul them up again because I wanted a light load coming back.
MRS. COUTTS: You made it the next time?
MR. GILES: Yep. I went up and visited Ardills for a little while, then moseyed along. I remember an old trapper named Denny was out looking for me. I don’t know how the moccasin telegraph was working, but he was out — he and the dog — to see me go by in a car. We got over the Hump all right and into Hudson’s Hope. It was just getting dusk when we got in there.
MRS. COUTTS: How long had you been traveling?
MR. GILES: I don’t know. I haven’t any records with me, but nine hours probably.
MRS. COUTTS: Not counting the time you were stuck in the river. What did you find at Hudson’s Hope?
MR. GILES: A Hudson’s Bay Store, Henry Stege’s Store, the lime kiln, Neil Gething, as his family was running the coal mine there in a small way.
MRS. COUTTS: Were there any sales for your equipment there?
MR. GILES: I didn’t make any sales. I made one at the Halfway, but no more. We stayed there overnight and came back the next day.
MRS. COUTTS: The worst of your road was probably crossing the Halfway. Would you say so?
MR. GILES: No. I would say the worst part of the trip was going down the Halfway Hill.
MRS. COUTTS: Oh, Yes. That hill! How deep is that Halfway River?
MR. GILES: How deep? Well fortunately I didn’t go in at the deep part but it was over my running boards, and up to the engine. We had to take the spark plugs out and dry everything out, and start off again.
MRS. COUTTS: Was this what you’d call a holiday trip?
MR. GILES: Call it a business trip.
MRS. COUTTS: Did you take anyone back to Fort St. John?
MR. GILES: No, I came back alone. Oh, the engine took me up. I was glad when I got there. Another twenty yards and I wouldn’t have made it.
MRS. COUTTS: How far was the bad part? About a mile? Two miles?
MR. GILES: About a mile. You can’t find it now. That road is all filled in with bush again. They don’t use it now. It’s cut along the side hill between Bear Flat and Halfway. You don’t go up on top like we did.
MRS. COUTTS: Did you stop at the top and look around and think what a beautiful country you’d been through?
MR. GILES: No. The next morning after I got down I looked around and called myself several kinds of fool for I didn’t know how I was going to get back up again.
MRS. COUTTS: When you got into Fort St. John were there the Donis’ surprised to see you?
MR. GILES: Yes. They didn’t expect me to get up there.
MRS. COUTTS: Mrs. Donis had to produce that bet.
MR. GILES: Yes, she had to send to Pouce Coupe for it, so I didn’t get it that trip. I got it eventually.
MRS. COUTTS: Was that the only Liquor Store? at Pouce Coupe?
MR. GILES That’s all. There was nothing else.
MRS. COUTTS: They used to have quite a reputation for homebrew.
MR. GILES: I didn’t make any deal for homebrew.
MRS. COUTTS: Well, having made the trip and got back, it showed something, either about the car or about you. Did you make any sales around Fort St. John?
MR. GILES: Oh, yes. I made sales there.
MRS. COUTTS: Did you make any other tough trips like that one?
MR. GILES: Well, as a matter of fact in those days in this country, it was tough at any time. Particularly in wet weather.
MRS. COUTTS: When the ice froze in the winter the ferry was out and people couldn’t cross until the ice froze again.
MR. GILES: Yes. We were tied up several weeks sometimes.
MRS. COUTTS: Were they fairly prosperous over the river at that time?
MR. GILES: No, nobody had any money but nobody seemed to need it. They seemed to get along very well.
MRS. COUTTS: But you were selling . . . would that be on “promise to pay?”
MR. GILES: Most of the people we sold to were new to the country and had a little bit of money. They hadn’t gone broke yet.
MRS. COUTTS: On that long trip did you meet anyone on the road? Even these days you meet and pass lots of people on those long hills, and you hope to beat them going up, or coming down.
MR. GILES: After I left Charlie Lake, I didn’t pass anybody and nobody met me.
MRS. COUTTS: Was there much game?
MR. GILES: No. Well, there was lots in the country, but there was nothing on the trail.
MRS. COUTTS: That country now is almost all posted. It would be almost all posted. You can’t build a big hunting story out of this. Was there river traffic still?
MR. GILES: Yes, there were still the D.A. Thomas, the Weenusk, and Harry Weaver, still on the river. Weaver had a freight boat.
MRS. COUTTS: A small freight boat was it?
MR. GILES: Yes — well, a pretty good size with scows.
MRS. COUTTS: That big! Where did Hudson’s Hope get their groceries and other supplies? By freight boat?
MR. GILES: They came up the river.
MRS. COUTTS: How about Fort St. John? Did their supplies come in by freight boat?
MR. GILES: In those days they were getting it from Hythe, from Peace River on the boat, whichever they liked.
MRS. COUTTS: Which way would be cheaper?
MR. GILES: Hythe.
MRS. COUTTS: In spite of the bad roads?
MR. GILES: The road between Hythe and Fort St. John wasn’t too bad except for the hill down the Peace, and that was where you didn’t want to meet anybody.
MRS. COUTTS: It would be worst in wet weather.
MR. GILES: Oh, Gosh, yes!
MRS. COUTTS: There would be lots of sleighing in winter.
MR. GILES: Yes, every sleigh would go out and take out a load and bring freight back.
MRS. COUTTS: What would they be taking out?
MR. GILES: Wheat and oats, and take or store goods coming back.
MRS. COUTTS: Was the trip we were talking about the worst trip?
MR. GILES: Altogether I would say yes. It wasn’t a bad trip. You just had to watch what you were doing, that’s all. I’ve had my hair raised more often than I had on that trip.
MRS. COUTTS: How did you carry enough gas?
MR. GILES: I got some gas at the Halfway. I carried a can of gas with me to the Halfway. I bought gas at Hudson’s Hope . . . ninety cents a gallon. It came up on the river.
MRS. COUTTS: They had to have it for the boats.
MR. GILES: Yes, and they had gas lamps and so on.
MRS. COUTTS: There wouldn’t be a garage or anything up there. What happened if anything broke?
MR. GILES: Well, we just either fixed it or puddled along without it. I broke three shock absorbers and just drove on until all four went.
MRS. COUTTS: A little rougher but not too much. Do you remember the time you were driving up there and you met the man whose wheel had come off?
MR. GILES: No, that was near Hythe. He lost his front wheel so he just put a pole under and used that part for a sleigh. (Laughter) I had three punctures on that trip and only one spare wheel, so I had to do my own repairing, but that’s the only trouble I had.
MRS. COUTTS: Was there any water in the gas? That used to be a trouble in the old days.
MR. GILES: No. Not at that price — they couldn’t afford to put water in it! (laughter)`