On January 15, 1952 the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of the arrival the first passenger train in the community. One hundred and fifty people sat down to dinner at the Windsor Hotel and heard a number of reminiscences by those who were here at that time.
Probably the most interesting address of the evening was delivered by W.O. (Wes) Harper who was an original member of the old Board of Trade formed several years before the arrival of steel. He is now Honorary President of the Chamber of Commerce and acted as chairman of the anniversary meeting.
The following excerpts from Mr. Harper’s speech are of general interest to the old-timers and worth recording. (Dorthea Calverley)
“I feel honored to represent the members of the Chamber of Commerce of 1931, many of whom have since passed away. I might name those who were active members, and I hope I have not missed any because the minutes of that time are not available.
Bill Bullen, John Love, Irvin Groh, Bill Reasbeck, Ed. Breault, Frank DeWetter, Cy Smith, all of whom have since passed away. Paul Dalscheid and Jack Hall are living at the coast. Jim Bond, Fred Newby, Johnny Temple, Jay Ken, Alf Sharp, H. Morrow, and Ed Patterson are still with us [true in 1952, but most have passed away since]. Others living here at that time and who moved from the old town to the new were Fred Hall, John Hall, Johnny Peebles, Harrison Hall and Bill Burrows.
Our Chamber of that time was very active and although the town was small at the coming of steel the moving from the old town and the arrival of construction crews made it a pretty busy place. We had made a determined effort to have the steel come into the old town but because of the loss of elevation the railway company claimed it was necessary for the town to be moved. [This move would permit the planned but never built extension west to be carried on at the same grade level.]
The ceremony on arrival of the first train took place just east of the present depot and several notables made speeches. Driving the spike was done by two early settlers Mrs. Fanny Chase and Frank DeWetter. About two hours later the famous spike had disappeared and has not been heard of since. The old timers blamed it on progress because up to that time doors were very seldom locked and stealing was unheard of. For instance in the old town I operated a gas pump which was left open at all times so that anyone could help himself if he needed gas. But I will say I had a pretty good check on those getting gas as the number of cars could be counted on two hands. I do not know of a single time when the customer failed to come in later to pay. I might mention at this time that when the steel arrived at Pouce Coupe in December they also had a spike driving ceremony. It was done by Mrs. Gauthier the first white settler in this district and her daughter Mrs. Pat Therrien, the first white child born on the Pouce Coupe Prairie as this district was then called. Mrs. Gauthier’s first husband, the late Hector Tremblay, settled with his family on the Pouce Coupe River two miles north of the present village of Pouce Coupe about 1908. He ran a stopping house and trading post for some time. Mr. Bob Tremblay of Pouce Coupe is a son.
I have been asked to tell you something of the pioneering of this district and the Peace River country as a whole previous to the arrival of steel.
We began to hear of the Peace River country about 1908 when the first settlers began to arrive in the Grande Prairie district. These earliest settlers came overland by pack train or on foot from Edson or by way of Athabasca and Lesser Slave Lake. Then about 1910 a passable winter trail was cut through from Edson to Grande Prairie. Stopping places were set up along the trail and the early settlers who had grown grain and feed would drive to Edson loaded with oats and hay and make caches at these stopping places on the way out so that they could haul a full load on the return trip which usually consisted of a year’s grubstake and some new machinery. The trip usually took about a month and some would make an extra trip hauling freight for trading posts. In this way they would make enough to keep them for another year. The average load for one team was about 4,000 pounds and as the rate to Grand Prairie was 10 cents a pound they would make $400, less stopping expenses.
The first settlers to arrive in this district came in 1912, the first year land here was open for homesteading, and Harry Gibson (who is still here) came with his brother Walter at that time.
We were living in Vancouver and heard about the wonderful land to be had in the Peace River country for ten dollars a quarter section. It became the subject of many discussions led by my father who had homesteaded in Manitoba in the 1880’s and still had the pioneering spirit and was encouraged by five boys who were no doubt looking for adventure more than land.
So in the fall of 1913 we left Vancouver for Edmonton and the Peace River country. Information regarding this great country was limited and was mostly hearsay but my father sold our house and took in payment two teams of horses and harness.
We shipped a carload of household effects and the horses to Edmonton and as I was the oldest at home (Lester my older brother was married and living in Calgary) I was given the job of traveling in the car with the horses and furniture. About this time the country was entering into a period of unemployment and I had company most of the way. At times as many as three were in the car with me getting a free ride. When the freight stopped they would hide behind the furniture so that the railroad crew would not spot them and kick them off. The trip took about a week. I enjoyed it, as all I had to do was feed and water the horses.
On arriving at Edmonton we found that the best time to leave for the north was after New Year when the sleighing would be better. So we stayed in Edmonton until February, keeping the horses in working shape and making some extra money by hauling coal. During our stay in Edmonton we suffered a severe loss by the death of our mother from pneumonia. Knowing that it was her wish that we should go to the Peace River we decided to go on.
It put a real burden on my dad as my three younger brothers were from eight to thirteen years. My brother’s wife took on the job of cooking, mending and mothering the younger fry which was quite a load as she was just a young bride at the time. She is now living at Pouce Coupe (Mrs. Lester Harper).
Edmonton at that time was still booming and real-estate offices on Jasper Avenue had big banners across their fronts advertising lots for sale at Grouard, Peace River and Grande Prairie and the market place was the sounding board for the great north land. Horses, cattle and machinery were auctioned off to new settlers going north and there was the odd homesteader from the north looking for an extra team or sleigh. In talking to them we got first hand information and decided on the Edson route to Grande Prairie. We had not at that time heard of the Pouce Coupe Prairie. So in February we loaded a year’s supply of grub and just the most necessary household effects such as blankets and mattresses. We carried 2 walking plows with breaker and stubble bottoms, 4 sections of harrows, a mower and rake, 3 sleighs and my Dad’s buggy as he had a prize driver which he was determined to take with us. We had bought three more horses which gave us three teams, one driver and an extra workhorse. The other items were only absolute essentials such as cooking stove, kitchen utensils, logging chains, medical supplies, etc. and of course a couple of extra sleigh runners, stark pins, a forge and some iron as well as saws and axes.
Leaving for Edson it was decided that my younger brother Wilbur and I would go with the car and the rest took the passenger train. About halfway to Edson the brakeman advised us that only one could ride free with the car so I went forward to the engine and worked my way by shoveling coal to the fireman. I remember it was cold and that I took on a good coating of coal dust.
On arrival at Edson we found a bustling town with many outfits getting ready for the trip north. We unloaded our car of effects on to three sleighs. On one we set up our stove and along the sides we put trunks and boxes to make places to sleep and to use as chairs during mealtime. Over this sleigh we put a tent making a warm place to sleep and eat.
The first week on the road we made little headway as there was not much snow and roads were rough. We only made 57 miles during the first week but it turned colder and some snow fell making the going better. There were many hills and no grading had been done except on the bad side hills. It necessitated doubling up to get the loads over these places. One place I well remember. Crossing a creek with hills on both sides my dad got stuck on the bridge so I pulled up behind and took my team off to help him. As we were not able to move the load my brother Lester took his team off the caboose, which was at the top of the hill, and came down to help. While we were getting hitched on someone glanced back up the hill and shouted, “Here comes the caboose”. As there was no room for the buggy in the sleighs my younger brother was driving it. He had pulled up behind my load and seeing the approaching disaster moved the driver alongside my sleigh but there was neither time nor room to get the buggy out of the way. Although the caboose was not traveling fast it ran into the buggy and folded it up like an accordion. This accident almost broke up the family compact as my father had visions of many a fine drive over the rolling prairies of the Peace. We loaded what was left of the buggy on the other sleighs. If you have ever tried to repair a buggy you will know it is never the same again.
About a week later we arrived in Grande Prairie and stayed there for a day looking the country over but decided to go further west to Saskatoon Lake north of the present town of Wembley.
At that time these names were only trading posts with livery barns, eating places and bunk houses. While looking around Saskatoon Lake we met Harry Gibson, who told us of the Pouce Coupe Prairie so we decided to drive on there and give it the once over. I think our decision was influenced greatly by the plans of the Edmonton, Dunvegan & British Columbia Railway (now known as the N.A.R.) and the Pacific Great Eastern which were to connect up eventually just east of the present Dawson Creek at the Alberta-BC boundary. Harry Gibson had been there for two years and built a house and barn. He had plenty of feed and shelter so he invited us to stay at his place. Our first day out from Saskatoon Lake took us to the Johnson place, located just north of the present Beaverlodge. Mr. Johnson ran a stopping place where we obtained shelter for the horses and bought feed as we had used all we brought with us. I remember the Johnson kids running round the yard. They are now well-known residents of Beaverlodge and two of the boys usually take in our bonspiel each year. The next day we reached Horse Lake where the famous Brainard eating place is located now. We camped that night amongst the spruce trees on the north end of the Lake. One thing I remember was the necessity of putting the harness up in the trees at night because of the large number of rabbits. These animals do enjoy a meal of leather and will ruin a set of harness in a night. The road was heavy because there were very few people living north of Beaverlodge and the going was slow.
On the fourth day out of Saskatoon Lake we had hoped to make Harry Gibson’s but as the horses were played out and we were in open country we could not make it. We camped for the night just east of the present Ed Hauger farm and arrived at Gibson’s the next morning.
Fortunately for us a homesteader up Saskatoon Creek, three miles from Gibson’s had got bush-wacky and shot himself and the Mounted Police from Fort St. John were holding a sale of his effects that afternoon. He had been a hard worker and built himself a four-stall barn and a 12’x 6’ log shack and put up a lot of hay. My dad bought the hay and rented the place for a year so the next day we moved in. We built bunks along one side of the shack with uppers and lower berths out of small poles.
My brother Lester and I were the only ones entitled to file on land as father had used his rights in Manitoba. We looked round for a few days and decided to take up land just east of where we living. Lester took a saddle horse and rode to Grande Prairie to file on his land and file proxy for me as I was not quite eighteen. At that time there were only three settlers west of us — Shepherd, Addy and Cameron. East of us were Piper, Atkinson and one or two others. The settlers were coming in fast and nearly every day someone would arrive on foot or saddle horse looking over the country.
The only market for farm products at that time was the demands by new settlers for seed or feed. Grande Prairie, being an older settlement, was building up surpluses. The winter of 1914-15 saw steel arrive at McLennan, or Round Lake as it was called then.
That fall the settlers organized a crew and cut a road through to Spirit River and the first of supplies were freighted in from Round Lake. My dad went out to Edmonton soon after and purchased supplies for another year, which included a ton of flour and half a ton of sugar. He also purchased supplies for a binder and disc harrow and with the furniture stored in Edmonton a year earlier made up a carload. We had arranged to meet him at Round Lake about March 1. My brother and I took three teams and sleighs to freight in the supplies. The train was four days late, which was not unusual, but the bad part was that it started to Chinook and we were losing snow. By the time we got loaded the snow between us and the Smokey River was practically gone. One item we debated was leaving our piano but we decided to load it and started out. We had to double up for stretches of several miles at a time and it also necessitated driving at night to take advantage of the frost which made traveling easier. The return trip took us ten days and we drove long hours, with the result that our horses were rather thin for starting spring work. The first year was a year of hard work. We got out fence posts, rails, wood and logs and built ourselves four miles of fence, two houses, two barns, besides breaking ninety acres with two walking plows. The following summer was another summer of breaking new land, building root-houses, chicken pens, etc. and I was getting fed up so decided to join the army. Lester and I left Edmonton in the late summer after we had the buildings pretty well up and left dad and the rest to look after things until our return four years later.
We traveled to the end of steel by way of Grande Prairie by wagon and barge and from there by work train to Round Lake and by passenger train from there. Construction was proceeding on the Edmonton Dunvegan line and it soon reached Spirit River. The grade was constructed from Spirit River to the BC boundary just east of Dawson Creek but hopes for steel on that grade faded when Grande Prairie sent a delegation to Edmonton to press for the extension to Grande Prairie. Being an older settlement their arguments carried weight. Their production of grain had increased to the point where they had several million bushels and no market except Spirit River. Being in Alberta they were able to influence their government who naturally were sympathetic and the steel went to Grande Prairie. This was a God send for that district as many farmers were rich in grain but did not have a dollar and were finding it extremely difficult to get money to buy the necessities of life. Because of the war and the scarcity of steel, that ended construction for several years.
During this time the grade to Spirit River proved very valuable as a highway and thousands of bushels of grain and other products were hauled during the winter season. To give you some idea of the volume of traffic at its peak, 600 freight teams a week arrived in Spirit River with loads averaging 100 bushel of wheat per team. Although the long haul averaged five to six days per trip and took a large slice of the cheque for expenses the country was still fairly prosperous. It made a booming town of Spirit River and a large volume of grain and other products were funneled through there.
The next step in railroad construction was the extension to Wembley. In the meantime the road to Wembley was improving so trucks began to take the place of teams. Grain was moving to Spirit River in the winter and Wembley in the summer.
The railway was then extended to Hythe which enjoyed a period of prosperity while it remained the end of steel and practically all the grain was trucked to this point.
Finally came the great day for our district when the steel arrived at Dawson Creek. At 6:30 p.m. on January 15, 1931 the first regular passenger train pulled in and the long haul for many was over. Although some districts are still a long way from railhead the trucks and better roads have made it comparatively easy to market grain, hogs and cattle. The bugbear of the farmer today is still the long haul and we all look forward to the day when this vast north country will get further relief by the completion of the P.G.E. into our great Peace River country with its huge undeveloped resources.
I must apologize for making this talk personal but I am sure the experiences related apply to every family who came in over the Edson Trail or by way of Athabasca. I have used our experiences to try to give you a better picture of the trips the earlier settlers made while moving into the Peace River country.”