By Harry Giles in the Dawson Creek Star, Nov. 21, 1959
The story of Dawson Creek presents problems to the historian. Not because the start is lost in legends of the past but knowing exactly how that start actually took place. Cities do not just “happen”. There must be a reason for them being where they are. In telling the story of Dawson Creek it is necessary to go back into what are known as pre-historic times for it was then that the foundations for the developments of the Peace River Country as we know them today were laid. Remains of prehistoric monsters have been found and no fewer than eight species of dinosaur were known to roam through the district. The tremendous deposits of high-grade coal in the foothills on the east of the Rocky Mountains establishes the fact that the Peace River Country was at one time covered with tropical flora and fauna. The Ice Age destroyed our tropics but in receding left the wonderful soil upon which the prosperity of the country started. Mighty upheavals left minerals and time created the marvelous oil and gas pools. What happened between these times and 1793 is known, in part, only to geologists. For as far as is known, no white men visited the district until that date. It was in 1793 that Alexander Mackenzie and his companions on their historic overland trip to the Pacific journeyed up the Peace River.
The journey of Mackenzie changed the economic picture of this vast hinterland. Not suddenly, but it was his report that sent Simon Fraser in Mackenzie’s tracks to establish trading posts in the area in 1805.
Two posts were established on the Peace River in what is now known as the British Columbia District of the Peace River. These were at Fort St. John and Hudson Hope. After crossing the Rockies, Fraser opened another post at McLeod Lake. Fort St. John was the first trading post to be established in B.C. and McLeod Lake the first west of the Rockies. These two points still have Hudson Bay stores. The company has property at Hudson Hope but the store is closed.
During the 1800’s the occasional traveler journeyed through the country. The best know, as they left records of their trip, were Gen. W. Butler, Warburton Pike and P.L. Howarth. However, the trader and the Indian had the country to themselves until the Klondyke rush of 1898 when gold seekers attempted an overland journey from Edmonton. It was a hazardous trip and many died on the trail and others turned back. Some of these eventually settled in the Peace River Country. The first white settlers in the B.C. section were Hector Tremblay and his wife. They operated a store at Moberly Lake in 1889. Eight years later they took up land near where the village of Pouce Coupe now stands. They opened the first post office and trading post there later. The first white child born in the district was their daughter Lydia, who married Pat Therrien. That, in brief, is the background of Period I, of the story of Dawson Creek.
The Second Period opens at the close of World War One. Previous to this, settlers had been drifting into the Alberta section and a few into what was known as the Pouce Coupe Prairie (which included the Dawson Creek area).
Many of these had traveled over the trail from Edson 122 miles west of Edmonton on the C.N.R. and then 250 miles overland, a trip tough enough to try the fortitude of the strongest. Others came in via Athabasca, 100 miles north of Edmonton, then west by river and Lesser Slave Lake to Grouard at the west end of the lake and the remainder of the journey overland to their destination. After the 1918 armistice a large number of discharged British soldiers came to the B.C. section and settled in the Sunset Prairie district twenty to thirty miles west of what is now the City of Dawson Creek. The Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (now Northern Alberta) had reached Spirit River two years before. This was approximately 70 miles from the Pouce Coupe Prairie. It was to accommodate these and other settlers who were now coming in that the first Dawson Creek hamlet was started. The location was about 1-1/2 miles southwest from the centre of the present city. The late George Hart (afterwards owner of the Hart Hotel in Pouce Coupe) opened the first store on his homestead a short distance from the original hamlet. In 1919 the late Wm. S. Bullen and Tom McRae Ray opened a store on Bullen’s land in 1920. Bill Bullen built a hotel which burned down soon after it opened. He immediately rebuilt and it served travelers for a number of years. “Bill” was one of the greatest boosters Dawson Creek and district ever had. He always had faith that it would become the leading city in the Peace River Country. Unfortunately he died just at the commencement of the building of the Alaska Highway and did not see the development for which he always worked and hoped. He was the first President of the Dawson Creek Board of Trade (1928).
It is impossible in one article to give a list of all the old timers to whom we owe so much. Many did not live to see the progress, which they were sure, was bound to come. The names of a few come to mind and are worth mentioning. Wm. A. Reasbeck, butcher hotelkeeper, farmer and for many years President of the Dawson Creek Athletic Association and the Board of Trade, Chairman of the Village Commissioners besides being active in other organizations. E.L. Hauger, farmer and for many years manager of the Dawson Cooperative Association. He joined the Co-op in its early days in the old hamlet and built up a sound business. When he resigned a few years ago sales were more than half a million dollars annually. He was a man trusted and respected by all. Harry B. Gibson well known hunter and guide and one of the earliest settlers. Mrs. Catherine Edwards (Aunt Kate to all), who died in 1951 and has already become almost a legend, was friend and nurse to everyone in need. A.W. Harper and his sons who came in over the Edson Trail have left their impression on the life of the community. An account of their trip and early days here will be found in a separate story in this edition. W.O. (Wes) Harper, one of the sons, operated a store in the old hamlet and moved to the new when the railway came. The New Palace Hotel now occupies his first store here. Later he moved to the site of the Hudson’s Bay Store to whom he sold out. The full story – if it could be obtained of each of the old timers – would make a volume.
From 1919 to 1930 the old hamlet grew slowly, just enough to care for the needs of the sparse community.
Period Three starts at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, January 15, 1931, when the first regular passenger train arrived at Dawson Creek over the Northern Alberta Railway. Although the next decade is often called the “hungry thirties” the new village continued a slow but steady growth. The winter of 1930-31 was mild and nearly all the buildings at the old site were moved to the new. The population of the old hamlet was estimated at 100. By the time the new one had settled down it boasted about 250. Amongst new buildings erected were five grain elevators, which clearly indicates that the settlers and homesteaders had not been sitting idle waiting for the railway.
By 1936 the population had increased to over 500 and on May 26 a charter of incorporation as a village was granted. The first Commissioners were Geo. M. Bisset, W.O. Harper and A.S. Chamberlain, who, although not active in municipal affairs are still living here. The boundaries of the village at this time were the N.A.R. right of way on the north, what is now Fourth Avenue [104th] on the south, Twelfth Street on the west and the Pouce Coupe Road (Eighth St.) on the east enclosing approximately 50 acres. The present city includes 2,606 acres within its boundaries and several sub-divisions are applying for admission. Population has increased until there are now over 10,000 within its borders. The material growth can be seen by assessment and taxation figures. The assessed value in the first full year of operation as a village (1937) was Land 20,535; Improvements 161, 407; there were 70 trade licenses — mostly $5 each and total receipts for village were $1,813.
Compare these figures with 1958. Assessed value of land and improvements $1,750,686; Taxes collectable general $499,650; School (school taxes were not collected by village) $209,968; Trade Licenses 536 producing $30,702; other permits, etc. $23,400; Water revenue &185,000; Capital expenditure (debentures) $1,250,600; Capital expenditure out of revenue $143,500. Tax rate: general 20 mils and school 23.06 mils. Hospital 4.09. Taxes are levied on full assessed value of land and on 75% of improvements. Building permits during 1957 were valued at $3,206,196 of which $1,809,330 was for residences. Building permits till October 31, 1958 (10 months) were $2,486,139 of which residences accounted for $1,253,558. From inquiries at the Building Inspector’s office it is estimated that there will be another $200,000 before the end of the year. Although it is not expected that 1958 will reach the total of 1957, prospects for 1959 are very bright. Building permits for that year which have not been issued but for which estimated figures have been submitted total over $5,000,000. This does not include residential but does cover new hospital, shopping centre, bank building, church, civic centre, low cost housing project, bakery and health unit. Other buildings proposed but for which no estimate has been given include seed warehouse, Pacific Great Eastern buildings, Department of Mines project, and cement block factory. A bylaw asking for $150,000 to complete the interior of the Memorial Arena will be submitted to the ratepayers in December and if passed will add this amount to the permits. The year 1958 saw much work done on the streets. There are now 7.66 miles of paved streets, 44 miles of graveled streets, and 9 1/4 miles of sidewalks. The city has a net investment in capital assets of $3,202,500 and a surplus in revenue assets of $30,000.
The capital surplus in Waterworks account is $1,675,000 and the waterworks account shows an earned surplus of $64,000. Water is obtained from the Kiskatinaw River eleven miles west of the city. Reservoirs hold ample storage in case of emergency. The entire system is owned by the city. Besides the main line to the city there are 29-1/2 miles of distribution lines and 1,500 connections.
The debenture debt of the city at the end of 1958 will be less than two million of which all but $670,000 is left liquidating.
Fire protection is well provided; so well that the underwriters classify the city as a class A risk – equal to the larger cities in the province. Rate on dwellings is 45 cents per $100 on buildings and 50 cents on contents for three years. Business rates vary with the risk.
Light and Power are supplied by the B.C. power Commission. A most modern plant using natural gas as fuel has available power of 11,000 kWh, with a peak load at the present time to 6,800 kWh Power lines for rural users extend from Doe River in the North to Tomslake in the south and extensions to other districts are being studied. Altogether there are 3,500 connections south of the Peace River. Fort St. John, north of the Peace, is also served by the Dawson Creek plant with 1,800 connections. The commission has 420 miles of transmission lines in the district and serves 400 farms. Rates are reasonable. The average for residences is 3.63; commercial 3.15 and for power 2.86.
The growth of population, both urban and rural, is evident by the number of schools. It is a far cry from the original one-room log school which served Dawson Creek prior to the arrival of the railway, to the eight modern schools of today.
At the present time the city is served by one Senior High (attendance 400); one Junior High (502); five Elementary (1676) as well as two Kindergarten classes. A dormitory capable of taking care of 70 pupils is filled to capacity. 11 buses transport pupils from the surrounding territory. One hundred teachers are engaged in Dawson Creek public schools. The South Peace School District extends from the height of land (Rockies) in the west to the Alberta boundary in the east and from the Peace River in the north to Kelly Lake in the south. There is a modern school at Pouce Coupe with an enrollment of 195 and there are 28 rural schools, mostly with teacherages, with an attendance of 900. The capital value of city schools is $2,608,196 and their contents of $207,454. The dormitory and administration buildings are valued at $244,754.
Notre Dame School, operated by the Sisters of Providence, is a modern up-to-date building with an attendance of 330. In addition to grades up to 12 it has commercial and music classes which are filled. The training given in these classes is highly regarded. The capital value of the building is over 300,000. It also has accommodation for 30 boarders.
Another valuable asset to the city and district is the Provincial Health Unit with a staff of one Medical Officer, one Sanitary Inspector, and six nurses. Besides the city, The Health Unit covers a territory extending from Atlin (via Whitehorse) in the northwest corner of B.C. to Kelly Lake, a length of about 1,100 miles and from the Parsnip River in the west to the Alberta boundary, a width of 175 miles. In covering this vast territory in 1957 the staff traveled 67,903 miles by car and approximately 2,000 by air.
The school population served in this district is upwards of 6,000. Besides school inspections, pre-school and infants clinics are held. The attendance at these last year was 7,120. The growing demand for this is shown by a comparison with five years ago.
In 1953 the miles traveled was less that 47,000; school population was 3,285 and attendance at clinics was 2,150. The attendance at the clinics, which is voluntary, shows that these services are appreciated. Calls are often made on the staff from outlying points not always accessible by car in all weathers. The Public Health Unit in the Peace district has since its inception maintained the high tradition of their profession.
Two years ago the Rotary Club built twelve cabins suitable for housing twenty-four pensioners. The project known as Rotary Harbor rents to old age pensioners for $25 per month for single or $48 per couple. The buildings are wonderfully equipped, each cabin having an electric range and refrigerator and bathroom, hot and cold water, plenty of cupboard space, chesterfield suite, dining room suite, etc. All the pensioner has to supply is dishes, cooking utensils and bedding. Heat and all utilities are included in the rent. The administration building has an assembly room, hi-fi radio, electric washer and drier. Arrangements have been made for a branch of the Public Library to open there in the very near future. There is lots of garden land for any who care to grow their own vegetables. Most of them have their own flowerbeds. Needless to say all rooms are occupied.
Sports are well taken care of. There is a new curling rink with eight sheets of ice, plenty of room for spectators and splendid dance floors and kitchen upstairs.
A new Memorial Arena takes care of hockey, ice shows etc, in the winter and is used for other shows throughout the year. It is of steel and concrete construction and when finished inside will have seating accommodations for about 3,000. The original arena built a few years ago, mainly by public subscription, was totally destroyed by fire. The arena and the curling rink have an artificial ice plant making them independent of the weather. Senior and junior hockey teams make full use of the arena. Senior baseball teams have a good ballpark while junior and midget teams have their own grounds. An excellent swimming pool is in constant use during the summer with a full time instructor in attendance. Children’s playgrounds and a paved Soap Box Derby ramp are looked after by the Kinsmen. A fine nine-hole golf course and Country Club has been laid out at the edge of town. Visitors are welcome to use it on payment of a small green fee. The Annual fair is quite an event and is usually held in mid-August. So successful has the fair become that it will probably be raised to Class B. status next year. The grounds are adjoining the city and have a half-mile racetrack, judging ring; permanent buildings for housing of live stock and other exhibits. Basketball and badminton are played in the splendid High school gymnasium. The excellent Auditorium also in the High School seats nearly 500. Besides being used by local talent for Drama Festivals, Band Concerts, Musical concerts, it is used by many outstanding visiting artists. The local Overture Concert Association has arranged for several concerts for the coming season.
The Dawson Creek Library is very well patronized and contains 3,500 volumes.
In addition it has available 25,000 books in the B.C. Library Commission’s library in the city. The Library Commission circulates books through all schools in School Districts Nos. 59 and 60.
The fuel for heating and cooking in the city is supplied by natural gas from wells a few miles N.E. of a cost to domestic users of $3.00 minimum for the first 4,000 cubic feet and 45 cents per MCF for all above the minimum. Special rates are in effect for commercial and industrial users. Dawson Creek was the first place in British Columbia to be served by natural gas. The ceremony of “turning on the gas” took place on October 31, 1950.
Besides being the terminus of the Northern Alberta Railway, serving the country between here and Edmonton, it is also the terminus of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway giving a direct route to Vancouver. This railway was completed this summer. The short haul (compared with 1266 miles via Edmonton) has cut freight rates to the coast to less than half. First class L.C.L. is now $2.32 per 100 lbs. to or from Vancouver.
As stated earlier, 536 Trade Licenses have been issued in the city. These cover practically every business necessary for the community. Wholesale groceries, auto parts, heavy construction machinery, fully equipped machine shops, high-class department stores, specialty stores, right down to hobby shops. No place north of Edmonton can compare with Dawson Creek in the fine buildings and variety of stores. The Dawson Co-operative Union, one of the two big department stores, had a sales record in 1957 of over one million dollars. The other – the Hudson’s Bay Company – probably did as much business, if not more, but their figures are not available.
These two stores have recently been rebuilt and are modern in every way. If one mentioned all the recently built, rebuilt or modernized places it would mean making a list of the majority of business premises. Mention should be made of the hotels. They will bear comparison with those found in any town even of much greater size than Dawson Creek.
The financial affairs of the district are well looked after by five chartered banks: Commerce, Toronto Dominion, Montreal, Nova Scotia and the Royal. Besides these the Lake View Credit Union does a large banking business. At September 30 this year the membership stood at 5,500 holding $1,900,00 in shares; on deposit in checking accounts $800,000; loans outstanding $2,500,000 and assets of $3,076,000. A very good showing for fifteen years in business.
Transportation is a very important industry in this city and several millions of capital is tied up in this business. Direct trucking service is available to Edmonton, Whitehorse (YT), Prince George (and from there to Prince Rupert), Vancouver, Peace River, Yellowknife (NWT) and other points. It is no idle boast that Dawson Creek is the Cross-Roads of the North. The Hart Highway ends at Dawson Creek and the Alaska Highway begins here. Highways lead to Edmonton and to Peace River to connect with the Mackenzie Highway to the North West Territories. Anything can be shipped by road from Dawson Creek to the Yukon and Alaska or to the North West Territories and to all parts of Canada and the U.S.A.
Communication around the world is now possible by telephone and telegraphs. The Northwest Telephone Company bought out the old Dominion Telegraphs and installed a modern dial system with contacts to nearly the whole globe. There are 3,500 subscribers in the city. Complete telegraph service is available by the Northern Alberta Railway systems.
A new Federal Building was completed this year and houses the Post Office, Unemployment Insurance Commission, Veterans Land Act offices, etc. Letter delivery service was started this year with a staff of six carriers.
The Hospital which has served the district since the early thirties is now badly overcrowded but the Sisters of Providence are giving a splendid service under a heavy handicap. Plans are about completed and the bylaw has been approved for a new hospital costing over two million dollars. Work will start in the spring of 1959 as soon as weather permits. It will have 100 beds when completed.
It was Agriculture that put this part of the country on the map originally. Prizes for coarse grains, grasses, clover, Honey, etc. at Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and other points called attention to the wonderful soil and climate (and personnel) that could produce such wonderful exhibits. Then in 1950 Dawson Creek was acknowledged the major initial grain shipping point in the British Empire when over 3-1/2 million bushels of grain was carried from her by N.A.R. It demonstrated that this country not only could produce high-class grain but also could produce it in quantity. Recently with gas, oil and other developments, agriculture has not been so much to the fore in the news. But it is still a major influence in the economy of the Peace River country. Dawson Creek has eight elevators with storage capacity of over one million bushels. The farming population is still growing and more land is being brought under cultivation each year.
The present uncertainty of the grain market is bringing about changes and more are going in for diversified farming. The present year with a hot dry summer was not favorable for heavy yields but the quality is excellent and the protein content of the wheat is high. The following statistics will show that even in the year of light yields this district will compare favorably with other sections of the west. The estimated total yields for the South Peace River District for 1958 is Wheat 500,000 bushels, Barley 1,500,000 bushels, Oats 1,300,000 bushels, Flax 125,000 bushels and Rye 25,000 bushels.
|Wheat 30,000||18 bush.||Alfalfa 1,000||150 lbs.|
|Oats 35,000||40 bush||Sweet Clover 1,000||250 lbs.|
|Barley 55,000||28 bush||Alta Swede 2,500||150 lbs.|
|Flax 15,000||10 bush||Alsike 3,500||350 lbs.|
|Rye 1,500||18 bush||Fescue 6,000||250 lbs.|
|Hay 40,000||75,000 tons||Brome 500||200 lbs.|
|Pasture 30,000||Timothy 500||150 lbs.|
|Summerfallow 50,000||Blue Grass 1,000||150 lbs.|
|New Breaking 5,000||Crested wheat Grass 100||200 lbs.|
1. Hogs 9,138
– Grade A 25,98%
– Grade B 50.25%
– Grade C 12.36%
– Other Grades 11.04%
2. Cattle 2,450
3. Lambs 408
– Weight of all livestock 4,545,790 lbs.
4. Value of livestock shipped $730,691.
5. Dairying Milk sold 3,533,925 lbs.
There is still room for more dairying as it was necessary to ship in 100,000 lbs. of milk besides cream and butter.
Honey producing has increased during the past few years. The average yield of 140 lbs. per hive made a total yield of nearly 200 tons.
While there is no comparison between this country and the Coast in lumbering it plays a part in the local economy. Approximately 40 million board feet were shipped in 1957. Railway ties also find winter employment for a number of men and small mills. The average annual cut being 200,000.
Period four really begins in March 1942 when a start was made on the famous Alaska Highway. This is not the place to retell the story of the construction but to say a few words about the effect it had on Dawson Creek. A village with a population of 750 had thousands of civilian workers and soldiers invading it almost overnight and until the completion of the highway at the end of 1943 it was a real boomtown – except that the R.C.M.P. kept law and order in a very creditable manner. Many predicted that finish of the highway would be the finish of the boom. But the village continued to expand. It lost hundreds of transients but kept a lot of solid homemakers. There seemed to be work for all. The trucking industry which was fully occupied during the building period found there was a lot of freighting to be done up and down the highway and to Edmonton and other outside points. The disastrous dynamite explosion on Feb. 13, which completely wrecked one whole block and shattered glass all over the town gave the merchants an opportunity to rebuild with more permanent premises.
This is one reason why one sees so few “western” storefronts which are prevalent in many towns. Dawson Creek with all its advantages was bound to grow but there is not doubt that the building of the Alaska Highway hurried the growth tremendously.
The construction of the Hart Highway and completion of the P.G.E. have also helped. The arrival of the N.A.R. really started progress.
All that is lacking now is a direct air service. We are looking forward to this when the new airfield is finished.
The story of Dawson Creek is still in its early chapters. May it never end.
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