by Harry Giles, The Vancouver Province, 1953
For a town to grow from a population of less than 100 to over 5,000 in twenty two years indicates a good prosperous district and progressive businessmen. Dawson Creek, the largest town in the Peace River District of British Columbia and Alberta, has made this growth. In 1930 the present townsite was an oat field and old Dawson Creek a rural trading centre 1-1/2 miles S. W. of the present location. It was on January 15, 1931, that the first passenger train arrived. A number of things, some human, some fortuitous have made this phenomenal growth possible.
The Peace River Country is famous for the consistent yield and the quality of its grains and grasses. Many international championships have been won with its wheat, oats, and rye. The latest championship to be won was the Western Canada Oat award by Joseph C. Gibb of Dawson Creek. Three years ago it was the greatest initial grain shipping point in the British Empire actually shipping out over three million bushels. To handle this amount of grain seven elevators with a storage capacity of 650,000 bushels have been erected. The 1951 estimated acreage and yields in the Peace River District of British Columbia are:
Under cultivation 260,000 acres; Wheat 110,000 acres (25 bushels/acre); Oats 40,000 (40 bushels/acre); Barley 20,000 (40 bush); Flax 5,000 (10 bushels/acre); Hay 1,000; Alfalfa 7,500 (150 lbs./acre); Sweet Clover 1,500 (300 lbs./acre); Altaswede 600 (125 lbs./acre). Hay, pasture, and miscellaneous 12,200 acres; Summer fallow 50,000 acres; New breaking 10,000 acres. Owing to a spell of cold weather at times seed was setting alfalfa and clover did not yield as well as in some years although there were individual fields of alfalfa up to 400 lbs. per acre.
The district is an excellent mixed farming country and a large number of livestock, particularly hogs, are shipped out. During the high prices for livestock over $1,000,000 worth was sold in one year. In 1952 the Dawson Co-operative Shipping Association shipped 9,749 hogs, 198 lambs, and 906 cattle with a total weight of over three million pounds. The value of these shipments was $530,000. Eighty-four and one half percent of the hogs graded either A or B, indicating a good type of hog is being raised by farmers who know their business. Packing house buyers and individual shippers would increase the above figures by about one half, giving a total return of nearly $800,000 excluding the large number of animals sold locally.
The importance of seed growing in the district is recognized by the Alberta Co-operative Seed Growers who erected a new warehouse last year and keep a permanent staff full time. Each fall and winter forage seed buyers from nearly every large firm are to be seen scouring the country for the excellent northern grown seed, the vitality of which is recognized as being superior to that grown on irrigated lands or in a warmer climate. This seed growing industry will be helped considerably this year by the opening of a large honey plant. Bee keeping has been increasing during the past few years and two carloads of honey were shipped in 1952.
The excellence of the Peace River honey so impressed W. H. Turnbull, former chief apiarist in B. C. that when he retired last year he convinced some of his friends at Vancouver that a commercial plant would be a good investment here. They are erecting a steel and aluminum building 80’ x 50’ and have shipped in 1750 colonies of bees and plan to increase to at least 3,000 next year. The plant will be equipped with the latest machinery and the investment this year will be not less than $150,000. Besides extracting their own honey they will have an extracting plant for custom work so that in future years it is expected that more small scale beekeepers will have a few hives. At time of writing about 3,000 colonies have been imported into the district. Given an average year these bees should produce half a million pounds of honey. Production frequently runs from 200 to 300 lbs. per hive with an all over average of 150 lbs. While honey production is of financial importance to the larger apiarist the presence of millions of bees in the legume and grass seed fields will undoubtedly produce a much heavier set of seed.
Although dairying is not carried on to a great extent there is sufficient milk and cream to keep the Northern Alberta Pool Creamery busy.
While there is no comparison between this district and the coast in lumbering there are some excellent stands of spruce and pine. There was between 25 and 30 million board feet shipped out last year. Much of the cut goes to the States and the balance to prairie points.
Fur, the lure which drew the early traders, still plays an important part in the economy of the district. This is one of the largest fur shipping centres in the province.
It is 160 years since Alexander Mackenzie, the first white man to see the upper Peace River, passed this way on his historic journey to the pacific. His trip was not only spectacular but it was the beginning of a tremendous change in the whole of Canada’s northland. Twelve years later his company (the old NorthWest Company now merged with the Hudson’s Bay Co.) established trading posts at various points along the Peace. The first trading post in B.C. was near Fort St. John. This post had several sites at various times and local Historical Societies are endeavoring to establish the exact spots. The second was near Hudson’s Hope and the third was to the west of the Rockies at McLeod Lake.
Simon Fraser opened these posts in 1805. At that time supplies were brought in by way of Hudson’s Bay or Montreal and then by river and portage to their destination. Today planes, trucks, and railways supply these posts in a matter of days instead of months of the hardest kind of labour. It is interesting to note that the “Bay” still have their posts at Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope although now they are department stores rather than trading posts although as in the old days the trapper and hunter can still get all his needs and trade in his pelts.
Until the Klondyke rush in ‘98 there was very little change in this vast land. Occasional travelers and missionaries visited it including General Wm. Butler, Warburton Pike and P.L. Haworth all of whom wrote interesting accounts of their experiences.
In 1898 an attempt was made by gold seekers to reach the fields by an overland route from Edmonton. Few of these ever reached the Yukon. Part of this trail still exists. Today a scheduled bus service will take you to the Yukon over the famous Alaska Highway and planes have a daily service from Edmonton and Vancouver to the scene of the gold rush of 55 years ago. The reports of men who started for the Klondyke and turned back took out glowing accounts of the farming country of the Peace. Some probably stayed and trapped or did a spot of independent trading. But the first real settlers were Hector Tremblay and his wife. In 1898 they opened the trading post at Moberly Lake west of Dawson Creek but in 1906 took up land near what is now the village of Pouce Coupe and opened the first store and Post Office there. Their daughter Lydia, now Mrs. Pat Therrien was the first white child born in the Peace River district of B.C. The N.A.R. (then known as the Edmonton, Dunvegan, and B.C. Railway) reached Spirit River on the Alberta side in 1906 and settlers began to arrive and as the railway progressed the settlement became almost a rush, particularly on the Alberta section. The steel did not reach the British Columbia district until 1931. It is from this date that the history of Dawson Creek really starts.
With the opening of the new townsite the population had probably increased to 250. In 1936 it was decided to incorporate as a village. The business section streets were paved last year and a start on the 1953 program of paving will be made on May 15.
The town owns its own water and sewage plant. Water is obtained from the Kiskatinaw River, 11 miles west of town. The distribution system covers practically the whole town. Automatic pumps do the pumping.
An exceptionally efficient volunteer brigade takes care of fire fighting. Two engines are available; one of which was purchased new a year ago. The promptness and efficiency of the brigade is credited by the inhabitants with keeping fire losses very low.
A new steel and concrete arena capable of seating 3,000 was opened last winter. It is the latest type and has no roof support pillars. Over $100,000 has been spent so far and to complete the building as planned will entail an outlay of a further $50,000. This money has been raised by public subscription.
A fine open-air swimming Pool has been built by community effort. This is a popular place for the children during the warm days of the holidays and is much patronized by adults, weekends and evenings.
Basketball and badminton are popular sports in the fine gymnasium at the high school and the auditorium capable of seating 480 is in constant use.
Nearly everybody in Dawson Creek curls during the winter. They are taken care of by a fine six-sheet rink with a large waiting room.
The school, arena, curling rink, swimming pool, baseball diamond and children’s playground are planned so that this section will ultimately become a civic centre. There is considerable playground space and the creek banks are shady places for picnics in summer.
There is an excellent nine-hole golf course and Country Club two miles from town on the Alaska Highway. Visitors are invited to take advantage of it. There is a small green fee.
A glance at the businesses in Dawson Creek will quickly show the progressive spirit which dominates the town. It is estimated that at least three million dollars is invested in the trucking industry alone. It is very favorably situated for the transportation industry.
It is possible to get into your car at Vancouver and drive to Hay River and Great Slave Lake and then go by boat to Yellowknife or down the Mackenzie River to the Land of the Midnight Sun and Aklavik. If you prefer to see B.C. first you can drive to Dawson Creek and travel by car or bus the full length of the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, Alaska 1523 miles from Dawson Creek. This route takes you through the Klondyke and the Robert Service country. Or if you wish to make a round trip you can come up over the Hart Highway and return via Edmonton and Calgary. This route takes you through the Alberta section of Peace River.
Freight movement on these highways will become heavier with the completion of the new bridge over the Parsnip River on the Hart Highway which should by finished by the middle of this month. The opening of the Hart Highway to full load traffic places Vancouver wholesalers in competitive position with the Alberta houses for the north trade. Shipments to the Arctic may be made via the Nelson and Liard rivers to Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie and thence down to Aklavik. Transshipment may be made at Simpson for upstream to Yellowknife or Goldfields.
Shipments may be made either by truck or booked right through on P.G.E. The latter shipments will be picked up at Prince George by the P.G.E. agents and brought through. The Northern Freightways, who are the P.G.E. agents have a fleet of 36 trucks, many of them large semi-trailers and refrigerated, run a regular scheduled service between Dawson Creek and Edmonton, Peace River, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse and in a few days to Prince George. In cooperation with Lee Transport, who operate 28 trucks, they are planning a schedules run to Vancouver. There is no exclusive franchise on the Hart Highway and as soon as business warrants other lines will be operating. These statistics are gives merely to show coast businessmen that their counterparts here are willing to do their part in promoting business and goodwill between the coast and the north of the province. The Hart Highway has cost the taxpayers of B.C. a lot of money. By using it they can reimburse themselves at least a part of the cost.
Bus services run from Edmonton to Whitehorse, calling at Dawson Creek. Service between Dawson Creek is planned for this month.
Three banks look after financial interests. The Bank of Commerce, a pioneer bank in the Peace; the bank of Toronto and the Bank of Montreal, the latter having opened a branch this year.
In addition to the regular banks there is also a strong Credit Union. In ten years since it started it has grown to a membership of 3 117; shares to $780 142; deposits to $187 287; loans to $953 719 dollars and total assets to one million one hundred and eleven thousand. This year they are erecting an office building for their own use. Besides a number of excellent general stores and special line stores there are two very large departmental stores. Last year the Hudson’s Bay Co. bought out one of the oldest stores in the district from W.O. Harper who had been in business for thirty years and had kept pace with the growth of the district. The other large store is the Dawson Co-operative Union which has also been in operation for thirty years. The sales of the Co-op during 1952 were well over three-quarters of a million dollars and although no figures are released by the Bay it is evident that they also have a heavy volume of sales. Almost anything purchasable in the city can be obtained in Dawson Creek.
Three wholesale grocers have large warehouses and there are two automotive and electrical wholesalers.
A number of first class and well-equipped machine shops and garages can handle any repairs to cars and heavy equipment. No better service station and garages are to be found outside the cities. Most of these are owner managed thereby assuring the customer o courteous treatment.
Wholesale meats bring in considerable revenue. Refrigerator truck service on the highways permits the shipping of fresh meats to practically all points, a fact that the local butchers were not slow to take advantage of.
Besides trucking contractors, many thousands of dollars worth of highway and oil field construction machinery is owned by local contractors, all of which are kept busy.
Oil well supply houses have several warehouses for the convenience of the many oilrigs drilling in the territory served from Dawson Creek.
Hotel and Motel accommodation cannot be surpassed and there are first class dining rooms and restaurants. Several new Motels have recently been or are in the course of being constructed. These are modern in every way with hot and cold water, baths, and natural gas for cooking and heating. The hotel and motel proprietors are proud of the service they give and believe a satisfied customer is their best advertisement. The bringing in and distribution of a water supply and the sewerage disposal plant did much for the health and comfort of the residents and visitors. This system is owned and operated by the village. Probably the most appreciated event was the turning on of the natural gas. Dawson Creek is the only community in B.C. enjoying this amenity. Water connections are 605 but there are 1 200 premises connected with gas.
The B.C. Power Commission supplies light and power to the district. The plant is at Dawson Creek and has an output of three thousand kilowatts. Rural lines supply Pouce Coupe and Rolla. About 11 farms are also connected and as soon as money is available for extensions many more will take service. Total services including rural are seventeen seventy-five.
CJDC, a locally owned one thousand watt radio station, with two weekly newspapers keeps the north country informed by news and advertisements of local and outside happenings. Telegraph service is supplied by the Northern Alberta Railways and by the Government Telegraph service. Telephone connections with any part of the globe where phones are in use is possible through Canadian National Telegraph. Telephone connections in Dawson Creek are 816 with 36 more on private switchboard and 56 rural subscribers and a waiting list of 256 to be connected as soon as permission to hire more operators is granted. A supply of cable is on hand sufficient to give service to many more subscribers.
What does the future hold in store for this part of B.C.? When one considers the advances made in the past with inadequate transportation facilities which amounted to practically isolation and the way the settlers worked and cleared land during the lean thirties one realizes that solid type of pioneers is the foundation of this country. These men held on and made progress under the most depressing conditions. Since better times arrived they have taken full advantage of them. Since the early days they have dreamed of a short route to tidewater and today their hopes are brighter than ever. With the completion of the Parsnip River bridge one dream, that of a highway to the coast, has been realized. However this country will not reach its full development until the P.G.E. is extended from Squamish to Vancouver and from Prince George to connect with the N.A.R. both north and south of the Peace River. While trucks will give excellent service for some goods it is not economically possible for them to transport heavy bulk freight such as grain and coal.
The shorter haul via P.G.E. would reduce transportation charges and assure Vancouver elevators of millions of bushels of grain from B.C. and Alberta. Boxcars could be used twice, possibly three times as often which is quite a consideration at times of boxcar shortage and country elevator congestion. It would give the dairy farmers and poultry men in the Fraser Valley a cheaper supply of feeds. One of the great mutual advantages would be the development of coal mining. It has been told times without number that the coal deposits in the Rocky Mountains of the Peace River area are second only, and a close second, to Pennsylvania anthracite. This coal has over thirteen thousand BTUs and is practically ash and smokeless with more heat to the ton than any other coal in Canada. It could almost eliminate Vancouver’s smog. There are millions of tons of it but high transportation charges prohibit mining except for local use. Tests of coking qualities of this coal were made at Victoria with favorable results. A news item in the Province (February 3,1948) concluded that “if, as is anticipated, the Peace River coals will make a high grade metallurgical coke, such a fact may assist in the future in locating steel furnaces or large smelting works in British Columbia.”
When the West Coast Transmission Co. receives permission to supply the Northwest States with natural gas, Dawson Creek is the proposed gathering point. This will result in subsidiary industries locating in the district. With as abundance of coal, pulp, gas and water chemical industries will be attracted. During the building of the line Dawson Creek will be the northern supply base, which will mean an influx of population many of whom will stay and make their home here.
Millions of dollars are being spent in gas and oil drilling operations all the way from Dawson Creek to hundreds of miles north. The oil companies are not publishing their results but they admit that millions of feet of gas daily have been tapped and “some” oil and they still are pouring a tremendous amount of money into more wells.
With all these natural resources, with virile pioneer type of inhabitants, at the centre of northern transportation, with some of the most beautiful and romantic country in Canada, who can prophesy the future? Today it is one of the brightest spots in the Dominion. It is a country with a past and also a future; a country for either work or a holiday; a country full of hope and aspiration. Many residents remember the growth of the prairies and while not wildly optimistic, I see every reason for Dawson Creek to grow in a like manner.