It was the old NorthWest Company that founded the first trading posts in the Peace River District. In 1805 Simon Fraser — while on his way to establish the first trading post west of the Rockies at McLeod Lake — opened up posts at Fort St. John and Hudson Hope. At McLeod Lake he left a party in charge of LaMalice — which is probably a nickname — and returned to spend the winter at Hudson Hope which in those days was on the south side of the river. The first manager of the Hudson Hope Post was John Stuart and with him he had an apprentice named McKenzie, a trader named McDougall and about thirty men.
In the early days supplies for the posts at Hudson Hope and Fort St. John were brought in by way of Montreal or Hudson Bay and then by river and portage. This is quite a contrast to present day methods when heavy trucks deliver grain to the elevators at Dawson Creek and return with supplies.
Except for a few occasional travelers including General Wm. Butler, Warburton Pike and P.L. Harworth — all of whom wrote interesting accounts of their experiences — the country was left to the fur traders for many years. During the Klondyke Gold rush some attempted to reach the gold fields from Edmonton by this route and up to a few years ago there was a good pack trail on the north side of the Peace west of Fort St. John known as the Klondyke trail but few ever reached the Yukon or returned. It was then a rough unfriendly country and taxed the skill of experienced frontiersmen but today there is a scheduled bus service from Dawson Creek through the Yukon and Alaska.
The first white settlers in the Peace River District of British Columbia were Mr. and Mrs. Hector Tremblay. In 1898 they were at Moberly Lake but in 1906 moved to near what is now known as the village of Pouce Coupe where they took up land and also opened up the first trading post and Post Office there. The first white child born in the district was their daughter Lydia who married Pat Therrien.
At the close of the first war settlement really started in the British Columbia District of the Peace River country. Settlers had been coming in, especially to the Alberta section, over the Edson Trail — a grueling trip of three hundred and fifty miles. Others had followed the Athabasca-Grouard route. In 1916 the Edmonton, Dunvegan & British Columbia Railway (now Northern Alberta Railway) reached Spirit River only seventy miles from the Pouce Coupe Prairie and the tempo of the influx speeded up.
The period of agricultural development starts at this time and although the Peace River District is near the top of wild fur production in B.C. and is likely to remain so for many years, food production is now the major industry. The production of food has played a part in the life of fur traders since the establishment of trading posts. In 1809 Daniel Williams Harmon writing in his diary at Dunvegan says: “May 6th. We have planted our potatoes and sowed most of our garden seeds.” June 2nd. “The seeds which we sowed in the garden have sprung up and grow remarkable well.” July 21st. “We have cut down our barley and I think it is the finest I have ever seen in any country. The soil on points of land above the Peace is excellent.”
The agricultural possibilities of the Peace was called to the attention of the outside by Professor John Macoun in 1882 and by William Ogilvie in 1884 but inaccessibility made farming impracticable.
As stated earlier is was after the steel reached Spirit River that settlement speeded up and each advance of the railway brought in more settlers. The original route of the railway was northwest from Spirit River to the Rolla District and much of this grade was built, but for some reason never satisfactorily explained, the route was changed. The steel was left at Spirit River, Alberta, but from Rycroft the line was carried south to Grande Prairie. This was much farther from the B.C. setters than Spirit River but the abandoned railway grade did make a road for hauling freight and grain. The next extension was to Wembley and then to Hythe, which was closer than Spirit River. At 6:30 p.m. on January 15th, 1931 the first regular passenger train arrived at Dawson Creek. In spite of the Depression, the district continued to prosper. True, times were tough and some gave up in despair but there was no mass exodus. Prices were at below production costs — No. 1 wheat selling for less than 20 cents per bushel and livestock was not worth shipping out. Vegetables and meat were plentiful and some way or other money was found for such necessities as had to be shipped in. The hardy type of pioneer stayed with it and today the majority of them are comfortably fixed and some well off.
What type of men were they whose faith in the country held through the vicissitudes of life in a new country hundreds of miles from so-called amenities or civilization? Perhaps two outstanding names occur to the old timers when they think of the past days. One is George Hart and the other is William S. Bullen, both of who have passed on in recent years. Hart opened up a store on his homestead a short distance from where the first village called Dawson Creek was located. He was an outstanding figure in the early days and was well known far and wide for his genial hospitality and friendliness to every one. His memory will be long cherished by those who were his guests at the Hart Hotel which he built at Pouce Coupe after leaving the homestead. “Bill” Bullen, an old country Scotsman was — in season and out — an ardent booster of the country of his adoption and willing to back it. In 1919 he opened a store at Dawson Creek and in 1920 a hotel which burned down shortly afterwards but was immediately rebuilt. He bought and shipped cattle, laid out a half-mile racetrack and was largely instrumental in organizing the first stampede in 1922. He organized the Old Timers’ association and was active in many other ways in the development of the town and district. Unfortunately he died just at the commencement of the building of the Alaska Highway and did not see the immense development for which he was always working.
Space does not permit the mentioning of many others who in various ways contributed to making this country what it is today. The number of the real old pioneers in gradually dwindling but there are still some with us. Amongst these we have Mrs. Catherine Edwards (Aunt Kate to everybody) who was a doctor, nurse and midwife to anyone needing her. She was a real frontier woman who could look after her own cattle on the range and find her way through the bush and do practically anything expected of a woman without losing her woman’s touch.
One other name closely linked with the progress of Dawson Creek is Wm. Reasbeck. In 1922 he opened a butcher shop in old Dawson Creek, afterwards going into the hotel business which he continued in the new town. He was for many years president of the Athletic Association, the Board of Trade and Chairman of the Village Commissioners besides being active in many other organizations. He gave freely of his time to any worthwhile cause. About 1939 he sold the hotel and moved to his farm just west of town but ill health caused him to seek a lower altitude and he is now living in Vancouver.
The first church to be erected in the Peace River Block was St. Paul’s Anglican at Kilkerran, a few miles north of the old town. It was dedicated by the late Bishop duVernet of Caledonia. The first vicar was Rev. Kerr, whose parish included the whole of the Peace River District in B.C. This church is still in use. Since then Anglican churches have been erected at Dawson Creek, Pouce Coupe, Rolla and Sunset Prairie on the south side of the Peace, and at Fort St. John, Taylor and Hudson’s Hope on the north. Other denominations now firmly established in the district include Roman Catholic, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Latter Day Saints and the Salvation Army. Shortage of ministers has curtailed services in some of the districts.
Research here has failed to find the date of the first school opened [note: the first official school opened in 1915], but it is believed to have been at Pouce Coupe. The oldest school now in use is at Saskatoon Creek and it was built in 1924. In the whole of the B.C. Peace River District in 1927 there were 16 schools with 17 teachers and an enrollment of 246 in elementary grades and 12 taking high school at Rolla. Ten years later (1937) there were 54 schools and 62 teachers, with an enrollment of 1288 elementary and 37 high school students. In 1947 there were 72 schools and 103 teachers with an enrollment of 1753 elementary and 386 high school pupils.
As might be expected, medical services were lacking in the early days but at the present time compare very favorably with any section of the west. The first doctor in the B.C. section was a Dr. Scott in Pouce Coupe in 1916 but it was not until 1920 that a permanent doctor settled in the district. In that year Dr. W.A. Watson who had returned from overseas commenced practice at Pouce Coupe. He was the only doctor in this large area with settlements scattered from Pouce Coupe to Hudson Hope and from east of Rolla to west of the Pine River. Old timers will tell of many trips in the cold and stormy weather by this doctor and it is said that he never refused to call at anytime although in the early days payment in cash was very unlikely.
The need for a hospital was great in the early days and as might be expected, the Red Cross was first in the field. In 1921 a small Red Cross Outpost Hospital was opened at Pouce Coupe with Miss Collins as matron. It is recorded that Mrs. Tom Jamieson was the first patient. She is a real pioneer and the wife of one of the earlier settlers who homesteaded near Hudson Hope and who was the first man to receive his patent from the government. Both she and her husband are now living at Pouce Coupe where Mr. Jamieson had been very prominent in agricultural and community affairs.
Later the Red Cross opened another outpost at Grand Haven near Fort St. John on the north side. This is now closed but two others have been opened up –one at Cecil Lake and the other at Hudson Hope. Some years ago the Hospital at Pouce Coupe was taken over by the community and now a modern building is being erected to serve this large and growing district.
The Sisters of Providence built a fine hospital at Fort St. John in 1931 which has since been considerably enlarged and in 1932 a splendid hospital with 20 beds was opened in Dawson Creek with the Sisters of the same order in charge. The accommodation has since been increased and the Sisters are considering building a larger hospital as soon as suitable site can be secured. The present building was erected by the people in the community mainly through the efforts of W.S. Bullen and Father Serrand. Sister M. Ange was the first Superior at Dawson Creek and Sister M. Gilbert at Fort St. John.
In the early days of the settlement of the Peace River Block the pioneers, believing in the promises of the government leaders and railway officials to give them transportation came hundreds of miles from railhead, broke up their land and brought in livestock. Then they tightened their belts and swallowed some more promises. Realizing that they had a country second to none for both grain-growing and stock raising, these early pioneers cleared and broke land and increased their herds.
When the railway, instead of continuing in the northwesterly direction to Rolla turned south to Grande Prairie, high hopes were dashed, but the abandoned railway grade make winter hauling possible. It was to this point that surplus grain and livestock had to be hauled or driven. It is a wonder that any livestock was shipped in those days. It was a four-day trip from Rolla or Pouce Coupe to Spirit River. Cattle were usually driven but hogs had to be hauled by sleigh or wagon. There were no arrangements made for feeding or watering on the train, and it was often three days between loading at Spirit River and unloading at Edmonton.
Mr. Tom Jamieson, Pioneer cattleman of the Block spoke of a carload of cattle he shipped in those days. He was in Edmonton when they arrived and said he did not recognize them. They had been three days and two nights on the train when it arrived at Edmonton but as there was no night crew at the E.D. & B.C. yards, they did not get the stock until next morning. After much protesting against this cruelty and the heavy loss suffered by the shipper, and eventually taking up the matter with the Railway Commissioners the situation was improved.
In 1921 the Dawson Creek farmers had started a small co-operative retail store on the old townsite southwest of the present town and all freight was hauled in winter from railhead by team and sleigh. By the latter half of the twenties it was proving a success and growing numerically and financially stronger. In 1946 their silver anniversary was celebrated.
Back in the twenties the farmers had begun saying, ” If we can run a retail business successfully under these adverse conditions why can’t we run a selling organization along the same lines?”
Who put forward the idea does not show in the records but no doubt G.C. (Goldie) Wertenbaker — a co-operator who practiced what he preached and one of the real old timers of the district — would be one of the prime instigators. He lived long enough to see both the retail and the selling organizations grow into strong and sound businesses.
At the 1931 annual meeting the name Shipping Association was adopted. This association has no shares, but is strictly co-operative. Membership costs one dollar and profits after reserves and other expenses are taken care of are divided among the shipper members. Patronage dividends as high as 10 cents per 100 pounds have been paid. Today the organization has a membership of nearly 2,000 and owns an office building downtown as well as its own shipping pens and stock sheds.