It was the venerable old-timer, Ivor Johnson of Little Boulder area who started us researching both of these names. Mr. Johnson had said in passing, referring to the area where his father had farmed and where Ivor himself has operated a little store for many years, “This was the Burns Block, you know.” The interviewer, familiar with the place since the 1940’s didn’t know.
Mr. Johnson explained that he grew up in the ranching country around the Calgary, and knew Burns well. Sometime around 1910 Burns was somehow persuaded that the Pine River Valley was outstanding as cattle country. Two things probably sparked Burns’ interest. He was already making a fortune providing beef for the work crews and dining car passengers of the Transcontinental C.P.R. There had been talk of, and many surveys made, for another railway, “The Grand Trunk Pacific” to cross by the Northern Pine Pass route which the C.P.R. had long since abandoned in favour of the Kicking Horse Pass. Periodically construction was announced as about to happen almost immediately, especially at election times. Ever on the lookout for better grazing land and markets, Burns could have “killed two birds with one stone” if a ranching enterprise could be established before the railway set up its camps. Settlers would, of course, follow the railway through the Pine Pass, long since pronounced to be the easiest route to the west coast.
The optimistic informant knew that Frank Treadwell and a few others had already been raising both cattle and horses in the area. He could observe them grazing on the lush grasses in the flats along the river and, as the winter wore on, feeding with the deer on the grassy, sun-exposed south slopes of the nine-hundred-foot hills enfolding the Pine Valley. He brought back to Burns a glowing report that cattle could “rustle” all winter, without any necessity for the ranchers’ growing or putting up feed. It must have been one of the warm and open winters that occasionally happen, with little snow and many Chinook winds. Something like 1931 or 1925-26. The winter of 1910 was very mild.
Burns went into action, but certain difficulties faced him. In order to secure the grazing land that he wanted it was necessary to buy or lease it from the Province of B.C., or from owners. In order to register a lease the land had to be surveyed. At the time, apparently, one individual might pre-empt no more than a section of land — one mile square containing six hundred and forty acres. Moreover, the “Peace River Block” was reserved by the Dominion and was not open for homesteading or for “pre-emption” as it was called by B.C. The boundary of the Block extended on the southwest to a point about as far west as the mouth of today’s Hasler Creek, and a short distance north. As if planned that way for Burns’ good fortune, the lush valley of the Pine lay south, outside the Block, from a point between five and six miles east of Fable Creek. Also the river did not bend North until after that corner of the Block was passed. All Burns needed was an unencumbered strip of land two miles wide and about twenty miles long, owned by forty individuals who would have this remote area surveyed and then leased it to him! It looked like an impossible dream, except that he seems to have found an agent, Joe Longton, who could make it come true.
Here fortune favored Burns again. Just outside the Dominion-reserved Peace River Block a person could make an application to buy or lease land by planting a stake anywhere in an easily recognized place. This stake was then used as a reference point, for describing the desired piece of land by defining its boundaries in terms of length and direction.
The plot could be any size or shape, and need not conform to any adjoining piece. On the prairies, and in the Peace River Block, the surveyors laid out a regular grid of east-west lines, intersected by north-south ones — as precise as a checkerboard.
Another curious things about the B.C. land survey, is the system of numbering pieces of land in order of time of application. In other words, if a person at the north end of Vancouver Island applies one day to register a lot “by metes and bounds” he may be the ten-thousandth person to do so. The next applicant, possibly in a remote valley some distance from Fort Nelson, will get the number 10001, and the next, perhaps near Trail, will be 10002. It makes for a land-searchers nightmare which gives inspectors headaches, and which is still in use. The fact that some parcels of land along the Pine still bear the original lot numbers gave us a clue to the position of the old “Burns Block” — a term now almost forgotten.
Then a remarkable coincidence occurred. On June 16, 17 and 18, 1910, forty men and women in all walks of life from Ontario to Vancouver all gave notice that they intended to ask for permission to purchase land exactly one mile square. The parcels would be in a continuous but zigzag strip running twenty-one miles, straddling the Pine River all the way. Considering that one could count the white men who trapped there almost on one hand, and that there was no road to speak of beyond Dunvegan, and that they all measured their piece from a post planted at the mouth of “Fable Creek”, it was a triple or quadruple coincidence. This was suggested by Mr. W. A. Taylor, B.C. Chief of the Legal Surveys Division, when he answered this writer’s question about the so-called “Burns Block”. (See original article in the Calverley Collection for the appendix)
Mr. Ivor Johnson gave a hint of the solution to the question — he said that Pat Burns was reputed to have paid for the survey himself, with the intention of leasing from the applicants. It was a neat ingenious scheme, which makes one wonder how he rounded up the forty people, and for what “consideration”.
In the summer of 1911 the Dominion Government sent surveyors into the Peace River Block because a number of settlers wanted title to lands around Rolla and Pouce Coupe. These lands were surveyed in the regular grid form used on the prairies. Then the forty parcels numbered from 1113 to 1153 were surveyed and staked ninety-odd miles away on the river known as the West Branch of the Pine. And where was Fable Creek from which they all took their bearings? That is now known as Commotion Creek.
Of course, the railway did not materialize and Burns soon found out that all winters weren’t as mild as his “scout” encountered, so the whole scheme fell through. Most of the parcels of land went back to the provincial government, but a few, including Mr. Ivor Johnson’s, still bear the old lot number, and all land surveys along the river look on the map, like a “crazy” patchwork quilt.
Mr. Johnson’s father and mother were the type who wanted to go beyond the frontiers. On the advice of their friend Pat, they moved in with their family to ranch and trap, knowing well that it entailed breaking the flats, sowing oats and barley for feed, and cutting and stacking the grass that clothed the river flats.
And that’s how ranching was pushed further west towards Pine Pass beyond Treadwell’s little “spread” at the mouth of the Middle Fork — now known as the Sukunka, south of Chetwynd.