It was as late as 1865 when the geologist, A.R.C. Selwyn rode south from Fort St. John to see the valley which the Indians had used from ancient times for a trail over to the Cariboo country through the low Pine Pass. He may have been preceded by Henry Moberly who had established himself at Moberly Lake. He had hunted and trapped the area, but had no need to go far for fur. Selwyn rode only far enough to see the mountain which dominates the confluence of the Pine and the Murray rivers and to name it “Table Mountain”.
As early as 1807 the Athapaskan speaking Indians of the area had known that there was a shortcut to Pacific-flowing waters which bypassed the awful Rocky Mountain canyon of the Peace. Only a few decades before the white man came, the Beavers of the Lesser Slave Lake area — being pushed back by the Crees who were invading from the Edmonton area — had in turn forced the Sikanni of the Peace back into the Cariboo country where other Athapaskan speakers had long since established themselves to become the Carriers and other related tribes.
The Sikanni had been meat-eaters, subsisting largely on the buffalo which did not exist west of the Rockies. West of the mountains, the chief food was fish. These displaced persons harbored a grudge against the Beavers and, urged by starvation and a desire for revenge, raided back into Beaver country to obtain pemmican and to capture women. The Beavers, of course, resisted, and a strong enmity developed, as recorded by the historian, Father Morice. The last raid of the Sikanni east through the Rocky Mountain Canyon — according to the late Mrs Beattie of Hudson Hope — occurred as short a time ago as the second decade of the 1900’s. Retreating after a fierce resistance, the Sikanni set fire to the woods and burnt over much of the whole Peace River Country.
A century before this time, Simon Fraser left a clue in his journal that there was another route from the McLeod Lake area of the Cariboo to the Peace River country. In 1806 Fraser was wintering in the Cariboo, preparing to descend the great river later known as the Fraser to the Pacific Ocean. The white men were starving. Fraser needed supplies from Fort Chipewyan, far away on Lake Athabasca. In his crew of voyageurs was a certain native known as La Malice because he had been a constant troublemaker. He was the natural choice to send overland in winter when the Peace River was frozen. He seems to have made the journey in record time, suggesting that there was a shortcut. The most likely one, through the Pine Pass, would lead him close to the confluence of the Sukunka with the Pine River, south of present-day Chetwynd. The river swings south there to form a wide ‘V’, now known as Twidwell Bend. To reach the Chetwynd area, the future road would cut across the top of the V.
Tradition still maintains that there was some contact between the Pine Valley and Prince George areas from prehistoric times but several circumstances kept the route from being recorded by the white men. Depending on the canoe for transportation, the fur traders kept to the Peace and Parsnip rivers. Because the Pine rises east of the Rockies, there was no large watercourse to lead across a mountain pass that was, however, low and easy enough traverse on foot as La Malice must have done. The area served by the Pine River and around the future Moberly Lake areas remained a sort of backwater. The closure of the trading post at Fort St. John in 1823 following the massacre of Guy Hughes and some of his men, was a punishment but soon afterwards Gov. George Simpson decided to close all Peace River posts simply because the country was trapped out. The Indians retreated south to the Pine Valley or north to what is now the “Blueberry area”. After the Northwest Rebellion in Manitoba collapsed in 1870, groups of Metis began to trek west to the newly opening prairies. It was a slow movement but by 1897 the renowned Napoleon Thomas was well settled near Dawson Creek. Later, some of his family, taking “Napoleon” as a surname, moved to Moberly Lake. They were of Iroquois origin.
The recession following the massacre at Fort St John lasted about forty years, until 1865 when Henry John Moberly was swept from the Cariboo by the gold rush and settled on the Lake which now bears his name. He reported that, “no Indians frequented the spot”. Later evidence confirmed that the natives boycotted the area, because a group of “wentigos” or cannibals were alleged to live there. The legend may explain why so little was known about the east Pine Pass.
As late as 1893 a young adventurer, H. Somers Somerset, also recorded a taboo on the Moberly Lake area. He was attempting a pack train crossing between Dunvegan and McLeod Lake and wished to take a side-trip to Moberly Lake. His native guides were persuaded to go only by threats. He found that the area “seemed to be deserted.”
No such tales were recorded by two other champions of the Pine River who had visited it briefly in 1873 and 1875. Charles Horetzky, a surveyor and civil engineer, was looking for a route for the proposed transcontinental railway line that would bypass the formidable Canyon of the Peace. He became a strong advocate of the Pine Pass route in a book which extolled its virtues of surrounding fertile land and a saving of one hundred and twenty-five miles. Over seventy years ahead of his time in his thinking, he might be considered the father of the northern extension of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway and of the Chetwynd community.
Acting on Horetzky’s advice, Mr. A.R.C. Selwyn, head of the Geological Survey of Canada, set out from the West to see for himself the allegedly easier route than the Peace River-Parsnip waterway. We have already mentioned that he did not achieve his goal.
Two years later he sent a surveyor, Joseph Hunter, with orders to locate that elusive Pine Pass. The call of a loon led Hunter to Azouzetta Lake and the summit, just when he was about to give up. He pressed on east until, leaving the river, he reached the Kiskatinaw, not far from the future Dawson Creek. Then the lateness of the season made him turn north to Fort St. John. It is unlikely that he had actually seen the site of Chetwynd for he had followed the Pine very closely.
George Dawson was the next great explorer, in 1879. He too came from the West with a packtrain of over ninety horses and mules, leaving the Pine at East Pine, assessing the resources of the route for the possible mainline of the transcontinental railway. He, too, followed the river and so only skirted the Chetwynd area. He passed through the actual site of Dawson Creek but missed Pouce Coupe. However, he put “Pouce Coupe’s Prairie” on the map and others gave his name to Dawson Creek.
His reports on the fertility and climate of the area were widely distributed both on this continent and abroad at a time when thousands of many people were seeking land and railroads were beginning to open up Canada to immigration.
The gold rush of 1898 diverted interest to other things, but indirectly it helped publicize the Peace when some hoping to reach Alaska by an overland route came this way. One of these, Hector Tremblay, wintered over in the mountains south of here. He decided to go no further, and “squatted” near Pouce Coupe to be the first settler. He could not “homestead” until after 1912 because the Peace River Block had been “reserved” for the Dominion of Canada in a deal over federal lands taken elsewhere for right-of-ways for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Prospective farmers and ranchers could only become “squatters”. The southwest corner of “The Peace River Block” was about halfway between the mouth of Commotion Creek from the north and Hasler Creek from the south and about a mile and a half north of the Pine River. Outside of these lines the land was under the control of the British Columbia government.
In 1911 and 1912 the B.C. surveyors had marked six townships around Pouce Coupe to be “thrown open” for homesteading and then moved on to an area outside the Block, west of the present site of Chetwynd. It became known locally as the Burns Block, because the well-known Alberta rancher was said to have paid for the survey of forty-two sections (1 mile by 1 mile) in a zigzag strip two miles wide following the Pine River. Forty-two different persons applied to homestead these “sections” on two succeeding days in Victoria. It was surmised that Burns intended to lease all of this land back from them since he could not “homestead” it in a single block.
Old timer Iver Johnson said that Burns had been told that animals could be wintered in the valley without supplementary feeding, but the next winter proved that piece of information incorrect. The applications were dropped, but the land, already surveyed, was opened for homesteading when none was available in the Block. Shortly after the survey, World War I broke out and settlement slowed down.
In 1923 the B.C. Department of Lands put out a map that showed a “road” from Pouce Coupe as far as East Pine at the Pine River’s confluence with the Murray where a squatter named Palmer had a dugout canoe to use as a ferry. Horses had to swim. Beyond that, only a “trail” is indicated, more or less following the Pine River past Twidwell Bend, where a settler named Treadwell [or Twidwell] had a ranch. This trail dropped south of present day Chetwynd but went on past Azouzetta Lake and further on to McLeod Lake through the Pine Pass. Its condition in 1924 is described by Gerry Andrews’ account of a packtrain trip from Kelly Lake to McLeod Lake, following ¾ and frequently losing ¾ the trail. The account abounds in references to its many gaps and disappearances. [See: Andrews, G.S. Metis Outpost, 1985] The lack of a good crossing at East Pine accounts for the end of the “road” at that point.
The coming of the railroad to Dawson Creek in 1930 caused a spurt of settlers again. The early 1930’s also brought a fever of search for oil and gas all over the West. Premier Patullo of British Columbia determined to drill at the junction of Commotion Creek with the Pine. The resulting traffic forced the road to be improved to the East Pine crossing and the “trail” beyond to be made into a “road” to the well site. Tall tales are told of the adventures and misadventures on that road! Little Prairie, formerly a small grassy place where packhorses could be fed, was on its way to becoming the nucleus of a trading area.
In 1939 I had seen the strategic ferry at East Pine. We had come by Ford car (in dry weather) to the Murray River which was spanned by a “basket” ferry, an open box suspended on a long rope cable between wooden towers, propelled by gravity and human muscle. We zoomed over to a point of land where Jake Smith, the Durneys and others had established themselves. A little further on was a second basket.
When possible people traveled in winter when the rivers were frozen. In summer they dismantled their wagons and machinery and took them over, piece by piece, if they absolutely had to go.
The “wagon road” extended to Little Prairie. By a strange quirk a little distance above Hasler Creek, Phil Esswein had already leveled an airstrip where Jack Neyes of Sexsmith, Alberta, landed his homebuilt plane to transport hunters, trappers and prospectors at least as early as 1935.
The next incentive to improve communications was the opening of a coal mining enterprise at Hasler Creek by Gordon Wilson and associates. From this point, so many kinds of development in transportation and communication occurred that it is impossible to choose one as the end of the “early days”. Probably the most significant may be the naming of the new village.
For many years the Northern Alberta and Pacific Great Eastern Railways had been approaching each other, finally end-to-ending at Dawson Creek. Near the little settlement at Little Prairie, the P.G.E. builders bulldozed out a large patch of yellow orchids and put up a station. In its wisdom ¾ or lack of it ¾ it named their townsite “Chetwynd” after a prominent politician at the Coast. For a while the Post Office held onto the old name of Little Prairie. Nothing ever ruffled the placidity of the community like strong feelings aroused by the controversy over the names! Even the building of the town of Tumbler Ridge to the south does not seem to have generated so much heat.