An “improved road” was usually built with some idea of permanence after a route was laid out by a surveyor and following as far as possible straight lines. Until the land passed out of the ownership of the Indians with the signing of the treaties, surveyors had only found the exact latitude, longitude and altitude of known spots like trading post landmarks and plotted these facts on maps. With the establishment of Indian Reserves, surveyors were sent in to mark out the exact boundaries of the reservations. To carry on their work they opened trails along which to carry their men and supplies. As well, they had to lay down “base lines” establishing true east-and-west directions. To see from point to point with their instruments it was necessary to clean all trees from a narrow strip. Such a line is called a “cut-line”, and, especially in winter, can still be seen in our forests as a narrow-straight clearing. North and south cut-lines are not straight except in stretches of twenty-four miles when a jog is introduced to make up for lines of longitude converging toward the North pole. The line on which such a jog is encountered is called a “correction line”. This explanation is introduced because so many city people are puzzled by “the jog in the road. Many rural people still relate the position of their farms to “the correction line”. Cut lines were laid out as early as 1883 in the Peace River and Athabasca region, but township sections and quarter sections had not been staked for land owners.
It was necessary first to lay out the boundaries of the Indian Reserves. In the Peace River and Shaftesbury areas many Metis had squatted on plots of land running back from the rivers. Other Metis now wanted to use the “scrip” that they had been given when they elected not to retreat to the reserves. The “scrip” entitled them to purchase a plot of land for a very small price. Between 1905 and 1910, two million acres were surveyed, with road allowances sixty-six feet wide giving access to every quarter section. “Improved roads” thereafter naturally tended to follow the road allowances instead of the old pack trails. Only where it was absolutely impossible to build a straight-line road was a “forced” road found to get around an obstacle.
The very first Peace River “highway contract” ever awarded was a federal grant to old-timer Jim Cornwall in 1905 to clear a road allowance sixty-six feet wide, and build a wagon road from Lesser Slave Lake to Peace River, with all the necessary bridges. It was a strictly man-hour job with axes, shovels, and grub hoes and a few horse-drawn graders. Hopefully ditches alongside would provide drainage. Gravel surface was not a feature. Mud — just mud, called “dirt” in dry weather. Some said that the missionary Rev. J. Gough Brick’s old road from Dunvegan to Lesser Slave Lake was better. He kept a plough in his wagon to deepen the drainage ditches on each trip without damaging the trail. Settlers struggled into the area over the old “roads”. They were lured by the prospects of railways, and demanded that the roads be “improved” — even if they were obliged to do it themselves.
The “improved roads” generally came after railroads — naturally. The settlers wanted to get supplies from all-season distributing points without making wagon or sleigh trips requiring several weeks. So let us talk about railroads as a basis for improved roads.
The Alberta government did not discourage railroads — on the contrary. But until 1912 there were no railroads north of Edmonton. That year the Canadian Northern Railway reached Athabasca Landing. There it connected with the steamers, but the Grand Rapids were a serious bar to navigation. The Alberta Great Waterways was built to McMurray beyond the rapids, in 1919. Athabasca lost its prominence as a navigation centre.
Dunvegan was the early “metropolis” of the Peace, but it was a grim transportation problem to reach there. Peace River and the Shaftesbury settlement was also pressing for rail service. In the second year as a province, 1907, a railway was chartered to proceed to a point near Dunvegan, then following the rivers west, to reach Fort George, now Prince George. Likely this would have taken either the Monkman Pass, or more probably the Pine Pass, which the P.G.E. and the pipe and power lines follow today. The ambitious plans were reflected in the name, “Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railroad”. It did not get started until 1912, but then construction did not lag. A mile a day was its measured progress in some stretches.
On the strength of the expected rails, settlers began flocking in. Dunvegan was laid out as a townsite — many of the lots standing on their edges on the steep hillsides there. A real estate boom started. Offices in Edmonton were displaying signs proclaiming:
The ED & BC continued to push on to McLennan, then turned west toward High Prairie, which it reached in 1914.
Now Peace River Landing clamored for rails. A little-known company known as the “Central Canada Railway” was incorporated to push a stub line from McLennan to Peace River Landing. It made it by 1916, the descent to the floor of the valley of the Peace being an engineering feat of no small railroad fame. In 1917 the first bridge to cross the Peace was built — in itself a major construction job. It served both vehicles and trains until very recently. For many years Peace River became a rail, steamer and road terminus, from which Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope were served by the famous steamer D. A. Thomas and others. People still living in Dawson Creek came in by that route.
The much older Canadian National Railway was being left out of a potentially rich field. They got a charter to build from Onoway, near Edmonton, to the almost uninhabited Grande Prairie (district, not town (or hamlet). From there it would then go west via some rivers reported to be the Pine; out to Prince George, and eventually to the Pacific Coast. The Alberta Government backed their bonds, and some were sold. It is said that “some construction started in 1913”, but as yet I cannot find where it took place. It is mentioned merely to show that Alberta was railroad-minded and Peace-country-oriented. In fairness we should mention that British Columbia’s baby, the Pacific Great Eastern, had been started at Squamish on the Pacific Coast, but since the Peace River Block was then in the Dominion Government’s sphere, no one could suppose that its destination was projected further than Prince George. In fact, for years it was known as “the railway that started nowhere and ended nowhere”.
Meantime, the ED & B.C. rolled steadily on, on the South side of the Peace. The “branch line” from McLennan to Peace River became a “mainline” north of the River, headed for Fort St. John. At what point the name “Central Canada Railway” passed out of the picture with reference to the northern line I have not been able to discover. Possibly it happened when the Alberta government was obliged to take over all of the railway ventures in 1920. They entered into negotiations with the two great transcontinentals to take the operation off the government’s hands. In the end the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific assumed joint control in 1928. After that the system became the “Northern Alberta Railways”, which are still with us.
In spite of the war years, 1914-18, both lines made progress. The Northern line serving Berwyn, Whitelaw and Fairview crept to its end-of-steel in Hines Creek, in 1931 — less than one hundred miles from Fort St. John. Those were the days when access to Dawson Creek was by horrible road, and the ferry at Taylor Flats. There was along season during freeze-up and break-up when Fort St. John and beyond was completely cut off. There was “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” not to speak of profanity and petitions!
Agitation still arises from time to time to have that line extended, so that Fort St. John and area can get direct rail access to eastern Canadian markets. For now it cannot be done without transshipping goods to trucks, and reloading at Dawson Creek or taking the round-about way via Chetwynd, to reach the N.A.R. at Dawson Creek. Presently truck traffic is favoured.
Today the Fort St. John – Taylor area is a busy railway junction. The P.G.E. has been extended to Fort Nelson. One day on the Alaska Highway crossing of the British Columbia Railway (new name as of 1972) where the spur line goes to the Taylor refinery, we had to wait while a long freight backed down the spur to pick up some cars of sulphur, and to replace thirty odd empty tank cars with full ones of petroleum products. In the same train were carloads of grain, lumber from the mills on “The Flat” — gondolas, probably carrying ore from Churchill copper around Fort Nelson, and a score of gravel cars for re-ballasting the whole line. In mid-1972 a phenomenally large find of lead, zinc and silver is expected to provide a profitable payload later.
Chetwynd is another busy junction that promises to become immeasurably more active. Here the Fort St. John freight trains already pick up goods transshipped from the N.A.R. at Dawson Creek including plywood from Grande Prairie, chips for the pulp mill at Prince George and much finished lumber. How much coal will soon be coming out of the Sukunka River and Hasler Creek areas is anybody’s guess.
Grande Prairie is also an important railway hub. The “old” N.A.R. now has a link with the C.N.R. mainline from Edmonton to Prince Rupert in the Alberta Provincial link through Grande Cache. It taps vast lumber and coal and mineral reserves to the south.
Grimshaw, North of the Peace is not only the centre of a huge agricultural area, but the outlet, by rail, from the mining industry around Great Slave Lake. Grimshaw looks north, east, and west, since the rail network gives it access via Peace River to Edmonton, and westward over the Watino crossing of the Smoky River to Grande Prairie, which in turn has access to Prince Rupert and, via Prince George, to Vancouver.
In the early summer of 1972, disastrous fire destroyed the dock facilities at Prince Rupert. As a result, the Federal Government surely must be moved to construct the super port there, which the natural harbour favors. Soon the Peace River country will be only a hop-skip-and-jump from the sea, and the old days of isolation will be memories. Already farseeing people are thinking of connection to the Arctic, for some think that a railway would pose much less danger to the ecology, and convey the petroleum riches much more safely.
The writer is also conscious that Canada-west has so far thought of our petroleum resources only as fuel. We should remember that the by-products of oil and gas built the vast synthetic rubber manufacture in Texas. All that black smoke drifting away from the Taylor refinery is potential rubber, being lost forever.
Japan is eyeing our coal while we remain unconscious of the fact that the by-products of coal built the vast chemical economy of the Saar Basin which was valuable enough to fight a World War over. We have enough superior-grade coal around Hudson’s Hope, adjacent to cheap power and unlimited water to create an unimaginably large chemical industry without burning an ounce destructively for fuel. We have much more coal reserves than we have evident oil reserves.
Processing of our agricultural products to become potential tonnage is already in view. The pelletizing of alfalfa for export is foreseeable. We have resources of limestone plus power that could support a huge cement-making industry. The by-products of mining could support a fertilizer and chemical industry dwarfing Trail’s Consolidated Mining and Smelting. These are some of the potential sources of payload for transportation systems already built.
Yet here we sit like some lazy, tired spider in the middle of a perfectly good web, but too tired, uninspired or stingy to run out and grab the potential dinner. In a rapidly shrinking world, if we do not do it, somebody else will, and perhaps, by conquest. Every time we cross a railway track we are challenged to show some modern initiative and enterprise.