By Day Roberts, Past President, South Peace Historical Society
Originally published Friday, June 29, 1990 in the Peace River Block News
Picturesque, fertile valleys and lush rolling hills delighted surveyor, geologist, naturalist and archeologist Dr. George Mercer Dawson, who led expeditions through the Southern B.C. Peace River Region in 1875 and again in 1879. The vast agricultural potential of the area was noted by Dr. Dawson and has since become the foundation of the area’s commerce. Dawson Creek was named after Dr. Dawson. The main influx of settlers to this area began in 1912 — all seeking the free farmland offered by the government.
News of the coming of the Northern Alberta Railway (formerly the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway) caused great excitement in Dawson Creek and surrounding communities in the late 1920’s. However, the ribbons of steel stopped short of the “old town of Dawson Creek,” which had been established in the early 1920’s.
The railroad wouldn’t come to the village, so the village moved, about two miles east, to the end of steel and the new townsite of Dawson Creek, which had been placed on the real estate market by the N.A.R. in September, 1930. In the fall of 1930 five new grain elevators had been built, the Dawson Co-op Union Store, W.O. Harper’s General Store, the Dawson Hotel (Wm. A. Reasbeck) and other businesses and homes had been moved.
Other businesses established in the new townsite included: Empress Hotel and Cafe, The Red Apple Hotel (C. Bergstrom), Dew Drop Inn Hotel (W.B. Michaud), Morrison’s Restaurant, Palace Cafe, James N. Bond Real Estate, E.N. Breault Real Estate and insurance, Peace River Block Bakery (Hans Ludvigsen), Dalscheid’s Harness Shop (J. Paul Dalscheid), Lloyd Bentley Livery and Feeds, The Palace Livery Stables (Gilbert and Lefler), J.L. Dean’s General Blacksmithing, F.W. Chase Taxidermist, Canadian Bank of Commerce, Groh’s Drug Store, Love’s Drug Store, Jack Hall’s Billiard Room and Barber Shop, Erickstein and Brekke’s Garage, Dawson Creek Tin Shop (A. Everest), J. Niven’s Jewellry Store, Dawson Meat Market (Frank DeWetter), Michelson’s Meat Market, Frontier Lumber Company (Harry Morrow), Dawson Creek Stock Yards (Wm. S. Bullen), J.D. McEachern (McCormick-Deering Farm implements), Oliver Farm Machinery Co. (J.C. Hall), Imperial Oil Agency Ltd. (M.W. Harris), British American Oil Co. Ltd. (Jack H. Fynn), The Post Office, Anglican Church Hall, and several other very nice dwellings, all built up in about a month and a half.
Dawson Creek’s turn to celebrate the arrival of the N.A.R. came on December 29, 1930 when Frank DeWetter was given the honor of driving the traditional golden spike, which was held by Mrs. Fanny Chase. The first passenger train arrived in Dawson Creek on January 15, 1931.
It was as a result of becoming the terminus of the Northern Alberta Railways in 1931 that Dawson Creek became a service centre for the B.C. Peace River Region. The Village of Pouce Coupe was the first to be incorporated in the B.C. Block, in October 1931.
The new Dawson Creek four-room school was opened, and the Dawson Creek Athletic Association was formed in November 1931.
The Peace River Block News, founded at Rolla, B.C. in May 1930, by Charles S. Kitchen and J.E. ‘Cap’ Leon, moved its printing plant to Dawson Creek in April, 1932. New St. Joseph’s General Hospital, operated by the Sisters of Providence, opened in November 1932.
Dawson Creek was incorporated as a village in May 1936 with George Bissett (chairman), Arthur S. Chamberlain and Wesley 0. Harper sworn in as Village Commissioners.
In April 1939 the first 25 Sudeten families arrived at Gundy Ranch, and in October 1939 work started on Fort St. John Airport. On September 10, 1939 Canada declared war on Germany as the start of World War II was underway. In the subsequent days, weeks and months, many young men and women, from the Peace River Country, joined the Canadian Armed Forces.
Dawson Creek’s population in 1941 was 518 – just a little farming village at the end of the Northern Alberta Railway. In 1942 Dawson Creek become the start of the Alaska Highway because it was the end of steel for the N.A.R. and become the southern jumping off point for men and equipment arriving to build the Alcan Highway.
Dawson Creek become the transportation centre of the area with numerous trucking companies locating their head-offices in the village, including: E.J. Spinney Trucking, Northern Freightways, Loiselle Transport, North-American Trucking, Wilson Freight- ways, Trail Transport, and Calder Transport, followed by many others. Dawson Creek is Mile “O” on the Alaska Highway. The Alcan Highway (pioneer tote road), built in a record eight months, was officially opened on November 20, 1942 at Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory.
A fire and explosion in a livery barn containing explosives, took five lives, injured 150 and destroyed a business block in Dawson Creek on Saturday, Feb. 13, 1943.
In March of 1944 Dawson Creek’s first waterworks system, starting with a network of three and one-half miles of six-inch and eight-inch cast iron mains, was turned on by K.O. Aspol, chairman of the Village Commissioners. The water supply was taken from the Kiskatinaw River, about 12 miles west of Dawson Creek.
On May 8, 1945 area residents, along with Canadian Army and Air Force personnel based in the area, celebrated V-E Day (Victory in Europe), with the surrender of Germany to the Allies the previous day. Dawson Creek Radio Station CJDC signed on the air December 15, 1947 and began broadcasting to the people of the Peace River Country.
THE “BOOM YEARS” WERE EXCITING
The face of Dawson Creek changed, almost overnight, with the arrival of 94 members of the U.S. Army Quartermasters Corp on Monday morning March 9. 1942. The troops arrived by Northern Alberta Railway train, in the wee hours of the morning, and were the vanguard of approximately 3000 U.S. Army Engineers, starting the “friendly invasion” to build the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks.
Dawson Creek’s population at the time was about 500 residents, which jumped to more than 3,000 in a very short time. Friendly residents, hitching posts, wooden sidewalks, outhouses, and horse-drawn water delivery greeted those first troops. And of course, lots and lots of gumbo mud, as the heavy increase in traffic churned up the streets.
Tent camps sprang up overnight; north of the N.A.R. Station, along the hill north of town, (later to become known as the Loran Station) and on George Chamberlain’s property west of what is now 17th Street which the Yanks later dubbed Jackson Avenue.
Some of the preparations for the arrival of the troops had been carried out in advance, as army officials had earlier conferred in Dawson Greek, and on February 20th approval had been given to proceed with the preparations. The E.J. Spinney Construction Company was contracted to build six huge storage platforms west along what was later to become Alaska Avenue, for the U.S. Army Quartermasters and Marshall Miller had been given a contract to provide ice for refrigeration storage. Quartermaster staff headquarters were established in the three-storey building, formerly the “Five to a Dollar Store” owned by Harry Brown. Truckers were waiting in readiness, hotelmen were considering enlarging their premises, and the Carlsonia Theater began showing movies on a six-day a week basis.
The Northern Alberta Railway yards in Dawson Creek were expanded and extended northwest of 17th Street to what became known as the “U.S. Army Railhead Camp.” The “Railhead Camp” extended northwest past the present golf course and north along 17th Street to what is now the Access road on property formerly owned by George Dudley. Water and sewer lines were installed and streets were laid out, graveled and named. U.S. Army Engineer barracks and warehouses covered the railhead camp area.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, trainload after trainload of soldiers, construction workers and equipment arrived over the N.A.R. to the bustling railhead town.
The U.S. Public Roads Administration established a number of warehouses along the north spur line of the N.A.R., within the Dawson Creek railway yards. Two special army trains had transported a number of U.S. Army trucks, command cars, scout cars, as well as several jeeps, which were used as patrol cars within Dawson Greek.
The U.S. Army Engineers Department (U.S.E.D.), purchased much of the former golf course and erected barracks at the corner of 104th and 10th Street, and dormitories along 105th Avenue. In 1945 the Sisters of Providence purchased three former army barracks at the corner of 10th Street and 104th Avenue, from the War Assets Corp, where they established Notre Dame School. The former U.S.P.D. Mess Hall at the corner of 10th Street and 105th Avenue was purchased by the Dawson Creek Elks Club and was used as the Elks Hall for many years.
The U.S. Army Signal Corp. established its LORAN Station on the north hill overlooking Dawson Greek. LORAN stands for “Long Range Navigation,” a system by which navigators receive the radio signals of two pairs of radio stations of known location and use them to locate aircraft.
A large silver barrage balloon was anchored by a cable over the Loran Station and was lit-up at night with a beam from a searchlight. On several occasions, high winds caused the balloon to break loose from its cable moorings and resulted in search crews being sent out to retrieve the run-away balloon.
The U.S. Army Signal Corp. also established a Repeater Station at mile three on the Alaska Highway to relay signals and Teletype messages along the highway. The Repeater Station was operated, for a short time, by the H.C.A.F. No.1 L.C.S.U. (Landlines, Communications and Service Unit), and later by Canadian National Telecommunications.
The R. Melville Smith Construction Company built a large camp on the eastern boundary of Dawson Greek. The construction camp was located east of 8th Street and was bordered by the Rolla Road on the north and the Dawson Creek on the South. Located within the camp was a huge service garage 65 feet wide by 400 feet long which was used by the R. Melville Smith Co., and in subsequent years by the H.C.A.F. (No. 71 ARS), Royal Canadian Engineers #7 Works Company), and School District No. 59 (school bus garage), respectively.
The R. Melville Smith Company had the contract to relocate sections of the existing government dirt road and build the Alaska Highway between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John. Following completion of that section, the company moved to another section of road, north of Fort Nelson. Between Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe, off the east end of what is now the airport runway on the north side of the Pouce Coupe Highway, was the Metcalfe, Hamilton, Kansas City Bride Company’s Camp. The camp had numerous dormitories, storage buildings, a mess hall, and a building used as a movie theater where construction workers and area residents often went to see movies at MHKCB.
Following the punching through of the tote road in November 1942, dozens of civilian truckers and army convoys hauled fuel, equipment and supplies north from Dawson Creek to various camps along the Alaska Highway. In August of 1944, No. 10 Construction Maintenance Unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force was formed with headquarters situated in the former R. Melville Smith Camp at Dawson Creek. At the height of operations in early 1945 the R.C.A.F. at Dawson Creek, including No. 71 Area Repair Shops located in the larger service garage building, together with the Freight Transit Unit, and No. I L.C.S.U. at mile three of the Alaska Highway (repeater station), had about 450 personnel stationed in Dawson Creek.
Dawson Creek FI.C.A.F. Camp was officially closed Dec. 15, 1946 spelling the end to the “boom years’ of the Second World War. The former administration buildings in the R.C.A.F. camp were pressed into service by the School Board for the 1946-47 school term and became known as the “Camp School.’ By November 1951 Dawson Creek’s population had leveled out to 3539 residents.
THE FIFTIES AND SIXTIES
HART HIGHWAY OPENED
On July 1, 1952 the John Hart Highway was officially opened at a ceremony held midway across a temporary bridge spanning the Parsnip River. The opening of the highway provided a long-awaited road access from the Peace River Country to the B.C. Interior and Lower Mainland. In May of 1955 Dawson Creek was chosen as the Western anchor (Site 900) of the Mid- Canada ‘Doppler Radar’ defence warning line.
On July 1, 1956 North-West Telephone Company took over operation of the Federal Government Telephone Office and work began in August on a new telephone building at 1212 – 102nd Avenue, to contain automatic telephone equipment.
The suspension bridge across the Peace River at Taylor collapsed in October 1957, after 14 years.
Pacific Petroleums Ltd. Taylor Refinery opened in November 1957, reaching full production by Nov. 1958. Pacific Petroleums purchased X-L Refinery of Dawson Creek in 1957 and operated the two plants in tandem until 1961 when the Dawson Plant was closed and some employees began commuting to Taylor.
Dawson Creek become B.C.’s Centennial City on January 1, 1958. Dawson Creek Mayor, Roger Forsyth, and six Council members were sworn in at an inauguration ceremony held January 6th.
Dawson Creek celebrated the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later to become known as B.C. Rail) on October 2, 1958 when three P.G.E. diesel trains arrived carrying B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett and members of his cabinet. Wesley 0. Harper pounded the ceremonial spike, held by Premier Bennett, to mark the linking by rail of Dawson Creek with Vancouver.
On January 15, 1959, CJDC-TV began telecasting to Dawson Creek residents and was the first television to be seen on TV screens in the Peace River Country of B.C. or Alberta. B.C. Telephone Company took over operation of North-West Telephone Company on January 1, 1961, and become the telephone system operating in over 90 per cent of the Province of B.C.
The new 100-bed Dawson Creek and District Hospital was officially opened on July 22, 1961. Dawson Creek’s new City Hall and Fire Hall Complex, on the site of the former N.A.R. reservoir, was officially opened on November 22, 1961 by Mayor John Wilcox.
Fort St. John Lumber Company (owned by Gordon Moore) closed its Dawson Creek planer mill in November 1964 after 10 years of operation. Pacific Western Airlines began scheduled service to Dawson Creek May 6, 1963, on a six-day week basis, with DC-3 aircraft. Dawson Creek Mayor, Glen E. Braden was on hand for the inaugural flight.
In 1962 construction started on the Portage Mountain Dam, near Hudson’s Hope. The dam was completed in 1967 and named the “W.A.C. Bennett Dam” in honor of B.C.’s Premier at the time. The Gordon M. Shrum Generating Station, at the dam, began producing electrical power in 1968.
The Peace River-Liard Regional District was incorporated on October 31, 1967 with administrative off ices located in Dawson Creek. In November 1951 Dawson Creek’s population was 3539. Asphalt paving of Dawson Creek downtown streets began in July of 1952.
THE SEVENTIES AND EIGHTIES
Domtar Chemicals announced in February 1970 that it has acquired all outstanding shares of Northwest Wood Preservers Ltd., Dawson Creek’s largest industry, located three miles west on the Alaska Highway.
Thousands of area residents welcomed Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau to Dawson Creek August 4 and 5, 1970. He arrived Tuesday evening, August 4th at the Dawson Creek Airport and at- tended a press reception in the Caledonia Inn, where he stayed overnight. Highlight of his visit was a Lawn Party at Dawson Creek City Hall, following a noon City Luncheon at the Fire Hall. The Prime Minister later rode in an open, horse-drawn buggy from City Hall to the Mile Zero Post, where he was transported to the airport and left for Prince George.
A Royal Visit took place Saturday, May 8 1971 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Phillip and Princess Ann, made a 20-minute stop at Dawson Creek Airport. Following the landing of the Boeing 737 aircraft, Dawson Creek Mayor Bob Trail escorted the Queen during a stroll around a pear-shaped course, to meet the public.
Dawson Co-op Union’s new store (phase 1) on 103rd Avenue and 8th Street was officially opened June 15, 1972 by Mayor Bob Trail, with Eldon Adams as president, and Hans Hanston as general manager.
Northern Alberta Railway passenger train service to Dawson Creek ended on May 31, 1974.
On October 28, 1974 the new $1.5 million B.C. Provincial Building in Dawson Creek was officially opened, following the transfer of staff from Pouce Coupe, which then ceased to be the government centre for this area.
Northern Lights College began first year university transfer courses at its Dawson Creek campus which opened in September 1975 in the former Vocational School Buildings, with Dr. Barry Moore as college principal.
The $5 million Dawson Mall opened its doors for business on June 1, 1977 with Dawson Creek Mayor Arnold Dahlen cutting the ribbon to officially open the new shopping mail. Official opening of the $1.6 million United Grain Growers high throughput grain elevator in Dawson Creek was held June 14, 1978 with UGG President A.M. “Mac” Runciman cutting the ribbon. The Honourable Don Phillips, MLA for South Peace, was also in attendance. The new $2.5 million Alberta Wheat Pool concrete high throughput grain elevator 1- 1/2 miles east of Dawson Creek on the Rolla Road, was officially opened in April 1979. The $4 million, George Dawson Inn was officially opened on October 27, 1979. It was announced in April 1980 that demolition, of five wooden grain elevators along “Elevator Row” in Dawson Creek, would take place in the next couple years.
B.C. Premier Bill Bennett and longtime Moberly Lake resident, Alice Beatty, pulled the switch together to start the generators at the official opening ceremonies of the Peace Canyon Dam on September 23, 1980. Construction of the dam began in 1975 and it took six years to complete the project located downstream from the Bennett Dam.
Cablevision service from 5440 Cable Ltd. began in Dawson Creek in October 1980, on a 48-hour delay basis, with the system going live in January 1982.
MEGA COAL PROJECT
In January 1981 the signing of a 15-year deal in Tokyo between Teck Corp. and Denison Mines took place to supply 6.7 million tonnes of coking coal and one million tonnes of thermal coal a year to a consortium of Japanese steel mills and trading houses. This signalled the go-ahead for the giant Northeast Coal Development south of Dawson Creek. In July 1981 the first contract for the physical development of the Tumbler Ridge townsite was awarded for clearing of major arterial roads and the downtown commercial sector.
An era ended Sunday, October 11, 1981 with the last showing of a movie on the big screen of the Ranch Drive-in Theatre, off the Pouce Road, after 22 years of operation.
N.A.R. Park was officially opened June 17, 1983 by South Peace River MLA the Honorable Don Phillips and Senator Jack Austin, and at the same time the Dawson Creek Station Museum was opened by Mayor Bob Trail and Dorthea Calverley.
The Clayhurst Ferry made its final run across the Peace River on October 25, 1986 when the Don Phillips (Clayhurst) Bridge was opened.
In April 1987 Canadian Hunter Exploration and Standard Oil announced they were developing a major gas field in northeastern British Columbia. The two companies indicated that they had already spent $130 million drilling 27 wells in the Deep Basin area southwest of Dawson Creek.
Official opening of the $1.3 million South Peace Grain Cleaning Co-op took place June 24, 1987.
Premier Bill Vander Zalm cut the ribbon to officially open the $40 million Louisiana Pacific Waferboard Plant at Dawson Creek on August 14, 1987. The $8 million Don Phillips Bridge across the Peace River at Clayhurst was officially dedicated on August 15, 1987, although an opening ceremony had been previously held November 7, 1986.
Dawson Creek hosted the 1988 B.C. Winter Games March 10-13, 1988 with 2300 athletes and officials participating.
In October 1968 the Noel Natural Gas Compressor Plant south of Dawson Creek opened and Canadian Hunter and British Petroleums American Inc. announced a large oil discovery, 32 kilometres south of Dawson Creek, in the Brassey Oil Field.
Federal Forestry Minister and local MP, Frank Oberle, and South Peace MLA Jack Weisgerber announced on June 30, 1989 that Dawson Creek would be the site of a $6.6 million chopstick plant to be called Dawson Creek Chopsticks.
On May 6, 1990 the Peace River Block News marked its 60th Anniversary of publishing to the people of the B.C. Peace River Country.