The History of Dawson Creek

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CraigBaird

Indigenous History

Thousands of years ago, as the great glaciers began to retreat, opening North America, the Indigenous moved into the area that would be Dawson Creek. While many would continue throughout the continent, several groups stayed in the region for the next several thousands of years.

The land is the traditional land of the Dene and the Beaver, who lived their traditional lives until the eventual arrival of the Europeans.

Founding of the Community

The first Europeans to come into the area were naturally fur traders and explorers. One of the earliest, and possibly the first, was Alexander Mackenzie, who explored up the Peace River on his journey to find the Pacific in 1793. As he journeyed through the area, he saw the advantages of trade with the local Indigenous and his report to the North West Company would bring Simon Fraser to the area in 1805 to establish trading posts.

Those posts would be established at Fort St. John and Hudson Hope.

The next Europeans to arrive in the area were missionaries and traders, who would stay at the forts or just move through the area briefly.

It was not until George Mercer Dawson, a geologist who was sent out to look for a passage of a railway line for the CPR, that the area of Dawson Creek would gain its first notice in eastern Canada. He wrote about grass that grew up to the bellies of the horse, along with the deep soil and the Indigenous of the area. It was from Dawson that the name Dawson Creek comes from, which was named as part of the survey team that was with Dawson in August of 1879.

The area would receive an influx of people moving through during the Klondike Gold Rush, as prospectors took the Edmonton route to the gold fields.

Some of the prospectors liked the area and soon set themselves up. Hector Tremblay and his wife would be the first white settlers in the area, taking up land near where Pouce Coupe now stands in 1898. They would open the first post office and trading post in the area.

For the next few decades, little change came to the area but as the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway made its way west through the Peace River, the dawn of Dawson Creek would begin. The railroad reach Spirit River in 1916, roughly 70 kilometres east of Dawson Creek. It was around this time that Dawson Creek was established two kilometres southwest from the centre of the current city, and it was there that George Hart opened the first store on his homestead, right near the original hamlet. In 1919, another store was opened by Bill Bullen and Tom McRae. One year later, Bullen opened a hotel, but it burned down, so he quickly rebuilt it. This hotel was a vital stopping place for travelers and new settlers to the area for many years.

From 1919 to 1930, the hamlet began to grow slowly. In 1921, the Dawson Creek Co-operative Union was established, helping to grow the business community of the hamlet, serving the entire area.

Eventually, the Northern Alberta Railways built its terminus line, three kilometres from Dawson Creek and the golden spike was driven in on Dec. 29, 1930. Within two weeks, on Jan. 15, 1931, the first passenger train arrived in the area.

From this point, Dawson Creek began to explode in growth as settlers and businesses were attracted to the area. The new services streaming into the community resulted in it moving into village status in May of 1936. Three years later, a wave of refugees from northern Czechoslovakia arrived after their homeland was occupied by Nazi Germany. In all, 518 people had arrived in the area, setting up in the community and on homesteads.

By 1941, 500 people were living in Dawson Creek, but the real boom was about to come thanks to the building of the Alaska Highway, which I will get to in the next section.

By 1951, Dawson Creek was thriving with 3,500 residents and the John Hart Highway was built, linking the town to the Lower Mainland and British Columbia Interior.

From 1951 to 1961, the population of the community tripled, and then slowed by 1966 when the community had over 10,000 people. Growth would fluctuate over the next three decades, depending on the economy and business in the area, but has reached over 12,000 by 2016.

The Alaska Highway

It was one of the most ambitious building projects of the 20th century. Building a highway that allowed troops to get from Alberta to Alaska quickly in the scenario of a Japanese attack during the Second World War. For Dawson Creek, it would bring immense changes that are still benefiting the community to this day.

The highway, which connected the continental United States with Alaska, gets its start at the junction of several highway in Dawson Creek, and then runs 2,700 kilometres long. What is more amazing, is that the construction of this immense highway was started on March 9, 1942 and was completed on Oct. 28, 1942.

On that fateful day of March 9, 1942, Dawson Creek had a population of 600, but the first train arrived carrying American troops and quickly the community’s population went from 600 to 10,000. In all, seven regiments of American engineers, numbering 11,000, along with 16,000 civilians and 7,000 pieces of equipment poured into the community to begin work on an immense construction project that would become a marvel of engineering.

During the construction process, many called the road the Oil Can Highway, due to the huge number of discarded oil cans and fuel drums that marked the progress of the construction.

On Nov. 20, 1942, at mile 1,061, a ribbon was cut to officially open the Alaska Highway. In all, the 2,700 kilometre route consists of 133 major bridges and more than 8,000 culverts, costing $140 million US at the time, or $2.3 billion in today’s funds. 

While most of the work crews left the community after construction was finished, the community soon found that it was growing quickly and by 1951, it had 3,500 residents.

The highway has since been shortened and is now 2,232 kilometres long. It is also paved its entire length.

On Sept. 28, 1996, a ceremony was held in Dawson Creek when the Alaska Highway was designated as the 16th International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Today in Dawson Creek, you can celebrate and learn more about the history of the highway through the Alaska Highway House, and the Alaska Highway Command Centre, both located in the community.  The Alaska Highway House is a historic building that was turned into an interactive museum dedicated to the history of the construction of the Alaska Highway. Within the building, you will see an original Willy Jeep, a scale model of the Kiskatenaw Bridge, a recreated Quonset Hut movie theatre, and much more.

The 1943 Explosion

The day of Feb. 13, 1943 started normal enough for the community of Dawson Creek. The village was a hub of activity thanks to the US Army and the continued work and maintenance on the Alaska Highway. What many did not realize was that that was also the day when an event would change Dawson Creek forever.

It was on that day when a fire began to burn and soon spread over to the livery stable. In that stable, everything from telephone wire, tools, kegs of nails, wooden crossbar arms and tires were being stored by the US Army. At the same time, a vehicle loaded with dynamite for road work was also in the building.

Word soon began to spread that there was dynamite in the building, but it did not stop many people from still watching the fire burn. At the cinema nearby, the movie was stopped, and everyone was moved out of the building. Most people who were watching the fire had no idea that there was the immense danger of an explosion brewing in the building. The construction men in the crowd said that the dynamite would only burn, not explode. What they didn’t know was that there were percussion caps also stored there with the dynamite. A train soon arrived, and several people got off the train and joined the crowd watching the fire.

Then, the explosion hit. Dorothea Calverley saw the explosion and she relates this in an article she wrote for the North Peace Historical Society, quote:

“The burning building and its contents, completely red hot, went hundreds of feet in the air. Where the brightness of flames had been a second before, there was a momentary blackness as the fire was snuffed out like a candle, but a few minutes later there were hundreds of small fires as debris came down over a block away in all directions. Worse was the thousands of miles of copper wire which unrolled from its reels and tied everything in its tangled coils. Over a block away, a school nurse, driving her car, was startled by a flaming auto tire descending on her car’s radiator to hang and flame on.”

One woman who lived nearby was making supper when the front and the back door of her house were blown inside, shooting through the house but missing the glass china cabinet. All her thin wine glasses inside the cabinet were shattered from the concussion of the blast though. In a restaurant, a man and a woman who did not know each other were sitting 15 feet apart. The woman had her baby on her lap. After the explosion hit, the baby was found on the man’s lap, perfectly fine.

An entire block of buildings was destroyed, and the US Army took over control of the firefighting as fires raged in the community. The Red Cross also set up an emergency hospital ward in its club house. By Sunday, five people were dead and 120 were injured.

A few months later, Maclean’s was out at the booming community and the reporter described the disaster as such.

“I walked the blackened, blistered sidewalks and along streets that had burned away entirely, looking into huge craters and cellars now filled with scum-covered water. At the corner where a fine hotel had stood, there was only rubble. Where the barber shop had been, only a steel chair was left, slanted a bit and twisted out of shape. A typewriter lay keys down in the gutter. Twisted water pipes, bed springs, a pair of scales and most pitiful of all, the harp-like structure of a grand piano was sitting bravely in the ruins.”

A package of seed corn had been blown through the air in the explosion, without being burned, and a few months after the explosion, stalks of corn were now growing in a vacant lot.

The cause of the fire was never found, but a charge of negligence was laid against the contractor who leased the building, but not the sub-contractor whose employees placed the dynamite in the portion of the building they had leased.

Historic Walking Tour

Visiting any community, there are many historical places you can check out and a walking tour is a great way to do that. Dawson Creek has a great walking tour that goes through the pioneer and World War Two history of the community, through a walk around the downtown core of the brochure.

On the tour, you will learn about the historical, vibrant and quirky past of the community. The tour map takes you to the buildings that have a history in the community, complete with murals and photos on the buildings that detail the rich history of the area.

Walking tour brochures are available free of charge from the Dawson Creek Visitor Centre and Art Gallery, as well as other locations in the downtown core.

Walter Wright Pioneer Village

A lot of the history so far has focused on the Alaska Highway, but the area has a history dating back over a century, and that history is celebrated at the Walter Wright Pioneer Village.

The village, located near to Dawson Creek, is a heritage site that explores the history of the early pioneers who settled in the area before the construction of the Alaska Highway. The entire village is set up to look like a town from a century ago, complete with a general store, churches and a schoolhouse. Near the church, you will also find a large collection of historic farming equipment and a large garden.

Most of the buildings found in the park date from the early 1900s and are furnished with artifacts from that same period. Some of the historic buildings include the Pouce Coupe School from 1918, the 1920 St. Paul Anglican Church, the 1928 W.O. Harper General Store, and the 1916 Dawson Creek School.

At the entrance to the park, you will find Sudeten Hall, which was one of the original community halls built by the Sudeten Germans who immigrated to the community in 1939 when they were escaping the Nazis.

NAR Station Museum

When the thousands of American and Canadian troops arrived in Dawson Creek, they stepped onto the platform of the NAR Station. Today, the station is still around and has now been preserved as a museum tribute to the US soldiers who helped to build the Alaska Highway. While the train station was not around when the first train arrived in January 1931, it was built a few months later in June of that year.

You can tour through the original living quarters of the stationmaster, as well as look through the artifacts of the Indigenous who lived in the area prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Today, the station is the only designated heritage building in Dawson Creek.

Kiskatinaw Bridge

Chances are when you cross a bridge, you are crossing something that runs in a straight line. That is not the case with Kiskatinaw Bridge, located only 30 kilometres north of Dawson Creek in Kiskatinaw Provincial Park. This bridge features a unique nine-degree hairpin turn as it moves over the river.

Built by Dow Construction during the Second World War, under contract with the US Public Roads Administration, it was part of the Alaska Highway project and it took a great deal of work to build. The Kiskatinaw River posed an obstacle to the construction of the highway because the river forced the construction of a curved-right away.

From that curve came the 190-foot wooden bridge that stands to this day. At the time of its building, it was the first curved wooden bridge built in Canada.

Construction was no easy task and took nine months. During the winter months it got so cold that the 600 cubic metres of concrete used to begin the structure had to be kept heated at 20 degrees Celsius for 10 days to prevent it from freezing.

The bridge is a three-span timber truss structure that is 100-feet above the stream. It used 500,000 board feet of British Columbia fir to construct, shipped from the coast of B.C.

The bridge was bypassed in 1978 as it could no longer support the heavy-load oil and gas trucks, that carried more than 25 tons, across the river. It still operates today though and is the first and only original timber bridge on the highway still in use.

Pouce Coupe Trestle Bridge

The Kiskatinaw Bridge is not the only one you can check out near Dawson Creek. The Pouce Coupe Trestle Bridge was built well before the Alaska Highway, serving as a rail link through the area just as The Great Depression was beginning to take hold.

Located near the community of Pouce Coupe, just south of Dawson Creek, this bridge was built over the course of 1930 and 1931. Once used as a railway link to the area, it remains today as a reminder of the importance of the railway in the development of the communities of northeast British Columbia, years before the Alaska Highway ever arrived.

As the railway line ran over the bridge and continued to a point in the middle of the grain fields, a new community would pop up at that end of steel, Dawson Creek. Without this bridge and the rail that went over it, the community itself may never have existed.

The railway line would eventually be decommissioned later in the 20th century, but the bridge remains and is available to visit.

Notable Residents

Roy Forbes was born in Dawson Creek on Feb. 13, 1953. He would begin to learn to play guitar at the age of 14 and in 1971, he began his musical career under the name of Bim, a childhood nickname. He would serve as an opening act for Supertramp and Santana to begin with, before he started headlining his own shows thanks to his song Can’t Catch me, which was a top 10 single.

Ben Heppner was another well-known singer from the area. Born on Jan. 14, 1956 in Murrayville, B.C., he grew up in Dawson Creek and went on to study music at the University of British Columbia. In 1979, he would gain national attention when he won the CBC Talent Festival. He would begin to perform in a wide variety of operas, eventually performing at the New York Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. His opera career would bring him international fame as one of the top singers in the world. He has received seven honorary degrees during his life and was awarded the ………………………Order of Canada in 1999. He also performed at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Winter Games in 2006, singing the national anthem of Canada. In 2010, he performed the Olympic Hymn at the Vancouver Olympic Games. In 2016, he was made a laureate of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Classical music. He would retire from singing in 2014.

Phil Sykes was born in Dawson Creek on March 18, 1959 and would go on to play college hockey for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, helping lead them to a championship in 1980 and 1982. Those two years, he was also named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. While he was not drafted to the NHL, he would begin his professional career with the Los Angeles Kings in the 1982-83 season, when he had two goals in seven games. He would play for the Kings for the next several seasons until 1988-89. During that time, his best season was 1985-86 when he had 44 points in 76 games. He would make his way over to the Winnipeg Jets, where he spent parts of three seasons, recording his best year with the team in 1990-91, with 22 points in 70 games. He would retire following the 1991-92 season. During his NHL career, he had 164 points in 456 games.

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