Prince George currently sits on the traditional land of the Lheidli Tenneh people LEY-LE-TENNEH , whose name means People of Two Rivers, relating to the Fraser and Nechako Rivers that intersect northeast of downtown Prince George. Archeological evidence shows that they have inhabited the area for as much as 9,000 years.
Within the Lheidli Tenneh people, there were several clans including the Frog, Bear, Grouse and Beaver.
As the earliest inhabitants of the area, they were the first to meet Simon Fraser when he founded Fort George while exploring the Fraser River in 1807, and Alexander Mackenzie when he came through in 1793. Their original village site is located at the Lheidli Tenneh Memorial Park in the community. The park was originally named Fort George Park until 2015.
In 1913, their village was cleared and the Indigenous were relocated to a reserve nearby.
Today, Prince George sits on Treaty 8 land, which was signed in 1899.
The origin of Prince George comes from the North West Company, the company that established a trading post called Fort George in 1807. The fort was established by Simon Fraser, who named it honour of King George III.
Fort George would continue to operate throughout the 1800s, and was an important part of the fur trade in the northern portion of British Columbia, although Fort St. James tended to be the main trading post for the area.
The fort would continue to be important locally, but was ignored provincially and nationally for some time. Even when the Collins Overland Telegraph Trail was built in 1865 to 1867, it bypassed Fort George completely.
Things would begin to change in the early 1900s, and Fort George would see a name change and its importance increase throughout the new century.
The Founding Of The Community
In 1903, Fort George would see the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, or at least rumours that the railroad would be arriving. Around this time, speculators began to look towards where the best location for a town would be and rival speculation companies would set up South Fort George and Central Fort George. South Fort George was built near the trading post, while Central Fort George was built three kilometres away to the northwest. Both of these communities were involved in a heated rivalry to have a station constructed when the railway did arrive.
By the fall of 1909, developers in both of these small communities had street plans surveyed and lots were made available to purchase in 1910. South Fort George actually began to do quite well, as George Hammond advertised the community all over Canada and England. He stated that the community had mild winters, and was suitable for all sorts of agriculture except growing peaches.
Grand Trunk Pacific, for its part, was not happy about this. They did not want other developers capitalizing off of them and they decided that they would set up their own site. The company purchased 553 hectares of land from the Fort George Indian Reserve in 1912 at a cost of $125,000, or $2.9 million today. This site would serve as the future downtown area of Prince George.
As the railroad approached, the two communities began to boom with 1,500 people combined as construction workers came to the towns for supplies and for entertainment.
When the railroad purchased the land from the reserve, they had purchased it before Charles Vance Millar, the owner of the BC Express Company, could buy any. To compensate him, he was given 200 acres of the property.
All of these meant that by 1914, there were four communities surrounding the area, South Fort George, Central Fort George, Millar Addition and the townsite the railroad had purchased.
George Hammond would take the railway to court in a series of legal challenges, but he would lose and Prince George was incorporated on March 6, 1915.
As for the name, and why it became Prince George there are a few theories on that. One is that the railway wanted to distinguish from the Fort George communities, that it wanted to honour King George V, and that it wanted to honour Prince George, Duke of Kent, the fourth child of the king.
Prince George would not see its population rise as the construction of the railway was halted due to the First World War, and then the Spanish Flu hit in 1918. It was not until the 1930s that Prince George saw significant growth and that was thanks to Army Camp Prince George, which I will get to in the next section.
The Army Arrives
When the Second World War broke out, Prince George saw a sudden new lease on life. Army Camp Prince George was opened, housing 6,000 soldiers.
From March 1942 to October 1943, troops with the 16th Infantry Brigade was housed at the camp, which included barracks, dining halls and wet canteens. In addition, the camp featured rifle ranges, mortar ranges and artillery ranges.
At the end of the war, the camp was demolished, with some buildings moving to new locations. Some of the buildings used in the camp now have new leases on life in the city including as a bottle depot, the home for the Community Arts Council and a store.
The war would have another benefit for Prince George that would see its growth skyrocket. With so many cities in Europe destroyed from the war, the demand for lumber skyrocketed. For Prince George, that was good news and its sawmills were kept busy, and the sounds of lumber crews could be heard in the hills around the city.
In 1952, the Pacific Great Eastern railway was completed and it joined the Canadian National line with Prince George.
The 1956 Plane Crash
In the evening of June 25, 1956, around 7 p.m., a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane left the Prince George Airport and was soon seen flying in an unsafe manner. Witnesses on the ground saw the plane do a half-roll, and then fall over on its back and nose dive into a ravine one kilometre from the city.
The plane was flown by Frank Pynn, who had served in the Royal Air Force as a Transport Command pilot. With him was Jimmy Clarke, a 15-year-old passenger.
In the investigation of the crash, it was found that Pynn died through, quote:
Testimony would reveal that Pynn had been drinking just prior to the flight, and many felt that he was unfit to fly. The inquest found that Pynn was flying far below the 1000-foot minimum level, reaching as low as 150 feet in some cases. He had then passed over the airport, and witnesses said he approached the administration building at a height of no more than 20 feet.
Many were surprised by the actions of Pynn, who had over 4,000 hours of flying experience and had flown over 20 different types of planes.
Downtown Walking Tour
A great way to explore a community is through a walking tour. Not only do you get some great exercise, you also discover the history of the community first hand. Prince George has a walking tour, available through their website, that allows you to see the history of the city.
I will go through some of the more notable places you can see along the tour.
En Cha Ghuna, or He Too Lives, is located at Prince George City Hall and is a piece of art that speaks of the history and the land of the community. Made by two Indigenous artists, it is a canoe carved out of a cottonwood tree, which was placed on the site in 2012. On the art piece, there are 11 life-size regional fish showcased on the art piece.
While it is now gone, you can see the former site of the Prince George Hotel, built in the early 20th century and was the first business to operate on George Street. Initially serving as a bar, that was shut down until 1919 due to prohibition in British Columbia. Unfortunately, business continued to suffer for several years, but to hide that fact, J.H. Johnson, the owner and mayor of Prince George from 1922 to 1923, had a shipment of cars brought in for his dealerships and he parked them around the hotel to make it look busy. In 2011, the building was demolished.
The Third Avenue Mural was painted by Milan Basic in 2011, and completed two years later. Using latex paint and spray paint, it measures at 70 feet wide and 15 feet high. Basic also painted the Canada Games mural that is on display in the community, which was painted in 2012 to celebrate the 2015 Canada Winter Games. That mural measures 27 feet high and 20 feet wide.
Built in 1948 in an Art Deco style, with a rounded entry and evenly spaced windows, Mason’s Café on Third Avenue still operates in the city. On the opening day of the business in 1949, the owner gave out free ice cream to local children and apparently tore a ligament in his shoulder after scooping 300 hard ice cream cones. Today, it is Mason’s Steak and Chops and has been selected by Enroute magazine as one of the best restaurants in Canada.
The Corless House on Fourth Avenue was built in 1917 and is one of the few remaining historic houses in the city. Owned by Richard Corless, who worked for the Sandiford Undertakers at the time, he suddenly found himself in charge of the business when the Sandiford family fled during the Spanish Flu. Tom Corless, his son, was 11-years-old at the time and would drive a Ford Model T ambulance to pick up the bodies of the deceased. The family continued to operate the business until 1936, and they moved out of the house in 1947.
The Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre
If you want to learn about history and science in the community, then you can check out the Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre. Located in Lheidli Tenneh Memorial Park, there are several exhibits to visit including a paleontology exhibit, one dedicated to the Indigenous, and a children’s gallery. There is also a two foot narrow gauge Fort George Railway that includes a working steam locomotive. In the facility, you will also find the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame. So far, the hall of fame has inducted 75 individuals across 24 sports including the 1977-78 Prince George Mohawks that won the Senior A Provincial Championship four times in six years, as well as several NHL players such as Jason LaBarbera and Darcy Rota.
The Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum
For anyone who has a love of railroads, and really who doesn’t, then the Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum is a great place to check out. This museum is home to several locomotives, running stock and heritage railway buildings, and they are open for visitors to explore. There are also pieces of rail lines that used to go through central British Columbia including the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway and BC Rail.
On the forestry side of things, there are artifacts from decades ago from the forestry industry, including a 46 foot high beehive burner from the local sawmill.
The museum itself began in 1983 as a preservation society to restore a 1903 wooden Russel Snowplow. In 1984, the city gave the society 6.5 acres for a museum site. It officially opened its doors in 1986 and in 1989, included forestry in its museum.
The Queen Visits
If you have listened to a few of my local history podcasts, one thing I love is covering when someone famous comes to the community.
For Prince George, on Aug. 17, 1994, one of the most famous individuals in the world arrived, Queen Elizabeth II. She was on hand to open the University of Northern British Columbia.
She would tell the huge gathered crowd, quote:
“The concept of this university is no less exciting than the land in which it is set. You are fortunate to learn and teach in such a matchless setting.”
She would also paraphrase the Lord of the Rings, stating quote:
“This is the hour of the northern people, when we arise from our quiet forests to shake towers and councils of the great.”
At the event, the Lake Babine Nation danced and drummed and a choir sang God Save the Queen.
Also while in the community, Queen Elizabeth II opened the new Prince George Civic Centre and she was presented a toy logging truck by the city.
This was not the only visit to Prince George by a member of the Royal Family. In 1983, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were in the community as well.
One interesting aspect of Prince George is Mr. PG, a mascot and monument for the community. Built in 1960, it was originally created to serve as a symbol of the importance of the forestry industry in the city. Standing at 26.7 feet tall, with a head that is nearly five feet in diameter, it was officially unveiled on May 8, 1960 at a Rotary International Conference. Later that year, it took part in the May Day Parade and had the ability to speak and bow.
The man behind the creation of this mascot was Harold Moffat, who would be mayor of Prince George from 1970 to 1979. He believed the community needed a mascot to promote its forestry industry, in a similar style to the Paul Bunyan statue in Oregon.
In 1961, Mr. PG took part in the Kelowna Regatta and the Vancouver PNE parade. In 1963, it was part of the Grey Cup Parade.
It finally came to its current spot in 1970, where it has remained since then.
The City of Prince George trademarked Mr. PG in 1985, and it has been featured in a song by Al Simmons and in 2009, Canada post featured him on a stamp.