The History Of Fort St. John

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CraigBaird

The Indigenous

For thousands of years, the area around Fort St. John was the traditional territory of the Dane-zaa Indigenous.

Archeological evidence conducted in the area has found that there was an Indigenous settlement in the area dating back at least 10,500 years ago. Artifacts have also been found at Charlie Lake Cave, located south of Fort St. John. In this cave, which is a single room, many artifacts have been found including a distinctive fluted spear point, a variety of stone tools and even homemade bread. The bread is the oldest found in North America. The cave shows the oldest evidence of ritual acts in Canada as well.

Roughly 100 kilometres north of Fort St. John, there is also the Pink Mountain archeological site. It shows that people were not only moving through, but settling as early as 3,000 years ago.

Today, Fort St. John sits on Treaty 8 Land, which was negotiated in 1899 after Klondikers began to move through the land of the Beaver people, which the Indigenous had previously tried to refuse entry to.

The Seven Forts

The first European to move through the area was likely Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who came through the area in 1793 during his exploration of the Arctic region in the hopes of finding a path to the Pacific. One year after he passed through, the first of seven forts was built in the area. That fort was called Rocky Mountain House, which should not be confused with the fort to the south in Alberta also named that. With the establishment of this fort, the first European settlement on the mainland of British Columbia, Fort St. John can lay claim to the oldest European-establishment settlement in British Columbia. This fort would close in 1805.

One year later, Fort d’Epinette was built by the North West Company. It would be renamed as Fort St. John in 1821 following the merger of the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company following the Pemican War. This fort would only operate for two more years after that, when it closed in 1823.

At the same time that Fort d’Epinette was established, a small trading post called Revillon Freres was built, consisting of just a two-storey cabin but it would soon shut down.

In the 1860s, Fort St. John was built on the south side of the community and it would operate until 1872.

When that fort closed, a new Fort St. John was built on the north side of the river, directly across from the previous fort. That Fort would have the most success of all the previous forts, lasting until 1925 when it closed due to a new wagon trail that was built to Fort Nelson.

The trading post, Reviollon Freres, would return in 1910 but again it did not last long and was soon closed.

The last of the forts, Fort St. John, built in 1925 on Fish Creek to the northwest of the community, was built to take advantage of the new wagon trail that had closed down the previous fort. This fort would be the most successful, operating until 1975. It would be incorrect to call this a fort, as it was more of a tiny town that would become a ghost town by the 1970s as Fort St. John, the other town, rose in prominence in the area.

The Founding Of The Community

In 1913, the first settlers started to talk up homesteads in the area around Fort St. John, located in what was called the Peace River Block. This block of land was 3.5 million acres that had been given to the federal government by British Columbia in 1883

The initial influx of residents was slow at first, but in the 1920s another wave of new settlers arrived when the Second Homestead Act allowed prairie farmers to settle in the Peace District after drought had destroyed their farms elsewhere. In 1928, C.M. Finch moved his general store to land where he also built a government building that housed the land, telegraph and post office. He then donated five acres of land for the Roman Catholic Church and additional land for a hospital, sparking the beginning of what would be Fort St. John .

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One of the biggest changes to come to Fort St. John, which helped it grow in size immensely, was the construction of the Alaska Highway. The road, which was built by the US Army and the Canadian government, was built over the course of only nine months from March to September of 1942. I did an entire episode on this construction a few weeks ago, I encourage you to check it out. With the building of the road, modern transportation came to Fort St. John but it came at a great cost. I will get to that in the next section.

In 1951, the community would enter a new era when Fort St. John No. 1 hit gas at a depth of 1,524 metres. In 1952, a second well was dug and hit gas at 4,418 metres. That well is still operating to this day. Due to the abundant oil and gas in the area, the Hart Highway was built that connected Fort St. John to the rest of the province.

Today, Fort St. John is one of the largest communities in British Columbia and is home to 20,155 people.

The Charles Bedaux Expedition

In 1934, a new visitor came through the area that provided the residents of Fort St. John with something new and unique to witness. Charles Bedaux was a French-American millionaire who made a fortune implementing the work measurement aspect of scientific management. He was also a big game hunter and explorer, and that would bring him to the Fort St. John area.

The Bedaux Canadian Sub-Arctic Expedition was an attempt to by Bedaux to cross the wilderness of northern Alberta and British Columbia, while making a film that shows the Citreon Half-Track Vehicles, essentially making the expedition a publicity stunt for the vehicles. Leaving with more than 100 people, including his wife, his mistress and Floyd Crosby, an Academy-Award winning director, dozens of cowboys and a large film crew. The expedition left Edmonton on July 6, 1934, with the goal of traveling 2,400 kilometres to Telegraph Creek in British Columbia.

After being sent off in a ceremony involving the Lt. Governor of Alberta, the group made Grande Prairie on July 12 and Fort St. John on July 17. They would remain in the community until July 22, purchasing supplies, hiring more cowboys, repairing their vehicles and attending several banquets. At the same time, Bedaux decided that the expedition needed to be more newsworthy, so he fired hi radio operator in Fort St. John and announced his expedition would continue on without a radio.

By October 17, the group had made Hudson Hope, and decided to turn back and end the expedition.

The Charlie Lake Sinking

Nearby Charlie Lake would see the worst single loss of life during the construction of the Alaska Highway. It was on May 14, 1942 at 8 a.m. when a pontoon boat was traveling across the lake with 17 men, along with a great deal of equipment including a bulldozer, radio command car and drums of oil. The water was choppy with one-foot waves and by 11:15 a.m., the boat was two-thirds of the way across the lake when the men noticed a plug had come out of the gas line on one of the motors and gasoline was draining out. As the boat began to turn, two waves hit it, tipping the pontoon and pushing it under the waves. The entire sequence happened in only two minutes. Gustaf Albin Hedin, a trapper, was watching the pontoon go across the lake through the morning. He then returned to his stove to check on his breakfast. When he looked back, he saw the pontoon was gone and men were swimming in the water around where he had last seen it. He then launched his 14-foot rowboat, and reached the men in 15 minutes. There, he found nine men still alive but due to the fact they were in heavy winter clothing and boots, he had difficulty rescuing them and several could not swim. He rescued two, then came back for two more and upon his last trip out, he was only able to find one man. In all, 12 men were killed in the accident.

Fort St. John North Peace Museum

If you would like to see the history of Fort St. John over the course of the centuries, then the Fort St. John North Peace Museum is the perfect place to spend a day. While there, you can learn about the history of the area including exploring a teepee, trapper’s cabin, blacksmith’s shop, schoolhouse, dentist office, newspaper office, an Alaska Highway exhibit and a British Columbia Police Barracks and jail. There is also dentist office and a post office you can explore while visiting the museum and learning about the history of Fort St. John. You can also touch a beaver pelt, try on a sugar sack apron, and even compare your feet to those of dinosaurs. You can also see museum exhibits at the North Peace Regional Airport and the Fort St. John Hospital.

The museum also features wildlife mounts including a mule deer and polar bear.

Wendy Arlene Clay

One of the most notable individuals to come out of Fort St. John is Wendy Arlene Clay, who was born in the community on Sept. 27, 1942. In 1965, Clay would join the military as a medical student, earning her medical degree two years later. That same year, she was posted at CFB Trenton in Ontario as a general duty medical officer, and became the first woman to receive training as a Canadian Forces Flight Surgeon.

In 1970, she would be promoted to major and transferred to CFB Moose Jaw. While there, she underwent basic pilot training in 1972. In 1973, she was transferred to Training Command in Winnipeg, and in 1974 she became the first woman in the Canadian Air Force to receive her wings.

In 1977, she was promoted to Lt. Colonel and joined the Canadian Forces Institute of Environmental Medicine in Toronto as the Director of Medical Assessment and Training Division.

Subsequently promoted to colonel after a six-month tour of duty with the Canadian United Nations contingent in Egypt, she became a command surgeon at the Air Command Headquarters in Winnipeg.

In 1989, she was promoted to Brigadier General and served as the Commandant of the National Defence Medical Centre, holding that appointment until 1992.

In 1994, after a promotion to Major General, she was appointed Surgeon General, the first woman in the Canadian Armed Forces to have that rank and appointment. She remained in that post until her retirement in 1998.

She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Other Notable Residents

There are several other people who lived in Fort St. John, with some pretty amazing stories.

Dr. Garnet Kearney was a doctor educated at McGill University, who arrived in Fort St. John in 1935, replacing Dr. Brown, the first doctor in Fort St. John. As an early advocate for Medicare, he did not charge for his services if a patient could not afford them. In 1939, 21-year-old Gordon Stock in Watson Lake was suffering from delirium and needed brain surgery. Jack Baker, the employer of the man, radioed Kearney for help. Kearney diagnosed Stock as having a cyst on his brain. He then stated that Baker had to operate to relieve pressure or Stock would die. Using the radio, Kearney instructed Baker what to do, with the surgery proving to be a success and Stock making a full recover. Dr. Kearney Junior Secondary School in Fort St. John is named for him.

Bella Yahey was born around the year 1874, but it can’t be confirmed as no records were kept at the time. By the time she died on July 16, 1976, she was heralded by CBC as The Oldest Woman In Canada, when she reached the age of 116.

The 1936 Fur Theft

One event that made national headlines was the robbery of 19 bales of fur from Fort Nelson, amounting to $32,000 on July 12, 1936. Nels Natland, Oliver McMartin and Bob Gillard were bound with rope and put into the basement. The trap door was closed and flour barrels were pulled over. The men would remain in the basement for two hours until they were finally able to free themselves. In order to catch the men who robbed the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, the British Columbia and Alberta provincial police searched through the area from Fort Nelson to Fort St. John, including with the use of an airplane.

Constable H. Bailey of Fort St. John was supposed to leave on patrol for Deadman’s Lake, but this was cancelled until arrests could be made in the matter. Constable J.S. Clarke of Fort Nelson would capture the men near Fort St. John on Aug. 12, 1936, ending a saga that gripped the area for an entire month.

Magistrate J.W. Abbott of Fort St. John would oversee the case and the trial of Bert Sheffield and Henry Courvoisier. Both men were released on $10,000 bail, which would amount to $188,000 today. Both men would be found not guilty of possession of stolen furs. 

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