For centuries, the area around what would be Chetwynd was home to the Beaver and Dene people. They would call the area Little Prairie.
Located near to Chetwynd is the Saulteau First Nation. Each year, the First Nation hosts Pemmican Days. The celebration originates from the role pemmican played in the Indigenous culture. Using the meat from bison, elk, beer and moose, the meat was cut in thin slices and dried, through a slow fire or in the hot sun, until it was hard and brittle. It was then pounded into small pieces until it was almost a powder. This was then mixed with melted fat and dried fruits. The mixture was then put into a rawhide bag for storage.
Today, Chetwynd sits on Treaty 8 land.
Founding Of the Community
The area that would become a townsite existed primarily only as a trading post from 1918 until the early 1930s when homesteaders began to arrive.
The area was first homesteaded in 1930 by Alexander and Lillian Windrem, who had cleared the land in order to plant gardens and crops that they could harvest.
The area would grow slowly as settlers started to migrate in. The discovery of oil and coal nearby would help bring roads into the area, greatly increasing the amount of settlers who arrived. This would lead to the construction of the John Hart Highway, named for Premier John Hart and completed in 1952. This would be the first major connection with the rest of the province. Prior to this, to get to the rest of British Columbia, a resident of the area had to drive into Alberta.
With the highway, the population quickly began to rise. In 1951, the first school in the district was built. On Oct. 8, 1957, Little Prairie as it was being called, was incorporated as a waterworks district.
The railway would arrive in 1958, which I will talk about in the next section.
As for the name, that came from Ralph L.T. Chetwynd, who was the Provincial Minister of Railways. He headed the rail line project into the community and he was rewarded with the community being named for him as a result. The official name change happened on July 1, 1959 with an official ceremony and the Canadian Girls in Training marching in a parade and singing a song about the name change composed by a local resident.
Of course, that name change was not welcomed by everyone. Sam Torrens, a local businessman, would say quote:
“It really doesn’t matter to me what they call it. We’ll keep on calling it Little Prairie.”
Prior to the name change, two petitions went up. One asked that the name change to Chetwynd, the other that it remain Little Prairie. The final tally had 100 votes in favour of keeping the name Little Prairie for every four votes in favour of Chetwynd.
The growth of the area continued through the 1960s as sawmills, oil and gas businesses and more arrived. In 1963, the curling rink and rodeo grounds were built, followed by a library in 1967, a fire hall in 1968, an airport in 1970 and a hospital in 1971. All of this growth resulted in Chetwynd becoming a village in 1962.
With megaprojects such as the Peace Canyon Dam, the pipelines and the Bennett Dam finishing in the early 1980s, the population of Chetwynd began to level off and it was reincorporated into the district in 1983 and lost its village status.
By 1992, Chetwynd was such an important part of the forestry industry in the country that it was deemed the Forestry Capital of Canada by the Canadian Forest Services.
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The Train Finally Arrives (1958)
Arguably the biggest day in the history of Chetwynd was in March of 1958 when 3,000 people gathered at the original site of the post office of Little Prairie, waiting for the arrival of the first train over the Pacific Great Eastern Railway from Vancouver.
For many of the residents, the wait for the train had been 30 years, since they first moved to the district with the hope of a train arriving from the West Coast one day.
The train would arrive, carrying cars of pipe that served as a symbol of the natural gas development that fueled settlement in the community. Also in the cars were steel railway track that symbolized the continued extension of the Pacific Great Eastern. As well, a piggy-back car with a Northern Freightways van represented the great freight hauling along the Alaska Highway. It also had cars full of grain and lumber to represent two of the biggest industries in the area.
Premier W.A.C. Bennett was also on hand for the big event and he touched off a gas flare that officially opened the new banking office in the community. Of the arrival of the railway, Bennett would say quote:
“Today, the PGE has arrived. It will bring great and undreamed of development to the northland of BC. Your faith in this country has been justified.”
Within the previous year of the community, with news of the train arriving, 18 new businesses were built. It was a good time for everyone, as exemplified by a local resident who was interviewed and stated in the newspaper, quote:
“We have had a great construction period. Wages have been high and there has been work for everyone. We realize this can’t go on forever but the country has so much to offer and with the new outlet of the PEGE we just can’t help but grow a little more all the time.”
After the big event and the train arrival, the town held a six hour barbecue complete with moose, venison and duck, as well as dancing until 3 a.m.
With the arrival of the railway, the lumber industry quickly began to grow and with it the local economy.
Little Prairie Heritage Museum
Inside the community, you will find the Little Prairie Heritage Museum. This museum showcases the history of the area, to the early trading post days when Chetwynd was called Little Prairie. With the motto of celebrating community and pioneer life, the museum features artifacts and collections of the history of the railways, family life, farming, trapping, logging and forestry. You can also find farm machinery that dates back to the early 1900s and was used by the very first residents to the area.
The museum also features artifacts from the building of the Alaska Highway, which was a major driver of change for the entire area of northwest British Columbia when over 2,000 kilometres of highway was built through the bush in only nine months during the Second World War.
The Wooden Sculptures
Easily one of the most interesting aspects of the District of Chetwynd are the chainsaw carvings. What started as part of the Rendezvous 92 Committee, which was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway, the organizers wanted to leave a lasting legacy of the area’s participation in that construction.
On Dec. 31, 1990, a meeting of major businesses and community groups was called and it was decided to commission the creation of bear sculptures.
In the first year of the project, 42 different fundraisers were held to raise money to bring the first carvings into town. These included baking cookies, hosting dances and events driven around special guests who were brought to the community.
With the bear scene completed, the carvings became a tourism centrepiece for the community.
In 2005, Chetwynd then hosted the first annual Chetwynd International Chainsaw Carving Championship, which featured seven carvers from the United States and British Columbia. In 2006, 12 carvers came out from across North America.
Today, carvers from across the world come to the community, including from North Wales, Wales and Japan. In 2008, ECHO Chainsaw Carving Series and Championship hosted an event in the community.
The carvings that are now showcased in the community are now much more intricate with extremely fine details that come from individuals who know how to use a chainsaw like a fine blade. Today, there are 120 carvings that are located across the community.
WAC Bennett Dam
Located near to Chetwynd, there is the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, one of the world’s highest earth fill dams. Construction began in 1961 and would continue for the next seven years, helping to fuel the growth of the community. In total, the construction of the dam cost $750 million, making it one of the most expensive projects in the history of British Columbia.
Named for Premier W.A.C. Bennett, who played a major role in its construction, there was significant controversary over the building of the dam as it would result in the creation of Williston Lake, named for Ray Williston, a member of the British Columbia cabinet. Williston Lake was created at the dam as the Peace, Parsnip and Finlay Rivers all feed into it. With the dam now blocking flow, that lake began to grow and as it grew, it covered 350,000 acres of former forest land. In addition, the creation of the lake also resulted in the relocation of 50 residents in the area, including members of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. The Indigenous residents lost their land that had supported them and they became isolated from the culture they grew up with. Another issue with the creation of the dam was that it raised the humidity in the area quite a bit, which resulted in a compromised ability to grow crops. The dam and the subsequent lake also created cooler temperatures in the area and an increase in fog.
Upon the dam’s completion, Williston Lake was the largest fresh water body in British Columbia, running 250 kilometres north to south and 150 kilometres west to east. This makes it the third largest artificial lake in North America.
Today, there is a visitor centre located at the dam that overlooks Williston Lake. It features exhibits on the dam, its production of electricity and the area’s cultural and natural history.
The Hole In The Wall
If nature is more your thing, you can visit the Hole-in-the-Wall Provincial Park, which was created on June 29, 2000 and covers 137 hectares of land. Its unique name comes from the fact that there is a resurgence spring that emerges from the limestone rock wall. The water travels under ground through caves and eventually works its way out the rock to create this unique geological feature.
Seeing the feature does not take a long walk through the wilderness either. It is located only 40 metres away from the road, making it easily accessible for travelers who are coming through the area.
The area and the stream coming from the rock was known by the local Indigenous for thousands of years.