The History Of Fort Nelson

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Long before the arrival of Europeans in Canada, or British Columbia for that matter, the land around Fort Nelson was occupied by the Dene people, who continue to live there to this day.

Today, Fisherman Lake is a popular destination throughout the year for its fishing opportunities and beautiful landscape.

When people go to the lake, they may not realize the immense amount of history present there. Long before the Pyramids, Stonehenge and even the advent of recorded history, the First Nations people were at the location, living their lives and leaving their mark.

A total of 154 archeological sites have been found in the area, with 10 being excavated. Based on the evidence found at these sites, it is believed that 7,000 to 8,000 years ago the area was inhabited by the Northern Cordilleran/Plano people, who were moving through the area during the massive change in the Earth’s climate as the most recent ice age came to an end. It is believed that the people who were present during that era were bison hunters. Some evidence points to human occupation of the area dating back as much as 10,000 years.

About 1,000 years later, a new group of people migrated through from the Yukon. As they came to the area, they left behind stone blades called microblades. It is believed that the group who used the microblades would become the ancestors of the Slavery people who live there today.

The area was full of animals when the First Nations people were migrating through, providing subsistence and raw materials for use in technology. Plants in the area also provided a large variety of foods, medicines and even had uses in the Indigenous technology of the time.

In 1952, archeological work began when a man by the name of R.S. MacNeish from the National Museum of Canada began to show the long history of human occupation of the area. The historical significance of Fisherman Lake is evident in the fact that in the entire Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories, only three archaeological sites have been known to produce more than 100 artifacts of some sort. All three sites are at Fisherman Lake. Of the 13 sites that produced more than 30 artifacts, five are at Fisherman Lake.

For 40 years, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were fierce rivals that competed for the fur trade of the Canadian west. Beginning in the 1810s, the Hudson’s Bay Company would begin to restrict the pemmican that was vital to the North West Company’s business, which would result in the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks and the eventual merger of the two companies in 1821.

Before all that though, the companies would build forts wherever they could to get the fur trade business of an area and that is how Fort Liard near to Fort Nelson, would come into being. The area, of course, had been home to an Indigenous population for thousands of years. The Deh Gah Gotie Dene had lived there for roughly 10,000 years, and to the South Slavey people it was called Echaotie Kue, translated as ‘The place of the people from the land of giants.’

Europeans would get their foothold in the area in 1807 when Fort Liard was founded by the North West Company. Founded as Riviere aux Liards, or River of Aspens, it would be a vital fort for the company for the next decade until the merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Indigenous had been trading with the Europeans and Canadians prior to the establishment of the fort, but the fort would give the North West Company the ability to interact quickly and directly with the Indigenous fur traders.

The fort would exist for several years until it was abandoned due to hostile relations with the Indigenous of the area, and it would remain near abandoned until 1820 when it was once again used again. The Hudson’s Bay Company would take the fort over in 1821 and the fur trade once again began in earnest in the area.

By 1822, a new type of boat, similar to York boats, were beginning to arrive at the fort, bringing furs, knives, muskets, pots, families and pets. These moosehide boats were 20 metres in length and made from as many as 10 untanned moosehides, sewn together and stretched over a spruce pole frame. Once the boats would arrive at the fort, they would be dismantled and the hides then used.

As the fur trade began to fade from prominence in the 1850s and beyond, a new era would begin for Fort Liard when Father Zephirin Gascon, a missionary of Mary Immaculate, and the first oblate priest in the area, would found the Fort Liard Mission in 1859. The missionaries would travel through the area for the next century. Brother Felix, one noted priest from the mission, would work out of the fort from 1912 all the way to 1965.

From those beginnings, the community of Fort Liard would spring up, existing to this day.

Sir Sandford Fleming, the inventor of Standard Time Zones, would record about Fort Liard in his journal during a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1872. On Aug. 23 of that year, as he passed through northern Alberta, he met with a Hudson’s Bay officer by the name of Mr. King. King stated that he had never seen better wheat or root crops than those raised at Fort Liard on the Liard River.

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On the topic of growing, a guide for immigrants to Canada stated that barley, oats and potatoes could all be grown, even at Fort Liard, with a word of warning. The guide stated, “in some years the frost touches the wheat and prevents the oats ripening.”

Father J.A. Turcotte found himself assigned to Fort Liard in 1930, something that delighted him. It was there he took a very long journey that he would remember for the rest of his life. Traveling with a First Nations guide and an RCMP constable, in below freezing weather, he traveled up the Petitot River, through the northeast corner of British Columbia and into Fort Providence in Alberta. Often short of food, and falling through the ice on one occasion, his life was saved by the First Nations guide. He then travelled from Fort Providence to Fort Liard alone, arriving at Fort Liard on Christmas Day. As he said, “It was the end of the 1,100-mile journey, every step of which, thank God, I was able to walk.”

According to Turcotte, Fort Liard at the time had a Hudson’s Bay Company store, a Northwest Territories Company store, a two-man RCMP detachment, several First Nations families and a Roman Catholic mission. He describes the community as such, “a hamlet of beauty in the summer and a most agreeable place all year round. Every month of the cold season, the warm wind of the Pacific would fly over the mountains to visit us, as if to remind us continually that spring was in the offing.”

We take it for granted these days that a police force is present in nearly every community in Canada. For many years in the west, law and order came from constables who would pass through the area on their patrols every few weeks. Eventually, more permanent police forces were established and that was the case for Fort Nelson.

The Fort Nelson Police Department was established by Corporal Barber in Jan. 15, 1927. Barber was accompanied by Constable Gunnell. The two men had left Fort St. John on Sept. 15, 1926, administering law and order along the trail for the three months of traveling to their new destination. In the spring of 1927, Barber’s wife would join him and would remain in the community for only a few months. She and Barber, along with Gunnell, were relieved by John Seymour Clark in Oct. 1928.

At the time, Clark had been stationed at Hudson Hope when he found out he was to take over in Fort Nelson. Clark left Hudson Hope with his wife by boat on Sept. 23, 1928. They travelled to Fort St. John and once in the community, travelled to Fort Nelson by horse pack train. It would take 18 days of rain, snow and even a shortage of food for horses, before they arrived.

Clark was not someone who shied away from something difficult or dangerous.

Two months before he turned 16, Clark chose to leave the community in 1914 to join the British Grenadier Guards in London. He was accepted and would serve throughout the Second World War. Coming to Canada after the war, he joined up with the RCMP for eight years and served in the Northwest Territories, Alberta and British Columbia. In the north he became noted for his ability to handle dogs and was well-known for it throughout his career.

Unlike the previous two constables, Clark would remain in the community for the next ten years. Not only serving as policeman, he was the game warden and kept track of births and deaths, issued rations and took part in official functions in the community. He would travel through the area by horse and boat in the summer, and by snowshoe and dog sled in the winter. Clark was remembered by those in the community as an extremely brave and honorable man.

After his time with the RCMP, he joined up with the B.C. Provincial Police and had his first posting at Hudson Hope in the spring of 1928. In that summer, his future wife Genevieve came to the community and they were married. Soon after, they left for Fort Nelson.

In the community, he and his wife would have three children with Genevieve travelling hundreds of kilometres to the hospital. Prior to her first son, John, she travelled 1,100 miles by river to reach Edmonton. For the birth of her daughter, she spent three weeks on the trail by dog sled, then rode a train for 500 miles to Edmonton.

As Walter Taylor said in 1934, “Clark was one of the finest men I ever met, him and [Constable] Baptiste too. He was policeman, game warden, magistrate, judge…acted as his own judge, and fair. He was a fine man. He made a big trip and rounded up all those Alberta trappers that were trapping in B.C. and told them they would have to live in B.C. to trap in B.C. Not fair to us, they weren’t paying B.C. licences.”

For much of his time in the community, Clark was accompanied by Baptiste Villeneuve, who would spend 30 years in Fort Nelson, serving the community. The two became very close, as Genevieve relates, “The second winter he had Baptiste Villeneuve as his interpreter and special game warden. Baptiste was only 15 at the time and would stay on with the game department until his retirement. Baptiste was a great lad, and he lived with us for nine years, just like our own son.”

The Second World War brought many changes to the northern regions of British Columbia, and throughout the Yukon. With the need to quickly get soldiers and supplies into Alaska, new airports and roads quickly opened. The most famous, of course, is the Alaska Highway. Constructed between March 8, 1942 and finished before the end of the year, it would transform the area.

There was a time when Fort Nelson had a foreign armed force within its midst. Thankfully, it was not an invasion from a foreign power but cooperation with a close ally.

When the US Army began to arrive during the later part of the Second World War in 1942, they gave the name of Zero to Fort Nelson. This name was not an assessment of life at Fort Nelson but rather the technical name because Fort Nelson was the intersection of two roads, one to Whitehorse and one to Fort Simpson. This was where everything started for the US Army for the Alaska Highway. Following the war, the Canadian government would designate Dawson Creek as Mile Zero and Fort Nelson as Mile 300.

As the army, or more specifically the United States Engineering Division, came into the area things began to change quickly. Construction was happening everywhere from camps springing up for the soldiers to live at, pillars going up in rivers for bridges, telephone poles and wires crisscrossing the area and holes dug for water.

Since at the time there were no private stores in Fort Nelson, all groceries and other sorts of freight came from Dawson Creek. It would be the US Army that would start the first service station and restaurant. The area where those two businesses started would eventually be home to the curling rink, across the street from the tourist booth.

The first hotel would also come about thanks to the US Army. They built it on top of the Highway Maintenance Establishment Hill, and it contained only cots with gray blankets and no sheets. It was called the British Yukon Navigation Staging Post.

A second service station was built, and it had a sign outside stating that there was no gas sold for cash. This was because the service station was only there to serve the army vehicles and the public could not get gas at that station.

Lodema George, a local resident, had high praise for the Americans who arrived in the area.

“There were a lot of awfully nice men, a lot of awfully homesick boys in the bunch. They would come over and tell us of the accidents and things that would happen and at the time were serious but later they could see the funny side and laugh about it.”

The US Army would build the road to Alaska in record time, and their influence in the area would have a massive impact on Fort Nelson. While they left in 1946, Fort Nelson still feels the impact of their visit through the services and buildings they created and the tourists who come through every year to learn more about the monumental engineering effort that was the Alaska Highway.

While the Alaska Highway gets most of the attention, the Fort Nelson Airport, known as the Northern Rockies Regional Airport, now, played a vital role itself.

Established in 1941 as part of the United States Army Air Forces Northwest Staging Route, the airport would quickly become a very busy and important stopping point. According to a newspaper article from September of 1941, after the site was chosen, W.W. Kelland arrived with his instrument men by landing on the frozen Nelson River, and then walked 4.5 miles to the site of the future airport.

Used primarily for refueling, it would see 8,000 aircraft move through during the war. At the time, the airport had two runways, measuring two kilometres and 1.5 kilometres. Passenger service was operated at the time by Canadian Pacific Air Lines.

There isn’t much information about the people who worked at the airport during the war years but one such person was John Yeo from Nanton, Alberta. In 1943, he was working for the American army at the airport as part of the well drilling crew, living in camp and, according to his own account, enjoying the work.

On Sept. 4, 1941, the Strathmore Standard printed a report on the ability to travel all the way to Russia via several stops at Canadian airports. The article praised the Fort Nelson Airport heavily. The article mentions that things were more expensive for workers in Fort Nelson but that the everything from darning wools to food and beds were taken care of for the soldiers.

The article continues, “the Fort Nelson port is by far the most spectacular in the entire chain as far as man’s conquest of nature is concerned.”

The influx of people coming into the area due to the war put a strain on a lot of aspects of Fort Nelson’s infrastructure. To alleviate this somewhat, the US Army implemented a rule in September of 1943 that stated all personnel traveling on commercial aircraft whose destination was the Fort Nelson Airport must have a letter authorizing them to be at the airport. Many Canadian citizens were unhappy about this, and the fact that Americans were limiting their ability to travel within their own country.

Following the Second World War, operations transferred from the USAAF to the Royal Canadian Air Force. Soon after, the RCAF gave ownership of the airport over to Transport Canada.

From those early years as a vital stopping point for air force planes in the Second World War, to today where the airport continues to serve an important role, the Fort Nelson Airport has played an important role for those who live in the north.

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