Canada’s Newest Inland Empire

Sir Henry Thornton investigates amazing potentialities of Peace River country and adjacent territory. Outlet to Pacific urged by pioneers.

JOHN NELSON October 1 1924

Canada’s Newest Inland Empire

Sir Henry Thornton investigates amazing potentialities of Peace River country and adjacent territory. Outlet to Pacific urged by pioneers.

JOHN NELSON October 1 1924

Canada’s Newest Inland Empire

Sir Henry Thornton investigates amazing potentialities of Peace River country and adjacent territory. Outlet to Pacific urged by pioneers.


THE Canadian people, accustomed to speak in an off-hand way of the "Peace River country," have but the haziest

idea of its extent, and sometimes even of its location. They know, in a general way, that it is a land lying east of the Rocky Mountains and on the northern watershed of the continent, whose rivers drain into the Arctic Ocean.

They know it is north of Edmonton. But

whether it extends to or penetrates beyond the Arctic circle, few can tell. Its exact location is lost in the dim mental confusion of the ordinary man with regard to that great half continent that lies northwest of the watersheds of Hudson’s Bay and the Gulf, and east of those of the Pacific.

In the ordinary mind the Peace, the Athabaska, the Slave, the Mackenzie, and the Yukon rivers, and Great Bear, Great Slave, Lesser Slave, and Athabaska Lakes are mentally embraced in one area much in the manner in which are grouped together the lakes and rivers of the Muskoka region. The fact is that the area in question is so vast, and general information regarding it so limited, that it is a great unknown land to all excepting perhaps the comparatively few surveyors, trappers, pioneers and traders who have had occasion to travel it.

The district has been brought into considerable prominence during the last two sessions of the Canadian House of Commons through the activities of some of its settlers, who conducted an active campaign for the

purpose of drawing the attention of Canadian legislators to the needs of the district and its peculiar drawbacks with respect to transportation. The corridors of Parliament, the sanctums of editors, and the head offices of transportation companies were made familiar with a demand that some form of transportation be provided to permit the dwellers in the region mentioned to find an outlet for their grain and other products through railway connection with the Pacific coast. This in itself was arresting, for to most people the Peace River country is in some ill-defined way related to central or to eastern Canada, and not to the Pacific slope.

Thornton’s Interest

AMONG those who were importuned in this connection was Sir Henry Thornton, the head of the Canadian National system.

Unlike most of those who were interviewed, he is not a Canadian, has resided in Canada but a few years, and therefore has good excuse for more than ordinary ignorance of the territory in question. But Sir Henry has a fixed principle

of action in connection with any matter or any country with which he is asked to deal. He wants to see it for himself, and to the delight of the pioneers and settlers

he announced his intention of personally visiting the territory with his officials and becoming acquainted with both its physical features and its commercial needs at first hand.

The press dispatches which resulted from Sir Henry’s visit have had the effect of stimulating afresh interest in this unique country. For it is a remarkable land, in more respects than one. It is neither in the sub-Arctic nor even in the remote north with respect to the rest of Canada.

The Peace River itself is one of the noblest of the world’s waterways. He who would know Canada must work off large maps. And to visualize the Peace and the land to which it gives its name, the reader must institute comparisons with rivers and lands with which he is more familiar.

The river itself rises in British Columbia— in that part of British Columbia which is often called northern, but which is really central B.C., namely, the Cassiar country. There two fine rivers converge. The Finlay, flowing 250 miles from the north, meets with the Parsnip, flowing 145 miles from the south. Together they form the Peace, which runs for approximately another 250 miles east and then,

swinging northward, flows for 500 or 600 miles till it joins with the Slave River, which drains Lake Athabaska and flows for 265 miles into Great Slave Lake.

The Peace, from its rise at the headwaters of the Finlay to the point where it joins Slave River, is more than 1,000 miles long. The Slave River empties northward into Great Slave Lake, and Great Slave Lake is situated almost at the centre of that great aggregation of provinces and territories which is known as the Canadian West. In other words, there is almost as much land lying north of Great Slave Lake to the shores of the Arctic as there is south to thp International boundary, and it is the land south of it which the Peace traverses. Great Slave Lake, which is almost as large as Lake Ontario, forms a reservoir for the mighty Mackenzie, which latter drains Great Bear Lake, which is twice as large as Lake Ontario and rolls its majestic flood into the Arctic.

All the rivers and lakes mentioned form a continuous

waterway, rising in British Columbia and flowing for 2,525 miles before they join the waters of the Arctic. Treated as one waterway, the Peace is twice as long as the St. Lawrence, and drains a basin of 667,000 square miles, compared with the 297,000 square miles drained by the St. Lawrence. It has the largest basin of any North American river except the Mississippi. It is half as long as the Mississippi itself, is twothirds the length of the Amazon, is only 500 miles less than the Yantze Kiang, and is 600 miles longer than the Danube.

Big and Little Smoky

THE country which Sir Henry Thornton visited is in reality that limited territory which lies around the headwaters of the Peace and several of its tributaries, notably the Big Smoky and the Little Smoky, which are 245 and 185 miles in length respectively. The western boundaries of this territory skirt the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but the major portion of it is in Alberta and lies 300 or 400 miles northwest of the city of Edmonton.

The Peace River comes in from the northwest and runs generally easterly to approximately the northeastern corner of the block, then swings northward, in

its long journey to the Arctic. At this north-eastern corner, the district is served by the Edmonton, Dunvegan, and British Columbia railway at a point which taps that country, and also at the south-eastern parts, namely, at Spirit River and Grand Prairie. It is reached as well from the west by what is known as the Canoe

Route, and every fall Judge Robertson, the county court judge of British Columbia who resides at Prince George and within whose territory the British Columbia section of the district is embraced, makes a trip into Pouce Coupe, in which he manages to combine a great deal of pleasure with his judicial duty. This is a 300-mile trip involving an overland journey of thirty-two miles to Summit Lake, then down the Crooked River, McLeod Lake, the Pack and Parsnip rivers to Finlay, and then by Rocky Mountain portage, by the Peace River to Hudson’s Hope. He can proceed into his territory either from this point or from Dunvegan, 168 miles farther down the river.

Speaking generally the territory in question is 400 miles long by 200 miles wide. But unlike many districts, the amount of arable land embraced in the limits indicated is exceptionally high, indeed is so great as to be startling to those who have not visited the territory.

Optimistic Prognosticators

HUNTERS and trappers who saw it twenty years ago never conceived that the country was cap-

able of producing the finest wheat in the world, and this notwithstanding the fact that wheat grown at Fort Vermillion took first prize at the centennial exhibition at Philadelphia. In fact Wharburton Pike, the great hunter, returning from a trip across the Barren Lands two decades ago, declared the country only fit for the Indian, the buffalo, and the bear. Even as late as 1903 such a scientist as James Macoun gave it as his opinion that the Upper Peace River would never be a country in which wheat could be grown successfully. His father, also an eminent scientist, entertained a very different opinion. The fact is that by a selection of varieties, by clearing, and by cultivation, conditions have been introduced which make of the whole area one of the most promising wheat belts in the world.

This does not alone apply to the Upper Peace. James Cornwall and W. F. Bredin, both great traders through the entire north country, declare that the Laird country hundreds of miles down stream is better climatically even than the Peace, and contains bigger timber. The fact that the continent lowers in elevation as it approaches the Pole, even the Rockies falling to an inferior height, together with the prevalence of Chinook winds from the Pacific, accounts, in a large measure, for the continuance of the wheat growing area into the high latitudes. There are almost a score of grain elevators in the district at present which can accommodate over half a million bushels of wheat.

W hen an estimate of the productive capacity of this area is undertaken, the results are startling. A scrutiny of typographical maps and the examination of the homestead charts and a personal survey of the country itself prompts the conclusion that half the land in a block roughly 400 miles by 200 miles is wheat producing. There is practically no waste land in the area in question. There is little serious timber land. There are no stones. There is little muskeg. The land is of enormous fertility, in some places producing as high as seventy bushels of wheat to the acre. At Pouee Coupe, which has an elevation of more than 2,000 feet and which is not therefore the most select district, the average yield is thirty-two bushels to the acre. At Beaver Lodge, where the government conducts its experimental farm, the yield per acre over a six years’ average from 1915 to 1920, was forty-three bushels of Huron and thirty-four bushels of Marquis wheat. The average of oats ran more than a hundred bushels to the acre, while in 1920 one variety of oats ran as high as 134 bushels.

Taking 40,000,000 acres as the area in the Upper Peace and eliminating half of it and estimating the productivity of the soil at thirty bushels, would give an annual harvest, were the whole area in crop, of

600.000. 000 bushels. This is probably 100,000,000 or

150.000. 000 bushels greater than any crop which has

yet been produced in the whole Dominion of Canada.

When James Cornwall, fifteen years ago, carried the gospel of the Peace River before the Canadian clubs and boards of trade throughout Canada, he was accustomed to say that there were 32,000,000 acres of the finest wheat land in the world comprised in the Upper Peace River valley. His hearers were inclined to be skeptical because at that time there was little more than that amount in cultivation in the whole Dominion. Mr. Cornwall’s statement seems, however, to have been well within the facts.

Mr. Cornwall had the prescience at that time to see what has become increasingly evident of later years. He declares that the output of this whole territory must ultimately find its outlet, not on the Atlantic seaboard, but on the Pacific. Such an eminent authority as M. H. McLeod, consulting engineer of the Canadian National Railways, now states that these lands cannot hope for a profitable outlet via the Great Lakes, but that they must, if they are to prosper, follow the falling grades to the Pacific Ocean.

That is the battle in which the Peace River people are now engaged. They have a railway reaching them from the east, and touching the eastern and northeastern borders of this rich land. But they ask for the construction of another outlet whereby their grain and their cattle can follow the natural grades to the western sea. They think that the construction of about 270 miles southward from Grand Prairie and Sturgeon Lake to Brule station on the Canadian National would bring them to the minimum grades of the Canadian National, which they could follow either to Prince Rupert or to Vancouver.

There is a natural difference of opinion in various parts of the district as to whether the outlet should be southerly to Brule, or westerly to the unused passes, Wapiti, Pine, or Peace, and that is a question which engineers alone can solve. But there is unanimity of opinion that a saving of nearly twenty cents a bushel can be effected by using the western instead of the eastern route, first, because of its low grades, and second, because it is less than half the distance to the holds of vessels.

At present the C.P.R. have a lease on the Edmonton, Dunvegan, and British Columbia Railway which is built as far as Berwyn north of the Peace. The railway is owned by the Alberta government. The lease expires next year. If the C.P.R. exercises its option, it may continue it north of the Peace River and via Hudson’s

Hope through one of the passes mentioned coastward.

If the Canadian National alternative is adopted, a line claimed to be much shorter and cheaper will give immediate relief to the territory in question. There is the possibility of the extension of the P.G.E., owned by the British Columbia government, which is now within forty miles of Prince George, into the territory in question, but financial considerations make this improbable. Notwithstanding the rejection of the proposal for a branch line to Brule at the last session on the ground that the country could not afford the expenditure, Peace River people have been able to demonstrate that a great majority of them came into the district in 1912, with assurances before them in government handbooks that a railway to the coast was a certainty, and with surveys and in some instances, grades, to confirm that promise. It seems likely, therefore, that at the next session of the Canadian parliament definite action of some kind may be taken.

It is not probable that an expenditure of $20,000,000

or $30,000,000 the amount which the Brule branch involves, would be undertaken by parliament without some concurrent colonization measures. If wise provision is made to prevent the operation of the speculator and to encourage the Englishspeaking immigrant, the development which might take place in the Upper Peace may well rival that which transformed the face of the cent r a 1 Canadian prairies fifteen or twenty years ago. A wheat production of 275,000,000 bushels, which is the esti-

mate of the crop this year in the Canadian west, has given to the world such cities as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Fort William. The larger productivity of the Peace should give to that area itself similar cities, and should stimulate into metropolitan centres some of the smaller cities which now fringe the Pacific.

Some one at the initial meetings of the Fathers of' Confederation, when the title of Dominion instead of Kingdom was chosen for Canada, justified the selection of that name by a scriptural quotation of a “Dominion from sea to sea and from the rivers to the ends of the earth.” Development to date has justified the first part of the quotation; a policy such as is now contemplated with the Peace may well give real significance to the second.

For the Peace is not only a productive country where rich harvests may be garnered. It is a lovely land in which to dwell. This statement needs no qualification. The thermometer may and does sometimes fall to fifty degrees below zero, but it is a dry, equable temperature. It is not accompanied by the biting winds that make almost unbearable higher temperatures in less favored regions. The snow fall is not heavy. The land has a capacity for retaining moisture which leaves the whole land green, even in such a summer as the present when only a little over four inches of rain has fallen since the first of May. The summer is peerless. Days are long and generally sunny, with only three or four hours of semi-darkness in the middle of the season. It is this which produces such phenomenal growth during a few weeks in the summer time. The nights are incomparable. Those who have located their homes in the Upper Peace are not objects of sympathy or pity from any other part of the world excepting in so far as they may be deprived of the means of access to markets, which would make their operations more profitable.

Countries are made, not by fertile lands or by desirable climates, but by the type and character of their peoples. There is perhaps no part of Canada excepting possibly Prince Edward Island, where there has been retained a purer Saxon stock. With the exception of one or two Scandinavian colonies, which are welcome additions to the country, the people all speak the tongue of Shakesspeare and have been reared in the principles of the Magna Charta. A great number of them are from the British Isles. Many of them come from the eastern provinces and the prairies. There is a good sprinkling of

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Americans. Sir Henry Thornton’s party were greatly struck with the superior type of the people, and the desirability of maintaining the general character of the settlers on that basis.

Like the prairie provinces, Peace River has not the gravel beds everywhere available which have given eastern Canada its superior roads. But their summer trails are excellent and the automobile has everywhere given the settlers a wide range of activities. In the most remote districts, the radio brings them daily the grain and live stock quotations from the eastern markets. The country abounds in big game—moose, caribou, bear, muletail deer, and geese, duck, prairie chicken and snipe are plentiful. The land is not as well watered as its general appearance would indicate, being marked by large streams following deep valleys. For this reason the range of fish is not as great as might be expected.

Pioneers With Grit

THE people are marked by pluck, by persistency, by energy, and by hospitality. Many of them came into the country twelve, fifteen and eighteen years ago over one of two trails—that from Edson which was shorter and rougher; or that from Edmonton, which provided more stretches of watercourses on which at that time some of the fur trading companies operated small steamers.

But at any time it was a long and toilsome, if not dangerous, trip._ Five weeks was the usual time of the trip from Edmonton to Grand Prairie, and from Edson the time required was a little less. Over these trails men and women trudged, driving before them horses and cattle, and often following a jolting, creaking ox-team. Some of them retraced their steps, but not to leave the country.

Mrs. Adam Dodge, of Blue Sky, came in with her husband from Woodstock, Ontario, twelve years ago. They are old people now, being past the Psalmist’s allotted three score and ten, but both are healthy and active. They have acquired seventeen quarter sections of land in that district, of which they are the pioneers. Mrs. Dodge went out over the trail to Edmonton to make the payments on their lands with $1,800 in bills tied around her lower limbs in order to insure payment at the office there—and for five weeks she never removed her stockings.

Mrs. Bullen, the wife of .a settler at Dawson Forks, was a matron of a hospital and a nurse in the war. She comes from Sussex by the sea, but she is happily rearing her family in that beautiful country, and incidentally placing her knowledge of hygiene at the disposal of her fellow settlers. Mrs. Ayscough is another nurse, whose husband was killed in the war, and who has taken up farming on a half section of land at Blue Sky. Over at Pouce Coupe, Mr. and Mrs. Tuck, the former a veteran of the late and of the South African wars, have a fine homestead four miles from the town. Mrs. Tuck is the daughter of an Indian Army officer and was born in the house at St. Helena where Napoleon died. She has lived in many lands, in Zululand in South Africa, and she travels in Europe every year or two. But both of them love the valley of the Peace.

Instances might be multiplied by the score of people of refinement and culture who have found happiness in this country and whose content would be complete if provided with more satisfactory transportation facilities. There has been much talk of an exodus from the Peace, and undoubtedly many good settlers have become weary of waiting for transportation that never developed. But many of them await only the provision of these facilities to return to the Peace, and the great majority are pluckily sticking to the country. In fact pertinacity in the face

of conditions some times discouraging is characteristic of the whole settlement.

Perhaps it is the tonic of the northern air, but there is a certain restless energy about its people which some times proved a slight tax upon their more sluggish visitors from the city. During the visit of the Thornton party to the country, about 350 miles was negotiated by motor. This all had to be accomplished over country trails which did not permit a heavy mileage per day. The alternative was early rising and late retiring, and this alternative was used to the utmost. The visitors soon fell into the ways of the country, particularly when they found that even its women were undeterred by journeys from which most men would shrink. At Hythe, Kelly Sundermanand his young wife has just returned from Jasper Park. He is a guide and drover, and his wife can “throw” a diamond hitch as readily as her husband. They had struck south from Hythe with their ponies in order to visit Jasper, laying their course across country and frequently finding no trail. It took them twenty-one days to reach Jasper Park, and Mrs. Sunderman declared it was one of the most enjoyable holidays she had ever had. At Jasper they joined the Alpine Club and climbed the 13,000 foot ascent of Mount Robson!

Whatever handicaps under which the settlers labor, lack of sustenance cannot be numbered among them. Like all new settlements, especially those remote from markets, there is perhaps an unwelcome shortage of currency. But for all the necessaries of life, the Peace River settler lives in a land of abundance, and the banquets and ordinary meals which were provided at every town and roadhouse on the visit alluded to testified that there is ample “corn in Egypt.”

The Lure of the Peace

THERE is a great charm to this whole land, its prairies and plains, its mighty streams, its great expanse, its fertility and its beauty. It is easy to appreciate how it captivates those who h?.ve learned to love its long horizons, the beauty of its nights, the brilliance of its sunshine, and even the stimulating rigours of its winter days. The memory that remains uppermost is of the river itself. The traveller comes upon it first at Dunvegan, noting first the great gash across the prairie where its high banks indicate the turbid flood below. The trail to it leads down a coulee and, after descending several hundred feet, rounds a bluff and discloses suddenly the river of so many hopes and so many adventures. The great proportions of the river can only be appreciated from a flatbottomed barge carried by the powerful current and guided by a cable from bank to bank.

But if its volume can be best appreciated by daylight, its charm can only be felt in the matchless moonlight with which river and plain were bathed as the train of the president of the Canadian National drew out of Peace River Crossing on the last night of his visit to that country. The railway has to climb for miles up the face of the great bluffs which hang for hundreds of feet above the town. The great flood of the Peace and of its tributary, the Big Smoky, lay like a gleam of silver in the valley, with the sombre mass of the big railway bridge which spans it, immediately in the foreground. The brilliant moonshine threw sharp shadows from the rows of white poplars which flank both sides of the track like surpliced choristers.

And far up on the highest peak, eight hundred feet above the town, gleamed the white cross which marks the resting place of Twelve-Foot Davis. A lucky strike in a twelve-foot placer fraction in the diggings of Cariboo gave him both his fortune and his name. In all his activities as path-

finder, pioneer, miner and trader, he personified the valiant, hospitable spirit of the north, and on his tomb are carved the words which best express it and which have become world famous: “He was

every man’s friend and never locked his cabin door.”

Dying on Slave Lake, he expressed a desire that his bones might lie on the great promontory mentioned, where his spirit could continue to look down on the confluence of. the Hart, the Smoky, and the Peace, and on the Crossing which marks the long endless trail to the north.

And so he has sepulchre as fine and as fitting as the great empire Pathfinder on Matoppo Hill. Men of his type established the standard of courage, of faith, of perseverance, and of hospitality which are typical to-day of the people of the vast territory of which they were the pioneers. And these, more than stone or shaft, are their enduring monument.