The first documented exploration of this area by the European community was in 1793 when Alexander Mackenzie, travelling by canoe, passed through in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, a trading post was established by the North West Company, making Fort St. John the oldest non-native settlement on the British Columbia mainland.
Originally established in 1794 as Rocky Mountain Fort, it was used as a trading post for the Beaver and Sikanni First Nations and as a supply depot to further expeditions into BC.
Since then, Fort St. John has undergone five location changes to adapt to the needs of a growing community. Although there is no absolute record, Fort St. John is thought to have been named when one of the Hudson’s Bay Company posts was opened on Saint Jean Baptiste Day.
In its present location, Fort St. John has seen the majority of its development. In 1923, up on a flat away from the river, C.M. Finch built his store that became the centre of the community in the years that followed. It was located at what is now 100th Street and 100th Avenue — city centre to this day.
A large influx of people came in the 1930’s when the Peace River area was opened for homesteading. Farming then replaced trapping as the main industry at the time. Many farming families came from the Prairies during the “Dirty 30’s” to find new opportunities in the Peace Country. You will find many of those same families, now into their third generation, still farming in the surrounding area.
The building of the Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan or Alaska — Canadian Highway) brought the next big rush of people to the area.
In the 1950’s, the first oil well was drilled near Fort St. John, bringing in a whole new era and helping to shape the community to what you see today.
The forests around Fort St. John are a mix of trees that are a part of Canada’s vast Boreal forest, supporting a vigorous forest industry. In 2005, the largest Oriented Strand Board mill of its kind in North America was opened in Fort St. John at a cost of over $200 million dollars.
With a youthful community, Fort St. John now boasts over 21,000 residents, having grown over 49% in the last 25 years.
Building the Alaska Highway
“The famous mosquitoes constituted only one difficulty which made life miserable for thousands of troops in the North Woods. Mud was so deep that even tractors were swallowed up, dust ankle high which rose in clouds like dense fog so that a convoy of trucks could be spotted from many miles away, jelly-like muskeg which had to be bridged with corduroy, cold drizzling rain, frigid nights, vicious black flies and ravenous gnats – all these are part of the epic of the road. “
~ Frolich Rainey, National Geographic, 1943
The building of the Alaska Highway was an epic experience for all involved. It was full of challenges from mud and muskeg to snow and sleet in a relatively unknown part of British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska.
How did the highway come about?
The idea of a road to Alaska had been around for years but it wasn’t until after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the idea came into being. A highway to Alaska was needed to defend North America against the Japanese during the Second World War.
Why was the Alaska Highway built through northeastern British Columbia?
There were three potential options for a road to Alaska. The first route started at Prince George and travelled northwest to Teslin, Yukon before continuing to Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The second route also started at Prince George. It travelled north up the valleys of the Parsnip and Finlay rivers to Sifton Pass. After reaching Francis Lake, Yukon, it continued to Dawson City and then connected with the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks.
These routes were rejected because they were susceptible to enemy attack and lacked connecting air bases to facilitate the transportation of supplies.
Route C followed the Northwest Staging Route, a series of airstrips developed by pilot Grant McConachie between Edmonton and Whitehorse. Route C was chosen because it was far from the coast, making it safe from enemy aircraft. The airfields made it easy to supply the construction. Starting at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Route C passed through Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, and Watson Lake, Yukon before continuing to Whitehorse and ending at Fairbanks.
Surveying and Construction
Aerial photographs were taken of the proposed route. Dogsled teams and packhorse teams were sent out to confirm the route’s
proposed location. These survey teams were accompanied by First Nations and trappers who knew the territory. The road was built wherever it was easiest to do so. It followed existing trails whenever possible.
Surveyors worked under a tight schedule with little geographical knowledge of the region. Two men on foot, often a local trapper and a surveyor, set out to locate the general route. A survey party followed close behind, cutting a line which allowed the party to be supplied by pack trains, and flagging it for the bulldozers.
The construction of the highway was conceived as a two phase plan. First, the U.S. Army would carve a rough road through the wilderness. This task was difficult to complete in the allotted time so everyone did what they could as fast as they could. Secondly, the Public Roads Administration would follow, constructing a more permanent road.
The construction crews followed so closely behind the surveyors that the bulldozers caught up to them while they slept! A single bulldozer would lead, followed by six bulldozers, three to mow down the forest and three to stack the debris to the side. Cats, scrapers, loaders and trucks did the final grading. Lastly wooden culverts and log bridges were built.
Construction began simultaneously at Dawson Creek, Whitehorse and Fairbanks and worked toward each other. The last gap of the Alaska Highway was completed on October 20, 1942 twenty miles south of the Yukon-Alaska border.
Muskeg and Mosquitoes
Working on the Alaska Highway presented many challenges. The cold was at times unbearable. Some of the American soldiers from the southern states had never even seen snow before! They had to wear extra layers to stay warm.
Mud caused vehicles to bog down and construction come to a near standstill. Muskeg presented one of the most difficult construction problems. If the moss cover was removed, the permafrost would thaw and create a giant quagmire. If there was no way around the muskeg, a corduroy road had to be built. This consisted of a roadbed of logs laid atop the swamp and covered with dirt.
Food was a big complaint as was the lack of women and booze. Meals consisted of dehydrated and canned rations, only occasionally supplemented by fresh meat and vegetables.
Mosquitoes drove the men crazy and made the beautiful scenery a living nightmare. The mosquitoes were so bad that it made some men want to lie on their cots and cry!
Each army camp was a full community with orderly room, kitchen, supply, shower, laundry, barber, and canteen.
The camps were hastily constructed in or near the woods and close to water. Tents averaged seven men and space was limited. Clothes and other belongings were stowed in foot lockers, wherever room could be found, or hung in the air. Larger camps contained wooden barracks.
Staying clean was difficult. In full company camps a shower was set up. In smaller camps you had to make do with pail baths.
Reading mail and listening to the radio were great diversions for the men. Girls were bussed in to camps for dances. The men enjoyed playing baseball, hockey and bowling, depending on the season.
During the construction of the Alaska Highway, 233 bridges were built across rivers, streams, creeks and gullies!
In the initial construction phase only temporary low level bridges were installed. Bridges over smaller streams were built of native material found close to the site. The first bridge was usually constructed with pontoons. Then a permanent log structure was built as soon as possible to facilitate two-way traffic. After the first spring thaw, floods washed out many of the bridges and culverts. Later, more permanent structures of steel were built that could withstand the spring run-off and heavy truck traffic.
The most impressive bridge built on the Alaska Highway was the suspension bridge spanning the Peace River at Taylor (Mile 36).
African American Soldiers
Three of the seven regiments involved in the construction of the Alaska Highway were comprised of African American Soldiers. Sending African American soldiers to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway required breaking an existing agreement not to send Black soldiers to extreme northern climates.
Many of the Black soldiers were from the American south and had never seen a really cold winter before. Not only were they unused to the cold, but generally in comparison to White soldiers they had to live in sub-par living conditions while the White soldiers got the better quarters.
Morale tended to be low among the African American troops because of insufficient equipment and clothing, long tours of duty and lack of recognition. Largely due to equipment shortages, African American soldiers were relegated to what was considered the low-tech, high sweat work. They were given shovels and wheelbarrows to do the same work White soldiers performed with bulldozers and other heavy operating equipment.
African Americans built the Sikanni Chief River Bridge at historic mile 162. This bridge was to replace the temporary pontoon bridge already in place. The soldiers bet their pay cheques that they could build the bridge in less than three days. They won this bet, completing a bridge which lasted for decades.
Fort St. John & the Highway
Prior to the construction of the Alaska Highway, Fort St. John was a small community. It quickly grew with a large influx of soldiers and construction workers! Camp Alcan was located just outside the town.
The population of Fort St. John expanded greatly during the construction period. The town received new roads, water and sewage systems, a telephone network and other new facilities. Canadian Utilities installed a power plant in town in November 1942. Medical services also improved with the arrival of the American Army.
Despite the economic boost the arrival of the Alaska Highway brought to the town, Fort St. John locals tired of the line ups outside restaurants and movie theatres. The constant flow of military vehicles wrecked the local roads.
An Engineering Landmark
On November 20, 1942, the Alaska Highway was opened at a ceremony at Soldiers Summit, overlooking Kluane Lake in the Yukon. The tote road had been built in eight months thanks to the hard work and perseverance of surveyors, First Nations, the United States Public Roads Administration, American and Canadian construction firms, and American soldiers.
The highway changed the shape and future of the people and communities along its route. In opening up the north, the highway benefitted these communities by providing them with new infrastructure but also brought challenges. Many First Nations elders blamed the arrival of the highway for the breakdown of their traditional ways.
On April 1, 1946, the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway was turned over to the Canadian Government. Tourists gained unrestricted access to the highway in 1948. Over the years, conditions along the highway were improved and paved. Today 320,400 tourists drive this highway each year, following in the treads of those who surveyed and built this marvel of engineering.
Fort St. John Fur Trade
1793 Sir Alexander McKenzie embarked on his historic journey to the Pacific Ocean. During his voyage he passed the mouth of the Pine River and noted the excellent potential for a future fur trading post.
1794 -1805 The first fort, called Rocky Mountain Fort, was established along the Peace River at the mouth of the Pine River. Rocky Mountain Fort was the first European settlement in mainland British Columbia!
1804-1814 Rocky Mountain Fort was established along the banks of the Peace River opposite present-day Hudson’s Hope.
1806-1823 Fort d’Épinette, also called St. Johns, was established by the Northwest Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the Northwest Company in 1821 and took over management of the fort. The fort was closed following a massacre in 1823.
1858 – 1872 Fort St. John was reopened on the south side of the Peace River after a 35 year lapse due to the 1823 massacre.
1873 – 1923 Fort St. John was moved directly across the Peace River to the north side onto what is today referred to as ’Old Fort’ subdivision outside of the city of Fort St. John. Frank Beatton becomes the longest serving clerk at Fort St. John.
1897-1898 Gold seekers pass through Fort St. John on the “All-Canadian” overland route to the Klondike. Inspector Moodie and the North West Mounted Police pass through on assignment to blaze a trail to the Klondike.
1899 Treaty 8 was signed between Queen Victoria and the First Nations in northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.
1905-1907 Superintendent Constantine of the North West Mounted Police was tasked with turning Inspector Moodie’s trail into a more permanent road. From Fort Grahame the road left Moodie’s trail and travelled northwest to Telegraph Creek where it connected with other trails.
1912 The Peace River Block was open to homesteaders. Quarter sections (160 acres) were available for $10.00. Each homesteader had to “prove up” the land by clearing and cultivating it, building a house and other farm buildings, and residing on the land for six months of the year.
1919-1943 C.M. Finch starts a store in his home. He builds a bigger store in the late 1920s. The main intersection of Fort St. John (now 100th Street and 100th Avenue) grows up around this store.
1916-1930 The D.A. Thomas, the largest sternwheeler on the Peace River, operated between Peace River Crossing and Hudson’s Hope. This steam powered ship carried 160 passengers and had hot and cold running water and electricity at a time when Fort St. John didn’t!
1921 The first school in Fort St. John opens in Alwin Holland’s home. Mrs. Easton was the first teacher.
1923 Frank Beatton moved the Fort St. John post to Fish Creek, located just outside of the town of Fort St. John. In 1938, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a store in town and closed the post at Fish Creek.
1930 The first Outpost Hospital (Grandhaven Outpost Hospital) is opened. Our first Registered Nurse is Anne Roberts. Our first doctor, Dr. Brown, arrives later this year.
1931 Providence Hospital opens its doors. The hospital is run by the Sisters of Providence along with Dr. Brown who arrived in 1930 and Dr. Kearney who arrived in 1935.
1934 Cecil Lake (Gough Memorial) Outpost Hospital opens. It operates until 1953.
1934 Charles Bedaux and his expedition attempt to drive from Edmonton to the Pacific across the northern Rockies using five Citroën Halftracks. He hires 150 cowboys to transport supplies. He brings his wife, his mistress, a film crew, and a surveyor. The attempt fails.
Cowboys on the Bedaux Expedition in 1934.
– Courtesy of the Fort St. John North Peace Museum
History & Heritage/Photos & Graphics/ Fort St. John Fur Trade/2012.024.029.
1940 Fort St. John Airport is built by the Department of Transport.
1942 The Alaska Highway is built. Fort St. John is the headquarters for the southern section.
1943 The Peace River suspension bridge at Taylor is completed.
1944 The first edition of the Alaska Highway News is printed by Margaret and George Murray.
1945 The Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Indian Affairs make a land deal which moves First Nations off the St. John Indian Reserve No. 172 and offers the choice farmland to returning war veterans. Oil is later discovered on many of these farms in the 1950s.
1946-1964 The Canadian Army takes over the maintenance of the Alaska Highway.
1947 Fort St. John is incorporated as a village.
1951 McMahon’s Pacific Atlantic Fort St. John Number One well strikes oil.
1952 First Nations are given 6000 acres along the Blueberry, Doig, and Beatton Rivers as new reserves.
1952 The completion of the Hart Highway through the Pine Pass links Fort St. John to the rest of British Columbia.
1957 Westcoast Transmission completes its natural gas pipeline from the Peace to the Pacific. The Taylor refinery is completed.
1957 The Peace River suspension bridge at Taylor collapses. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway Bridge is temporarily modified to accommodate vehicular traffic.
1958 The Pacific Great Eastern Railway arrives in Fort St. John.
1958 Fort St. John is incorporated as a town.
1961 Western Pacific Products & Crude Oil (WestPac) complete an oil pipeline from Taylor to Kamloops.
1962 New Providence Hospital is opened as Fort St. John outgrew Providence Hospital. The hospital is later renamed Fort St. John General Hospital when the Sisters of Providence turned it over to the Province.
1967 W.A.C. Bennett Hydroelectric Dam is completed.
1975 Fort St. John is incorporated as a city under Mayor Frankiw.
1977 Northern Lights College opens in Fort St. John.
1980 Peace Canyon Dam is completed.
1983 10,500 year old stone bead is found at Charlie Lake Cave by archaeologists from Simon Fraser University.
1984 Fort St. John North Peace Museum opens in Fort St. John following move from Peace Island Park at Taylor.
1988 Fibreco pulp mill opens in Taylor.
1992 North Peace Cultural Centre opens with theatre, library, art gallery, meeting rooms, etc.
2012 Fort St. John Hospital opens in its new location on 112 Avenue.