Long ago, the Peace River region was home to nomadic tribes of Sekanni and Beaver peoples and later, Cree.
After France surrendered Canada to the British in 1763, it was many years before the Peace River region was explored by the Northwest Company. In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie and his companions journeyed up the Peace River on their historic overland trip to the Pacific. The journey of Mackenzie changed the economic picture of this vast hinterland. His report sent Simon Fraser in Mackenzie’s tracks to establish trading posts in the area in 1805.
Two posts were established on the Peace River at Fort St. John and Hudson Hope. After crossing the Rockies, Fraser opened another post at McLeod Lake. During the 1800’s missionaries, traders and other travelers visited the area. The best known were Gen. W. Butler, Warburton Pike and P.L. Howarth, as they left records of their trips. In 1879, George Mercer Dawson, a geologist, was sent out to gain information as to physical features, possible economic importance and other advantages for passage of a railway line by the CPR. He wrote of grass up to the horses’ bellies, the hillside covered with wild asters, goldenrod, and Indian paintbrush; the deep valley soil and the native peoples. In appreciation, Dawson Creek was named for this eminent man.
However, the fur traders and the Aboriginal peoples had the country to themselves until the Klondike rush of 1898 when gold seekers attempted an overland journey from Edmonton. It was a hazardous trip; many people died on the trail and others turned back. Some of these adventurers eventually settled in the Peace River Country. The first white settlers in the B.C. section were Hector Tremblay and his wife. They opened a store at Moberly Lake in 1889. Eight years later they took up land near where the village of Pouce Coupe now stands. They opened the first post office and trading post there later.
Until the end of World War One, settlers had drifted into the Alberta section and a few into what was known as the Pouce Coupe Prairie (which included the Dawson Creek area). Many of these settlers had traveled over the trail from Edson on the CNR and then 250 miles overland. Others came in via Athabasca, then west by river and Lesser Slave Lake to Grouard at the west end of the lake and completed the remainder of the journey overland to their destination.
The Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (Northern Alberta Railway) reached Spirit River in 1916, approximately 70 miles from the Pouce Coupe Prairie. Dawson Creek was established to accommodate settlers about 1½ miles southwest from the centre of the present city. The late George Hart opened the first store on his homestead a short distance from the original hamlet. In 1919, Bill Bullen and Tom McRae opened a store. In 1920, Bullen built a hotel that burned down soon after it opened. He immediately rebuilt and it served travelers for a number of years. From 1919 to 1930 the old hamlet grew slowly, just enough to care for the needs of the sparse community.
The settlers during this time were mainly British war veterans who were filing claims on land in the Progress and Sunset Prairie districts, 20 to 30 miles west.
The Northern Alberta Railway (N.A.R.) built its terminus east of the old hamlet. The settlers moved their buildings, both domestic and commercial to the area near the railway. The winter of 1930-31 was mild and nearly all the buildings at the old site were moved 1½ miles northeast to the new townsite.
Amongst the new buildings erected were five grain elevators, which clearly indicates that the settlers and homesteaders had not been sitting idle waiting for the railway. The population of the old hamlet was estimated at 100. At 6:30 pm, Thursday, January 15, 1931, the first regular passenger train arrived at Dawson Creek over the N.A.R. Although the next decade is often called the “hungry thirties”, the new village continued a slow but steady growth.
By 1936 the population had increased to over 500 and on May 26th, a charter of incorporation as a village was granted. The first Commissioners were George Bisset, W.O. Harper and A.S. Chamberlain.
The boundaries of the village at this time were the N.A.R. right of way on the north, what is now 104th Avenue on the south, Twelfth Street on the west and the Pouce Coupe Road (Eighth St.) on the east enclosing approximately 50 acres. The assessed value in the first full year of operation as a village (1937) was: Land $20,535; Improvements $161,407; and there were 70 trade licenses — mostly $5 each and the total receipts for the village were $1,813.
Except for the British veterans after the First World War, the only colonization scheme carried out was the bringing of 518 people from the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia in 1938; they settled near Tupper, 20 miles southwest of Dawson Creek.
The vast agricultural activity in the district, for which Dawson Creek was the shipping point, contributed to a steady growth of the village up to 1942. In March 1942 a start was made on the famous Alaska Highway. Dawson Creek, with a population of 750, had thousands of civilian workers and soldiers invading it almost overnight and until the completion of the highway at the end of 1943 it was a real boomtown. This brought in many industries, many of which have remained.
On February 13, 1943 an explosion destroyed an entire block in the heart of Dawson Creek. The Co-op’s main store building was saved, mainly through the efforts of American Army personnel. The village had no water supply system and the only water available was the run off in the road ditches and for a time it appeared the whole village would burn.
Martial law was proclaimed and the Army ordered the merchandise to be removed from the Co-op building. Store contents were hurriedly thrown into trucks and then unloaded in great mounds like haystacks on the golf course, about half a mile away.
The explosion gave the merchants an opportunity to rebuild with more permanent premises. This is one reason why one sees so few “western” storefronts, which are prevalent in many towns. Dawson Creek, with all its advantages, was bound to grow but there is no doubt that the building of the Alaska Highway hurried the growth tremendously.
Dawson Creek was incorporated as a City in 1958. Since that time, Dawson Creek has solidified its agricultural economy, diversified its industry and expanded its retail and service sectors. Many families of the original settlers still live in the area.
Sources: The Dawson Creek Story, By Harry Giles in the Dawson Creek Star, Nov. 21, 1959, www.britishcolumbia.com, Encyclopedia Canadiana, Faith in a Fertile Land by Mabel Lillian Harper, Dawson Creek Past & Present, by M.E. Coutts, The Calverley Collection, Dawson Creek Public Library, www.calverley.ca