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Prince George marks 100th anniversary of railway

One hundred years ago today, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway arrived in what would become Prince George.
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The Pioneer track layer arrives in Fort George on Jan. 27, 1914.

One hundred years ago today, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway arrived in what would become Prince George.

Approximately 1,000 people from the towns of Fort George, South Fort George and the surrounding area lined the rail right of way from George Street to the temporary bridge across the Fraser River, the Fort George Herald reported on Jan. 28, 1914. Sleighs of school children; a ten-piece brass band; a company of trappers dressed in the traditional clothes of early pioneers; dog sled; and First Nations members watched the rail arrive.

"Shortly after 2 o'clock when people the people had all assembled, the word was passed along that the Pioneer [track laying machine] would not be able to work for some time, as it was waiting for a train of steel and ties. The crowd waited patiently, despite the cold, which steadily became more and more intense," the Herald's front page story said. "At last the train appeared over the bridge but just this side of the bridge the tie carriers on the side of the cars collided with a heap of timber, and further delay was entailed while the damage was being repaired. It was about 3:30 [p.m.] before the tracklaying train was coupled up and the Pioneer began work."

"Foot by foot, yard by yard, it moved westward over the grade from which snow had been been swept beforehand. An endless precession of ties passed forward over the carriers on the right side of the machine, to be seized as they reached the front by the tie-workers, working like a lot of overgrown ants, and flung into place along the grade. The rails moved forwards at a more leisurely pace over the carriers on the left side of the Pioneer, to be swung out by the derrick, seized and guided into place by the waiting workers, and bolted into the fishplate," the Herald said.

A parade planned to mark the occasion was canceled because of the cold, but several local dignitaries gave speeches.

Charles Moore, a pioneer who came to the Fort George area in 1907, said the arrival of rail marked the end of an era, and a new beginning.

"This day marks the end of pioneering in the Fort George country," the Herald quote Moore as saying. "That modern magician, the railroad engineer, has spoken his magic word and we now see the locomotive and the rails of steel -the joint creation of the last century, and without which civilization, as we know it today, would not be possible."

"We believe in this place - or we wouldn't be here -we believe it will grow rapidly into the most important inland city of British Columbia."

According to the Herald report Harry G. Perry, president of the Fort George Board of Trade and future mayor of Prince George, said the arrival of the train marked, "the greatest epoch in the new history of central British Columbia."

"It means the opening up of great possibilities in the development of the resources of this district," Perry said. "From now on the change from wild lands to farm lands will begin. Our large timber areas will produce unlimited wealth and find labour in abundance in the camps and mills that will spring up and develop around here. We have our minerals - the possibilities of which no one can foretell, but we do know that mineral resources will be tapped, and soon with the railroad from coast to coast, from Atlantic to Pacific, farm and forest and mine will naturally build up a city at the junction of these two rivers, a city that will support a large and increasing population, a city that from now must be united in its efforts for progress, a city which I venture to say, will be second to none in the interior of British Columbia."


While the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway would be completed on April 7, 1914 - linking Winnipeg to Prince Rupert - it wouldn't bring the the flood of new development and prosperity to Prince George predicted by Moore and Perry.

The last spike of the Grand Trunk Pacific was driven near Fort Fraser, where the crew working east from Prince Rupert met the crew working west from Winnipeg.

Bob Campbell, curator of The Exploration Place, said the unusual practices of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway had consequences for the region.

"The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway had a completely different financial structure than any other railway which had successfully crossed the mountains to the Pacific," Campbell said. "The mountains are where you have the least amount of population to support the railway, and it costs the most to build. The successful railways in the United States, and the first Canadian one, worked with the communities in the mountains to build them. The Grand Trunk Pacific had a very different financial model. They were going to own the main railway towns and develop them themselves. It didn't work."

Instead of building a rail station at the existing towns of Fort George (sometimes known as Central Fort George to distinguish it from the Hudson's Bay trading post of the same name) or South Fort George, Grand Trunk Pacific had purchased 1,366 acres of land from the Lhiedli T'enneh between the two towns in what is now downtown. The railway's town site was incorporated as Prince George on March 6, 1915.

It was the beginning of the end for Fort George and South Fort George, Campbell said. A fire insurance map from 1915 in The Exploration Place's collection already showed several theaters and hotels in South Fort George as vacant buildings.

"The businesses in the other two communities dried up quickly," he said. "What ended up happening is the main employer, the railway, was finished building the railway. [Prince George] had lost its main employer, and the First World War started."

The population of the Prince George area had peaked at about 5,000 prior to the completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific, he said. During the First World War it shrunk to 2,000 to 2,500 people and stayed there into the 1930s.

The decision to not build the rail station in either of the existing towns was a source of bitter contention, Campbell said.

"They called each other names in the newspapers," he said.

In his speech on Jan. 27, 1914 when the railway arrived in Prince George, Moore alluded to the competition between the so-called Three Georges.

"Boost! Boost all you please -and boost for your own part of town, if you prefer - but remember that, when this place reaches even the present growth of Edmonton, or of any one of a dozen western Canadian cities, this peninsula will be a relatively small site for a city of such importance," Moore said. "Every part of it is good property and will be worthwhile improving and developing."

Prince George did eventually expand to include the former sites of Fort George and South Fort George, but it took until the 1980s for the city's population to reach the population of Edmonton in 1914: approximately 72,500.

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was also facing financial trouble. Instead of building wooden bridges and steep grades and upgrading later -as other successful railways had done -Grand Trunk built everything to "a very high standard from the start," Campbell said.

In Prince George the steel railway bridge across the Fraser River was completed in May, 1914. Grand Trunk Pacific also invested in steamships to connect Prince Rupert to ports in Vancouver and the U.S.

The investment the company made in the railway and land development failed to pay off, and by March of 1919 the railway defaulted on federal loans and was nationalized. By 1923 the rail line was completely absorbed into the Canadian National Railways Crown corporation.

It took until the Second World War for Prince George to begin realizing the potential investors like Perry and Moore had for the region, Campbell said.

"When the Second World War started we became part of the fallback defenses if the coast was invaded," he said. "Around 5,000 troops were based here at the peak. And also the forest industry -they were an essential industry to the war effort."

The troops poured money into the town's businesses, and many moved their families to Prince George to be near them, he said.

Following the war, the massive reconstruction in Europe drove up prices for lumber which brought new mills and new workers to the city, he said.

Those sawmills, and later pulp mills, used the railway completed in 1914 to get their products to market, he said.

Although it took decades longer than many of the early speculators predicted, the railway did eventually help spur the development of the natural resource sector in Prince George.

In November 1952 the railway which had begun as the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1912 was completed, linking Prince George to Vancouver by rail.

"It's been an important economic driver, and it still is. There is the inland container port, the [Port of] Prince Rupert," Campbell said. "It is still key to the industrial side of Prince George."

Ceremony planned

A plaque marking the 75th anniversary of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway is mounted to a cairn in front of the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George offices on George Street and First Avenue, across from where railway first arrived in Prince George.

Ranjit Gill, executive director of the Central B.C. Railway and Forestry Museum, said a ceremony is being planned to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of rail -but it won't be today.

Gill said she is working with multiple groups to organize and find funding for the event, which is tentatively planned for this summer.

"Prince George would not be here without the railway," Gill said.