3-030: THE FORT NELSON TRAIL AND "E.J." SPINNEY

 

By Dorthea H. Calverley

 

There used to be a little marker that read "Spinney’s Lookout" on the East Pine hill. Nearly every tourist stops to take a picture of the magnificent view across the meeting of the Murray and the Pine Rivers over to Table (or Wartenbe) Mountain. The name still lingers but few can remember why. The man, who used to stand and gaze there, declaring that it was the most beautiful spot he had ever seen, could well be called the Father of the Northern Trucking Industry.

He was a genial man, something of a character, who did not like the formal 'Elwood Joshua' which had been his baptismal name. "Just call me 'E.J.' or 'Spinney'', he said. Everybody did.

He was on the spot for the last pre-war trail blazing in the Western Peace River, when he and his friend, J. McGinnis, made the first truck road to Fort Nelson.

An Indian pack-trail had connected Fort St. John and Fort Nelson for who knows how far back in history? Beaver and Sikanni Indians had moved back and forth, pursued by each other or in pursuit of game before the white man came. Perhaps at some time even the Coast Indians had made their way inland. An old-timer, the late Mr. Alan Robinson of Bear Flat, found a strange clump of five huge evergreens towering above a second-growth forest. Four trees formed the corners in a space in the centre of which one had been cut off forty or fifty feet above the ground -- far above any possible snow-line. The top had been man-carved into a well-executed totemic figure not common to the interior Indians. At another place he saw the unburned remains of a large rectangular structure, decayed nearly to wood dust. That would indicate an age long before any coureurs de bois or fur-trade winterer. The Fort Nelson Trail was of great antiquity but a footpath only.

The Klondikers had deepened and widened parts of it for pack trains in 1898 and made it known to the world.

The bane of all travelers was muskeg and mountains over which no one dreamed of building a road until World War II demanded the Alaska Highway. Mounted Police Roads had taken a more roundabout way twice with such difficulty that one of the Inspectors had recommended the approximate route that was eventually followed.

As late 1939 the pack train was the only summer transportation over-land from the Peace. Fort Nelson could be reached via Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie River then up the Nelson River, an incredibly long, hard route. Overland, it was bad enough for pack trains. An item in the Alaska Highway News made a news item of a party led by Duncan Beatton and William Gairdner covering the one hundred and eighty miles from Sikanni River "in ten and a half days"--an easy three to four hours truck run today.

Winter was different. When the rivers and muskeg froze, the three hundred miles to Fort Nelson became a dog-team road. It took nineteen days (December 18 to January 6, 1934) for a Mr. and Mrs. Clark and an eight -week infant to "mush it" in bitter weather. Dog teams from Fort Nelson were seen occasionally in Dawson Creek or at the Government Agency in Pouce Coupe in the early 1940’s. The last working dog teams were seen again in 1928 in the old Spirit River Trail and points between Fort St. John, Taylor, and Rolla. As far back as 1920 freight by sleigh was taken over the Fort Nelson Trail from the Spirit River railhead--thence by the waterways to the northern posts.

Mr. Ray Newby was an early freighter on the Spirit River Trail that was over an old railway grade, with few turnoffs. He remembers how the dog teams used to bedevil the horses. Willows were growing up along the right-of-way, high enough to conceal the huskies all except their tails, which they held high and waved constantly. The yelping preceded the sleds far over the wintry silence, probably invoking the horses’ instinctive reversion to wolf-fear. Horses seem to have a perverted and hyperactive imagination, for most of them will shy at the slightest unusual appearance (hence the "blinders" on their bridles). Mr. Newby says that when a dog-team turned off the grade to let a sleigh pass, the dog’s tails waving like disembodied plumes was calculated to put a four-up into a panic. He recalls such incidents as "funny" which gives an idea of the character of old-timers.

By 1934, at least, there was a brushed-out winter road for freighters from Fort Nelson. Mrs. Esme Tuck, writing the history of the Pouce Coupe Red Cross Outpost Hospital, tells a story that confirms this. A Fort Nelson freighter contracted pneumonia in March 1934. When he had dropped three times while harnessing his horses, his partners chose the best sleigh, best team, and best driver. They packed the sick man in warmed blankets, heated trace-chains from other harness in the fire, wrapped them around the patient and reached Pouce Coupe in the record time of five days, camping out for three nights. At a cabin in Fort St. John he got the first "standard" care for pneumonia among the pioneers -- a rub with warm oil, usually goose grease. Considered even better was skunk oil rendered from the kidney fat (absolutely odourless!) This, covered with heated pure wool flannel -- on this occasion a torn-up, precious baby shirt -- the oil was believed to penetrate the infection and "loosen" the congestion. Remarkably, the patient recovered.

The problems of freighting over the Fort Nelson Trail were compounded by the necessity of carrying enough grain and fodder for the horses. For every ton of freight, a ton of feed for men and beasts had to be carried on long hauls. A blizzard or 50 to 60 degrees-below-zero cold spells could slow progress to as little as a mile and a half a day. Even between Dawson Creek and Rolla [11 miles]] police have made travelers stop at the nearest shack for fear of freezing the horses’ lungs. Drivers speaking almost nose to nose could sometimes scarcely see each other because of their own frozen breath. On the way to Fort Nelson there were no settlers and few trappers. Such conditions made freighting dangerous. There were few other places like Toad River Lodge where natural meadows favoured putting up hay or growing oats. The feed cut down the payload of freight.

The teamsters solved the problem of no stopping places. Like a snail they carried their own houses in the form of a caboose or small shack built on the sleigh, with a small stove inside and space for a bed-roll. These were the earliest "campers". Dragged behind a four-horse load they were also the first "trailers"

The whole thing moved in an aura of steam from the horses’ breath and smoke from the chimney. A small window in front and a smaller hole to pass the reins through completed the picture. With another team and another sleigh fastened behind, jerk-neck style, this was luxury.

Team-freighting was big business and the "cash crop" of the farmers while they cleared the land. One weekend in March of 1935 there were three hundred and fifty teams in Dawson Creek trying to make the trip before spring break-up.

That was the year where Tom Hargreaves operated a "snowmobile" at twenty-five miles an hour between Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. The idea was good but it wasn’t very popular with teamsters for a propeller-driven sled with a spluttering motor was designed to make horses take off in all directions. There is a remarkable lack of unanimity in a terrified four-up. A jerk-neck team in addition was a disaster. Mr. Hargreaves was not encouraged.

On the other hand a convoy of teamsters could be extraordinarily unanimous. One homesteader, Homer Stevenson, looked out one morning to see a half-mile string of sleighs like a funeral procession, headed up the short side road on which he lived. As it was nearing noon, his wife Ruby began to wonder about dinner for so many unexpected visitors! A convoy of sixteen outfits had lined up behind an inexperienced driver en route across the river, where steep hills often demanded mutual assistance, since all were loaded with summer supplies and machinery. The lead team, finding the road dead-ended turned into the yard. Homer’s hail wakened the driver, who after a night enjoying the town had fallen fast asleep. Now what? The road was too narrow to turn around in between the snow banks. One after another all sixteen outfits pulled into the small farmyard, and then headed out again. The drivers who were new settlers, too trusting of their guide, had an extra ten miles to make up that day.

It is little known that Dawson Creek, end-of-steel, also became a "Mile Zero" for freighting to Great Bear Lake. In those days it was called "The Gateway to the Great Bear Lake Mine Fields". One could get there "four to six weeks earlier" by freighting to the Fort Nelson River on the Mackenzie watershed, and then boating the streams. Such speed was noteworthy! Before that time freight by sleigh had been taken from Spirit River to Fort Nelson as early as 1920, to serve the Northern fur-trade posts several weeks earlier than by the ancient water route via Fort Chipewyan and Peace River by way of Athabasca and the steamers.

When the P. G. E. [BC Railway] was extended to Fort Nelson it followed in general the high ground which the old Fort Nelson trail followed.

This was the background against which E. J. Spinney began his trucking and other enterprises. He had served an apprenticeship in several kinds of work that contributed to his success.

He was born in Nova Scotia, but the family came west in 1911, entered the Peace area by way of the Edson Trail, and homesteaded near Bezanson when that was expected to be the metropolis of the North. Lack of markets before the railway came made young men seek other employment. Anyone who had driven over the Edson trail was competent to freight goods to earn a grubstake on the Edson and Athabasca trails.

Spinney freighted for three years. One summer he worked on construction of the first telegraph line, and a phone line.

He enlisted to serve in World War I.

When he returned to Grande Prairie, the community was growing fast because of the arrival of the rails in 1916. Freight hauling, and the livery business (horses and vehicles for hire) and a taxi business were urgently needed by settlers that were flocking in looking for or moving onto land as far west as Rolla and Pouce Coupe.

Young and full of life, Spinney entered into the frontier-style fun of the community. If nothing was going on he made something happen. One friend remembers a dull Saturday night where E. J. went about buying up every Saturday Evening Post (magazine) in town and staging an impromptu auction on a street corner. That failing to enliven the scene, he started giving them away so people could "go home and read". Impish, puckish, and loving excitement, he didn’t stay long in one place. In 1921 he was in Red Lake, Ontario a mining area. He had sold out his business to learn new skills with a large transportation company, operating boats in summer and teams in winter. Here he became familiar with heavy machinery. The depression overtook mining in 1929. Spinney easily found work on the C.N.R. at Saskatoon. But the Peace River called.

By 1931 the frontier had been pushed back to end-of-steel at Dawson Creek. He came back to "the land of opportunity".

Spinney filed on a homestead in the Groundbirch area. During the summers he worked for the Department of Public Works as a foreman, building roads, including the first one to East Pine as far as the basket ferries across the Murray and Pine. He also helped build the first real road down the Peace Hill to the Taylor Ferry. Both required much cut-and-fill and side-hill construction. He also had a sawmill operation going with his friend, J. McGinnis.

In 1934 he started a trucking business in Dawson Creek. He had a sound background in various phases of transportation but he had to finance on a shoestring--a weak one!

In 1934 a new concept in motor travel broke over the North that was just getting used to ordinary trucks on the mud roads. The famous comic-opera caterpillar tractor Bedeaux Expedition started from Edmonton, hoping to get to Telegraph Creek across the mountains. It may have been just a stunt by a new millionaire playboy, and it failed not far from Hudson’s Hope. The idea remained with the truck freighter, Spinney. Those cleated tracks were just the thing for our "roads". He was no millionaire playboy, but he could make tractors work.

While the rest of Canada was talking "depression" Spinney was thinking "expansion".

A gas well had been brought into production at Bonanza, Alberta, near Pouce Coupe and only a few miles from the BC border. Premier Patullo of British Columbia determined to try a test well. The site chosen was at Commotion Creek, about seventy-five miles west of end-of-steel beyond the wagon road to East Pine and the basket ferries, then still further west than present-day Chetwynd. While the steel derricks we know today were not used, nor the heavy tankers of fuel oil, there were tremendously heavy pieces of machinery and steam boilers to get to the well site. The ferry approach must be rebuilt with easier grades. A new road was needed beyond the Pine. Spinney undertook the job of road building and freighting. He must have rented the equipment that the Provincial Department of Works could not provide. It was said that Spinney "by gosh and by guess" built better curves than those planned by the government engineer who wasn’t "thinking truck and tractor" but laid out construction by rules for coast rock-based roads. Spinney knew what a truck needed and he knew the soil of the North.

The transport of the drilling machinery was an epic in northern transportation. While getting the loads down the Pine and Wabi hills, they used tractors in the same way as the old "holdbacks teams", one in front to pull two behind to hold back. Uphill reversed the process with two ahead to pull, one behind to push.

Overhead another enterpriser, Grant McConachie, had tamed another kind of transportation, the bush plane. From a shaky start on Charlie Lake in the early 1930's his single plane had grown to a small fleet for the airmail and freight run to the Yukon. The old problem of fuel displacing payload remained. McConachie needed a cheaper way than air-transport in barrels to get airplane gas to his airstrips. Spinney was ready to take on the job. Some farmers in the area were purchasing caterpillar tractors of various sizes for land clearing and these were idle in winter. Logging operations had developed huge sleighs. Put the old-type caboose on a sled, hitch one or more behind according to the size of the tractor, put a "blade" on the front and the caterpillar train evolved. In February 1941, the village of Dawson Creek turned out to see "the tractor train" depart for Fort St. John. There was already a road to Murdale. Parts of the old winter wagon road from there to Fort Nelson were suitable. The rest was bulldozed through over frozen ground and muskeg. The train ground on. Trucks of aviation fuel followed the caterpillar convoys in.

Meanwhile the danger of war in Europe was increasing by the day. The strike of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941 turned the thoughts of the United States to a land route for the defense of Alaska. A plane-route west of the Rockies was promoted. McConachie’s success, operating as usual on sheer luck and borrowed money, showed that a route safer from attack by sea-based carriers could be built east of the Rockies. His eloquent persuasion changed the plan. The first necessity was airfields. Grande Prairie and Fort St. John were easy, but Beatton River and Fort Nelson had to be by overland transport whereas Watson Lake had to be serviced by water via the coast, then to Telegraph Creek on the Stikine, thence down the Dease River.

The United States bought out McConachie and other airlines to inaugurate the North West Staging Route for flying war planes to Alaska, and later to our ally Russia. Western Construction and Lumber Company had the contract to build an airport at Beatton River and one at Fort Nelson. It is believed that Spinney was a moving force in convincing the government that once a road was bulldozed out trucks could handle the freighting much better than winter tractor trains. Besides "cats" were hard to purchase with all the new production going to priority jobs--of which land-clearing was not one.

When the Japanese struck, "E.J." had already organized his trucking enterprise financing it on a shoestring as usual. He named it appropriately "Pioneer Truckers". On January 29, 1942, the first truck convoy to reach Fort Nelson arrived with tons of freight. Spinney and McGinnis reported twenty-four hours driving time over a distance of three hundred miles.

Surveyors had already been looking for a route for an Alaska Highway. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the route through Dawson Creek was ratified by the joint Canada-United States Defense Commission.

Spinney and McGinnis had proved themselves. In addition to the Fort Nelson enterprise, they got the contract to deliver all fuel, supplies, and asphalt for the Watson Lake Airport over the "tote roads" during the winter of 1942-43. Actually the U.S. Army did not follow the old Fort Nelson Trail, but after a quick air survey, and acting on the advice of the B.C. Department of Public Works, decided on a different route. Long straight stretches were avoided as much as possible since it was a military road subject to possible enemy air attacks. Convoys always zigzagged where possible. Also the high ground was used where possible to minimize the work of making a roadbed. The late Frank Clarke, District Engineer at that time in Pouce Coupe, received an official commendation from Washington D.C. for his advice on locating the actual route.

On March 12, 1942 a crack regiment of U.S. army engineers descended on Dawson Creek and set up a tent city. It was reported that their orders were " Find a man named Spinney". Spinney, the doer who didn’t talk much about his plans, had nevertheless been "heard" of in Washington.

The job grew and grew. He freighted the first U.S. Army buildings North for the huge camps, also the heavy bridge material for the Peace and Liard bridges, and equipment, pipe, and supplies for the Carol Project.

In 1946 he organized his own road construction company and a year later, the Peace River Bus Lines Ltd. This ran direct from Spirit River west to Dawson Creek, also east to McLennan, Peace River and Fairview. Canadian Coachways later bought that enterprise out.

In 1946-48 he returned to his old area, taking a very active part in the construction of the John Hart Highway on the stretch between Progress and Commotion Creek. Who better qualified than he, who had first broken trail there?

It was at this point that he built, on his own initiative, the "Lookout" over the Pine-Murray confluence. A trucking man, he knew the necessity of rest stops. This spot, as beautiful as Sagitawa, would be a tourist attraction, too. The B.C. government was reported to have refused to pay for the little extra dirt moving and gravel. No matter. He felt it was an asset so he paid for it himself. Hence the name "Spinney’s Lookout" which Jack Mantle marked in recognition of his old friend of Grande Prairie days.

Among those who worked with and for him, Spinney became a legend comparable to those other transportation tycoons of the north --Twelve Foot Davis and Col. Jim Cornwall.

He was a complex character. He could be a boss and a friend at the same time. He enjoyed life, but worked like a horse. He made money and he spent it. As usual, some that he out-did questioned his methods. Not those to whom his new home became a "hotel" for "refugees" from the disastrous fire and explosion that leveled the centre of Dawson Creek on February 13, 1943. He was a man who loved machinery, who stood for hours, fascinated, watching the work of a winch truck unloading the immensely heavy oil-drilling machinery in Dawson Creek, and in depression days, foreseeing its usefulness in the North. A man who wept unashamedly as fire consumed a frame-construction Dawson Creek jail, inside of which a man was locked in the steel cell. "Commandeer that winch! Let me hook on!" he pleaded. "I can pull that cage right through the wall!" For reasons unrecorded, the Provincial Police did not act on the suggestion.

The same stocky man of business stood often, entranced by the beauty of the view that once bore his name. Somebody has taken down the little sign at "The Lookout". If someone does not put it back, the Father of our Trucking Industry may be forgotten.

His untimely death at age fifty-four in 1948 came when Dawson Creek and the whole Peace River Block was in the hectic period of expansion, thousands coming and going. Spinney should have been a notable figure in the oil and gas exploration and pipeline development, and the new railroads and highways. His passing, followed soon by that of Mrs. Spinney, came at a time when newcomers took little notice.

Who knows how "Spinney Drive" in the city of Dawson Creek got its name? E.J. Spinney deserves a longer remembrance and grateful recognition of his contribution to our trucking industry. Let's put the memorial back on "Spinney’s Lookout".

 

[Grateful acknowledgment to the memories of his friends and associates, especially to Mr. Harold Pryke, who supplied most of the statistics.]

 

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