From Second World War strategic importance, to a major powerhouse in the energy market, Fort St. John has an electric past and a bright future
In This History Article You Will Discover:
- The Importance of Fort St. John, BC
- The Wartime History of Fort St. John, BC
- What Makes Fort St. John, BC So Special
In the vast Peace River Country, near the shores of British Columbia’s largest lake and at Mile 47 of the famous Alaska Highway, sits mainland British Columbia’s oldest non-native settlement — Fort St. John. Over the past 212 years, the town has undergone a transformation from a desolate trading fort to the region’s economic epicentre. Oil and gas development and exploration, as well as hydro-electric power, are the prime movers in Fort St. John, although tourism is not far behind as a force driving this, the Energetic City, forward. And while it is rich in history, from the 200-plus years of European occupation to the 10,000-plus years of aboriginal inhabitation, Peace Country locals have every reason to feel the best is yet to come.
War in the Peace Country
Although formed as a settlement in 1794, with a population consisting of a mere 12 men, four women and five children, and archeological remains found in the area indicate inhabitation 10,500 years ago, perhaps the most interesting period for Fort St. John came following the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour in 1941. What did a northern trading post in BC have to do with the US-Japan conflict based in the South Pacific? As it would turn out, plenty.
With the war in the Pacific raging between American and Japanese forces, US President Roosevelt saw Fairbanks, Alaska as having great strategic importance. As one of the westernmost points on the North American continent, it was one of the closest access points to the “enemy.” In March of 1942, construction began of an overland connector from Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks, Alaska, in order for the Americans to move troops and supplies more freely to their northern bases. More than 11,000 US soldiers, along with 16,000 US and Canadian civilians were involved. And although 1,915 km of the highway’s 2,462 km are in Canada, the Americans footed the entire bill — after all, it was their idea.
Just seven months after ground was first broken, the Alcan (Alaska-Canada) connector was completed, and Fort St. John, 76 km from Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, became a hub for ground travel to and from the Yukon and Alaska, cementing its importance and facilitating much of the growth that was to come.
Interestingly, Roosevelt was not being paranoid when he envisioned a Japanese attack on the north. Four months after construction on the Alcan began, Japanese forces attacked and occupied Kiska Island, an Aleutian Island less than 1,000 km off the Alaskan mainland.
In 1946, the US officially transferred the Canadian portion of the highway over to the Canadian government, and it was opened to the public two years later, becoming known as the Alaska Highway.
With that turbulent time behind them, the people of Fort St. John have a bright future ahead — having a massive hydroelectric dam a few kilometres from downtown assures them of that. The Gordon M. Shrum Generating Station at the W.A.C Bennett Dam produces 13 billion kWh annually — enough to meet the energy needs of 2.8 million households. Take a tour, and go 150 metres underground or stand atop the two-km long, 183-metre tall dam structure and gaze over the reservoir — 166,000-hectare Williston Lake, BC’s biggest freshwater body and Canada’s largest reservoir.
Perhaps the greatest part of Fort St. John and surrounding areas, though, are the parts that haven’t seen change — the outdoors. For the sportsman, fishing opportunities are plentiful; arctic grayling, northern pike, walleye and trout are the bounties of choice in the region. If fishing isn’t your bag, the warm days of spring and early summer will afford great hiking, boating, horseback riding and camping. In early April, high elevation areas still offer prime snowshoeing — or heli-skiing, if your skills and pocketbook allow.
But beware of all these opportunities. As the trappers of old used to say: “Drink once of the waters of the mighty Peace, and they will ever call you back again.”
Did You Know? Speed skater Denny Morrison, who earned a gold medal in Men’s Team Pursuit at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, calls Fort St. John home.