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Transportation is the reason Prince George exists in the first place, and it is why Prince George has developed and thrived for more than 10,000 years. That’s at least how long the Lheidli T’enneh (pronounced KLATE-lee TEN-ay) First Nation has called this confluence of two mighty rivers –Nechako and Fraser – home.
This was the central transition point of busy aboriginal trade economies between the northern, west coast, prairie and southern communities of modern day Western Canada. Part of this network was a series of ancient “grease trails” overland. Three of the main local ones were named Nyan Wheti (between modern day Fraser Lake and Fort St. James), the Cheslatta Trail (Fraser Lake to Ootsa Lake), and Nuxalk-Carrier Trail (Quesnel to Bella Coola). These were the ancient roads, but rivers and lakes were the ancient highways. The Nechako, its watershed running east-west across much of the northern interior, was one of the most prominent. It connects to the Fraser which runs from the northern Rockies (accessible by Cree nations of modern day Alberta) all the way through the north-south breadth of B.C. into the ocean. The indigenous name of this region’s aboriginal people is Dakelh (pr. da-KELTH) and that word translates to “people who travel by boat.” Furthermore, the translation of Lheidli T’enneh is “people from the confluence of two rivers.” Transportation was so intrinsic to daily life that the people here named themselves for it. The typical Lheidli T’enneh canoe was made by hollowing a log from the giant cottonwood trees that line the local shores. These ceased to be seen on local waters during the bulk of the 20th century when colonial forces attempted to erase aboriginal culture. Dakelh nations are now reestablishing their traditional ways of life. In 2014, a partnership between the University of Northern British Columbia and the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation resulted in a hands-on class during which the students built and paddled the first cottonwood canoe in known memory.
Canoe was what brought the first Europeans through this region. In spring of 1793, Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie used the Upper Fraser River as his route towards the Pacific Ocean. First Nations contacts in this region warned the explorer that the southern Fraser’s rapids were deadly. They showed him the Nuxalk-Carrier Trail as a prudent detour. It now forms the last leg of the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail. That year, on July 20, he and his band of voyageurs used it to become the first known humans to cross the continent overland. This spot was essential to transportation for another reason. Just north of modern day Prince George is the northern divide where, depending on where you stand, all the waters flow either south into the Pacific Ocean or north into the Arctic Ocean. This was a priceless geographic feature to the exploratory trading interests who used it to major economic advantage. An easy walk from a certain spot on the Fraser over a 14.5 km (nine mile) trail to Summit Lake was all that separated these epic forces of flow. The Lheidli T’enneh people were so aware of the importance of this route they called it “Lhedesti” meaning “the shortcut” and they were happy to show it to a pair of explorers in 1862 – John Giscome and Harry McDame – who transferred the knowledge to the feverish prospectors of the Omineca Gold Rush. The colonial government renovated the trail into a wagon road, steamships built a port on the Fraser, and it was where Albert Huble and Edward Seebach would build a farm and trading post. That homestead and the Giscome Portage are now conjoined historic sites beloved by tourists and local residents alike. Water was the easiest way through the northern wilderness, but the region’s 10 paddlewheelers were no better than canoes at getting through the southern Fraser rapids. Most were built at Soda Creek above the treacherous canyons and only worked north of that spot. Helping this cargo industry were pack-train operators using horses, mules and in Barkerville even imported camels. The most famous of these pack-train adventurers was Jean-Jacques Caux, known far and wide as Cataline. But these canoes, pack horses and steam ships were eventually no match for 20th century progress, and neither were the First Nations of the day. Although the rail lines and gold mines, coal hills and lumber mills were a boon for colonial populations, it triggered more than a century of misery for aboriginal populations.
The coming of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad in 1914 almost immediately ended the usefulness of the paddlewheelers on the rivers. The steamships delivered the construction locomotives (one of which still pulls passengers around Lheidi T’enneh Memorial Park) and railway labourers - and their own demise in the process. The iconic 800-metre rail bridge (it was also the automobile bridge until 1987 when the Yellowhead highway bridge was built alongside) has a unique lift-span to let ships go under, but it was hardly ever used before they simply dropped anchor into the mists of time.
Next, in the 1950s, critical rail lines arrived in Prince George connecting the ports of Vancouver, the coal and natural gas fields of Fort St. John, and interfacing with the older east-west lines. This strategic interconnection prevails to this day. On the same philosophies as rail, the provincial highway system also came to a crossroads here. Over time, a well-resourced international airport was also established on lanes connected to the roads and the rails.
It all makes Prince George open for global business of almost every sort. Prince George is a human interchange. The signs are everywhere. They are on exhibit at facilities like Exploration Place, the Railways & Forestry Museum, the Historic Huble Homestead, and out in open every-day view like where Mr. PG stands and the steel train bridge used by CN Rail today. It is still possible to launch your own canoe and feel the natural currents that have moved people through this area for more than 10 millennia. It also moved many of us to stay.
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