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CONTRIBUTION · 4th April 2013
Kitimat 60th Anniversary
2nd Kitimat Anniversary Story

A century ago in 1908, the Kitimat trail was a well established all-season route which had been used for decades, by early prospectors, traders, missionaries, and surveyors. Prior to that, First Nationís people had been using the route for much longer. By the turn of the century, speculation was running wild. There were hundreds of immigrants showing up in interior valleys and the prospects of a major national rail line locating its terminus at Kitimat or Prince Rupert had entrepreneurs going crazy. The foot traffic on the overland route to the Skeena, up the Kitimat River and down Lakelse had shown a steady increase. Thanks to MLA CW Clifford, there had been many improvements in the Kitimat route. He had raised government money to build a public wharf, known as Cliffordís Wharf on the West side of the Channel, not far from the present day Moon Bay Marina. He had, built a hotel near Anderson Farm, near the present day site of the Eurocan causeway, and he had helped in the installation of two cable crossings of the Kitimat River at Chist Creek and the present day location of Cable Car. Clifford had made the Kitimat Trail into a real transportation corridor, especially in winter when the Skeena River Paddle wheelers were unable to operate.

By 1906, the post office/general store at Kitamaat, operated by George Robinson, was a busy little enterprise. It was really the unofficial start of the Kitimat Trail. In the winter, it was an expedition staging point. Coastal steamers like the Boscowitz, Danube, and Tees, made bi-monthly stops at Kitamaat. With all the anticipation of Railway construction, surveying, prospecting, etc, plus all the mail-order items for the mid to upper Skeena Valley, they had a lot of cargo to haul, often requiring extra trips. The interior mail packages were sealed into 50 pound waterproof sacks. The cargo then was shifted into a boat then paddled to Kouthpega where the Anderson Ranch was situated. From there, the winter sled would be loaded for the long haul to Lakelse and beyond. Most often there was a team of 5 dogs pulling the sled with frequent assistance from the drivers who were the successful bid for the Royal Mail contract. Of course, Robinsonís Post Office would also be receiving sacks of mail from the Skeena region for shipment south to Victoria.

Over the years there were many contracted mail drivers and they were a rough and seasoned lot, capable of enduring unimaginable work and conditions. It was good sledding if you could make the run to Little canyon at Terrace in just 3 days. The record stood at 2 and one half days. Some of the sledding was done in good conditions at night but often it was in heavy sticky snow. The sled cargo could be in excess of 300 pounds.

The mail drivers had to be able to miraculously produce warm cooking fires in the most extreme of conditions. On one trip, according to Bill McCrea, a pioneer of Terrace, the crew was hunkered down cooking up a quick stew, by one of their more frequent rest-over stops at a small lake before the descent to Lakelse. Unfortunately the snow and ice along the lakeshore was rather poor and they ended up losing part of their supplies as the ice gave way. The fire, sled, mail, and bulk of supplies were safe but not the prized onions. They had to have their stew minus the onions and ever since they have called that body of water Onion Lake.

There are many more stories to be told about the RMS (Royal Mail Service) - Kitimat Trail days, including the driver who never survived the trip to the Skeena. Despite mishaps, the mail always got through and they never lost a sack. Even the Christmas turkey shipment to Hazelton made it through successfully one December. The registered mail sacks were always an extra worry. The value of the sacks was not disclosed to the drivers, but it is known that an entire mine payroll, about $20,000, was shipped to Hazelton by RMS dog team. Those were the glory days for Kitimatís winter mail route.

After Rupert, not Kitimat, was chosen to be the terminus of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, the Kitimat Trail abruptly declined. By the time the railroad was in place in 1910, the trail was virtually insignificant. For years, all that was left of the trail were tree blazes and two cable crossings of the Kitimat River.

No doubt, this was a colourful and eventful time in our history. It is a treasured part of our heritage. Much of the information and source materials including a copy of the 1890 mines and trail map are housed in our Kitimat Museum archives.

Walter Thorne