Dawson Creek, named for geologist and naturalist Dr. George Mercer Dawson, has a rich and interesting history as an agricultural town-turned-highway hub.
At first a sleepy pioneer town with agriculture as its primary industry, it is now renowned for its role in the construction of the world-famed Alaska Highway.
Dawson Creek's origin dates back to 1919, when it first developed as a small agricultural community. True to its agricultural roots, five grain towers were built in 1930. One of the few remaining grain towers was subsequently moved, and is the current location of the Dawson Creek Art Gallery.
Changes were rapid when Northern Alberta Railway targeted the area for a new rail line in 1930. The first choice for the railway was the settlement of Pouce Coupe, but with disputes over land, the settlement of Dawson Creek agreed to host the railway. Today Pouce Coupe is a smaller incorporated village near Dawson Creek.
To accommodate the new railway, the town of Dawson Creek, including the general store and hotel, was physically moved two miles east from its original location to the site of the new station.
WWII and The Alaska Highway
The Second World War played a prominent role in Dawson Creek's sudden growth from a population of only 600 to approximately 10,000 people. When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the United States feared further attacks, and examined options to increase security.
Construction of the highway, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, was completed for security reasons, to enable overland transportation, and to supply the airstrips that made up the Northwest Staging Route. The end of rail at Dawson Creek determined the location where Alaska Highway construction would begin at Mile 0. The American Army was charged with building the highway, and work began in 1942 as thousands of US troops arrived by train in Dawson Creek. Interestingly, the highway name was not settled right away, and was initially named the "Alcan" (Alaska-Canadian) Highway.
Engineering and Construction of the Highway
Building of the Alaska Highway is referred to as an engineering feat that tested the soldiers to their limits. They braved freezing temperatures with inadequate clothing, biting insects, and days slogging through swamp and muskeg. Construction of 2,541km/1,523mi highway was completed in only seven months beginning March 9th, 1942 and ending November 20th, 1942.
While the original highway was gravel with twists and curves throughout, in modern times the highway has been straightened. Today the Alaska Highway is paved from Mile 0 to the end, except for sections undergoing update construction.
Many places have a disaster story, and Dawson Creek is no exception. In 1943, an explosion and fire in Dawson Creek rocked the community. Explosives went up in flame in a Dawson Creek livery barn, killing five people and injuring 150 people.
Check out the Dawson Creek Visitor Centre and the Alaska Highway House for a more detailed history of the area.