Prince Rupert Turns 100
By DAVE KIFFER
March 08, 2010
The events will begin with a pancake breakfast at the Masonic Hall from 8 to 10 am. At 9:45, there will be a children's parade on Third Avenue from City Hall to Nisga'a Hall and at noon a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the North Coast Meeting and Convention Center featuring Dr. Bill Hick.
Photo courtesy Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives
In 2003, Hick published "Hay's Orphan: the Story of the Port of Prince Rupert" a comprehensive economic history of the community. Hick also served for many years on the board of directors of the BC Ferry system and fought to expand service to the North Coast.
From 1 to 3 pm there will be a free family swim at the Earl Mah Aquatic Center followed by a community celebration from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Lester Centre of the Arts. The celebration will feature the cutting of a ceremonial birthday cake, musical entertainment and the sealing of a time capsule that will be opened at the community bi-centennial, March 10, 2110.
The events will conclude with a fireworks display at the golf course.
Although Prince Rupert's official history dates from 1910, it was in 1895 that the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway first began looking into a western expansion to the British Columbia coast. That was the year that it hired American railroad executive Charles Melville Hays to push its expansion plans.
Originally, Hays had hoped to terminate the proposed railroad in the only significant community on the North Coast at that time, Port Simpson, and that was the plan that the Canadian government approved in 1903.
Port Simpson, just south of the Alaska/Canada border, had been established as the Hudson's Bay trading post Fort Simpson in 1834. Port Simpson is now called Lax Kw'alaams.
But further exploration determined that a better site would be a deep water port - one of the finest on the West Coast - some 20 miles south of Port Simpson, not far from the village of Metlakatla. The port sight had been populated by Tsimshian tribes for generations. Hays was particularly interested in the harbor because it was ice-free and the location put it some 500 miles closer to Asia than Vancouver and Seattle.
Although the Canadian government was paying for 75 percent of the cost of the rail line, Hays was also looking for other ways to help fund the rest and he decided to generate some national publicity by staging a nationwide "naming" contest for the proposed community.
The winner of the $250 grand prize was Eleanor Macdonald of Manitoba who suggested "Prince Rupert" after the original director of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670.
On May 17, 1906, Hays got to work on his town. A steamer entered what was then called "Tuck's Inlet" and dropped off the first work party on Kaien Island. The party consisted of two carpenters and a Chinese cook, according to historian R.G. Large in his 1960 book "Prince Rupert: A Gateway to Alaska and the Pacific."
Hays had told his backers that the city would eventually have 50,000 residents, but within a few weeks the population had only reached five with the addition of two more carpenters. Still, work proceeded rapidly and within a year the first streets had been laid out, land had been cleared back to what is now known as Mount Hays and the population had boomed up to nearly 150.
By 1909, the town population was nearly 3,000 according to the Prince Rupert Optimist, the small newspaper that eventually became the Prince Rupert Daily News. In March of 1910, the town was officially incorporated but just as things were looking up, it was dealt two body blows.
Both took place far away from the town.
In September of 1911, the Liberal Party of Sir. Wilfred Laurier was turned out office after nearly a decade and a half in control of Canada. Laurier had been a very strong supporter of Grand Trunk's efforts to span the continent because he was concerned that many in the Western part of Canadian felt that they had more in common with the United States than eastern Canada.
The Conservative government that replaced Laurier's Liberal one was much less concerned about Western Canada. The Conservatives were also more closely aligned with Grand Trunk's main competitor, the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
The next disaster to befall Prince Rupert was in April 1912, when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. Among those who died was Charles Melville Hays, returning from a trip to Europe to raise funds for the railroad and the city.
When Hays died, Prince Rupert lost its guiding light and biggest proponent. It also lost its developmental future because Hays had never sketched out how he planned the city to grow. Some initial designs had been made by Canadian architect Francis Rattenbury and were found in a Victoria attic in the mid 1990s. But most of the new city had literally been in Hays "head" and was lost forever.
Still, the town moved on without its founder and the Grand Trunk line arrived in 1914. But the rail line itself was missing Hays vision and undergoing financial troubles. By 1920 it has been absorbed in the Canadian National line and Prince Rupert's desire to be the "major" port of Western Canadian was ignored as Vancouver - and the Canadian Pacific - boomed.
In World War I, the need for spruce for airplanes and sphagnum moss - used to treat wounds - helped Prince Rupert continue to grow. The government also built a dry-dock and shipyard in the community and the population rose to 5,000 in 1918.
A shift in the lucrative halibut industry from Alaska to Canada (primarily because of the rail line) in the 1920s also helped. The first grain elevators were built in 1925 and had a brief success in shipments to Asia, but that stopped when the Depression hit in the early 1930s.
One local industry that continued to boom through the 1920s and early 1930s was bootlegging, as Southeast Alaskan citizens "imported" large quantities of alcohol from Prince Rupert during prohibition.
World War II proved to be a boom time for Prince Rupert as well. The shipyard turned out freighters and mine sweepers. And the US government built an army base in the community as part of its efforts to push the Japanese out of the Aleutians. The town population reached a peaked of 23,500 in 1943. After the war, the population dropped back to around 8,000.
Like Southeast Alaska, Prince Rupert's post war economy hinged on the timber industry as the Celanese Corporation of America built the massive Columbia Cellulose pulp mill on Watson Island. The mill, eventually named Skeena Cellulose, would - at its peak - employ more than 2,000 workers, with an additional 5,000 in operations outside of Prince Rupert.
By the mid 1980s, Prince Rupert's population was approaching 18,000. But in the 1990s, downturns in both the timber and fishing industries hurt the community. The biggest challenge was when Skeena Cellulose went through several long shutdowns and finally closed for good in the early 2000s. The town population plummeted to barely 10,000.
But once again, Prince Rupert turned to its port.
First overcrowding in the Alaska cruise industry opened an opportunity for Prince Rupert to capitalize on. It built a new cruise dock downtown and began welcoming upwards of 100,000 visitors by the mid 2000s.
The community - with massive federal government help - also took advantage of the boom in product shipping from Asia and built a new container port that could take advantage of its relative proximity to Asia and its relatively uncrowned rail corridor. The town population is now back up to nearly 14,000 again.
At the town reaches its Centennial, uncertainty in both the tourism markets and shipping industry is once again causing some concerns, but not enough to dampen the town's celebration of its 100 years of history on the North Coast.
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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at email@example.com