26-Aug-2002 -- Ever played Railroad Tycoon? Know that feeling when there are huge coal deposits and a market, but the coal is the wrong side of a mountain range, can you build that long and expensive spur? Well here is a real life example.
Until 1982 this was as wild and remote a spot as any of the Northern BC confluences. There was nothing here, far up the Murray River, other than a forest and the odd ranch 20 miles away. Then a massive investment was made to mine over 6 million tonnes of high quality coal and ship it via a brand new 100km railway over the Rockies to a new port near Prince Rupert so that the coal could be shipped out to feed the steel mills of Japan.
To service this enterprise a new town was built from scratch, Tumbler Ridge. Then after a few years, the Japanese economy stalled, the mills closed and with them, the market for Peace River high quality coal. In 2000 the Quintette mine closed and the surviving Bullmoose mine is due to go in 2003. The epic railway across the mountains will almost certainly go too. Meanwhile the town hangs on, determined that the newest town does not become the newest ghost town. New folk have moved in, explorers have discovered caves and canyons in the forests and a tourist industry is being started. However when we turned up in the town after travelling down the 100 km of empty road from Chetwynd, we caused a stir. The locals wanted to know how we had found them? Tumbler Ridge is worth a visit, the town is well appointed and beautifully situated amongst the eastern foothills of the Rockies. Climbing, skiing, caving and plain exploring are well catered for, and local activists are opening up a network of very interesting trails in the area. There are fine examples of that Peace River speciality, dinosaur footprints.
We were there because our original plan, to visit the Kakwa Provincial Park was stopped due to a wash out on the only access road. We chose to go further north, where a little known area of waterfalls and mountains seemed a good bet for some exploration. After 4 days in the Monkman Provincial Park we returned to Tumbler Ridge and as the road passed within 600 metres of the point, it seemed a good idea to have a go at the confluence.
Would you believe that in all the wilds of the Northern Rockies, the confluence would be in a coal mine. Unfortunately it was the closed Quintette mine, now under reclamation and the confluence firmly off limits, behind barbed wire, amongst dangerous mounds of unstable tailings. Cautiously, as I had just passed a bear one km before the stopping place, I approached the wire and got within 500m of the spot. The view was not encouraging as it was obviously amongst the tailings, and in a dangerous spot. I decided not to apply for access, knowing that soon this land would be reclaimed and a local could then pick the plum in safety. Meanwhile I would document it as a working, albeit closing down coal mine, possibly the largest open cast coal mine in the world.
And that railway over the Rockies? Well it was built and is still there now, but 40 years before it was built another attempt was made, a brave hand dug road through the mountains.
We stayed in the Monkman Provincial Park. Here amongst swamp and dense bush is one of the lowest passes through the Rocky Mountains and a candidate for a direct road south to Prince George. In the 1930s there was still no direct outlet for the grain of the Peace River wheat fields. The crop had to be shipped via Alberta and the costs were threatening the survival of the area. In desperation a group of farmers decided that if a railway would not be built connecting them with the Pacific then they would build one themselves. A trail was cut through the Monkman Pass, named after the explorer and road builder Alex Monkman followed the next year by a hand built road. The pioneers even got a car through the pass on their road until they abandoned it with 20km to go due to an early winter. A property rush ensued and it was planned that Monkman Lake be developed like Lake Louise. Then war came in 1939 and the road was forgotten, only to be officially abandoned by the BC government in the 1940s.. The decision was to build a railway and road over the Pine Pass. The bush reclaimed the road, and now little remains. We saw traces here and there, deep in the bush where a track was forced through a boulder field called Hells Half Acre. There is a film here in this heroic story of a band of wheat farmers against the Rocky Mountains ,where the West was still being won deep into the 20th Century.
I would like to acknowledge the help of the following book in writing this narrative:
Tumbler Ridge, Enjoying its History, Trails and Wilderness by Dr Charles Helm