The Rocky Mountain Trench, also known as The Valley of a Thousand Peaks or simply the Trench, extends 1,600 km (990 mi) from Flathead Lake, Montana, to the Liard River south of the British Columbia-Yukon border near Watson Lake, Yukon. This large valley separates the Rocky Mountains to the east from the Columbia Mountains and the Cassiar Mountains to the west.
The Trench is drained by four major river basins: the Columbia, Fraser, Peace and Liard. Summit Lake north of Prince George is at the low-elevation continental divide between the Pacific (e.g. Fraser River) and Arctic (e.g., Peace River) drainages, demarking the Northern Rocky Mountain Trench from the Southern Rocky Mountain Trench.
Although some of its topography has been carved into glacial valleys, it is primarily a by-product of faulting. The northern portion of the Trench is dominated by strike-slip faulting while the southern part of the Trench was created by normal faults.
The Williston Reservoir in the northern Rocky Mountain Trench is fed by the Finlay, Omineca, Ingenika, Ospika, Parsnip, Manson, Nation and Nabesche Rivers, and by Clearwater Creek, Carbon Creek, and other smaller creeks.
Much of the exploration and survey work since the earliest Hudson’s Bay Company expeditions relied heavily on First Nations guides, and the network of ‘native walking trails’ throughout the valleys and mountain passes of the northern Rockies.
European exploration of this area began with Alexander Mackenzie’s overland travel up the Peace and Parsnip Rivers en route to the Pacific Ocean in 1793, on behalf of the North West Company. Fellow explorer John Finlay returned four year later to explore the northern tributary to the Peace River, later named the Finlay River. No record remains of the expedition except as reported by Samuel Black, Chief Trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He ascended to the source of the Finlay River in 1824, noting that “he had studied Finlay’s chart” and determined that Finlay had likely only made it as far as the Ingenika River, about 130 km north of the Finlay River’s confluence with the Peace.
Early exploration focused primarily on identifying travel and trade routes through the region. The first Canadian Pacific Railroad survey was done in 1871, with the Pine Pass through the Rocky Mountains surveyed by C.P.R. engineer J. Hunter in 1877.
In the late 1800s and 1900s, exploration included mineral prospecting expeditions (e.g., Edward Ruzicka and company, 1900).
In 1897, as the Yukon Gold rush erupted, Inspector Moodie led a North West Mounted Police patrol to establish a route from Edmonton to the Yukon through the Rocky Mountain Trench.
The BC Department of Lands began surveying in the Rocky Mountain Trench in 1912. Mr. F. C. Swannell was the first surveyor sent to the area.
The sensational Bedeaux Expedition ventured up the Muskwa and Kwadacha Rivers in 1931.
The Northwest Company was trading furs with First Nations people and trappers during the early part of the 1800s, and amalgamated with The Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.
Local trading posts with provincial significance include Fort McLeod, the first permanent trading post in British Columbia, designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1953 and Fort St. James. Less well know, but vital to trade in our region, are Fort Grahame, Fort Ware, and Finlay Forks.
Movement of supplies to the trading posts was by river freighters and pack trains during the early 1900s. Men like Gus Dalhstrom, Edward Buchanan, and Dick Corless, operated river freighting companies to move supplies to the early settlers, from the 1920s until the construction of the Hart Highway in the 1950s.
Construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam during the 1960s signalled the end of many of the settlements along the Finlay and Parsnip Rivers, as the Williston Reservoir flooded the valley.
Many mineral prospectors have explored the region since 1861, when gold was discovered on the Parsnip, Finlay, and Peace Rivers.
After the Fraser Canyon (1858) and Cariboo (1862) Gold Rushes, miners began to move north into the Omineca District (north of Mackenzie) in search of riches. In 1871, gold was discovered on Germansen Creek in such quantities that a Gold Commissioner was sent to this area to establish a town “Omineca” on a bench three miles from its mouth on June 6. On July 16, an important gold discovery is made on Manson Creek. Only one year later, very few miners remained in the Germansen area, but the Germansen and Manson Creek communities continue to exist today.
When the Yukon Gold Rush began in 1897 and prospectors surged northward, the federal government commissioned the Northwest Mounted Police to find a passable trail from Edmonton to the Yukon, and to police the route.
Recent mining developments include Mt Milligan copper-gold, Kemess copper-gold, and Ospika nyobium mines.
The first sawmill north of Prince George was at Fort Graham in the 1920s. The sawmill had a 4 Horsepower motor and a 10 inch Edgar blade.
In the early 1960s, the Forest Service built the road from “the junction” (where Highway 97 meets Highway 39) to Finlay Forks.
With the prospect of abundant forest resources and the availability of local power, BC Forest Products and Alexandra Forest Industries Ltd. announced in 1964 that they would build a $60 million dollar forestry complex in the region, with pulp mills, sawmills, and other logging operations providing employment for thousands of people.
As part of the development, the Mackenzie was established under the ‘Instant Town Act’ by Alexandra Forest Industries (acquired by BC Forest Products in 1967) and Cattermole Timber (later partnered with Jujo Paper in 1970 to create Finlay Forest Industries), to house a workforce for the forest industry.
The local forest industry has grown from BC Forest Product’s original pulp mill and two sawmills in Mackenzie. Today, Duz Cho Logging, sawmills such as the Canfor Corporation Mackenzie sawmill (successor to BCFP’s lumber division) and Conifex Timber (successor to FFI) and the Paper Excellence kraft pulp mill (successor to BCFP’s pulp division), are major employers in town. New developments include the BioEnergy Plant and the Duz Cho Cant Mill.
The Williston Reservoir was created by the W.A.C Bennett Dam on the Peace River at Portage Mountain, 22 km west of Hudson’s Hope, BC. It is one of the world’s biggest earth fill dams, standing 183 m (660 ft) high, 800 m wide, and 2 km long. The reservoir covers a total area of 1,761 km2 (251 km long and 155 km at its widest point), making it the largest lake in British Columbia and the seventh largest reservoir (by volume) in the world.
Construction was part of the BC government’s ‘Twin Rivers Policy’ to develop the hydroelectric potential of both the Peace and Columbia Rivers simultaneously. William (Bill) A.C. Bennett was the Premier of British Columbia from 1952 to 1972, and strongly promoted development of BC’s natural resources to support an industrial economy. The dam was named in his honour; the reservoir is named for his provincial cabinet member, Ray Williston, the Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources from 1956 to 1972.
The reservoir flooded the Parsnip, Finlay, and Peace River valleys upstream of the dam when construction was completed in 1968. Several communities in the Rocky Mountain Trench were submerged as the water rose (1968-1971), resulting in forceful displacement and relocation settlements for First Nations and homesteaders that lived in the valley.
Clearing land to prepare for the flooding of Williston Reservoir opened the doors for the forest industry, and led to incorporation of Mackenzie as an “instant town” in 1966, to house the growing local workforce.
In 1964 the prospect of abundant forest resources and available power led BC Forest Products to announce it would spend $60 million building a “forestry complex” in the region, employing thousands of people in local pulp mills, sawmills, and other logging operations.
As part of the development, the town of Mackenzie was established by Alexandra Forest Industries (acquired by BC Forest Products in 1967) and Cattermole Timber (later partnered with Jujo Paper in 1970 to create Finlay Forest Industries), to house a workforce for the forest industry.
The BC Forest Service built a road from “The Junction” (where Highway 39 and Highway 97 currently meet 28km south of Mackenzie) to Finlay Forks in the early 1960s. In 1965, the clearing of land began for the town site of Mackenzie. Portable saw mills were kept busy milling the wood being cut in the reservoir flood zone. The first houses were constructed in the Crysdale Drive area.
Mackenzie was incorporated under the ‘Instant Town’ Act, on May 19 1966. The first families moved to town in June of that year. In September, the School District moved two portable classrooms into Mackenzie. The buildings had electricity but no running water and the toilets were outside privies. the heat in the rooms came from potbellied stoves. The classrooms accommodated grades one through eight, and all classes went in shifts. Staffing consisted of 3 teachers and a principal. Mackenzie’s first high school graduation class (11 students) was in 1972.
The first business in Mackenzie (1964 – 1966) was Ernie Bodin’s Morfee Lake Services. Ernie Bodin provided fuel and ran a cafe in the area where the Fish and Game Club gun range is located today. Ernie had both the first private business and the first non-company house in town.
By the early 70’s Mackenzie could boast a population of just over 7,000 residents. By the 1980s, there was an airport, four schools, shopping centres, banks, a hospital, fire hall, recreation centre, and many other facilities in town.
Industry has grown from BCFP’s original pulp mill and two sawmills in Mackenzie. Today, Mackenzie’s main industries are logging, lumber, market pulp, mining, and tourism. Duz Cho Logging, sawmills such as the Canfor Corporation Mackenzie sawmill (successor to BCFP’s lumber division) and Conifex Timber (successor to FFI) and the Paper Excellence kraft pulp mill (successor to BCFP’s pulp division), are major employers in town. The addition of Thompson Creek Metals Mount Milligan copper-gold operation is a major new asset to the town.