For a newspaper to have survived the digital onslaught of the last 10 years, never mind Fort St John’s boom and bust cycle over the 75, is only possible because a lot of hard-working people over a lot of years, had creative and dedicated management and above all, it’s because the people at the Alaska Highway News took it as an article of faith always, that the newspaper is, was and must remain what Ma Murray said it was: ‘The only newspaper in the world that gives a tinker’s damn about the North Peace.’
True then, true now.
During the 10 years that I can speak to, it was that caring and that devotion to telling the North Peace story that were always the key to any success we ever had: It truly is something to celebrate.
Now the bare facts of the newspaper: Ma Murray got things going in 1944 in a shack over on 100th and 100th. The present building came in 1962, and was enlarged in 1980.
In 1972, Ma’s son Dan sold it to Sterling Newspapers owned by Conrad Black, Peter White, and David Radler. Two years later, they made advertising manager Bill Dyer, publisher. It was a good choice; Bill was very careful with the owners’ money.
During the renovation, he personally remodeled the backshop and rather than hire somebody for snow removal, did it himself.
We went from weekly to daily in June 1976, and the first computerized typesetting equipment showed up the year following.
So much for milestones.
I arrived in September 1975. I had been working for Short Tompkins out of Fort Nelson where now-Senator but then-branch manager Dick Neufeld handed me my daily orders, and delivering fuel for Ross Maclean. But contemplating marriage as I was, decided I needed a steady job in town.
So Vina Starr, now a retired Indigenous issues lawyer, but then working for Canada Manpower, sent me over to Bill.
Now, Dyer was looking for a reporter, not a truck driver. And said so. On the other hand I was there, and a qualified reporter was not.
I let it be known I had a politics degree from a good university and he softened a little. Bill decided I had ‘an apparent ability to put words on paper.’
“Let’s see how it goes for a couple of weeks. $600 a month. Here’s a notebook, here’s a camera, there’s a Remington typewriter and a desk. Here, have some paper… Now go with Candace Mawer to the council meeting, you’re replacing her, that’ll be your beat, she’ll show you how it goes. Look for conflict.’
And that’s how a 34-year newspaper career began.
Along with the delightful Candace, there was editor Alan Krasnick, smart, funny, a sort of Jewish hippy with glasses like Lennon. Richard de Candole had learned his business from Ted Byfield, and was thus a superb general reporter.
As I started looking further afield for news, Richard was also a willing accomplice and perhaps a little more business-like: In 1976, we went into the Sikanni Falls. I talked about it in the Coop restaurant over their 10-cent coffee. He sold the story to the Edmonton Journal.
Press foreman Tony Jefferies let me borrow his motorbike. Joanne Wallace, sales, Carol Condruk likewise, Kim Denault at reception.
Anyway, conflict being what Bill wanted, council was the right place. The smaller the stakes, the worse it was and aldermen were cussin’ each other out, with robust, vivid biological imagery.
I’d heard it all before on the road but mostly in the context of things that could kill you. I asked Candace where the heat came from.
“We’re just talking about garbage pickup.”
“Well,” she said, “some of them don’t let policy agreements get in the way of personal hatred.”
The mayor, Peter Frankiw, had tried to quiet things down by separating the worst offenders, but that just made them yell louder.
We could have some fun with this, thought I.
So we printed what they said. Significant vowels replaced with punctuation marks but otherwise, verbatim.
In two weeks, council was like a temperance meeting. And, no fun any more.
However, the newspaper’s role as guardian of public morals had been fortified.
Bill was happy. And so, I heard, was Mayor Frankiw.
You see, for Bill, being publisher was more a trust than a job. He put his all into it.
And he thought Ma Murray was about right, so on a Friday night in the advertising department, where we were accustomed to brace ourselves for the weekend, he would stand there with the paper in one hand and a bourbon in the other, and talk about local news.
He had a knack of making the tinker’s damn sound like something from the Bible.
Who do we have here? Glennis Marlin and Jeanne Chapple in sales, Monica Milne, my reporter, handing around goodies, Heinz Goldbach advertising manager.
Heinz was a good guy. We had got him at Macleod’s and he was a great organizer and a really good photographer.
With the Co-op, he ran a fashion show every year. The store brought in the product, Heinz found models and then they’d do the show by the pool at the Mackenzie Inn. One year he was so focused on getting the angle, he forgot where he was and kept on backing up right into the water. You just have to picture this guy up to his neck but gallantly holding one of the company’s Leicas out of harm’s way.
Anyway Bill practiced what he preached. As publisher he was a community leader and he was in everything, Rotary, the tourism association, chamber of commerce.
The Big Dam Canoe Race – we had a couple of work teams one year, and at the gold-panning at Taylor.
And local sports. He loved local sports. Above all, speedskating.
Fort St. John’s speedskaters were his delight. Our local hero might have come in 18th in a field of 20 but if it was their personal best, that was the story.
Of course, during the 1970s the Fort St John speedskating story was actually one of unremitting triumph and glorious victory as folks like Kim Meashaw, Carol Ljuden, and Bill’s own son Bobbie went on to win on the national stage.
So, Bill went to all the meets, took all the pictures and wrote it all up on a Monday morning.
He also did a column, Disa and Data, which meant that he virtually wrote the entire sports page every week. Which freed up a lot of our time, for us.
Free for what? Well…
- Cows savaged by wolves.
- The local showgirls, the Can-Canettes.
- The old police post moved from across the river (my buddy Walter Dean helped me paddle across the river).
- The construction of the Peace Canyon Dam.
- Days in the lives of the Fish and Wildlife Department.
- Volkswagen road testing the Golf from Fairbanks to Tierra del Fuego.
- Wycliffe Society Bible translators Jean and Marshall Holdstock, working on the Doig Reserve.
And, the time we were given up for dead.
In 1804, down where the Beatton River joins the Peace, Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s North West Company had built Fort d’Epinette, and it was there for about 15 years, before it was attacked and burned. A lot of people killed.
As the area would be affected by Site C, Simon Fraser University had got a grant from BC Hydro to dig up the site. Great story, thought I. We should go and see them.
So we did.
The smart thing would have been to drive of course, but it seemed a long way.
So, we canoed down there instead. Perfect.
Perfect, but for the torrential rain that began as soon as we pulled out into the stream.
Thunder rolled, lightning seared trees on the bank: It was a bad time to be doing this.
It wasn’t the best time to be out on the river, I remember thinking. Also, by the time we got there, the students had everything under cover and who were we anyway? But, they were gracious and we stayed the night.
Problem was that communications then weren’t what they are now, so for all the reasons we hadn’t alerted Dr. Fladmark of our intentions, we were unable to alert Bill that we were ok.
All he knew was that his new editor hadn’t been heard from for 24 hours, but was last seen paddling down the river in a thunderstorm in the direction of Alberta.
To mockery and condemnation, I arrived back at the office about 10 minutes before the deadline Bill had given himself to call search and rescue. But it was a great story and I gather that most of what the raiders of the lost fort found is now on permanent display, right here in your museum.
In any case, Bill was in no position to say much about rivereen misadventures.
Two months before I took post, he lost the company’s other Leica in the Prophet River, on a misbegotten wilderness adventure for foreign tourism writers.
Now, nobody actually got killed. But, of four rafts that descended the bucolic Besa and Prophet Rivers, only one made it.
For, in between the quiet bits are bends where sweepers force you into the shallows, and the shallows become boisterous rapids, and the rapids become visible rocks, and the rocks break up the rafts, and the rafts breaking up dump the people on them into the water, and the waters then wash them up on sandbars, and upon the sandbars they sit there shivering, asking themselves what just happened, what now, and in Bill’s case, what am I going to tell David Radler about the loss of company property?
For along with his lunch, it was somewhere on the bottom of the river.
The hero of this story of course, is Midnight Anderson, the legendary bush pilot of Pink Mountain who was keeping an eye on things from above. He it was who spotted the survivors, landed his Super Cub beside them on the sandbars and one by one airlifted everybody out.
Like most of the stories about Jimmy, it sounds harum-scarum, but it was actually exquisite flying.
I mention Jimmy because while he was not a perfect metaphor for the industrious society of law-abiding North Peace pioneers – they called him Midnight for a reason – he was still the kind of person that can only be who they really are where there’s lots of room.
In their own way, that was true for a lot of people north of the 56th parallel and while FSJ was in transition, it was my good fortune to catch a lot of the pioneers on the off ramp, as it were, and talk about their exploits.
Here’s a handful.
- Jesse Starnes, who during the 1930s built a log cabin on the banks of the Peace and supported his family there, panning for gold in the river. One year, we decided to put a work team into the World’s Invitational Class A Gold-Panning competition at Taylor: It was Jesse who showed us how.
- Dorse Prosser, who looked after the museum at Taylor. That’s what it looks like, two sets of interlocked moose racks. Two bulls competing for females, and starved to death. There’s a sermon in that. And Dorse could have given it: He was also the Adventist pastor in Taylor.
- Trapper Norm Mackenzie, who wrote a very literate memoir, ‘The Law of Trap and Fang…’ We went to him on wildlife stuff even though one day he duped a cub reporter with an ancient three-horned buffalo skull – the skull turned out to be ancient alright, but the third horn, in the unicorn position, he finally admitted was a well weathered tree branch that had grown through it.
- Jack Baker, who long before he was a successful insurance agent on 100th Street, lived with the Eskimos, and ended up in Fort Liard where he met pioneer northern aviator Wop May and the mounties on the Mad Trapper case. It’s a bit out of our area but for a FSJ man it was a tale to tell, especially when the camp cook at the RCMP base where the Mad Trapper’s frozen body was stored, decided he wanted a picture of the stiff. When I interviewed Jack in 1981, he told me how the two of them stood up the corpse, and he had to hold it still while the cook took pictures.
- Leo Rutledge at Hudson’s Hope, guide, outfitter, rancher, and latterly spokesman for the Peace River itself as BC Hydro took its measurements for the Site C dam. We disagreed on that, but always politely. Rutledge was a gentleman, and part of that network of families – the Beatties, the Pecks (Don Peck was on the Bedeaux expedition), the Ross’s – and so many others who forsook the comforts of the larger cities further east and south, and brought civilization to a wilderness.
I think what kept our disagreements civil was that Leo felt sorry for me. I was stuck in the ballroom at the Pioneer Inn, where the BC Utilities Commission considered the project’s necessity and earnest people berated Hydro’s engineers and legal counsel, and uttered emotional condemnations of the project, of BC Hydro and once, of electricity itself.
Community banquets were vital.
We did a bit better than the folks over at CKNL where if you listened carefully you could sometimes hear them turning the pages of our paper.
But, like them we were always grateful for a free meal. So you needed to make sure you reported on the Catholic Women’s League and above all on Burns Night, an ecumenical haggis-bash by the Shriners and the Knights of Columbus. And let’s not forget the International Club: Even in 1975, you could eat your way around the world in a Fort St. John church hall.
Meanwhile, the Northern BC Guides and Outfitters put on a wild game dinner once a year for their awards night, again at the Mackenzie Inn. Didn’t miss that ever, either: I’d got to know a lot of these guys because there was usually something going on, like the time Lynn Ross bought some buffalo from Alberta, shipped them to his Pink Mountain ranch from which they then quickly escaped.
Naturally, they copulated with the native mountain bison and who owned the offspring and had the right to hunt them became an ongoing issue that wasn’t solved before I left town.
What of the new guard?
From 1978 to 1980, before Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program brought so many of us to ruin, Fort St John was incredibly busy.
The oilpatch was setting records. The airport was briefly one of the 10 busiest in Canada. Certainly, it was attracting its own investment, as Harley Koons, Dan Wuthrich, and Pete Scheiwiller over at North Cariboo put on a Vickers Vanguard, a big four-engine transport, and a couple of Convair 440s, PetroCanada built a hangar, the government built a new control tower, and the redoubtable Jim Hurst from Moab, Utah, and about a hundred Fort St John shareholders, bought the wartime RCAF hangar to fix aeroplanes.
And in 1982, Frank Hinteregger’s Wide Sky Flying Club celebrated 10 years of soaring with a highly publicized visit by U.S. astronaut Joe Engle, who had flown the ill-fated orbiter ‘Columbia’ on its second mission. Engle did some flying with club members, then spoke at an amazing dinner in the Mackenzie Inn. Mayor Pat Walsh couldn’t stop smiling, and neither could Frank Oberle MP, who having arranged a sheep hunt for Engle with one of my outfitter friends Jim Watson out at Christina Falls, hustled him around the schools and service clubs of Prince George-Peace River North. Frank got good PR, Engle got his sheep, and we got to fly with an astronaut.
Back in town, every month was a new building permit record, every fortnight it seemed the tireless Gerry Tucker would be building an apartment block or a hotel. Vancouver developers Derek Carroll, Don Martin, and John Loucks bought up the 90th Street region south of hundredth and built Camarlo Park. Mount Baker Developments got the rest.
Henry Litzenberger partnered with Alderman Annette Palmer, a Prophet River raft survivor, to build the professional building across from the post office and Abacus Developments built the mall.
Mayor Pat Walsh opened so many new buildings, that he might be said to have opened Fort St John single-handed. Meanwhile, the next posse of hustlers in bespoke suits and crocodile skin shoes would be on their way to town, taking up options and flogging MURBs to the professional classes.
And then it all came to a stop.
The NEP killed the oilpatch. Like today, the rigs went south. So did the people. Property crashed: The doctors and dentists who had invested in sophisticated tax schemes found they would have been better off blowing their money on a vacation in Hawaii.
By the end of 1981, two hotels barely a year old had closed. One became a self-storage place. New apartment blocks sold at distressed prices. One went for 10 cents on the dollar.
Jim Hurst’s hangar burned down, though with Yankee true grit, he rebuilt.
The BC government decided to shelve Site C. The Alaska Highway pipeline didn’t get built.
And the saddest day of my 10 years at the Alaska Highway News was covering the Ritchie Brothers auction, where they sold off the entire equipment inventory of my old boss, Short Tompkins.
Alan Krasnik became an environmental lawyer in Vancouver. One of our sports editors, Squire Barnes, moved over to TV and is now doing well at Global. Monica Milne got married and moved to Calgary. Heinz Goldbach became publisher at Dawson Creek. Fern Brooks went to the Calgary Herald, Shelley Browne came to Port Alberni and worked for me there for a while, as did Diane Morrison. Shelley was a bit of an NDP-er though and was party staff for a while, before getting elected alderman in Smithers.
Richard de Candole retired to Vancouver Island and is writing a book.
Things didn’t always go well. Trying to find Greenpeacer Paul Watson when he was supposedly trying to confront the Fish and Wildlife Branch over a wolf cull, didn’t happen. We, myself and fellow-pilot Mike Smith, failed to get pictures of a US cruise missile test. The Russians tried to recruit me as an agent of influence. Seriously.
There were times when I forgot to put film in my camera.
But let me conclude with my best story and my worst story.
My best was when the old wooden BCR trestle caught fire in 1979.
Very early one Sunday, Jim Hurst called me, told me the bridge was on fire and if I wanted to get pictures, I’d better get right up to the airport.
So there we were by the dawn’s early light, heading for the bridge in a 185. You could see it for miles of course, as hundreds of tons of creosote-soaked timber were going up in flames. Old hat for Jim, he’d flown B-24s over Berlin in 1944.
But already, the heat from the burning bridge ahead of us was causing local turbulence. “Get it the first time. I only want to do this once.”
He hung out a couple of notches of flap, cut the throttle.
Most people don’t think much about centripetal force but even more than a seatbelt, it’s what keeps you in your seat when you’re doing tight turns over a burning bridge in an aeroplane with no door.
“I took it off because I thought it would improve your field of vision,” said Jim.
“You know, I think we should go round again.”
Which is where I got this picture (pictured above).
It was the news story of the year of course. Up in flames with the trestle, went the livelihoods of hundreds of men and women who worked in forestry and sawmills up the Alaska Highway.
We went to Mayor Walsh for comment. “We really need that Chetwynd road now,” he said.
Yes, and my biggest disaster.
Once, I thought I truly had the goods on a local politician. It was Watergate in Fort St. John. All the details of his self-interested dealings with a local developer a few weeks before the town elections. The tapes, the signed agreements, the council minutes. We had it all.
Then came the election, and he got voted back in.
See, he’d been around for 50 years. Everybody liked him. This was his retirement plan, and what’s that to you Hannaford, fresh off the boat?
So much for the editor’s power to hold politicians to account. Howbeit, it would be revealed that our endorsement wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn, either.
Lawyer Warren Chapman was running for council and getting the diagonal road to Chetwynd was his issue.
As we all know, from Fort St. John, it’s about a hundred miles to Chetwynd.
But the diagonal between them is only about 60 miles, and most of it is made up. Just a bit of 4X4 track to improve… All you needed was a bridge over the Pine River near Taylor. Bridges had been built before, but if the first spring flood didn’t wash them out, the next one would.
Now it so happened that as Chapman was campaigning, an oil company was drilling down the 4X4 track, and had put a Bailey bridge over the Pine. Once more, you could take the back road to Chetwynd.
So, we decided to prove the concept. Chapman’s law partner, Gary Callison was interested too. Before law, he’d worked the oilpatch and the barges on the Mackenzie River. He was a helluva good guy, and he happened to have a new, loaded, four wheel drive pickup, crew-cab, mobile radio, the lot.
I wrote a piece announcing our intentions. I quoted candidate Chapman, and got chamber of commerce people at each end to sound enthused. And off we went.
It had been cold for some time, so the ground was frozen and the going good. We found ourselves going through what is in fact the last of the prairies, where Canada prepares itself for British Columbia. Here and there was a cleared field or a small frozen lake, but mostly we drove through stands of leafless aspen.
It was actually a bit dull.
Then we came round a corner. There, up to its axles in mud, was a Chev Blazer. Further on, was a matching Blazer; also down a hole. I recognised them straightaway; they belonged to the brothers Badry, Al and Wayne of Alway Refrigeration, regular advertisers in the News.
They had read my article.
They looked a bit cross.
It seemed they had found a beaver dam. Nature’s little engineers had been at it, and flooded the road. Everything had then frozen over, but not enough to take the weight of a Blazer.
Callison took over. He radioed the nearby rig. They sent a bed-truck, and we had the Badrys out in no time. Only somewhat mollified, they hustled back to town.
But we did not.
Here it gets technical. I’ll spare you the details but suddenly I was a swamper again. We winched ourselves through the mud.
The rest was easy. In Chetwynd, we had Chinese food and came back the long way. Our round trip took 12 hours. Two and a half hours by the long route, nine hours via the short cut.
So what did we accomplish?
Chapman didn’t get elected. If a thumbs-down from me was the gift of life, so my thumbs-up was the kiss of death.
The road was never completed. The bridge washed out in the spring. And I never noticed another ad from Alway Refrigeration.
Having failed so spectacularly as a reporter, it was clearly time to get into management.
I left Fort St John in 1985, to publish the Alberni Valley Times.
Years later, Bill Dyer showed up in Port Alberni, with the Seniors’ Games. He came in to see me at the Times. He’d had a great career.
Thanks to him, so had I.
And he told me something interesting: He had finally become comfortable with his decision to hire me.
This story was excerpted and adapted from an address given to the North Peace Historical Society, February 26, 2020.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor's note: Article amends and corrects that it was the late Dan Wuthrich involved in North Cariboo aviation investments with Harley Koons and Pete Scheiwiller, not Pete Wuthrich as previously written.]