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Denis Garon remembers winding journey along Skeena Highway for 75th anniversary

Labour Day 1944, a ribbon was cut marking the opening of the highway from Prince Rupert to Terrace
MP Olaf Hanson delivered an address at the opening of the Skeena River Highway at Terrace on Sept. 4, 1944 before the ribbon cutting at 11 a.m. In attendance were government officials, who came up from Vancouver, American officials and residents from Prince Rupert all the way to Quesnel. (photo courtesy of the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives).

Seventy-five years ago, on Monday, Sept. 4th 1994 at exactly 11 a.m., a ribbon was cut in Terrace on labour day.

Olaf Hanson, federal MP for the Skeena riding from 1930-1945, had the honour of performing the action that officially marked the opening of The Prince Rupert - Terrace - Hazleton highway, now known as the Skeena River Highway.

It was a long time coming. The project had been 24 years in the making, with the government trying to find the perfect route since the 1920. It was the perceived threat of a Japanese invasion, and the presence of the American army in Prince Rupert, that finally pushed the federal and provincial governments to build the $13 million highway (the equivalent of $195.7million in 2019), believing an alternative road was needed for retreat in the event of an invasion.

Labour Day 1944, generals from the American and Canadian armies were present at the Skeena River Highway's grand opening since it was the war which finally lead to its construction. (photo courtesy of The Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

READ MORE: Remembering Rupert: A historical report on Prince Rupert during the Second World War

Construction began in 1942 and ended two years later. It was reported to be the quickest infrastructure project completed in Canada for its size and magnitude. Cracks filled with muskeg had to be shovelled out and filled with rock, and 45 bridges were built in Vancouver for the project. The region’s infamous rainy season reportedly slowed down production and scared off many workers.

Although the project employed many men before and after the Depression, historical records show that the average worker only lasted 60 days before quitting in frustration.

After all the hard work it was definitely a day work celebrating. The sky was clear and warm with sunshine all around. People were gathered all the way from Prince Rupert to Prince George and Quesnel to witness the historic event. Even delegates from Vancouver made the drive to be there for the morning celebration.

Labour Day 1944, where more than 100 vehicles made the trip from Prince Rupert to Terrace for the Skeena River Highway's grand opening. (photo courtesy of The Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

Not invited to the event however, was Prince Rupert’s Denis Garon, who had worked on the highway as an axe man, chain man and rod man during the construction, and who was the first person to ever travel by vehicle along the Skeena highway. Only the “bigwigs” were informed of the event, Garon, now 93, said.

In 1942, at the age of 16 Garon was too young for the army and for a full time job, as he was still a student, so he decided to work on Highway 16 eight hour days seven days a week for the whole summer while living in a camp filled with white tents.

Denis Garon on Edarvale stretch of Highway 16. (photo courtesy of Denis Garon)

The highway was divided into eight sections with contracts awarded to different companies in each section. His first post was in Section 1 out where the current quarry is by Prudhomme lake working outward east.

The curves in the landscape made by the mountains presented many problems one of which was a bottleneck where the highway leaves Prudhomme and curves away toward lakes Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Garon said the men had to build a timber float to transfer a bulldozer around the curve so it could continue working.

Landslide areas were also a challenge despite Canadian Rail watchmen warning crews to build in those dangerous areas. In Section 2 a camp was wiped out after a massive landslide occurred, causing several deaths.

Garon made his way to Section 3 - covering east and west of Kwinitsa Railway Station by mile 72.9 as he precisely recalls. The work at that camp mainly consisted of hauling truckloads of rip-rap to shore up to stop the Skeena from washing the main highway out. At this point Garon was tasked with the responsibility of checking the amount of yardage each truck was hauling. This is where he learned how to drive, despite not having a license, in a model T-Ford, one of his fondest memories of the time.

Highway 16 construction camp just one mile east of Kwinitsa where Dennis Garon got to ride around in a Model T-Ford car despite not owning a license. (photo courtesy of Denis Garon)

Each camp was different, most had tents, some had trailers. Cab drivers, truck drivers, surveyors and cooks could be found in most. The majority of men were pleasant but occasionally Garon would encounter strange ones such as the “grizzled” surveyor who asked to borrow his Aqua-Velva shaving lotion to treat his mosquito bites, later to return it with only half an inch of liquid left because he drank most of it.

Sharing the space in one of the campsites was six hornet nests filled with wasps that had to be burned down to avoid being eaten alive. Fishing and enjoying the wildlife were the past times but most days workers went to be pretty quickly after a long day of labour.

One of Garon’s funnest memories was in Section 8 at the Big Oliver Creek camp where he met a surveyor who convinced him to row across the harbour to a station called The Pacific, a section of the railway with a restaurant and a bar. Once across, his new friend headed straight to the bar coming back intoxicated, but it was only when they were floating down the river in the wrong direction on the way home that Garon realized his partner “was useless”.

Prudhomme Lake construction camp part of Section 1 in the highway construction project in 1942. (photo courtesy of Denis Garon)

Garon had to scramble along what little gravel was nearby, pulled the rowboat ashore, and lined it up to maneuver it back up the river, rowing with all his strength back to the Big Oliver camp.

When summer, and his time at the Kwinitsa camp, was coming to an end Garon decided to bike all the way home. The trip lasted 7.5 hours including the one hour break he took near Prudhomme for an hour. He journey on rough roads, swerved by rounded boulders blocking the way, and carefully biked on top of 8-by-8 inch timbers that were put in the way to prevent vehicles from going up onto the railway. Garon came across 300-feet of unfinished road from Tyee up toward Rainbow lake where he then put his bike on his shoulder and hiked the rest.

At the end of his journey he was the first vehicle to get into Prince Rupert by Highway 16, at the end of it Garon said it was kind of nice to get down onto pavement again.

Denis Garon was the first person ever reported to have crossed Highway 16 on a vehicle. The vehicle was his bike which he road from Kwinitsa to Prince Rupert in 7.5 hours through rough roads. Pictured at the end of his journey in front of 1201 Second Ave. in Prince Rupert. (photo courtesy of Denis Garon)

READ AND WATCH MORE: At the Skeena River Relay, runners rule the road

Jenna Cocullo | Journalist
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