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).

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).

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

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
Jenna Cocullo 
Send Jenna email
Like the The Northern View on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter

City of Prince RupertCity of TerraceHazeltonHighway 16historyLocal HistorySkeena river

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

The Cancer Care Unit at Prince Rupert Regional Hospital, April 14, will benefit from a $100,000 donation from Prince Rupert Port Authority towards renovations. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert Port Authority donates $100,000 to hospital renovations

Cancer Care Unit at PRRH to undergo upgradesat PRRH to undergo upgrades

Teresa Van sorts bottles at the April 10 Rainmakers Interact Club bottle drive to earn funds for six Seabin garbage collection units for harbours and waterfronts in the local region. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Bottle drive successful with more collected than can be sorted in one day

Rainmakers Interact Club supports local community with funds toward ocean garbage collection units

Flights are to resume to Prince Rupert and Sandspit airports under an Air Canada and federal government $5.9 billion agreement that was reached on April 12. A plane is seen through the window on the tarmac of Vancouver International Airport as the waiting room is empty Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
$5.879 billion agreement between Air Canada and Fed’s will assist YPR in re-opening

Prince Rupert Regional Airport to reopen flights by June 1st, if not earlier

BC Housing townhouses on Kootenay Ave. were demolished during March to make way for new affordable residential units by Prince Rupert Indigenous Housing Society. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Despite a recent reduction in units project will still be able to house many

Prince Rupert Indigenous Housing Society says 60 units is still the plan

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller said it would be “very challenging and not very safe” for him and his teammates to play as scheduled on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Canucks’ return to ice postponed again after players voice COVID health concerns

Friday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers was called off after the team met virtually with the NHLPA

B.C. Attorney General David Eby, Minister Responsible for Housing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. announces $2B for affordable, middle-income family home projects

HousingHub financing to encourage more developers, groups – with low-interest loans – to build affordable homes

Most Read