This year’s Pioneer Day in the Village of Hazelton is set to be a historic event as organizers prepare to celebrate the community’s 150th anniversary and the unprecedented journey which brought the first car to the north.
The event marks the largest occasion held each year in the village, known to many as Old Town.
“Pioneer Day is to remember the stuff that built this community and to remind people of where it came from and how we got here,” said the village’s mayor Alice Maitland. “We think it’s really important that communities celebrate not just their origins, but their progress and the spirit of the place.”
In the mid-1860s, Hazelton’s first pioneers began to settle along the Bulkley-Skeena River junction which became a terminus point for the river sternwheelers bringing supplies and people to the northwest. It’s an area – named for its abundance of hazel bushes – that has been home to the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en peoples for centuries ahead of its incorporation as a village 60 years ago.
“People who live here have roots that go very deep – partly because of our relationship to the Gitxsan people and the fact that we are so committed to building a community,” noted Maitland.
The village also boasts around two-dozen ‘firsts’ for the north, including this year’s focus – the first-ever motor car to arrive here.
The journey was the result of the “First to Hazelton” contest in 1911 for which the Pacific Highway Association put up a 14-karat gold medallion in addition to the community’s $1,000 reward challenging people across northwestern cities to attempt to drive a car into the remote interior.
“There was no real road, but people felt that it would promote the idea of a highway,” explained Maitland. Hazelton was, at the time, at the end of a proposed mega-highway that would span from B.C. to the Panama Canal.
It was a man from Seattle named Perley Evans Sands who accepted the challenge and the solid gold medal he received upon reaching Hazelton in his Flanders 20 Studebaker automobile was recently reclaimed by the Hazelton museum and will be on display during this year’s celebrations.
The feat gained international attention at the time – making the Pittsburgh Press newspaper which recounted Sands’ claims of the journey. Upon telegraph receipt of the arrival, an article in the October 15, 1911 edition depicted the scene: “a Flanders ‘20’ motor car emerged from the wilderness of British Columbia and entered Hazelton Oct 4.
“The car met an enthusiastic welcome from residents of the city, which marks the frontier of Alaska. It was the first car to reach Hazelton and won for its driver the Pacific Highway Association’s “First to Hazelton” metal – a prize for which other motorists on the Pacific coast had striven in vain for two seasons,” it read.
Sands and company had travelled through the Snoqualmie Pass before entering Canada and then followed the old Cariboo gold rush wagon trail carrying with them an auxiliary gas tank.
In those days, there was no road north of Quesnel so they followed the Yukon telegraph line and kept on track with the help of Aboriginal guides.
The newspaper described: “axe-men felled the trees which enabled the Flanders ‘20’ to pass through. Bridges were built and the car was twice rafted over marshy lakes. In one place, blasting operations had been used to clear the way.”
At the time, details of the final 300 miles of the trip into B.C.’s north had not yet reached the rest of the world. “The one telegraph wire which penetrates the region merely flashed out the news of the triumphant arrival at Hazelton,” the article reported.
But skepticism of Sands’ story arose as many wondered if he had really completed the 2,062km journey without the use of a paddle wheel boat along the river as the route north was, at best, a shoddy wagon trail.
Though tales differ as to how Sands came to reveal his secret, it is now known that the car was disassembled close to where Burns Lake is today and carried it by pack horse to Aldermere where it was reassembled and driven the final leg of the journey into the Bulkley Valley.
Though to goal of a westcoast highway never panned out, this makes the journey no less significant for Hazelton, who has chosen to mark the 105th anniversary of its completion.
Why not celebrate an even 100? Mayor Maitland explained: “like Hazelton usually is, we are five years behind, but 105 years is a good anniversary too.”
To mark the occasion, Pioneer Day will be held in tandem with an old automobile show. Some of the cars will also take their place in the village’s annual parade which is set to kick off on August 13 at noon. More information about Pioneer Day is available at www.hazelton.ca.