Sunday, March 20, 2016

NW Mounted Police or BC Provincial Post Fort St. John

The Old Fort Jail
            From the first week of June through September of 1964 I worked on the “Penalty Ranch” which was owned by an excellent horse trainer and rodeo bronk rider by the name of René Dhenin. He had called it the “Penalty” since that was what was offered if you dropped paper or garbage on the ground or left a gate open. The penalty, stipulated by René would be something like cleaning out the horse barn, one of the calving barns or hoeing the garden.
            I did clean the horse barn that summer but not as a penalty. No one received any penalties that summer and being the new hand ----
            The ranch was (is) located on the south bank of the Peace River and south of Fort St. John, BC. The city is now on the high ground a few miles from the river but the Hudson’s Bay trading post of that name, built in 1858 is on the north bank of the river across from the ranch. There were several other trading posts and supply sites along the river, the first being Alexander Mackenzie’s “Rocky Mountain Fort” upriver from the mouth of the Pine River but called the Sinew River at the time (1794).
            There is argument about the location of Rocky Mountain Fort but I’m going with Lloyd Cushway’s research presented in “River of Controversy”. Not only does it make sense but I’ve seen some of the things he mentions in his book during my own limited travels.

 This is a picture of the "Old" Fort St. John started by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1858 on the North bank of the Peace from 1875. This is the Fort mentioned in "The Making of Jake McTavish".
            There is also argument about the building of the police barracks at the old fort. René and John Brown both told me it was built by the North West Mounted Police in 1898. Many others state that it was built by two local men for the British Columbia Provincial Police when they began policing the region in 1910. In the early ‘60s someone who supported the BC Police version spray painted “1910” on the front of the old barracks/jail. This version is also displayed on the plaque in front of the copy of the barrack built for the Fort St. John museum. In my novel “The Making of Jake McTavish” I use the NWMP version.

This is the copy of the Police building built and displayed at the Fort. St. John museum. Where it sat on the Penalty Ranch the main door faced south with the back of the building/lean-to facing the trading post across the river. The addition facing us in this picture did not exist by 1964 but there was a porch across the length of the south side.

For those wondering about the veracity of the sources of my information René Dhenin came to the area in 1924 and John Brown in 1898. The NWMP have in their records the reports of Inspector Moodie and four officers looking for an overland route to the Klondike gold fields in 1897-‘98. They apparently spent November ‘97 building something on the south bank of the Peace, left one officer there and continued on to Fort Graham where they wintered. There are also records stating that the officer left in Fort St. John was relieved and replaced. That is the extent of my recorded and verbal information.
In other words, I don’t know but I do know that either version makes a good story.
René used the old jail for storage. During those four months in 1964 and while spending a few days or weeks on the ranch in subsequent years I was in the building many times.
On entering the front door there was an office type complex to the left. A hall way about three feet wide led off to the immediate right giving access to two jail cells separated and surrounded by log walls. Each cell was entered through a four inch thick plank door with a window about two feet square and barred by one inch steel rod set in between the two layers of two inch plank. The back of each cell had a small barred window the height (and width) of one of the logs or about eight inches.
Standing back at the door and facing the back of the office area there was a stair way leading up the back wall and starting at the far corner to the left. This stair led to a loft arrangement in front of the stair and to a bunk area above the two cells. An officer jumping out of one of those bunks in the morning would not want to stand up too fast or too straight for he would jamb his head into the roof.
The explanation on the plaque for the rebuilt jail at the Fort St. John museum situates the cells in the lean-to outside the building. Sorry, not so. The lean-to held firewood, tack for both horse and dog teams and any other storage. I have read somewhere of a murder victim’s corpse being returned (by the BC Police as I recall) and being stored in the woodshed during the winter’s cold. I can’t remember the location of that story and am not going to look it up right now.

Might cause quite a shock to a stranger being sent for an armload of wood.
When I was on the Penalty the jail sat in a sixty acre hay field about 400 yards from the river bank. Frank Beaton (son of the HBC factor for many years) said that during the heavy trading days in the spring the "Jail Field" would be covered with shelters of all types - tee pees and tents - with overflow onto the field to the south. The police building would be surrounded by this encampment.
Frank and his father are also mentioned in "The Making of Jake McTavish".
The "Old" Fort is situated on the North bank about where the "P" in Peace River is on this map. The Penalty Ranch buildings are west of the "C". The river entering SW of Taylor is the Pine or what was called the "Sinew River" in the early 1800s
This picture of the Catholic Mission at the Old Fort was probably taken in the 1960s

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