Building the First Streets:
Although the early days of Prince Rupert predate the general availability of the mass-produced motor car, the first arriving in May of 1909, even the surveyors and first pioneers travelling on foot had trouble negotiating the numerous muskeg bogs, water courses, and rock outcrops of Kaien Island upon their arrival in the spring of 1906. A quick solution, making use of the materials at hand, was required for the early settlement. Consequently, the first streets were constructed out of wood. Our original roads resembled low trestle bridges. Some were sixteen feet wide but the majority were only twelve with sidewalks of either three or four planks in width. Handrails were used when the drop-off exceeded four or five feet. Wooden walks, some of which still exist, branched off to individual buildings. These “corduroy” roads lasted many years in some cases. They are often found embedded in the sub-grade of our existing asphalt roads and still provide considerable bearing strength. They are best left in place unless there is a substantial enough budget to remove the muskeg that invariably lies below them.
A typical “archaeological” dig in a city road will likely show quite a number of intermittent layers of asphalt and gravel of varying thicknesses, underlain possibly by some shot (blasted) rock, below which would be the still intact cedar planking of the old corduroy road. This lies over a vegetative layer, likely including a few large stumps, supported by a thin layer of clay. Under the clay would be several metres of soft, wet muskeg and then finally a material with some competent bearing strength - bedrock. Unfortunately, muskeg is an extremely poor support for a road and can be anywhere between one to twenty metres deep. The fact that a solid rock outcrop can exist less than a metre away from a deep bog and the two can then alternate for the full length of a roadway, creates the potential for significant “rideability” issues. The asphalt surface layer is subject to “alligatoring,” unravelling, longitudinal cracking, and sinking, or simply the sudden appearance of large “families” of potholes. The freeze-thaw effect being particularly efficient at asphalt destruction once our abundant rain water permeates the surface.
Rudimentary paving of the main streets did not begin until 1922. It took place on previously prepared sub-grades constructed without overdue attention to the subsurface road base materials, as gravel was more forgiving than asphalt. Although considerable rock fill was available early on due to the large quantity of blasting needed to clear and grade the road allowances of many sizeable rock bluffs. This was done in accordance with the design set out by the town planners, Messrs. Brett and Hall. Trained by Frederick Law Omsted, the father of American landscape architecture, Brett and Hall were primarily “garden designers” from Boston who, adhering to the civic aims and aesthetics of their time, wanted to create a measure of grandeur, promote empire, and instil civic pride. The influential Omsted had helped create the “Garden City” concept popular at the turn of the century, and his protégés favoured the use of a wide boulevard or promenade in the downtown core and innovative curvilinear streets to assist the modified grid layout. The plan works remarkably well with Second Avenue West and Sixth Avenue East (with their respective bridges) providing the backbone of the city while, roughly at either end, the Courthouse grounds and Roosevelt (“Acropolis”), McClymont, and Moresby Parks promote the Garden Concept,. The larger residential sections, designed for 100,000 people, were never built although the central core of the city (between the bridges) had been originally designed primarily for commercial use.
The broad and expansive Second Avenue West was originally intended to be the principal commercial street, our version of the Champs-Elysees or the Nevsky Prospect, until lot prices became prohibitive and most businesses chose to locate to the next street over. This might have been disappointing but for some fortuitous luck. The design was done before the full impact of car was apparent. This unanticipated move to Third Avenue West allowed the new main downtown business street to be used for more suitable, slower traffic while the Provincial Highway could be routed down the wider Second Avenue, some forty years later.
While the Brett and Hall plan in many ways does a masterful job in its adaptation to the difficult topography, the city engineers of the time must have wondered out loud at the challenges they faced in executing such a plan in an isolated and completely untamed environment. It was probably no coincidence that both of the men initially in charge of the project, James Bacon and Joel Pillsbury, had extensive experience in the Florida Everglades. Historians could write books about the “Muskeg, Rocks, and Rain” but they would not likely print the engineers’ candid comments. The incongruity of the grand plan with the wild terrain was even noted in newspapers as far away as the Montreal Star. That said, the design itself, though only partially followed, lends an interesting flow and beauty to the city that few Western Canadian towns possess. Both civil engineers and citizens alike would agree that compared to many other similar locations, our original urban plan is certainly not boring.
The town itself was initially a very busy and labour intensive place with the terrain being cleared by hand of all trees and vegetation; the trees going to the Seal Cove sawmill and then used to build the roads and walkways, and buildings of all descriptions. Rock blasting was going on everywhere on a daily basis and there were frequent reports of unanticipated explosions with rock flying far and wide. It was a rough and tumble town, typical more of the Klondike from the previous decade than most of the other Northern BC communities that were to develop in the decades ahead on the same rail line.
Another unique factor in the city’s development is that Prince Rupert was built without a land connection to the rest of the world. In fact, the building of the city began eight years before the rail line was completed. Unlike most other “western” towns located on a national railway line, Prince Rupert was a thriving, active and fully functioning community long before the first train ever arrived in 1914 to take volunteers to World War One. Consequently, the availability of the manpower, materials, and equipment, essential to construction activity was extremely limited. This trend continues somewhat to this day but had a particularly noticeable effect on the infrastructure built before 1970. Costs were correspondingly high and local ingenuity a bona fide daily necessity, another trend that continues to the present time.
Today's Transportation Infrastructure:
The City of Prince Rupert currently maintains over 60 km of roads with an assessed value well in excess of 75 million dollars. Additionally, four bridges serve the city. As noted above, the Second Avenue West and Sixth Avenue East bridges lie on key transportation routes. They are both wooden trestle-style bridges as is the smaller Cow Bay Bridge. All three are long past their anticipated life expectancy. In fact, few bridges of this type are still in existence anywhere in Canada. Also essential to the road network are six million dollars worth of retaining walls built to support roads located on side slopes or spanning small depressions. Most of these were constructed in the two decades following World War Two. Almost all are in need of significant repair and most are coming to the end of their useful life.
About 40% of our road inventory is currently over 30 years old, generally the rule of thumb for complete replacement of an asphalt-surfaced roadway. An additional 20% are over 40 years old. Of this total, approximately 8 km of road (built prior to 1970) were at least partially constructed over pockets of muskeg or other unsuitable material. This is causing continual base and surface failures. The unsuitable material needs to be either fully removed or, if too deep, then at least partially removed and backfilled with engineered material and covered with a specified geotextile prior to repaving. Consequently, much of the road network presently needs work to maintain its structural integrity and prevent water damage from occurring at an accelerated rate.
An engineering study done in 2005 noted that the critical upgrades most urgently required for the proper maintenance and renewal of the Road Network amounted to $5M (2012 dollars). Obviously, while the present day challenges may be different than those in previous times, they are no less daunting.