In 1912 four men set out from Pipestone, Manitoba to the Dunvegan area. Many did: advertisements proclaiming the opportunities to be found in the golden Peace Country were easy to come by at the time, and a real picture of the Edson Trail was yet to be painted in the minds of the prospective homesteaders. Thomas McNichol, Donald Campbell, Alexander Morrison and Hugh McIntyre might have been looking for what every other land prospector was after… or was homesteading just a good cover story?
The article in the Chepi Sepe artfully relates the homesteader version while leaving room for questions. Did the four men see a government advertisement and then ask for advice about good locations from J. D. McArthur, promoter and contractor of the future Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED & BC Railway)? Did they then seek out his brother, Dunc, for more advice upon reaching Edmonton? How did the prescient men manage to file for the exact section of land that would become the Spirit River town site four years later, after having been turned over to McArthur’s company? It seems there must have been more to the plot than good connections and luck.
There is an alternative theory published, with Hugh McIntyre’s journal of the expedition, by the Alberta Historical Society in 2006. It is available to read online at The Free Library. This version of the events casts McIntyre, McNichol, Campbell and Morrison as scouts on a top secret mission to discover and secure the best land on which to plan a town that would become a major stopping point on the railway to the Peace Country.
According to this article, the canny McArthur predicted that the land rush in the Peace Country would go wild if he announced a specific location for the rail line. When he applied to the government for a bond guarantee he purposely remained vague about where the rails would go: after passing the south shore of Slave Lake, they would head west to somewhere near Dunvegan. With that red-herring put out, the Spirit River area should be safe from land companies for a while longer.
The window of opportunity was open, but it would slam shut if McArthur were to show the slightest interest in the Spirit River area. That’s why he hired secret agents to do the work for him. McNichol, Morrison, McIntyre and Campbell were friends of McArthur’s. They would travel to the Peace Country and, masquerading as prospective homesteaders, assess the location and buy the best available land for McArthur’s purposes, then hand it over to his company.
McIntyre’s diary does not state that he and the others were agents for J.D. McArthur. However, it is obvious that this is only a trip: he is eager to return to Manitoba and has no intention of staying in the Peace Country (which doesn’t impress him much) or returning to homestead. He mentions McArthur several times as having an integral role in the expedition.
In Edmonton: Mr. McNicol has been busy getting the outfit together–Dunc McArthur a brother of J.D.–and he. Dunc is an old trail man and most invaluable.
And, upon reaching Grande Prairie, the most tantalizing clue that there was indeed a secret mission: After breakfast we visited the Law office and got our little plan and set out once more. Before going, however, the policeman undertook to pump Mr. McNicol regarding our business but did not get much satisfaction. Mr. Patterson too–the mayor of the town–was anxious to know if we were the J.D. McArthur outfit–but he also was made no wiser.
After having a look at the area, McIntyre makes his judgement of the place, with the railway in mind: It’s such a confounded country for hills and waste land that one hardly knows where to find the prairie? We must locate on some place as handy as possible to Grande Prairie & The Spirit in order to get in touch with good country. Dunvegan is out of the question–tho’ N. of the River they say there is much good land but the railroad is not going to tap that North Country (which would mean building a very expensive bridge.) Yet a while till they get their main line thru on this side.
Were the four travellers commissioned by ‘the great man himself”, J.D. McArthur? Or were they just forward looking property buyers with some hints from very good sources? What we can know for sure is that those travellers staked claim to the very land that would become Spirit River City, complete with an ED&BC Railway line and station, within four years.
And the homesteader/secret agents? One at least, Hugh McIntyre, went back to Manitoba and lived there for the rest of his life. Clearly, he had no interest in living on the property he staked out in the Peace Country.
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