When the world was settling into the 20th century and the Peace Country was beginning to open up to settlement and discovery, one man was glimpsing a more far distant future than most.
People thought then that D. A. Thomas (later Baron Rhondda and then the 1st Viscount Rhondda) was just a little ahead of his time. The wealthy Welsh coal and munitions magnate had inherited his father’s fortune and quickly multiplied it. With his investments in Wales paying handsomely, Thomas could afford to dabble a little in exploration of the new Canadian frontier, which was said to have great potential for development of natural resources of all varieties. He was quick to realize what the oil and gas oozing and bubbling out of gravel beds along the Peace and Pouce Coupe rivers might mean and, as a coal baron, he also had an eye to developing the coal and oil reserves near Chetwynd.
Due to the first world war, Thomas’ interest in Canada was all too soon redirected to concerns back home in the British Isles, where he died at the age of 62 in 1918. He never did find the commercial jackpot of oil and gas we now know lay in the Peace Country, but he did manage to make a mark in this region – by building the D.A. Thomas.
From 1913 to 1916, Thomas invested a quarter of a million dollars on exploration and surveys. Certain he would discover vast deposits of either coal or oil (or both), in 1915 he spent $120,000 on a state of the art paddle wheeler with engines that could be converted between oil or coal and oil storage tanks to transport all the bounty. The D.A. Thomas was built to order by the Askew Company of Vancouver: 187′ long, 37′ beam, 300 ton cargo capacity, capable of carrying 300 passengers.
She was enormous, and she was lavish. Placed in service by the Peace River Development Company to carry crude oil and coal, the D.A. Thomas was also a magnificent passenger vessel. She boasted fine staterooms, immaculate linen and crockery, and a dining saloon famous for fresh and ready Peace Country cuisine.
Those may seem like features oddly juxtaposed, but the population of the Peace region was similarly motley. The D.A. Thomas’ passenger list for the day might have included surveyors and lords, trappers and government officials, salesmen and missionaries, mining engineers and Mounties, ranchers and Counts. Some relaxed in their staterooms while others spread their bedrolls on deck, but all dreamed of golden opportunity just like D.A. Thomas did. It was recorded that Kate Brighty Colley and Mary Percy Jackson, two women who also their marks in this area, travelled together on the D.A. Thomas.
As grand and proud as she was, the D.A. Thomas was never successful. First the war, then the age of rail interfered with the oil and coal business. She ran until 1929, changing hands twice to the Alberta Arctic Transportation Company and to the Hudson’s Bay Company, before suffering some damage and running aground on a gravel bar. The HBC decided that she should be moved downstream, past the area where the railroad would be taking over the transportation business. That entailed a trip over the Vermilion chutes. Her paddle wheel was broken off on the rocks at the bottom, and it was decided to break up the once majestic D.A. Thomas for scrap. It was the end of the era of river transport, after all.
It was not quite the end of the D.A. Thomas. She entered the farming business in Fort Fitzgerald in the field of grain storage. One of her boilers was used to retrofit The Distributor, a Mackenzie River freighter. In 1986, the other boiler and her 14 ton wheel shaft were recovered and brought to Peace River. The wheel shaft is now on permanent exhibit outside the museum, which overlooks the paddle steamer’s old stomping grounds on the Peace River.
The D.A. Thomas’ adventure down the Vermilion Chutes was published in the December 1930 edition of The Beaver. You can read the account, given by the crew, here. It is accompanied by pictures of the chutes and the D.A. Thomas under the Dunvegan bridge.
D.A. Thomas, Baron Rhondda and 1st Viscount of Rhondda, may not have lived to see the development of the Peace Region, but his namesake legacy paddle wheeler has survived, especially in legend. Her blueprints have as well. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to resurrect this icon of luxury and adventure, and take a tour up the Peace River on the most magnificent vessel ever to roam the wilds of the Peace Country?