Tumbler Ridge has many stories to tell, including fascinating human and palaeontological history. This is one of the few places in the world where you can walk alongside ancient dinosaur trackways, and see rare dinosaur bones as well as plant, fish and animal fossils, displayed throughout the Community Centre by the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation (TRMF) and in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery.
The town’s modern beginnings are synonymous with the discovery of coal in the late 1970s. In 1981, representatives of several mining companies, the Government of British Columbia and the Japanese steel industry signed an agreement that allowed the Northeast Coal Project to proceed.
Construction began on the town in 1981, and the remote wilderness site at the junction of the Murray and Wolverine Rivers was transformed into a bustling town. A rail line to Ridley Island near Prince Rupert on the Pacific Ocean, where Ports Canada built a massive coal terminal, had to be blasted through two mountain ranges. The tunnels (6 km and 9 km respectively) are among the longest in North America. Quintette and Bullmoose mines began operation in 1983 to supply coal to the Japanese steel mills, and the town’s population soared to nearly 5,000.
When coal prices fell in the late ‘90s, the future seemed uncertain for Tumbler Ridge. Quintette Mine closed in 2000 and some residents were forced to move elsewhere. After its coal reserves were depleted, Bullmoose Mine closed in 2003. This might have been the end for some resource-dependent towns, but the people of Tumbler Ridge refused to be defeated. The coal price has now recovered and the second generation of mines is being developed; the oil and gas industry is also flourishing. A mood of optimism pervades the community, and its population has virtually doubled in the past five years. Tumbler Ridge celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006.
The year 2000 brought another historic event to Tumbler Ridge, when dinosaur footprints were found along Flatbed Creek. Since that time, exciting discoveries continue to be made, and Tumbler Ridge is now recognized as Canada’s new Dinosaur Country.
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Archaeological evidence shows a human presence dating back as far as 5,000 years. The Beaver and Sekani peoples inhabited the area for many generations. The impact of European encroachment on this territory, and the fur trade, was profound. This sometimes involved friction and increasing competition where previously groups had co-existed fairly peacefully. There was disruption of social organization and hunting practices. Cree-speaking people entered the area from the east, either in small trading groups or in the form of larger mass movements, like the remarkable Salteau migration. Sometimes the prior inhabitants moved westwards, even through the mountains; sometimes new affiliations were formed and intermarriage developed between peoples.
Alexander Mackenzie travelled close to the Tumbler Ridge mountains in 1793, and his description of a “valley of snow” on Mt. Vreeland is the first written description of a Rockies glacier. On an 1879 map blueprint by George Dawson (after whom nearby Dawson Creek is named), the entire Tumbler Ridge region is marked “Unexplored Area”. An exciting discovery was made in 2004 when the oldest known maps of Tumbler Ridge were found in a Wisconsin library. These valuable records of the past were made by the Grand Trunk Pacific surveyors in 1906, searching for potential railway passes through the Rockies in Northeastern British Columbia.
The hunting and trapping Métis settlement of Kelly Lake was established to the east around 1910. In 1914 S. Prescott Fay led a party of five men and 20 horses from Jasper, Alberta to Hudson’s Hope, BC via what is now Tumbler Ridge, and left engaging descriptions in his journal, which is scheduled for publication. En route he took the first photographs of Kinuseo Falls, which he named.
"On our way down the east branch of the South Pine River (which flows north into the Peace, coming in below Hudson's Hope) we came to a large fall over 200 feet high. These we called Kinoosao Falls (meaning 'fish' in the Cree language) owing to the great numbers of trout both above and below the falls. We gave that name as it seemed most appropriate. We were unable to find anyone who had ever seen or heard of these falls, although some of the Indians had heard of them vaguely..." (Excerpt from February, 1920 letter from S. Prescott Fay, Boston, to Geographic Board of Canada)
In 1919 and 1920, BC’s Department of Lands sent John Gwillim and Edmund Spieker respectively to explore the region’s petroleum potential. Both expeditions were unsuccessful, but led to increasing knowledge of the area and better maps. Gwillim’s map used the words “Tumbler Range”, and Spieker used “Tumbler Ridge” for the first time for the feature northwest of the current townsite. By 1920, several pioneers (the Pecks and “Aunt Kate” Edwards among them) lived here and supported themselves by trapping.
In the 1930s, Alex Monkman, a Métis from Manitoba, envisioned a trade route from the Peace Region to the west coast of British Columbia through a pass he’d discovered in the Rocky Mountains south of what is now Tumbler Ridge. He thought this would be the most efficient route for farmers in northeastern BC and northwest Alberta to get their grain to market. Monkman and his supporters lobbied the government, to no avail, to build a railroad through the pass.
Undeterred, these hardy pioneers formed the Monkman Pass Highway Association, determined to push a road through the pass and establish the trade route themselves. With overwhelming odds against them – lack of funds, rough weather, difficult terrain – dedicated workers persevered to complete this unbelievably difficult task. With the outbreak of WWII, many workers left to sign up and the project sadly came to a halt.
A new project called the Monkman Pass Memorial Trail was completed in 2008 to recreate this route. The trail offers both hiking portion from Kinuseo Falls to Hobi’s and driving portion from Grande Prairie to Kinuseo Falls. The Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, BC Parks and local industry have united in this endeavour.
The first section, a 193 km (120 mi) scenic driving tour from Beaverlodge, BC to Kinuseo Falls in Monkman Provincial Park, opened in 2006, passing many sites of interest related to history, natural beauty, dinosaur discoveries and more.
Ask at the Visitor Centre for the Monkman Pass Memorial Trail Driving Tour brochure, which contains detailed information about this project and a milepost description of the road trip.
The Tumbler Ridge Museum in the Community Centre has a major display telling the fascinating story of Alex Monkman and his contributions to the region.
Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation
Many thanks to Charles Helm for permission to use material from his book, Exploring Tumbler Ridge.