Established in 1910, Prince Rupert is located in an area rich with history dating back thousands of years. What’s now called Prince Rupert harbour had long been an intersection of trade and commerce for First Nations people dating back to time immemorial. Now with a population of approximately 14,000 people, our port has extended that tradition of trade and commerce to a global scale.
Below you will find a brief summary of Prince Rupert's long and eventful history, covering the strong coastal ties of the local Ts’msyen people, the start of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the incorporation of the City of Prince Rupert, and the usage of Prince Rupert during WWII.
First Nations History
Archaeological and DNA evidence corroborates the local First Nations’ adaawx (history), indicating that the North Coast of British Columbia has been inhabited by their peoples for over 10,000 years. With a population that is over half First Nations, Prince Rupert is located in the traditional territory of the Ts’msyen. The Ts’msyen took up seasonal residences throughout the territory according to resource harvesting and trade cycles. Then as now, the people of the coast relied heavily on salmon, shellfish, eulachon, seaweed and many of the other diverse marine species of the area, a diet complimented by the harvest of berries and other inland resources.
When settlers and missionaries came in search of furs and other trade goods, many previously habited locations became trading posts accompanied by western-style settlements. By the mid-1800s salmon canneries dotted the coastlines, and trading posts and settlements had been established in Port Essington, Port Simpson (present-day Lax Kw’alaams), and Metlakatla, with steamships and paddle-wheelers serving the area, forming the basis for the local economy in commercial fishing that would carry far into modern times.
Today, First Nations people comprise over half the local population, and First Nations culture is ever-present in the social fabric of Prince Rupert. From the All-Native Basketball tournament, to the many local artists and carvers whose works are displayed at the local galleries and shops, the First Nations presence is an indicator of the deep cultural and historical context of our area.
Grand Trunk Pacific Railway:
“Three years ago it was virgin forest and deer-trails: today it is a city clamoring for a charter: tomorrow it will be the fish market of America, the wheat spout of the prairies, the gateway to the Orient, and the point where Alaska meets the world.”
– Excerpt from Queen’s University Journal, 1909
In 1910, Prince Rupert was incorporated as an industry town amongst a stir of hope and expectation. A terminus for a trans-continental railway was the main impetus for the full-scale settlement of what was soon-to-be-named Prince Rupert. Goods shipped by rail on their way to Asian markets would make the new port city their final Canadian destination.
Grand plans to build an intercontinental railway to the North Coast sparked the commencement of surveying of the area. In 1903, Charles M. Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) after whom many of the City’s monuments and streets are now named, and accompanying officials toured across Canada and up the Pacific coast. It was during this trip that they made their decision to locate the railway western terminus on Kaien Island, home to present-day Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert’s 14-mile harbour is the 3rd deepest, natural, ice-free harbour in the world. Located 550 miles north of Vancouver, B.C., Kaien Island was an attractive port location as the shortest shipping route to the Asia-Pacific. A northern rail line and was also touted for the possibility to open up opportunities for mining, agriculture and forestry, and these prospects convinced then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier to provide a Canadian Government financial guarantee on the project.
In March 1905, the Grand Trunk Railway acquired a crown grant of 10,000 acres of land in the area, and another 14,000 acres in March of 1909. To name this new city, the railway sponsored a nation-wide contest. The name "Prince Rupert", after Rupert of the Rhine, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, was selected in February 1906.
Some of the first infrastructure constructed once clearing of the townsite began was a wharf, plank road, and a building to house the City’s primary engineer. Clearing of the 2000 acre townsite and construction took place throughout 1907 and, in January 1908, landscape architects of the Boston firm Brett and Hall arrived in Prince Rupert to plan the new city.
Once completed, a public auction of 2400 Prince Rupert lots took place in Vancouver from May 25th to 29th, 1909, and in Victoria the following week. The auction generated worldwide interest. So much so, that after the land sale, the settler population of Prince Rupert tripled. The following year on March 10th, 1910, Prince Rupert was incorporated. The first municipal election took place on May 19, 1910 with Alfred Stork elected as the City’s first Mayor.
The Canadian Fish & Cold Storage plant opened in 1912 and became the reason Prince Rupert was long-known as the Halibut Capital of the World. A drydock and shipyard was completed in 1915 by the GTP and eventually taken over by Canadian National Railway. It operated until 1954.
On April 9th, 1914 the first through train arrived from Winnipeg, fulfilling the vision of Charles Hays who perished in the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th, 1912. Today a statue of Charles Hays stands next to City Hall and the mountain overlooking the city and a local high school have the distinction of being named after him.
World War II to Present:
During World War II, Prince Rupert was used as a strategic location for thousands of American and Canadian troops, who built infrastructure, homes, and the Skeena highway reaching east in order to accommodate national defence objectives. The influx of military escalated Prince Rupert’s population to over 21,000 people. Supplies and material passed through the US Army's Prince Rupert Sub-Port of Embarkation. The population escalated to estimates of 21,000 of both military service-people, and the services that sprung up in order to properly accommodate the military post.
Industrial Ebbs and Flows
Understandably, the mass exodus of military personnel after the war left Prince Rupert in a state of flux. However, the post-war decline eased when a pulp mill was developed on nearby Watson Island, officially opening in 1951. The mill operated for almost 50 years, contributing significantly to the economy of Prince Rupert. In the meantime, access to Prince Rupert was increased in the 1960s by the opening of an airport and the Alaska and B.C. Ferries terminals. With transportation links secured, the city began focusing on port development. In 1977, Prince Rupert's opened Fairview Terminal, the City’s first deep-sea facility. This followed in the early l980s by the coal and grain terminals on Ridley Island.
Layoffs leading to the final closure of the mill in 2004, accompanied by a concurrent downturn in the mainstay commercial fishing industry left Prince Rupert in a period of economic decline in the 1990s and early 2000s. However the economic outlook since has significantly improved. A new cruise ship dock was ready to welcome cruise ship passengers in 2004, and in 2007 a newly constructed container port was opened at the Fairview (now DP World) Terminal site, with significant expansion in 2018, and more planned for the facility in the coming decade.