Ghost town on the Skeena: Days of Dorreen
Approximately 30 miles northeast of Terrace, across the Skeena River from Highway 16, is the historic community of Dorreen. There, running along the railway track from the old station to the railway bridge over Fiddler Creek, are the remains of a community that at first glance seems to have been simply left behind. Alders grow on the flat deck of an old round-fendered truck, horse-drawn farm implements peek out from the bracken ferns, a one-room schoolhouse sits vacant. But it wasn’t always like this.
This area, where Fiddler Creek and Lorne Creek join the Skeena River, is the traditional territory of the Gitxsan. In the 1880s, this area hosted a frenzy of gold-seekers. Chinese and European miners were recorded living on the west side of the Skeena at Lorne Creek, upriver from Dorreen, in 1884. They sluiced and panned the creek gravels - as many as 180 miners in 1885. For most of the prospectors their efforts were not rewarded and the gold boom at Lorne Creek went bust by 1888. The majority packed their bags and moved on to the next rumoured gold creek.
Those who stayed applied for land and homesteaded. A farm was established at the turn of the century and a hotel was built at Lorne Creek. In 1904 a hydraulic mine started, employing some of the settlers. The hardiest pioneers cleared land and overwintered on the west side of the Skeena in the area that soon became known as Dorreen and District.
Particularly remote The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway started construction along the Skeena from Prince Rupert in 1909, and by 1911 the right-of-way was being cleared towards Fiddler and Lorne Creeks. The railway changed the communities, bringing an influx of camp workers, then the settlers who were working for or relying on the railway. The railway assigned place names along the route, and the large area that Charles Carpenter—one of the early gold-seekers—originally homesteaded became Dorreen (named after Mr. E. J. Dorreen, a resident engineer on the railway).
The early newspapers out of Terrace and Hazelton announced the news of the various small communities and the title ‘Dorreen and District’ covered the comings and goings of the people at Pacific, Dorreen, Lorne Creek, Ritchie and Cedarvale, all particularly remote railway communities.
Dorreen became a permanent community as a result of the railway. It had a station, a siding, and a reliable route in and out for people and supplies to move to and from the larger communities of Terrace and Smithers. This brought a few new settlers to the area who purchased land from Charles Carpenter and established homes. The men often prospected and farmed in the summers; in winter many worked at cutting and hauling cedar poles to the Dorreen siding for shipping out on railcars.
Dorreen Recalled Denis Horwill was born in 1924 to Florence and William Horwill who operated the general store in Dorreen. The Dorreen Store was the community hub and the Horwills served as the post-mistress, sub-mining recorder and justice of the peace. Denis recalls the family also had a milk cow, shipping milk on the train to nearby Pacific, and produced food in their large gardens and greenhouse, shipping bedding plants to Terrace every spring. This was the era the mine operated in the mountains above Dorreen; a mine road was built and an aerial tram constructed to bring high-grade gold ore down the mountain to the railway.
There were prospectors in the hills, driven down to Dorreen only by the cold autumn weather. Newspapers referred to prospectors keeping secrets about their claims, but “there is no doubt they have something good, for their enthusiasm betrays them,” observed the Omineca Herald in 1924.
Horwill explains that the 1930s were a tough time for many people. “With the crash in 1929 there just wasn’t employment in many places.” People came by railcar to Dorreen thinking they could find gold; some stayed and homesteaded permanently while others moved on after one season.
During the 1930s Dorreen offered affordable shelter, a school, and casual employment—farming and prospecting in the summer and pole-cutting in the winter. People dug wells, farmed, cooked on woodstoves and generally relied upon themselves and each other for their survival and entertainment. Dances were held in the schoolhouse; card games went on all night by the light of oil lamps. The isolation in Dorreen created a strong community where people were trusting and generous. Denis Horwill says of his family’s general store, “I don’t think the door was ever locked.”
Dorreen was never a boom-and-bust town; it always just survived. Highway 16 was completed on the opposite side of the river from Dorreen in 1944, which meant people and traffic could move east and west without going through the settlement. It was the end for other railway communities, but not for Dorreen because a mine invested in the mountains above Dorreen in 1949. The school operated sporadically through the 1940s but closed permanently in 1953 when the mine shut down. William Horwill passed away in 1958 and his wife Florence continued to operate the store and post office until 1960. Economics changed and isolated little Dorreen, with just seasonal employment and subsistence farming, shrank slowly but steadily. There was a small resurgence of settlers in the late 1960s but that too did not last.
A sense of place Dorreen was nominated for inclusion as a heritage site in the Regional District of Kitimat Stikine’s Heritage Register. Planner Ken Newman hiked out to see just what is there—what the community looks like, what shape the buildings are in—and to get a sense of its layout and geography. “There is an intangible sense of place you gain from being there,” he says. The old Horwills’ store and the railway station are under consideration for heritage status in the regional district’s register.
At first glance Dorreen does seem deserted. But a closer look reveals a fresh coat of paint on the old station, houses that have been jacked up and brought to level. An examination of the visitor log-book tucked under the eaves of the general store’s front porch reveals comments written by travellers from throughout the Northwest, many referring to the peaceful air and solitude. “It’s nice to see that some things never change,” says one.
Besides the seasonal citizens there are two full-time residents. They like the place the way it is: quiet and isolated. If you yourself manage to venture across the Skeena or find your way overland to the old townsite, remember that there are people living there—mowing lawns, tending gardens, chopping wood and pruning the 100-year-old apple trees. Some of their buildings may be steadily leaning closer to the earth, and their cars haven’t moved from the bracken ferns in decades, but the residents are full of life and want to see their community remain what it is—a reminder of the past with a life in the present, isolated and secure on the west side of the Skeena.