Summit Lake sojourners: Stories of early settlement

Photo Credit: Photo Dick Corless collection

Summit Lake sojourners: Stories of early settlement

👤Hilary Crowley 🕔Apr 04, 2014

The community of Summit Lake has a long and chequered history. Today, outdoors enthusiasts come to enjoy canoeing down the popular Crooked River canoe route or climb nearby Teapot Mountain. The tiny population increases significantly in the summer when people flock to their cabins. In winter, however, apart from the occasional snowmobile, a lone skier can cross the lake without seeing another soul.

There are several Summit Lakes in BC, but this one is situated 50 km north of Prince George. In the early part of the last century it served as an important transportation hub, being situated on the Arctic Divide. The Crooked River flows north from Summit Lake to the Parsnip and Peace rivers and then to the Arctic Ocean.

The nine-mile-long Giscome Portage trail connects the Fraser River to Summit Lake. First Nations originally used this trail, then later Europeans, during the Omineca and Peace gold speculation of the 1860s. In 1871 the trail was upgraded to a wagon route and was used extensively by miners and fur-traders.  

Albert Huble established a homestead at the south end of the Giscome Portage on the Fraser River in 1904 and added a store in 1912. Business was brisk with riverboats, paddle wheelers and steamers bringing people in. He re-cut this wagon road in 1910 and built a warehouse at Summit Lake. In 1919, the Hart Highway was built north from Prince George to Summit Lake, decreasing use of the Giscome Portage, but Summit Lake continued as an important hub for trade, goods being carried by river from this point north.

Summit Lake to Fort Ware

Dick Corless built riverboats at Summit Lake, which were used to haul freight to the Hudson Bay posts at Fort McLeod, Finlay Forks, Fort Graham and Fort Ware. Corless ran this successful freighting business from 1936 to 1956.

In 1946 he wrote, “At Summit Lake we have warehouses and a boat house for storing and building our river boats. There are several summer cabins and at odd times, during summer months, a store.” He had a fleet of seven long boats in use at a time. These boats were 44 feet in length and could carry a payload of 9,000 pounds. The going rate was $7.95 per 100 pounds (45 kg) to freight from Summit Lake to Fort Ware, a distance of 350 miles.

During the war years, supplies were needed by the American army for surveying a route through northern BC and Alaska to the coast to protect against Japanese invasion. Corless’s freighting company was used extensively to carry aviation fuel and supplies. Prospectors, trappers and miners were also carried. It took 10 to 14 days round-trip from Summit Lake to Fort Ware.

Summit Lake and the Crooked River continued as important transportation routes through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, Summit Lake was bustling with activity as there were not only trappers, boat-builders and freighters, but also loggers and sawmills. The Hart Highway was built north of Summit Lake in the early ’50s, so the river gradually decreased as a transportation route.  

Early settlers

Ed and Elsie Buchanan came from Montana in 1925 with two young children. They established their trap line by the Wicked River up on the Peace. This excerpt from Elsie’s letter to her mother in February 1931 demonstrates the toughness of these early pioneers: “We’re at Fort McLeod. 62 miles to go yet. We plan four days for it and no more stops.”

It took them 16 days to snowshoe 175 miles (280 km) from the Wicked River to Summit Lake with two young children by toboggan and dog team. They had to make it out before the lakes and rivers thawed as they depended on these frozen waterways for travel. In the ’50s, they settled at Summit Lake and set up Buck’s Store.

Wilfrid and Mary Erickson settled at the lake in 1946. Wilfrid trapped, passing these skills onto his children and grandchildren who still maintain the trap line. Trapping brought people north to populate these areas because the furs brought a good price, especially in Europe. This also brought in the Hudson Bay Company, but many of the posts, except Fort McLeod, closed when the price of fur dropped in the late ’40s. Prospecting and mining continued to bring pioneers north. People relied on supplies being brought in on the riverboats from Summit Lake and the furs being carried south for sale.   

In 1911, Del Miller headed north along the Giscome Portage to Summit Lake, then north down the Crooked River system. He lived and trapped up the Finlay River, moving his large family to Summit Lake in 1948. His daughter Betty said, “My mother was from Moberly Lake and I was the only one of the family able to talk with her in her Beaver language.” Betty remembers how squirrel pelts brought in 75 cents each. She also picked huckleberries and sold them in Prince George for 20 cents a pound. Betty’s worst memory is when a toddler fell headfirst into the store outhouse: “His hair was covered in maggots and his grandfather had to give him mouth-to-mouth.”

Summit Lake school and sawmills

In 1948, a one-room school was established at the lake. Connie Buchanan was the first teacher and taught there for 13 years. In 1956, a second building was added to accommodate an enrolment of 53 students from grades 1-8. There were consistently over 40 students up to 1960, when the school reduced to grades 1-3 until it closed in 1965.

Anne Miller, who taught intermediate students from 1959 to 1960, said, “The teacher before me was very strict and the school board expected me to give the strap every other day.” The teacher had to split wood for the school and Betty, the janitor, hauled the water from the lake.

Sawmills sprouted all around the area in the early ’50s. The largest of these was Summit Lake Sawmills, whose lumber was sold to the planer mills in Prince George. Lamont Stevens relates how his father, Allen, and partner, Bill Rahn, moved another mill, the Stevens & Rahn Mill, from Salmon Valley to Mile 4 north of Summit Lake in 1950.

They also established a school there in order to entice workers and their families north. In 1956, they moved the mill and school north to Kerry Lake. There were nine sawmills and two planer mills in the immediate vicinity around 1959, but many mills closed in the early ’60s, when larger corporations took over.     

In the early ’70s, there were still some sawmills dotted around the lake and three trappers and a snowshoe maker, but the school was already gone. The store still flourished with a gas bar and post office, and there was an excellent restaurant, Three Gables, where people drove out from Prince George for a good steak.

This is all gone now. There is no store, restaurant or post office, but there is still a great community hall, which community members built in 1952. The hardwood floor withstands the pounding of country dances as people twirl to the lively fiddle bands. Summit Lake is a recreation destination in the summer and a place of peace and tranquility in winter.