Location: Milepost 300 on the Alaska Highway and BC 97; 232 miles (387 km) north of Fort St. John. Population: 5,000. Visitor Information: Fort Nelson Visitor Information Centre, open year round; located in Recreation Centre at the west end of town, 5500 Alaska Hwy; Phone: (250) 774-6400; Email: Info@fortnelsonchamber.com; Website: www.fortnelsonchamber.com
Established as a fur trading post in 1805 by the Northwest Company, where the Fort Nelson River is formed by the confluence of the Muskwa, Prophet and Sikanni Chief Rivers, Fort Nelson was named for the British Lord Horatio Nelson who won the Battle of Trafalgar that same year.
The city is presently located on its fifth site; the previous four sites were plagued with floods, fires and massacres. The community suffered a severe scarlet fever attack and its population was seriously depleted at the turn of the century.
Disaster struck again and much of the community was flooded, including the church, which floated downstream with its bell tolling. The village was relocated on higher ground on the other side of the river and from 1912 onwards a flourishing community was established.
Originally, Fort Nelson was linked to the region through the five surrounding river systems, then when the Godsell Trail opened in 1922, overland connection was established with Fort St. John.
In the 1930s mail service was begun by Grant McConnachie who landed floatplanes on the river. Water landing was possible only part of the year, so construction on a landing strip was begun.
Life in Fort Nelson began to change drastically in the early 1940s, mainly as a result of World War II. The Northwest Air Staging Route took over and expanded the existing airstrip as part of Strategic Air Command, establishing an airport in 1941.
The population of Fort Nelson increased substantially in 1942 with the arrival of US Army troops to begin construction of the Alcan (Alaska) Highway. The construction began at Dawson Creek, Whitehorse and Fort Nelson, at which time Fort Nelson was actually “Mile 0.” It wasn’t until the completion of the project that Dawson Creek became the beginning of the highway and was granted the “Mile 0” moniker.
The economy has expanded to include guide outfitting, the forest industry, oil and gas industry, farming, transportation and tourism. In addition to having the world famous Alaska Highway as its main street, Fort Nelson is also serviced by air and rail transportation and is still an important point for barge traffic into the far north. Canada’s largest gas processing plant and two of the largest wood products operations in British Columbia are located here.
Due to the spongy muskeg in this area of British Columbia, oil and gas activities wait until winter when the ground is frozen solid to carry out the majority of their work. During this time, the population can easily double to 10,000 people in town and in the work camps of the immediate surrounding area.
Fort Nelson is the logical place for the traveler to give his vehicle a last check-up; it is over 300 miles to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory, the next largest center to the north, although services are available along the Alaska Highway.
Fort Nelson offers a full assortment of stores and businesses and recreation facilities, and epitomizes the small town community spirit and legendary hospitality of the North, both with its everyday welcome and through its much appreciated “Welcome Visitor” program, offered several evenings a week during the summer.
The town’s new Visitor Center is conveniently located in the recreation complex across from the museum, Art Frazer Memorial Park and Rotary Spray Park. Staffed with friendly folks who are happy to answer all your travel questions, the facility offers free WiFi, coffee, souvenirs and local artwork. Highly recommended to all who pass through Fort Nelson any time of the year, there are ample parking and designated pet areas.
The spectacular scenery and abundance of wildlife are of global significance and make Fort Nelson a world-class destination for adventure tourism, fly-in fishing and big game hunting. cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing and filming, backpacking, wilderness canoeing and kayaking, trail riding and river boating.
There are many provincial parks, recreation areas and campgrounds within the region, including Andy Bailey Provincial Recreation Area, Wokkpash Recreation Area, Liard Hot Springs and Liard Corridor Provincial Park, Kwadacha Wilderness Provincial Park, Duna Za Keyih Provincial Park and Protected Area, Graham Laurier Provincial Park, Stone Mountain Provincial Park, Muncho Lake Provincial Park, the Northern Rocky Mountains Provincial Park, and the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, which at 16 million acres is about the size of Ireland and the largest protected area in the Canadian Rockies. Within the boundaries of the Muskwa-Kechika lay 50 undeveloped water sheds and the greatest abundance and diversity of large wild mammals in North America, including grizzly and black bear, wolf, lynx, coyote, fox, wolverine, caribou, elk, moose, bison, white-tailed and mule deer, mountain goat and most of the continent’s population of Stone sheep. The region has been referred to as North America’s Serengeti due to its immense size and complexity.
A profusion of interesting sights are found right along the Alaska Highway. Ungulates and bear frequent clearings alongside roads, foraging for food and salt. In winter, vacationers can enjoy a swim in the warm water pools at Liard Hot Springs after frolicking in the snow. In spring and summer delicate wild flowers adorn the warm marshlands before the snow runs off the rest of the countryside. Fish inhabit the quiet pools and it is not unusual to see a lazy moose and calf browsing in the marshes.
Visitors interested in taking a quick evening stroll, an afternoon hike or a bike ride in Fort Nelson have to look no further than the Fort Nelson Recreation Forest, situated at the far west end of Mountainview Drive, just minutes from downtown. Walk, bike or ski through this lowlands ecosystem of the northern boreal forest. Canoeists can put into the Fort Nelson River right in town for a lengthy paddle.
The nearby Tsimeh Lakes Trails make for moderately easy traveling through a prime lowland black spruce ecosystem. Multiple loops allow for determination of trail length and a chain of three lakes, with a small shelter on the second one, makes this a memorable trip.
Fort Nelson is a bustling centre for the accommodation and hospitality industry and is well served through its hotels, bed & breakfasts and restaurants, as well as several private campgrounds, RV sites and prestigious resorts. Visitors can enjoy a 9-hole golf course set in a beautiful scenic location or try out guided trail and hayrides.
The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum is located on the Alaska Highway just west of milepost 300, next to the Tourism Booth. Operated by the Fort Nelson Historical Society, the museum has a transportation theme, and had its origin in the antique car and truck collections of long-time resident and museum curator Marl Brown.
The museum also features historical log buildings, antique heavy equipment primarily used in the building of the Alcan Highway, old time general store, a turn of the 20th century Hudson’s Bay factor’s house, blacksmith shop, diesel generators used to power the town’s first electrical service, and a display of the region’s animals, including an albino moose. There is even an old derrick used for the drilling of oil and gas wells in the “patch.” Be sure to visit the Car Garage, which houses vehicles from 1908 to 1955, with hundreds of license plates donated by locals, travelers, truckers and from “junkers” adorning the walls of the building, and the old Northwestel telecommunications building used for local telephone operators.
The main building of the museum also houses smaller collections, from mineral samples to antique hand tools to stuffed animals and much more.
The museum grounds also include monuments and memorials to the men and women who built the Alcan Highway and details the hardships they faced. The Muskwa Theatre highlights the building of the Alaska Highway with a wartime film. Open from mid-May to mid-September, summer hours are 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, 7 days a week. Small admission charge. Phone: (250) 774-3536; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.fortnelsonmuseum.ca.
Fort Nelson’s Heritage Days held in February are a fantastic way to experience the area’s history during the beautiful winter season. The museum opens up for free for locals and tourists to wander about and experience the high quality displays and enormous collection. Curator Marl Brown loves to chat with guests, start up the old engines and even ride his crazy bike, which steers with both wheels. Visitors can eat fresh baked bannock at the trapper’s cabin, enjoy live music with local musicians playing both historical favorites and new songs, and experience the hospitality and vibrancy of small town citizens.
Local events sponsored and sometimes facilitated by the museum and volunteers include:
Canadian Open Sled Dog Races: January
Heritage Days at the Heritage Museum: February
Annual Fort Nelson Trappers Rendezvous
Canada Day Parade: July 1st The museum
contributes antique and heritage vehicles to the
parade event along 50th Avenue North
Fall Fair: September
Fort Nelson Historical Society Annual Dinner
Meeting: mid to late November
Monthly Moonlight Cross-Country Ski events at the Fort Nelson Recreation Forest: Usually scheduled the Saturday on or before the full moon.
A Nice Motel (Watson Lake Yukon)
Super 8 Fort Nelson
The Blue Bell Inn
Dalex Auto Services
Tourism Northern Rockies
Great Canadian Dollar Store
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