Photo submitted September, 1927 - The Northern Light arrives at Williams Lake. This photo was taken of a picture hanging at the Williams Lake Regional Airport.

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Williams Lake’s first airport

By the late 1920s, airplanes had become a fact of life

For the information in this article, I depended heavily upon the writings of Irene Stangoe.

By the late 1920s, airplanes had become a fact of life in central and northern B.C. Many of the early pilots in and around Williams Lake, men like Barney Boe and Clarence Moore, favoured float planes which could land on any good-sized body of water.

It was not until September of 1927 that the very first plane to attempt a dry landing here arrived on the outskirts of the village.

Preparations for this historic visit were made well in advance.

The plane was a small biplane named the Northern Lights, and the plan was that it would stop in en route on a mail run from Vancouver to the Yukon.

The two-man crew would then do some barnstorming, giving some demonstrations of truck flying and providing some of the more stout-hearted citizens a chance to take a short flight. The cost was $7 for three minutes and there was no shortage of takers.

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The pilot sat in the back seat, and there was room for two passengers to squeeze into the front. There were no seatbelts, so the lucky riders just hung on for dear life as the pilot put the plane through a series of twists and turns.

The money went directly to the aviators, contributing to their “expenses and upkeep,” although much of the profit was apparently spent in Williams Lake later that evening, since the pilot and his navigator decided to spend the night in town.

The whole thing was arranged by Keith Caverly, who owned a garage and electrical shop, and who also had built Williams Lake’s first radio station. He selected a grassy pasture on top of the hill to the north of town to be the landing site.

Interestingly enough, this same area had served the first Williams Lake as a horse racing track in the early to mid 1860s. Caverly dumped white lime inside a number of old truck tires to mark the boundaries of the landing strip, and a smoky fire at one end served to indicate wind direction and speed.

Just before noon, the Northern Lights touched down on the field, which was lined with spectators. After welcoming formalities were completed, Caverly, along with the local school teacher Annie Demmery, were the first two people to go for a flight, touching off the local gossip mill.

The flights continued all afternoon until dusk, and again the next day, until finally, in mid afternoon, the plane finally departed in mid afternoon. The local police sergeant, Frank Gallagher, was so impressed with the flying machine that he took the opportunity to hitch a ride to Quesnel, where he had police business.

After that, most of the air activity in the are involved float planes. Doctors Hugh Atwood and Barney Ringwood, along with veterinarian John Roberts and stockyards fieldman Hugh Cornwall all used float planes on a fairly regular basis.

When the village of Williams Lake was incorporated in 1929, the first Chairman, John D. Smedley, began campaigning for a local airport.

There wasn’t much appetite for such a project. Commissioner Syd Western probably summed it up best when he told Smedley: “You’re nuts! Why does a village of 300 souls with no paved streets and no streetlights need an airport?”

But Smedley eventually convinced the Village Commissioners that it was a good idea, and by 1931, the Board of Trade had managed to persuade the P.G.E. Railway, which owned the 80-acre piece of land where the old racetrack once was, to sell it to the village for the hefty cost of $800.

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In 1934, the Federal Government granted Williams Lake a license to operate an airport, subject to the pasture being properly marked and a windsock being erected. The following year, the Yukon — Southern Airways began operating three flights weekly from Vancouver to Williams Lake to Prince George to Edmonton and return. Airfare for the Williams Lake to Vancouver leg was $35.

That first airport, the area between Western and Eleventh Avenues, and between Johnson St. and Pigeon Avenue, had a grass runway and a small shed which served as the terminal building.

Keith Caverly was the airport manager, but he was a volunteer, and was never paid for his work. Other volunteers helped to maintain the field, sometimes with the help of a Public Works bulldozer. The runway was short, and locals often had to be called in to move livestock off the taxiway prior to a flight landing or taking off.

In 1950, Canadian Pacific Airlines took over the route from Vancouver to Williams Lake, and larger airplanes began to make the run.

Over 500 people, more than half the town, turned out to welcome the first DC-3 as it arrived with CP Air officials on the inaugural flight. They were most impressed with the enthusiasm and friendliness of the locals, but with the facilities — not so much.

By 1960, it was obvious that the still unpaved runway was just too small for the size of the planes being purchased by the company, so a new airport was planned. The federal Department of Transportation completed this new facility, B.C.’s 82nd airport, on Fox Mountain in early 1961. The cost was $2 million.

The Hon. Davy Fulton, Minister of Justice, used an axe to cut the ribbon to open the new complex.

The old airport was soon bought up and developed into city housing lots.

Ninth and Tenth Avenues South were added, as were Huston and Smedley cross streets. The whole are became known as the Airport Subdivision.

Cataline School, prior to being given its current name, was known as Airport Elementary School.

In 1996, the Federal Government ceased operating small, regional airports.

Williams Lake believed that our city was too large a centre not to have an airport, and so, on Jan. 1, 1997, after some difficult negotiations, the city took over the responsibility for our Williams Lake Regional Airport.

It remains a vital transportation link to the rest of our province, and, as we saw during the summer of 2017, an important centre for wildfire air control operations for the Cariboo-Chilcotin.

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