Railway Avenue was one of the first thoroughfares when the village of Williams Lake was born in 1919.
It was named Railway Avenue because it paralleled the PGE tracks. PGE employees lived in a cluster of bunkhouses and houses and at the station house on the west side of Railway.
Roderick Mackenzie and his partner, Jim Fraser, the first merchants in the village, built their store on Railway Avenue.
In the first years of the village, the two blocks on the east side of Mackenzie on either side of Oliver Street were home to a number of businesses including the T.A. Moore store, the Lakeview and Log Cabin Hotels, Elliot’s Meat Market and livery stables.
Roderick Mackenzie, a true Scotsman, had worked in Africa before coming to B.C. He had a men’s shop in Squamish when he heard about Williams Lake. He arrived in the village before the PGE got here. He and Fraser built a store that provided everything from groceries to hardware and clothing.
The store burned in the tragic 1921 fire that destroyed businesses on Railway Avenue, but the partners rebuilt. Fraser left in 1924, Mackenzie remained to play an active part in building the community.
He bought and donated eight acres of land in what is now Boitanio Park for a golf course, and was instrumental in acquiring Scout Island. He was Cariboo MLA from 1928 to 1938.
Mackenzie’s Store was always a family operation. Son Alastair managed it for a few years then Rod’s daughter, Anne, and her husband, Doug Stevenson, operated it until they sold it to Fields Ltd. in 1968.
In July 1956 Railway Avenue was rename Mackenzie Avenue to honour Roderick. Governor General Right Honourable Vincent Massey came to do the honours. The ceremony was at the foot of Oliver Street and the village did Roderick and his wife, Elizabeth, proud with speeches, bands and guards of honour. The governor general cut the ribbon. Roderick died in 1957.
Railway/Mackenzie Avenue was always part of the provincial highways system and as such was maintained by the highways department but the village always had something to say about it.
In 1952 the province raised the speed limit to 30 miles per hour but the village commissioners believe that was too fast. They kept the posted speed of 20 miles per hour until 1959 when highways widened the road by 49 feet. The following year, highways resurfaced 1.3 miles of the road and reclassified it as a secondary highway. The village didn’t approve of that either.
By the 1960s logging trucks were pounding to and from the mills on Mackenzie and the road was hard put to handle them. It was narrow and it hadn’t been built for this kind of heavy traffic. The surface kept deteriorating because there was nothing there to hold it.
By the 1970s it was in a sorry state and town councillors were feuding with the province over the lack of maintenance on what they insisted was “undisputedly the worst road in Williams Lake.”
Highways was continually paving and making minor improvements which didn’t help much. Victoria insisted it didn’t have money to rebuild the entire avenue. At one point a frustrated Mayor Jim Fraser put up a sign renaming it the Alex Fraser Highway hoping to embarrass the Minister of Highways.
In 1990, when the combination of the worn out roadbed and the need for a better connection to the newly developing north end, the city and the highways ministry reached an agreement.
After years of haggling, highways agreed to widen and rebuild the road and connect it to Highway 97 at the north end of the city. Once built, the city was to maintain it.
Mackenzie continues to be a busy road connecting the five mills in the north end of the city to Highways 97 and 20.
The Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin supplies this history of Williams Lake as part of the city’s 85th anniversary year. A celebration is planned for May 3.