In 2010, Prince George, B.C. was on the cover of Maclean's magazine, described as "The Most Dangerous City in Canada," but its reputation for crime and disorder goes back more than a century, says a crime history professor at the University of Northern British Columbia.
Jonathan Swainger said he believes that reputation is unfair, but is deeply rooted in media reports dating back to the early 1900s.
Swainger is exploring that history in a public presentation at the Exploration Place Museum in Prince George Jan. 8, and has identified three historic factors he believes set the city up for more than a century of bad press.
He will also present ideas on how to change the city's national reputation.
Factor one: bad press
Prince George was making national headlines before it was even Prince George, Swainger said.
In 1909, Toronto's Saturday Night Magazine published reports on George Hammond, a land developer selling lots on what was then Fort George and Central Fort George.
"It starts giving reports to the readers about how corrupt George Hammond is and how the land sales are all a boondoggle," he said.
"That begins a national press trend of characterizing whatever's going on in Fort George, South Fort George or Prince George, there's something corrupt about it."
The problem was further exacerbated, Swainger said, when the Toronto Globe in 1913 quoted a local priest referring to Fort George as "the very gates of Hell."
Factor two: liquor
In the priest's defence, Swainger said, "by 1913 the place is fairly chaotic... And it's chaotic because of the second factor I talk about: liquor."
With little government presence in the region, the 1910s were marked by bootlegging and moonshine, including a popular mixture of opium, tobacco juice, water and rubbing alcohol.
"You have people drinking to excess in a largely unregulated environment," Swainger said. "And so you don't really get intoxicated, you kind of go mad."
"The Georges are absolute chaos."
Factor three: problematic policing
None of this was helped by what Swainger characterized as a largely ineffective police force.
The first police in the region was the B.C. Provincial Police, who were trained for rural rather than urban areas.
The Prince George City Police force was created in 1915 but, he said, "they are, without any pretence at all, awful."
Swainger said the police were under-resourced and unprepared to deal with the "disorder" in the city, which included gambling, brothels, illegal liquor and petty crime.
By the time police managed to take control of the situation, Swainger said, the idea of Prince George as an out-of-control community was already well-established — and the results of that reputation are still felt to this day.
"It becomes a self-perpetuating tale," he said.
"There's always something to feed back into this historic reputation of Prince George being a very disorderly, sort of rough-and-tumble, crime-ridden community," Swainger said of the ensuing decades.
In the 1930s, the city made headlines when Communists occupied a government building downtown. In the 1940s, there were labour strikes and in the 1950s there was fear of youth gangs. "In the 1960s, we get the pulp mill so then it becomes a gritty pulp town."
Swainger said changing this perception would take an ongoing campaign of getting positive stories about the city into the national spotlight.
"You've got to give someone something else to talk about when they talk about Prince George," he said.