British Columbia

Moonshine, pulp mills and Communists: the history of Prince George's bad reputation

A Prince George history professor has identified three historic factors he believes led to the city's reputation for crime and disorder.

More than a century of bad press helped cement city's 'rough and tumble' reputation, says historian

The British Columbia Provincial Police were ill-equipped to deal with the urban crime happening in the Fort George region in the 1910s, Swainger said. (The Exploration Place Museum)

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.

Maclean's magazine named Prince George the 'Most Dangerous City in Canada' for three years in a row, citing data gathered by Statistics Canada. In the magazine's latest ranking, Prince George was in the 11th spot.

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.

Unregulated moonshine in the 1910s created a difficult situation for police. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

"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.

Changing minds

"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."

People in Prince George, B.C., will need to share positive stories about the city if they want to overcome decades of negative reports, Swainger said. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

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.