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The location of downtown Prince George was established by the rivalry between the frontier communities of South Fort George and Central Fort George. Each vied to be the location where the station and townsite would be constructed for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR). The developers of these two communities, anticipating the arrival of the GTPR, had street plans surveyed in the fall of 1909 and lots were available for purchase the following year.
However, the railway was not prepared to have other developers profit from the sale of lots which had value because of the presence of the railway. Even though the flat gravel beds underlying Central Fort would have been the best building location, the GTPR manoevered to obtain its own site. In May, 1912, the railway purchased 1366 acres comprising the Fort George Indian Reserve for $125,000. That area was destined to become downtown Prince George.
A detailed topographic map of the site was compiled from surveys undertaken that summer by James C. Anderson, a civil engineer for the railway. The GTPR commissioned the Boston architectural firm of Brett, Hall & Co. to design a town plan based upon the topographic map and a brief visit to the site by the architects in September, 1912. Franklin Brett and George D. Hall also designed Prince Rupert as a model city for the railway's terminus on the Pacific Ocean. Hall was the son-in-law of the railway's president.
The town plan was created in Boston in the fall of 1912 and was transposed onto the site in the spring of 1913 by Fred Burden, a local surveyor. The site was then cleared, lots were sold and buildings began to be erected in early 1914, soon after the arrival of steel. By the end of that summer, Prince George had become a recognizable town although it wasn't chartered and named until March, 1915.
The Brett & Hall plans for Prince Rupert and Prince George display design elements that were inspired by the “City Beautiful” planning movement which was popular in the United States around the turn of the century. The movement was given substance by Charles Robinson, a writer promoting urban design, who published a book in 1903, Modern Civic Art, or the City Made Beautiful.. Robinson wrote a second book in 1911 while at Harvard University as a visiting professor which summarized the principles of the City Beautiful design concept. The City of Boston and nearby Harvard were academic centres for planning at that time.
The principles were first displayed in the layout of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The landscape architect who designed the fairgrounds was the famous Frederick Law Olmsted of Boston. Brett and Hall were students of Olmsted's son, also an architect. City Beautiful design showed a strong geometric aspect thought to derive from the boulevards of Paris which were created about 1850. Vistas along broad, straight avenues were often terminated by major civic buildings, or by circular roads and traffic circles which enclosed decorative parks and gardens. Variety was added to the rectangular road grid by streets which stuck off at diagonal angles.
In Prince George, the gridiron of downtown streets was set off true north/south in order to align it with the railroad tracks. George Street was planned as the main commercial thoroughfare. It is the only street with lots facing east or west; all other lots have north or south frontages. George Street was to be terminated at the north end by a small park defined by short diagonal streets, the railway station and a major hotel. Octagonally-shaped Princess Square containing city hall terminated the south end. Brett & Hall considered George Street to be a “splendid axis” for the city.
Leading westward from the diagonal streets defining the square, at a right angle to George Street, was Seventh Avenue, another major thoroughfare. Seventh terminated in Duchess Park at the centre of the “crescents”. The crescents were four concentric, semi-circular streets which symmetrically surrounded Duchess Park on the west and neatly terminated the vistas along the straight portions of Third to Eleventh Avenues. The crescents were intended to form a prestigeous neighbourhood in which the streets curved along natural topographic benches, adding views and variety to the residences.
Another element of the plan was a parkway, Patricia Boulevard, which gently curved past Connaught Park. Parkways were a favourite feature of plans by F.L. Olmsted who used them in his design for Central Park in New York and in Boston. At the intersection of Patricia and Victoria Streets was a traffic circle containing Alfred Park. The names of the parks and boulevard were associated with the family of the Governor- General at that time, the Duke of Connaught, who was a patron of town planning.
It has been suggested that the plan for Prince George stemmed from the British “Garden City” planning concept. Construction of Letchworth, the first Garden City, began in 1904. However, the main proponent of the Garden City in Canada, Thomas Adams didn't arrive in Ottawa from Britain until October, 1914, some two years after the Prince George plan was created. Moreover, the designers, being from Boston, were doubtless much more familiar with the City Beautiful than the Garden City. It is, therefore, not surprising that virtually all the features of the plan are more typical of the American concept than the British one.
It has also been suggested that the crescents were designed to be a barrier to the flow of traffic between Prince George and the rival townsite of Central Fort George. This idea appears to have originated in the 1913 hearings of the Board of Railway Commissioners on the location of the GTPR station. A lawyer and an investor, both supporters of Central Fort George, argued that the curved streets were intended to isolate Fort George from the station. However, similar curved streets can be seen in the Brett & Hall plan for Prince Rupert as well.
Today, several streets in the area around Duchess Park have been changed from the 1912 plan. Originally, the park was bounded by Edmonton Street on the east and Renwick Crescent on the west. Running westward from Renwick were Melville and Cariboo (now Tenth) Avenues which connected directly with the streets of Central Fort George. These changes over the years have probably made access between the townsites more difficult than was originally intended.
In addition, two short, diagonal streets which have since disappeared, Edson and Cross, led directly from the railway station site and First Avenue to Third Avenue and thence west to Central Fort George. These, too, would have facilitated access to that townsite. In fact, the commercial interest of the railway would have made it preferable that access between the townsites was relatively easy. Commercial activity would then be drawn from Central Fort into Prince George. Good access is a fundamental principle of any commercial venture.
Thus the plan for Prince George was a contrast to the usual gridiron of streets common at the turn of the century. It had curved and diagonal roads, a traffic circle, parks and parkways, and a distinctive pattern that stands out even today on a map of the downtown. Despite the British flavour of the street names, the plan emanated from the City Beautiful concept and was imposed on the Canadian frontier by American designers.
Original: June 1, 1985
Revised: October 7, 1991