Last Sunday, we drove out to Penny: Betty Kovacic, her friend Bob, who used to live out that way, and me.For those of you who don’t know how exciting our journey was: Penny is one of a string of towns that popped up along the Grand Trunk Railroad when it reached Prince George from the east in 1914. The railroad follows the Fraser River and the area was a rich source of timber; that trio—wood, water, rail—in an era when building materials were needed to build the province made mill towns inevitable.
In its heyday, Penny was a busy town of six hundred. Now, I believe, seven people live there. A dirt road leads there now, but until several decades ago, the river and the railway were the only ways in. Once the highway went in on the south side of the river in the late ‘60s, residents would take a boat across the river and then drive into Prince George from there. In the winter, they built an ice bridge, which involved, as far as I understand it, building up logs and ice to create a solid structure to drive across. Sounds scary to me!
Betty Kovacic lived there for five years in the late seventies. Toward the end of one winter, she and her boyfriend returned from a trip, arriving on the south side of the river by car. They had radioed ahead to say they were coming, and people were waiting for them on the Penny side of the river. Packs on backs, bags in hand, they started across the frozen surface. Penny is situated on a bend in the river and the water runs faster on the Penny side. As they approached the shore, Betty saw that holes were opening up in the ice.
“Throw your pack!” someone shouted.
What choice did she have? Betty did.
Our drive out there was beautiful. A late September summer day, a gift, the air still, the water smooth. We stopped at Eagle Lake, a serene spot, and wandered, wondering at the brilliant green algae that lines the lake’s edge. We passed through Upper Fraser, where the old mill buildings still stand, abandoned, along with a string of houses, still occupied. Soon after that, we reached the river itself and drove over a solid cement bridge, brand new. Looking downstream, we could see the old bridge, a railway bridge that cars shared with trains. For years a man worked there, directing drivers when it was safe to cross. Eventually he was replaced with lights.
Bob told Betty and me that he once came along to the bridge in winter to find a woman, frantic, her car stuck in the tracks, no other human for miles. He managed to pull her car free, but if he had not come along…
On our sunny, late-summer journey, we came to Sinclair Mills, a series of old houses, a pig in a pen near the road, snorting snores, waving big pink ears, and an almost overgrown phone booth, by a telephone pole. We tried the phone and it worked!
Eventually we came to a fork in the dirt road. Above the fork, a hand-painted sign: Penny no through road. Indeed, the road does end at Penny. We began to see spectacular bare, red-topped mountains off to our left.
“Red Mountain!” Betty shouted. “I’ve been up there.”
A hiking trail runs out of Penny still today to a small cabin on the mountain. What a journey that must be! For ours, we stayed at river level.
Betty recognized all the old houses we passed, and pointed up the hill to where her house used to be. At the bottom of the hill, stood a beautiful old house, rich reddish-brown shakes, in the middle of a grassy field surrounded by beds of strawberries. Grandma Bessie’s house, Betty told us. That’s Bessie Boudreau, Clarence and Jack Boudreau’s mother.
“She used to serve us Peek Freans, chocolates and tea,” Betty remembered fondly.
She peered in the window and shouted with delight. The kitchen was exactly as she remembered it, oilcloth on the table, old stove, dishes. The house is not lived in. We could only guess that it’s open for visitors in the summer. So inviting!
We wandered through the big grass field, now mostly filled with trees, looking for a tiny overgrown cemetery that Betty stumbled more than thirty years ago. It must be even more overgrown now, because we did not find it. We drove down to the river, and looked at the pilings that used to form the Penny end of the ice bridge.
Then we began the two-hour drive home.