Chetwynd is a district municipality located on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Situated on an ancient floodplain, it is the first town eastbound travellers encounter after emerging from the Rockies along Highway 97 and acts as the gateway to the Peace River Country. The town developed during the construction of infrastructure through the Rocky Mountains in the 1950s, and was used as a transshipment point during the construction of hydroelectric dams in the 1960s and 1970s and the new town of Tumbler Ridge in the early 1980s. Home to approximately 2,600 residents, the population has increased little in the last 25 years but is significantly younger than the provincial average.
Once known as Little Prairie, the community adopted its current name in honour of provincial politician Ralph L.T. Chetwynd, just prior to its incorporation in 1962. The municipality consists of the town, a community forest, and four exclave properties. Chetwynd has dozens of chainsaw carvings displayed throughout town as public art. It is home to the weekly newspaper, the Chetwynd Echo, and a Northern Lights College campus. Nearby, there are four provincial parks, two lakes, and several recreational trails.
Highways 29 and 97 intersect in town; the east-west Highway 97 connect the town to Prince George and Dawson Creek while the north-south Highway 29 connects Tumbler Ridge and Hudson's Hope. A rail line branches off in three directions: northward to Fort St. John, east to Dawson Creek, and west through the Rockies to Prince George. Its economy is dominated by the primary industries of forestry, fossil fuel extraction, and transportation. A member municipality of the Peace River Regional District, it is represented in provincial politics by Liberal MLA Mike Bernier.
From 1918 until the 1930s, the present townsite hosted a trading post on a grassy pasture known to the Sekani and Saulteaux as Little Prairie. In the 1920s, settlers from the Peace River Country began migrating westwards, across the frozen Kiskatinaw and Pine Rivers, to homestead. Little Prairie was homesteaded by Alexander and Lillan Windrem in 1930 and cleared the land by 1935 for hay, oats and gardens. Oil and coal discoveries, west of Little Prairie, near Commotion Creek, led to the construction of area roads. As the area's natural resource potential became more apparent, a highway was planned in the late 1940s from the British Columbia Interior to the northern side of the Rocky and Omineca Mountains. The John Hart Highway, named after former B.C. Premier John Hart, was completed in 1952; designated Highway 97S it stretches from Prince George to Dawson Creek, with an intersection at Little Prairie. This was northeastern BC's first connection with the rest of the province; previously a trip through the neighboring province of Alberta was required. Following the opening of the highway, businesses such as restaurants and service stations were opened in Little Prairie to accommodate incoming workers and settlers. The first school was built in 1951.
Little Prairie was incorporated as a waterworks district on 8 October 1957; within the span of a few year a rail line, natural gas pipeline, and telephone line were built along the highway from Prince George. Provincial Minister of Railways Ralph L.T. Chetwynd (who also directed the Pacific Great Eastern Railway) headed the rail line project. The rail line continued eastward to Dawson Creek which was the western-most terminus of Northern Alberta Railways. In early 1958, the first train ceremonially arrived in Little Prairie from Vancouver. Its load included pipe to symbolize natural gas development, steel railway track for the extension of the rail line, box cars for grain and lumber, and a truck representing freight hauling along the Alaska Highway. The railway station in Little Prairie was completed in 1959 and named after Chetwynd, who had died two years earlier. Soon afterwards the post office adopted this name. Chetwynd became the community's official name on 1 July 1959. In 1960 the Chetwynd Waterworks District expanded its mandate to include garbage disposal, fire protection, and street lighting. Led by its Chamber of Commerce, the community incorporated as a municipality on 25 September 1962.
Growth continued in the 1960s when the town served as the rail-to-truck transshipment point for delivering workers and supplies to the construction site of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, in nearby Hudson's Hope. Canfor and West Fraser Timber bought sawmills in 1964 and 1971, respectively, and eventually became two of the town's largest employers. The development of its forestry sector led to the town being declared the Canadian Forest Service's 1992 Forestry Capital of Canada. The community opened a rodeo ground and curling rink in 1963, a library in 1967, a new fire hall in 1968, an airport in 1970 and a hospital in 1971.
On 4 December 1996, Chetwynd's boundaries were expanded to include 49 km² (19 sq mi) of forested land and industrial properties. Most of this came from moving the northern border up 210 metres (689 ft) over Ol' Baldy Ridge to create a community forest, a concept which originated from a Chetwynd Secondary School proposal in 1980 for a fitness trail. The trail became the backbone of a system of interconnected trails and greenspaces that went up the ridge. Four industrial properties—a gas plant, sulfur processing plant, coal mine, and pulp mill—became exclaves of the district as they incorporated to receive municipal services. The coal mine, with an expected lifespan of 15 years, was approved by the province for development in 1998. It was not constructed until 2004 making it the province's first new coal mine in 20 years. It only operated for 2 years before closing due to poor yields, equipment failure, and lack of financial backing.