The town of Prince Rupert was little more than a crude coastal settlement, hacked out of the bush on an island some 800 kilometres north of Vancouver, when Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of Canada, visited in August 1910 and declared: "I have no doubt that some day Prince Rupert is destined to be one of the very great cities of the North American continent."
A railway builder, Charles Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific, had chosen the site as the terminus of his new transcontinental line because it had one great natural advantage - an ice-free deepwater harbor that was 14 miles long.
Hays hired the Boston landscape architects Franklin Brett and George Hall to design a townsite and they created a plan for a community of 45,000 people.
Hays died on the Titanic in April 1912, and Prince Rupert's prospect went down with him.
The town's population peaked at 19,000 a decade ago but has tumbled to just under 13,000 due to a series of economic setbacks.
The port languished as an outpost that handled grain, lumber and coal exports to Asia, a fate nicely captured in a local history titled Hays' Orphan: The Story of the Port of Prince Rupert.
But the orphan's fortunes have taken a turn for the better.
These days, some people believe that Prince Rupert may emerge over the next decade as a rival of Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles - currently the three major western gateways to North America for containers arriving from Asia stuffed with consumer goods.
This fall, the Port of Prince Rupert became the hub of a new intercontinental transportation corridor that links manufacturers in Asia with markets in the heart of North America.
On Sept. 12, the community celebrated the grand opening of the $150-million Fairview container terminal, a partnership of the port authority, CN Rail, the China Ocean Shipping Co. (COSCO) and Maher Terminals of Canada Corp.
Some six weeks later, on Oct. 30, the first ship arrived - the COSCO Antwerp - and 360 containers were loaded directly onto flatcars. The 9,000-ft.-long train departed for Chicago on Nov. 1 and arrived in 91.5 hours.
By comparison, a similar train travelling from Vancouver to Chicago normally takes about 107 hours.
"We can offer importers or exporters with the shortest and most reliable route between Asia and the North American heartland," says Don Krusel, president of the Prince Rupert Port Authority. "Everybody has timetables, but they're inconsistent because of congestion.
"One trip may take 100 hours. But next time it's 160 hours or even 200 because railcars get stuck on a siding somewhere."
Prince Rupert's location, once a liability, is now its greatest advantage.
Hong Kong and Prince Rupert are 5,286 nautical miles apart. By comparison, the distance to Vancouver is 5,777 nautical miles, to Seattle it is 5,768 and to Los Angeles 6,380.
Similar differentials exist for every other major Asian port and that can cut sailing times by up to 58 hours.
At this point, though, Prince Rupert is a small fry compared to its big-city counterparts. The Fairview terminal has a capacity of 500,000 TEUs - a shipping term that means 20-ft.
equivalent units - compared with Vancouver, which can handle 2.2 million TEUs yearly and Los Angeles, which moves more than seven million per year.
But the partners have big plans for the new terminal. Engineering studies are nearly complete for a $650-million second phase of the Fairview terminal, which will add 1.5 million TEUs annually by 2010.
"By the year 2020," Krusel says, "we expect to have the capacity to move 10 times what we can do today.
"Vancouver's current capacity is 2.7 million and they have plans to go to 4.5 to five million."
Krusel describes the Fairview terminal as "transformational infrastructure," by which he means it has the potential to boost exports from many communities along the CN's northern line.
The railway has already moved to take advantage of the opportunities by opening the Prince George Distribution Centre in the interior city of the same name.
It will be used to fill containers with lumber, wood panels, pulp, paper, as well as ores, plastics and metal products for export to Asia.
Krusel adds that Prince Rupert enjoys one other crucial advantage over larger ports located within major urban areas.
The facility can grow without encountering opposition from surrounding communities already concerned about noise, traffic and congestion.
In fact, at the grand opening of the Fairview terminal in September, nearly half the town's residents showed up when the gates were opened to the public.
"The mayor gave a speech and talked about the need for Phase 2," recalls Krusel, "and this huge crowd started chanting: 'Phase 2, Phase 2.' "
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)