Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hudson Bay Railway - Some History

I say: 'Hudson Bay!'

You say: 'Why?'

First, to answer this on a personal level, my aunt and uncle had already made this trip and they had found it worthwhile and interesting. They always encouraged us when it came to our exploration of Manitoba and its history. In fact, their influence went well beyond Manitoba, but it is fair to say that their positive experience was very helpful in our decision to take this trip. Starting off from our 'vacation base' at their home, they put us on the train late at night at the Portage station and picked us up when we returned early in the morning.

 We went because it was an easy and interesting train trip into Canadian history. 

The historical question regarding why a railway was built to Hudson Bay is harder to answer ...

*  *  *

from: Historical Atlas of Manitoba; 1970; Warkentin and Ruggles; Manitoba Historical Society
As this 1762 map by Thomas Jefferys shows, the features of the western shore of Hudson Bay
 were known and named for over 120 years before anyone considered building a railway there.

The Hudson Bay Railway was quite unlike the Canadian Pacific Railway or the Intercolonial Railway. Both of those were built - ostensibly - because the smaller British colonies on the 'other end' demanded 'their own' railways for commerce and for military protection. The people 'out there' made a political demand as part of their price for joining Confederation.

In the northern case under investigation, there was no distant colony to speak of on Hudson Bay ... 

With all due respect to the indigenous people and to the Hudson's Bay Company personnel ... nobody lived up there! 

Who wanted this railway? 

Why was anyone willing to pay for it?

An early map of a Hudson Bay Railway ...

from: Historical Atlas of Manitoba; 1970; Warkentin and Ruggles; Manitoba Historical Society
A couple of efforts were made to investigate or to survey a line to Hudson Bay in the 1880s. In 1886, 40 miles of track were built north from Winnipeg to Shoal Lake - above, that very first lake north of Winnipeg. The print on this map is particularly tiny - but it is a big land!

Unlike the route which was finally built, this line would have run directly to the Bay from Winnipeg ... between Lakes Winnipegosis/Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg - so through the 'Interlake Region'. But like the final route, this one ends at Churchill.

As you recall, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built to bring tiny, distant British Columbia into Canadian confederation, and to occupy and legitimately claim the former Hudson's Bay Company lands  ('Rupert's Land') for the British Empire, rather than see them fall into American hands. 

T.D. Regehr in his 'The Canadian Northern Railway - Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies, 1895-1918' (1976, Macmillan) wrote ... 'a clause was inserted in the [CPR] contract which forbade the construction, for twenty years, of any railway lines within fifteen miles of Latitude 49'. This was to protect the CPR from connections to the US railroad network and the siphoning off of traffic needed to earn the private CPR a profit. As a safeguard for shippers, the Canadian government could intervene if the CPR profits through this sparsely settled wilderness exceeded 10%. 

The small scale of the rickety railway line, and the small-capacity railway equipment of the CPR ... and the labour-intensive, horse-powered farming and road transportation of the first prairie farmers ... can be difficult for us to imagine today.

The lack of experience with prairie farming conditions in Canada, and the weaknesses of the first cultivars planted ... were also challenges which were difficult to overcome at first. Before the wheat pools were formed, Ogilvie Milling Company grain-buying and flour-milling business practices also caused discontent among farmers.

So ... the farmers got mad. And they blamed the CPR for charging too much ... it had a monopoly. They simply couldn't survive with the prices they were getting for frost-damaged wheat - after the CPR transportation costs were charged.

An article in the Montreal Gazette in December 1885 suggested that members of the Farmers' Union of Manitoba were being whipped up ... 'as in the republic to the south' ... 'by ambitious and self-seeking adventurers, the ignorance, the credulity, the selfishness, the good nature of those who compose the gatherings are similarly worked upon and made subservient by the demagogues whose breath of political life is agitation, and the price of whose burning patriotism is a salaried office'. The article continues ...

from: Montreal Gazette; Dec 22, 1885.
... so said an article written in the city which housed the head offices of both the CPR and the Ogilvie Milling Company.

from: The Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway; Hugh Sutherland, President; 1887; Winnipeg.  archive.org
But again ... If western farmers could 'disintermediate' the CPR and eastern grain interests, the grain could be shipped more directly to Britain ... with more money left in the farmers' pockets. 

If only someone would pay for the railway ...

To spoil the story's ending ...

Official Guide, 1958. Collection of LC Gagnon
During our 1987 trip, the route we followed went from Winnipeg/Portage, to Hudson Bay (Junction) Saskatchewan -
then north to Churchill.

This standard rail map format takes certain cartographic latitudinal liberties.
The route north is 'steeper' and longer than illustrated.

*   *   *

Historical Interlude
Picturing Canada Back Then

Canada Handbook 1935; Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

The dates on the map above represent the creation of areas as integral parts of Canada,
the date of joining Confederation, or the date of boundary revision after joining.

Canada Handbook 1935; Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

The sharp decrease in the population of the Northwest Territories reflects the 'Northwest' being reallocated to the prairie provinces,
and also extending the boundaries of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba farther north.
Fun fact, 1921: Includes 485 members of the Royal Canadian Navy.

*  *  *

The Canadian Northern Railway began its life in north-west Manitoba (Manitoba, as it is pictured above) and the CNoR went on to become the railway of the northern Prairies - particularly in contrast to the CPR's southern route. With its rich branch line network, the CNoR might have done well for a while if it had simply continued to use the CPR as its bridge railway to get its grain to eastern ports. 

All this changed when the comparatively ancient Grand Trunk Railway (by then over half a century old) announced in 1902 that it was going to become a transcontinental railway - building the Grand Trunk Pacific west from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast. (The National Transcontinental arrangement with the GTP east of Winnipeg didn't work out ... but that's another long story)

This new competitive escalation of the Grand Trunk in the west ensured that the CNoR (heretofore happy at home on the Prairies) would now have to expand into eastern Canada and become a transcontinental itself.

In the midst of this competitive turmoil, many people were optimistically hoping that the 'railway of the northern prairies' would build the Prairies a line to Hudson Bay ...

from: Boston Evening Transcript, Dec 15, 1905.

The Canadian Northern system ended at the bridge across the Saskatchewan River at The Pas (pronounced 'paw'). William Mackenzie (of the Canadian Northern) offered Prime Minister Laurier three options which could interest the CNoR in building the Hudson Bay Railway. They were all too rich for Laurier. The potential returns of the Hudson Bay Railway were too poor for Mackenzie and Mann of the Canadian Northern - or any other railway, like the Grand Trunk Pacific.

But 'The Prairies' were still clamouring for their own deep-water port.

Clifford Sifton, Laurier's Minister of the Interior until his resignation in 1905, was the mastermind behind much of that regime's very successful efforts to populate the Prairies with immigrants. He came up with a suggestion. 

In the past, railways across the west had been financed and supported by federal government cash grants, subsidies and service contracts; or land grants to the railways along their planned lines which the railways could re-sell to settlers, or mortgage as security behind their own debt securities; or government guarantees of railway debt securities. 

Sifton suggested that the land grant system be wound up and that unearned railway land grants should be sold off to the benefit of the government. Three million acres of these lands would be chosen, segregated and sold (eventually) to fund the Hudson Bay Railway. So if you trace this land asset back to its origins, it was the indigenous people of Canada who financed the Hudson Bay Railway.

*  *  *

Later ... in 1913 ...

The following 11 images come from the annual report to Parliament 
of the Department of Railways and Canals for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1913.

The following map is presented in two parts because the blogging software could not reproduce it properly as a single image. North is roughly to the right. This map, printed on thin paper and bound into the book, was refolded in the wrong way for perhaps 20 to 100 years. The thin paper was extraordinarily resistant to flattening for scanning.

The inclusion of the Hudson Bay Railway in this report to Parliament evidences the fact that the Hudson Bay Railway had been taken on as a government project.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.
The bridge was completed in 1912, and the locomotive is (symbolically) facing north.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

The map shows the route chosen to Port Nelson, but I was careful to scan in Churchill in case we need it later ...

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Marine Engineering; June 1913; MacLean Publishing. (researched by Jim Chrsitie) archive.org

from: Marine Engineering; June 1913; MacLean Publishing. (researched by Jim Chrsitie) archive.org

The lives of the surveyors and workers - who toiled in the bush far away from towns - were particularly harsh and difficult. The cold and primitive winter working and living arrangements; the remoteness of the work; the insects which hatched out of this water-logged land in summer ... really took the fun out of building a railway.

Above, only a lighter could dock at the inadequate 'fisherman's landing' at Port Nelson as freighters from Halifax and Texas (seven in all during 1913's short navigation season) waited at anchor for unloading. One of them ran aground and was wrecked - another was seriously damaged. The seasonal freeze-up was quickly approaching, making the captains anxious to be off ... and the rising and falling tides, and hastily improvised aids to navigation probably made them even more antsy.

Speaking of ill-fated vessels, the dredge Port Nelson was built at Toronto, costing over $250,000 (about $5 million today). It was towed 3000 miles under the supervision of a captain for Lloyd's Underwriters to Port Nelson, and ended its days there.

The chaos at the landing and disorderly storage of construction materials (above) was matched by the chaos in the House of Commons for Frank Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals in the Borden government. The fiasco of Canadian railway overbuilding - particularly the National Transcontinental and Grand Trunk Pacific mess ... and the Port Nelson Clown Show gave the Opposition plenty of material for pointed questioning of the Minister. The Great War would change the picture for a while, but not the underlying problems.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.

from: Toronto Sunday World; February 17, 1914.

So, if you insist (Frank Cochrane), the railway line construction can proceed to Port Nelson, with its poor natural harbour providing inadequate shelter for ships at anchor.

The Nelson River, running at 6-7 miles per hour, dumped so much silt at its mouth that even building an artificial island far from shore with its own railway bridge wouldn't solve the harbour depth problems for ocean-going grain carriers.

The Great Wall of China and the abandoned Port Nelson Bridge are both visible on GoogleEarth.

from: The Battle for the Bay; Grant MacEwan; 1975; Western Producer Books.

With the government eventually forsaking Port Nelson, it had to build its railway through the country illustrated below. Some sources suggest that Port Nelson was initially favoured because no one in Canada had yet built a railway over land like this ...

from: GoogleEarth

Shown above is about 20 miles of flat, undrained, unstable land which had been avoided by building the terminal at Port Nelson. The black line represents today's railway route. 

With the rejection of silty, unsheltered Port Nelson as a terminal, the line had to be built over 70 miles of the type of terrain shown above. It reportedly had three to seven feet of muskeg as the only surface on which the railway could be built.

from: Railways and Canals Report, 1913; F Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals; Government of Canada.
Above: Building track on ground which was more solid. 

from: Altitudes of Canada, 1915; James White: Commission of Conservation; Government of Canada.
In 1915, the Canadian Northern still ended at The Pas. 
The Great War was on and the Canadian Northern was months from bankruptcy and nationalization.

The Hudson Bay Railway was eventually built as follows:
  • 1914 to Sipiwesk
  • 1915 to Manitou Rapids
  • 1916 to Kettle Rapids 
  • 1927 to Amery 
  • 1929 to Churchill

*  *  *

Finally in 1931 ...

from: Canada Handbook 1932; Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

from: The Battle for the Bay; Grant MacEwan; 1975; Western Producer Books.

*  *  *

World War Two

from: Canadian National Railways; System Public Timetable; April 30, 1944.
In 1944 a public timetable shows that both passenger and mixed trains
(e.g. train M3 - made up of  both passenger and freight cars)
were operated during World War Two.

The seemingly odd schedules for trains M3 and M4 reflect the need to perform switching and other local freight/baggage and express work by daylight if possible. With bad weather, equipment problems, track problems and derailments, opposing train delays, and very unusual loads for the wilderness where everything arrives by rail (e.g. boats, ungulate carcasses, fuel) ... the crews would have been quite happy to see the beds inside the caboose, or their other boarding arrangements, by the end of their often extended workdays.

As the timetable shows, the Hudson Bay Railway was finding another use ...
as a supply route to enable the construction of northern military bases
and northern military operations during the war.

From a location five miles north of The Pas on the Hudson Bay Railway ...
in 1929, the 87 mile Flin Flon Sub had begun connecting the line to Flin Flon,
(for fictional Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin)
the site of rich copper and zinc deposits.
These were strategic materials during wartime
which were made accessible by the Hudson Bay Railway.

In turn, a 13 mile branch off the Flin Flon Sub reached Sherridon (nickel mines) in 1930.

Detail from: Official Guide, 1958. Collection of LC Gagnon
The map above is schematic and distances are not to scale.

*  *  *

In the 1960s

from: Canadian National Railways; System Public Timetable; April 27, 1969.

Compared with 'essential travel only' during wartime, the line seemed busier in 1969 (above). The public was offered a greater variety of passenger-carrying trains and travel days. Trains 91 and 90 seem to represent an 'express' which ran to Thompson - where the equipment was turned for the return journey to The Pas.

In 1953, the 40 mile Sherridon Sub (mentioned above) was extended to 185 miles to reach Lynn Lake (nickel and gold deposits).

In 1957, the 30 mile Thompson Sub was put into operation to serve a major Inco nickel mining and production centre. During our visit in 1987, the passenger train left the main line and ran the full length of this subdivision, lifting intermodal highway trailers (piggyback) for furtherance to Churchill ... photos in the next posting. Thompson marked the northern end of the Manitoba highway system at that point.

Hudson Bay: Why?

The Hudson Bay Railway never did fulfil the economical grain-exporting dreams of its late 19th Century Prairie promoters ... nor did it win much popularity for the successive federal governments which studied, re-studied, built, re-built and paid for it - over almost half a century of Canadian history.

Once established, the railway met other important needs in the Canadian north for all-weather transportation ...

  • Providing local transportation for people living along its line, including transportation to cities for health care and education.
  • Assisting in the development of mineral resources.
  • Supporting military operations and training in the arctic, and scientific research of the north.
  • Serving as a heavy freight hauler for the re-supply of other northern settlements through Churchill's port.

*  *  *

For Further Study:

After posting, Jim Christie found this remarkable video on the Winnipeg Free Press YouTube site about a trip of boosters of the Hudson Bay Railway along the length of the Hudson Bay railway to Port Nelson.

I have provided partial Archives of Manitoba search results if you wish to formally refer to the original film, should the YouTube link break ...

Film entitled "The Seaport of the Prairies," 2 reels; Frank (Francis J. S.) Holmes for J.L. Thomas, North Country Tourist Association, Winnipeg; Date 1925

Starting from Winnipeg in August or September, the group eventually reaches the end of 'steam' track at Pikwitonei, and continues on with flanged-wheel gasoline vehicles. At the end of track at the Kettle Rapids bridge, the group embarks in the canoes of skilled Cree paddlers and travels to the head of navigation on the Nelson, where they are met by government launches for the trip to Port Nelson.

At Port Nelson the construction tank engine takes them across the dual gauge track of the bridge to the 'artificial island'. The dredge Port Nelson is also filmed - balanced on a dock to protect it from the ravages of winter ice and storms.

The return trip is recorded, ending at Winnipeg Union Station.

Before the end of the film, each white participant is filmed, with a card describing his role/title and his activities on the trip.

The film depicts travel in the Canadian wilderness by canoes, including tracking upstream. Contemporary bridge technology is shown, including wooden trestles. After apparently seven years without any 'maintenance of way' the effects of weather and water on the roadbed and track can be seen. On the return trip, the gas motor cars traverse a washout bridged only by suspended rails and ties.

The most unusual sequences are taken from the locomotive pilot (it seems) heading northward between The Pas and Pikwitonei where the steam locomotive (CNR 420 2-6-0 CLC 1914, scrapped 1932, a former McArthur railway contracting engine used to build the railway) and a mixed train operate over some significant sags in the track. The film states that the service on this section of the railway is bi-monthly.

Note: There is a 2 minute lead before the film starts.

Seaport of the Prairies - MB Archives (1925)
from Winnipeg Free Press YouTube

Thanks again to Jim Christie for finding this remarkable film.