Historic York Factory along Hudson Bay — former commercial capital of northwest

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

There were two main routes for York boats: the Portage La Roche brigade of York boats travelled the route between York Factory, Norway House and the Saskatchewan River, while the Portage La Loche brigade travelled the route between York Factory, Norway House and Red River.

An article in the Nor’Wester announced the arrival at Fort Garry on July 28, 1860, of the first  brigade of 30 Portage La Loche boats dispatched to York Factory to collect the goods brought from England. “They had been twenty-one days on the journey, and had thus made one of the most rapid passages ever known. The average time of the homeward voyage is about a month, and it not unfrequently happens that the boats are detained over six weeks by contrary winds and storms on Lake Winnipeg.”

Once the York boats from Red River reached the northern end of Lake Winnipeg, the route followed was from Norway House along the shore of Little Playgreen Lake to Oxford House on the shore of Oxford Lake and from there up the Hayes River to York Factory. Author Robert M. Ballantyne explained in his autobiography of his six years service in the Hudson’s Bay Company — starting in 1841 — that 36 portages of varying lengths had to be traversed by the York boats between Red River and York Factory.

Ballantyne was writing about the “golden age” of York Factory’s existence as the major distribution centre for goods destined for the interior of North America. At the time, he could not have foreseen that the post’s decline was fast appraching.

Although goods still arrived in York Factory from Europe in the years after 1860, its importance as the “commercial capital” was tested as early as 1849 when Red River Métis challenged the legality of the HBC’s trade monopoly in the northwest. During a precedent-setting trial in 1849,  the jury found Pierre-Guillaume Sayer guilty of illegally trading furs, but recommended mercy and Sayer was set free. Armed Métis outside the courthouse — this really forced the hand of the judge, HBC Recorder of Rupert’s Land, Adam Thom, to free Sayer — then declared the arrival of free trade and proceeded to bypass the HBC and exchanged furs for goods with American traders at a more favourable price.

The next blow was the arrival of the first steamer  — the Anson Northup —  at Red River from the United States in 1859. To keep its freight monoploy intact, the HBC engaged in Red River steamboat transportation, using some rather unsavoury tactics to maintain its dominance of the river. But any trade directly between the U.S. and Red River lessened the importance of York Factory as a centre of commerce.

At this time, a cash system was evolving in the growing communities of the interior such as Winnipeg, which precluded the need to maintain the barter system. During the initial years of Red River Settlement, there had been HBC-issued pound and shilling notes, but few people had the wherewithal to earn these notes or make payments in cash. 

By the time steamboats arrived on the scene, hard currency dominated the trade between the U.S. and 

Manitoba as well as the local economy.

Another blow to York Factory’s once-favourable standing came with the establishment of a Manitoba railway link with the U.S. in 1878 and the completion of the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, although the post still served as a local centre for the fur trade in the North.

In an account of his Hudson Bay expedition, Charles Richard Tuttle gives a comprehensive description of York Factory in 1883. “I went forth to view the beauties of York Factory,” he wrote, “and found much to admire ... As a Hudson’s Bay post it is by no means what it has been, and yet nothing has fallen into decay. The buildings, of which there are about fifty belonging to the post proper, many of them large and handsome, are clean and bright-looking, and must have been erected at great expense. The main factory building is a square, with a court-yard in the centre, being over two hundred feet on each side. The front centre is three storeys high, the other portion two storeys ... It stands about three hundred feet from the front palisade, which runs along parallel to the Hayes River, upon which it fronts. On the right, as you enter through either of the two gates, is a row of buildings extending from the palisade back to the factory, or to the end of the long summer house on a line with the front of the factory. These are the department storerooms, net houses, stores, shops, etc.”

Tuttle said the “old trading rooms” and the provision house were two storeys high and to the left of the other buildings. Other buildings 

in the square included the “chief 

factor’s residence, the chief accountant’s residence, residence of the clergyman (Rev. George Winter of the Church of England), the doctor’s house, the church, the school-house, the hospital (founded by Dr. Matthews), the servant’s houses, the middle-men’s houses, the photographic rooms, the general offices, the library, the cooper (barrel-

making) shop, the blacksmith shop, the bake-house and many other buildings.

“The high palisade extends completely around the whole, but there are a few buildings outside of it, notably the Indian church, which is capable of accommodating over three hundred, and is an imposing structure with a high tower surmounted by a large cross.”

Gardens were in front of the factory building, divided by two main walks leading from the esplanade along the riverfront. The primary crops grown were potato and turnip. 

Ballantyne complained that potatoes grown at York Factory were the size of walnuts, “and sometimes a turnip or cabbage are prevailed upon to grow.”

Tuttle made a particular mention of the graveyard outside the walls, especially a gravestone with the inscription: “Sacred  to the memory of William Sinclair, Esq., Chief factor, Honourable Hudson’s Bay Company’s Service, who died 20th of April, 1818, age 52 years ... Erected as a testimony of affection, by his son.”

Instruction at the school was 

divided into English and Cree sessions. Lessons in Cree were taught in the afternoon until 5 p.m.

“Great progress has been made in the education of the Cree Indians,” wrote Tuttle. “The same syllabic characters are used as in teaching Chippewayan ... almost all the Indians there, who are of sufficient age, can read and write with ease in their own language.”

The “Indian village” was located a half mile to the south of the post and had a population of 300 people. In total, there were “fifteen well-built houses, and  a large number of pole camps,”

Tuttle was particularly fascinated by the Indian village’s “... large clay oven, in which baking is done, once a week or so, for the entire inhabitants ... A fire is made, the oven is heated, and then, each family having its dough ready, the pans are placed in, to the number of twenty or sometimes thirty, the door is closed upon them, and when the bread is done” is then carried home by the women.

Today, the descendants of the 1880s Cree inhabitants are the 

people of the York Factory First Nation, who continue traditional fishing, hunting and trapping in the area.

In 1883, the aboriginal inhabitants of York Factory enthusiastically anticipated the economic benefits of the arrival of a railway from the south at Port Nelson. On the other hand, the HBC did “not want their trade interfered with ... and besides the people at York see perfectly that the road, if built, will never come to that place, as they have no harbour.” 

Instead, the residents believed Churchill presented a better location for the northern terminus of the proposed railway from the south. Yet, it took years before the federal governments, which provided the funds for the building of the Hudson Bay Railway, came to the same conclusion. 

Elaborate plans were drawn up for harbour facilities at Port Nelson. Over $6 million was spent on harbour facilities with another $14  million spent to clear the rail line to the community before the federal government finally realized that Port Nelson was not suitable as a deep-sea port and had to be abandoned. The rail link to Churchill was completed in 1928, although it wasn’t until 1931 that the port facilities were finished and the Hudson Bay Railway was officially declared open. The establishment of the HBR signalled the final stage of York Factory’s decline and eventual fall from grace.

“The old Factory was left without business and there was nothing 

to be done but close it down.” wrote Malvina Bolus in her article, York Factory on the Bay — Historic Post Closes (Manitoba Historical Society’s publication Manitoba Pageant, September 1957). “It was always difficult to maintain the buildings for the river cut back the banks and carried them away if they were near the edge, and if they were further back the muskeg sucked them down and the wetness rotted the timbers and there was no building timber to be had from the stunted local trees.”

When the HBC closed York 

Factory in 1957, all that remained from its glory days were the main factory building, a long boat building shed where the wharf had been, a small log building and the 

manager’s house, according to 


With the closure, the historic community was abandoned to the elements and human pillaging.

Dr. J.C. Ritchie of the University of Manitoba in a 1962 slide lecture on York Factory Depot, called Sub Arctic Vista (reported by Betty Woods in a Manitoba Pageant article, January 1962), said: “Something has to be done very soon to have this building preserved. It’s rapidly being destroyed. The school is badly damaged. Books are torn and lie in shambles of broken desks.”

Yet, it took years before anyone acted on behalf of York Factory. 

It was the Manitoba government which first recognized the significance of York Factory, declaring it a provincial historic site and erecting a sign, but undertook no action to preserve the site.

In 1968, the transfer of title from the HBC to Ottawa was heralded as the next step in the site’s preservation. In 1982, Parks Canada undertook a management plan and a subsequent federal-provincial working group was established with a mandate to promote tourism in the region. 

Prior to the most recent announcement by Ottawa, the federal government in the 1980s made a long-term commitment to protect York Factory by stabilizing the infrastructure and developing it for tourism, including stationing Parks Canada staff at the interpretation centre at the former HBC main 

depot, or “great House,” known 

in the Cree language as Kickewaskahikun. 

Today, according to Parks Canada, all that remains of the once-vast complex  are two buildings, two visible ruins, a cemetery, vestigial remnants of planned landscapes and extensive archaeological remains.