Plaque recognizes “herculean task” of building Bay line — railway took decades to complete

by Bruce Cherney

It’s traditional to drive home a golden spike whenever the last section of track for a railway is laid. It’s also traditional for railway officials to be on hand during the accompanying ceremony.

But on March 29, 1929, both the golden spike and the officials were lacking at Churchill, Manitoba, to commemorate the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway. The journey toward laying the last track had been long and difficult. The mile posts along the railway’s route were marked by decades of political wrangling and the triumph over obstacles thrown in its path by Mother Nature. Only the engineers and hundreds of labourers, called the “heroes of the Hudson Bay Railway construction” by surveyor Major J.L. Charles, were on hand to mark the end of the line.

What to do?

The same ingenuity that went into the completion of the railway was employed to come up with a novel solution to celebrate the occasion. Since they didn’t have real gold to mould a golden spike, they made a facsimile by taking the gold-coloured tin foil from a pack of cigarettes and formed it around a steel spike. It was this ersatz “golden” spike that was driven home at Churchill by Tommy Jack, according to the memoirs of Major J.G. MacLachlan, the division engineer, as compiled by his grandson Bart Hasselfield in the Coldest Site on the Web.

The official ceremony opening the new line occurred a few days later on April 3.

To recognize the “herculean task” of building the Hudson Bay Railway, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recently erected a  commemorative plaque at The Pas.

“The Hudson Bay Railway has been influential in the development of northern Manitoba, said Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan during the September 21 ceremony. “Along with its freighting functions, the line also serves many communities and provides memorable experiences for visitors taking the train journey to Churchill ... Since the 1880s, the Hudson Bay Railway has been a persistent part of Prairie Canadians’ vision of their place in the nation, its initiation, construction and operation have engaged the energy and imagination of Canadians for over a century. It stands as a testament to the drive and determination needed to overcome the many challenges it faced, both engineering and political.”

From its very beginning, the HBR was envisaged by Western politicians as a tool to break the protectionist policies of the Canadian government that benefitted eastern manufacturers at the expense of prairie farmers.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy had imposed a 20 per cent tariff on farm implements manufactured in the United States and Britain in 1879 that was raised to 35 per cent in 1884. While the Macdonald-imposed tariff protected Ontario and Quebec manufacturing interests, it forced prairie farmers to pay heavy duties for equipment produced outside Canada’s borders or exorbitant prices for substitutes from Eastern Canada.

The 20-year monopoly given to the Canadian Pacific Railway for building the transcontinental railway came at a high price for Westerners. Because there were were no rival companies competiing against the CPR, the railway could virtually charge whatever rates it pleased.

Manitoba Premier John Norquay tried to break the CPR’s stranglehold on railway traffic by first proposing a line to the American border and then an alternate route to Hudson Bay.

The province’s first attempt to construct the rival Red River Valley Railway  to the border was disallowed by Ottawa. Meanwhile, the Hudson Bay route suffered from poor funding resulting from  the Macdonald government’s compulsion to complete the CPR to its western terminus in British Columbia. Until the CPR was completed, other railway projects in Western Canada were placed on hold.

By 1884, railway contractor Hugh Sutherland of the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway Company had only managed to build a short stretch of track to Shoal Lake, Manitoba, in the direction of Hudson Bay that became known as “Hugh Sutherland’s 40 miles.” No more track was laid because the Canadian government refused to transfer title of the company’s land grant which prevented the company from raising funds for completion of the line. Creditors then began a series of lawsuits against Sutherland and the northern railway was in legal  limbo.

Another stumbling block for the Manitoba government was that the route to Hudson Bay fell outside its jurisdiction. When the railway was conceived in the 1870s, the northern border of Manitoba fell well short of Hudson Bay and even when the Macdonald government expanded the province’s northern border in 1881, the Bay was still 480 kilometres away. 

On March 10, 1896, the northern railway appeared to be another step closer to reality when Ottawa passed the Hudson’s Bay Railway Bill. But enthusiasm was shortlived as political matters continually interfered. 

In Parliament, arguments for and against the railway depended upon what side of the House a politician sat. Prior to the 1896 federal election and before global warming had come to the forefront of political discussions, Manitoba Liberal MP Joseph Martin argued that the railway wasn’t viable because of the short navigation season in Hudson Bay.

“Unless navigation is practical between Hudson’s Bay (name later changed to Hudson Bay) ports and Liverpool, the whole system, whether canal or railway, falls to the ground, because no capitalist would put money into either ...,” said Martin in the House of Commons, arguing against the bill for the northern railway.

Opponents to the railway relied upon adverse shipping reports which stated the navigation season from late July to early October was occasionally plagued by natural hazards such as impenetrable ice, while ignoring that the Hudson’s Bay Company had been sending ships into the bay from Great Britain since 1670 with the loss of only a handful of vessels.

Martin’s opposition to the northern railway contributed to his June 1896 federal election loss of his Winnipeg seat in the House to former Manitoba Premier Hugh John Macdonald, a Conservative and son of former Prime Minister Macdonald.

But the 1896 election also saw the election of the Liberal Sir Wilfrid Laurier government and the Hudson Bay Railway placed on hold.

But the issue had not died and advocates continually sprung up to remind the Liberal government it wasn’t going away.

On February 2, 1905, James William Tyrell, who along with his brother Joseph explored the Keewatin District and Hudson Bay for the Geological Survey of Canada (Canada’s famous dinosaur museum, the Royal Tyrell Museum, is named after Joseph who discovered an Albertasaurus fossil during the journey), was “strongly impressed by the great value of the Hudson’s Bay and the Strait Route, and I am firmly convinced that it is bound to be in the not very distant future the great outlet for the produce of the Canadian North West .”

In June and July 1905, the Associated Boards of Trade (early chambers of commerce) of Western Canada passed resolutions in support of the Hudson Bay Railway project. Furthermore, the federal government created the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and the Liberal governments in the two provinces openly supported a railway to Hudson Bay as a cheaper method of shipping prairie wheat to the outside world.

By this time, the Laurier government was on side and proposed the Hudson Bay Railway as a national undertaking and its construction was part of the Liberal’s 1908 election platform.

Canadian Northern Railway (later merged into Canadian National Railway) had built track west from the Manitoba border to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and was building more track along the Saskatchewan River to The Pas in Manitoba. The line to The Pas was completed in 1910, where the starting point for the construction of the line to Churchill was announced by the federal government.

In 1910, construction of a bridge over the Saskatchewan River at The Pas was started. A year later J.D. McArthur, a Winnipeg railway builder, received a contract to build 300 kilometres of the railway once the bridge was completed.

The enthusiasm that greeted this announcement was blunted months later when the Laurier government lost the 1911 election and new Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden suspended all work on the line.

The only good news for Manitoba was that the Hudson Bay coastline it had long sought became part of its northern border in 1912. All that remained was to connect southern and northern Manitoba with a railway.

After strong protests from Westerners and the Liberal opposition in the House, work recommenced and a line between The Pas and Gillam became operation by the outbreak of the First World War, although financial obligations for the war effort limited maintenance and operation to mile 214 (Pitwiktonie) of the route by the spring of 1916.

Advocates for continuing construction included visionaries who foresaw the potential of Manitoba’s northern region. Among them was Dr. Robert Bell, formerly of the Geological Survey of Canada, who predicted hydro-electric use of the falls and rapids of the Nelson and Churchill rivers, decades before great generating stations became a reality.  

But visionaries aside, most saw a practical reason for completion of the railway.

Sir Donald Mann and Sir William Mackenzie of the Canadian Northern Railway, who had been instrumental in early efforts to bring the railway to Hudson Bay, both expressed the opinion that “incalculable wealth” awaited discovery in the north once the line was completed.

Even the federal government’s rail minister, Frank Cockrane, had every faith in “the scheme and I will push the Hudson Bay Road for all its worth.”

One of the great ironies of this era was that work was started on harbour facilities at Port Nelson in anticipation of the arrival of the railway. Port Nelson had been selected as the northern terminus simply because it was a shorter distance from the south than Churchill.

Elaborate plans were drawn up for the harbour facilities and $6.3 million was spent, including dredging a shipping channel and the construction of an artificial island in the middle of the Nelson River for grain handling facilities that had to be reached from the mainland by a railway bridge.

Another $14 million was spent clearing the line to the community before it was finally realized Port Nelson was not suitable as a deep-sea port and had to be abandoned. 

A Senate Committee heard witnesses from April 23 to June 4, 1920, and concluded that “sufficient care was not taken in the selection of Port Nelson.”

The abandonment of Port Nelson as the northern end of the line disrupted all construction until 1926 and the election of a new Liberal government under Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

By this time, the expenditure of $20 million had only provided a benefit for fishermen, lumbermen, trappers and the odd mining prospector. 

All the earlier lines had already been amalgamated into the Canadian National Railway system which then began to restore the dilapidated track running into Gillam.

Major Charles was assigned to find a route to Churchill. He announced it would be practical to build a line over the vast muskeg that started at Limestone Point and ended at Churchill, although the government had not yet announced its intention to relocate the railway’s port at Churchill.

Sir Frederick Palmer, a prominent British consulting engineer, was hired by the government to investigate the merits of Churchill and Port Nelson. Palmer showed the government that new facilities in Churchill would cost $7.8 million and extension of the railway another $5 million. Furthermore, construction at Churchill would take three years to complete as opposed to six years at Port Nelson.

The Churchill site was so superior, Palmer wondered if there was “some other overwhelming reason for the selection of Nelson ... Notwithstanding the predisposition of the government towards Nelson, the facts concerning physical conditions, the estimates of costs and the time required for construction are overwhelmingly in favour of the selection of Churchill as the terminal port for the Hudson Bay Railway ...,” he added.

Once the decision was reached to abandon Port Nelson, railway construction proceeded uninterrupted until the line reached Churchill. Grading was done in 1928 and track was laid on frozen muskeg by workers digging down to a depth of about 18 inches where permafrost was found. 

“Engineers were put in tent camps every 10 miles and dog teams were used for transportation,” wrote MacLachlan. “Supplies were delivered to these camps to last for six months and my inspections were usually made by snowmobile.”

Hundreds of kilometres of track were rehabilitated and a new townsite and harbour with grain handling capability at Churchill was constructed. Some 3,000 labourers from Canada, the U.S., Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern and Western Europe endured bitter cold and biting insects to lay the track over unstable clay, peat, areas of shifting permafrost and hundreds of kilometres of muskeg, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Often the track they had just laid was swallowed up by the muskeg, forcing them to renew their efforts to complete the job.

“While conventional engineering methods were used in the construction,” according to the new heritage  plaque at The Pas, “ingenuity and determination were clearly evident in overcoming these challenges.”

While the rail link was completed in 1929, it wasn’t until 1931 that the port facilities were finished and the Hudson Bay Railway was officially declared open. 

The irony is that farmers at first enjoyed lower grain shipping rates with the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway, but insurance companies decided  the route was too dangerous and raised their premiums to an amount equal to the freight costs to Montreal or Vancouver.

“A half-century of tireless effort had finally produced a railway to the Bay, but it was all in vain,” wrote Manitoba historian Ed Whitcomb in A Short History of Manitoba. “It should have been a major victory for the West, instead it accomplished almost nothing. Another farmers’ dream had died.”

Today, the dream lives on and the Hudson Bay Railway, a subsidiary of Denver-based OmniTRAX, which now owns the 1,300 kilometres of track and port facilities at Churchill, exports wheat to the world, supplies numerous communities along its route, and brings tourists to see the polar bears and beluga whales of Churchill. Through the port of Churchill, OmniTRAX also moves southern goods, such as building supplies and food, to northern communities in Nunavut.

During the 2006 shipping season, grain and other agricultural product  shipments were up 20 per cent to over 480,000 tonnes. This year, the provincial government reported the first ship arrived in Churchill on July 25, which was the second-earliest opening for the port. The earliest was in 2000.

Both The Hudson Bay Railway and the Manitoba government are investigating ways to expand overseas shipments from Churchill.

“The significance of the port of Churchill as Canada’s only deep-water Arctic seaport continues to be a strategic link in international trade for Western Canada,” said Manitoba Food and Rural Initiatives Minister Rosann Wowchuk.

An October 10, 2005 article on global warming in the New York Times, said the shrinking ice sheet in the north could bring greater economic opportunities to Churchill. The newspaper reported that OmniTRAX expects Churchill to earn up to $100 million a year as the ice retreats and the shipping season is prolonged.

“The activity at the port will be as busy as an anthill, with machines, people, freight and ships at dock,” Michael J. Ogborn, OmniTRAX’s managing director, told the Times. 

Perhaps the farmers’ dream that started in the 1870s has not died — it’s just taking a lot longer to realize than was originally expected.