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Over muskeg and swamp for 500 miles a railroad was built from the prairies of Manitoba to Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay, where a grain elevator and other port facilities were provided as a new outlet for the produce of Western Canada


KETTLE RAPIDS BRIDGE on the Hudson Bay Railway

KETTLE RAPIDS BRIDGE is the longest bridge on the eastern section of the Hudson Bay Railway. The bridge, which crosses the lower reaches of the Nelson River, is 3,000 feet long. In winter, work on the bridges had often to be suspended because of severe storms. Machinery and tools often had to be lashed down to prevent their being blown away.

FEW railway ventures of recent years have met with such adverse criticism and experienced so many setbacks as those which marked the inception and building of the Hudson Bay Railway, that 500-miles steel road which runs from The Pas, a point on the Saskatchewan River, in Northern Manitoba, to Churchill, formerly Port Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay. From the time a start was made to lay the rails until the first steamer appeared off Port Churchill for her cargo of wheat, twenty years elapsed.

The primary object of the undertaking was to provide a cheaper and more efficient means of shipping wheat and other farm produce from the prairie provinces of Canada to the markets of the world. So far back as 1906 railway transportation in Western Canada was congested, outgoing and incoming lines being blocked with grain, livestock and supplies. The only way to relieve this congestion was to send a portion of this traffic to the nearest tidal water and ship it from there, The nearest tidal water was Hudson Bay. Politicians could not agree as to the wisdom of building such a line. Canada was divided into two camps, one favouring the proposal and the other strongly opposing it. There were the objections raised by vested interests and the need of assuring shipowners and underwriters that the new route was practicable. The line was well on the way to completion when the project was stopped by war. Then the site of the port was changed after over £1,000,000 had been spent upon it. From beginning to end the enterprise was marked by all kinds of setbacks and interruptions.

Churchill, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, is about halfway across the continent. Before the building of the Hudson Bay Railway and before arrangements were made for the protection of shipping using the Bay, everything produced west of Winnipeg for exportation - wheat, fruit, canned salmon, dairy produce and livestock - had to pass through Winnipeg on its way to the ports in Eastern Canada. Winnipeg was a kind of funnel through which this enormous traffic had to pass and in the height of the season the lines were liable to become congested. This meant delay and demurrage charges. The Hudson Bay route, it was argued, would not only relieve congestion but would also cause a considerable saving in freight and demurrage charges. Winnipeg, Brandon, Calgary, Prince Albert and Edmonton - the great collecting points in Western Canada - are from 700 miles to 1,300 miles nearer to Churchill than they are to Montreal, the great shipping port in Eastern Canada. The saving on freight need not be outweighed by extra shipping charges as Churchill and Montreal are about the same distance from Liverpool, some 2,900 miles. Thus the Hudson Bay Railway brings the prairie provinces of Western Canada from 700 miles to 1,300 miles nearer Great Britain.

Those who favoured the Hudson Bay route were optimistic as to what the new line would earn. They anticipated that the Bay would be open to shipping for two months of the year, being closed for the remaining ten by ice. In those two months an enormous quantity of wheat could be handled by the new line in addition to a considerable quantity of farm produce. The saving on freight charges for wheat alone, it was estimated, would be about £750,000, and that on provisions, poultry and livestock another £250,000, or a total of £1,000,000 in a single season of two months. This would be quite apart from any passenger traffic which the line would carry during the time it was in operation, not to mention the export of timber, fur and fish.

Fully convinced as to the feasibility of the scheme the Canadian Government went ahead. In 1908 it sent Mr. John Armstrong, an experienced railway surveyor, with a staff of four parties into the region to make a survey for the railway from The Pas to Hudson Bay. At that time no reliable maps of the territory existed. The region round Hudson Bay was regarded as fit habitation only for Eskimos and no one entered it except Indians and hardy trappers in search of fur. On the Bay itself there were but a few scattered posts belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company and to other trading companies.

The survey parties spent two seasons in the field and endured great hardships, suffering in winter from intense cold and from plagues of mosquitoes and flies in the hot, brief summer. Because of the swampy character of the country most of the work was done from canoes in summer, and with teams of dogs in winter. The survey parties were considerably hindered by snowstorms, which confined them to their tents for days together. The wolves, too, tried to get at their provisions, and the lot of the surveyors was anything but an enviable one.

Visited by Polar Bears

IN the end they succeeded in establishing routes from The Pas to Churchill and Port Nelson, at that time insignificant fur-trading posts on the shores of the Bay where dwelt a few white traders and a few score of Eskimos. On their return the surveyors recommended Port Nelson, at the mouth of the Nelson River, as the best place at which to build the new port. The distance from The Pas to this point was about 425 miles.

The work of laying the rails was begun in August 1911. With the exception of a small stretch of granite country, the line traverses muskeg and swamp. Laying the rails over the swampy ground was trying work. It called for extensive drainage operations. Numerous large offtake ditches were dug to carry off the swamp water. In building up the embankments across swampy ground special ditchers were used. These machines sucked up the earth through pipes on either side of the track, depositing it in front of the line of advance, where it was tamped down hard and made ready for the sleepers.

Over deep swamps the rails were laid on rafts and the embankment was built up underneath them. After the line had progressed some distance the engineers hit upon a novel way of laying the rails over muskeg. This moss-soaked terrain stretched away on either side of the line for miles, and it was impossible to escape it. The rails were laid when the ground was frozen. When the thaw set in ballast was placed bit by bit under the track until the entire embankment was completed.

The complete absence of any soil or gravel on the route of the railway made building a thousand times more difficult, as all ballast had to be brought from a considerable distance. It was impossible to do any hauling during the summer because of the water-soaked moss and numerous swamps. In winter, however, when the lakes and ground were frozen solid, material was rushed up for the following summer’s work.

In winter the entire area was swept by Arctic blizzards and the temperature would drop rapidly, sometimes as much as 40 degrees in a night. One of the lowest recorded temperatures was 72 degrees below zero. It was necessary for the embankment carrying the rails to be raised some fifteen feet above the surrounding level to prevent its being snowed under. Along certain sections of the track the telegraph lines are carried on tripods in place of the customary single poles.

The Hudson Bay RailwayThe track crosses several rivers. The smaller streams were bridged by wooden trestles and the larger rivers by substantial edifices of steel rising from massive foundations. The longest two bridges on the eastern portion of the route are those over the Nelson River, at Manitou Rapids, and across the Lower Nelson at Kettle Rapids. The former bridge is 1,000 feet long, the latter

3,000 feet. In winter work on the bridges had often to be suspended for several days because of the storms. On such occasions the men had to lash down their tools and machinery to prevent their being blown away in the fierce gales. What surprised the men most was the presence of polar bears so far inland. They were encountered forty and fifty miles from the sea.

HUDSON BAY RAILWAY was built from The Pas to Port Churchill (now known as Churchill) on Hudson Bay. Port Nelson was originally chosen as the terminus of the line, but after many deliberations the more northerly port was chosen. Branch lines have been built to serve the Flin Flon and Sheritt-Gordon Mines. Formerly all prairie produce for shipment had to pass through Winnipeg.

While the rails were thus being laid across the wilderness, another army of men was rushed to Port Nelson to transform this subarctic settlement into a modern port. Some of the workmen travelled overland with dog teams and others were carried in the specially chartered Newfoundland sealing ships, which brought material and stores to the port during the time the Bay was open. In the first season of operations these vessels landed 19,900 tons of machinery, timber, tools and stores on the shores of the Bay. For two seasons Port Nelson was a scene of activity.

Because of the “flats”, or sandbanks, and the low-lying nature of the shore, it was necessary to carry out extensive dredging operations and to make, half a mile or so from the land, a cigar-shaped island alongside which large ships could lie. A massive breakwater of stone and rubble was also built some distance off the land to protect the waters of the port from storms and to divert much of the heavy shore ice that drifts southwards in the spring.

So the work was pushed forward when one morning news was suddenly flashed from camp to camp that Great Britain had declared war upon Germany and that Canada was going to fight. The railroad was within ninety miles of Port Nelson. A thousand men had been congregated at the port and they were largely dependent upon a fleet of steamers which had been chartered by the Government to carry supplies in and out of the Bay. Scattered along the line were another 200 men building bridges, laying the track and attending to other necessary work.

The news brought the enterprise to a standstill. The vessels were at once requisitioned for war work, the men were brought home and the whole enterprise was temporarily held up. Later some 200 miles of the track were torn up, and the rails and sleepers shipped to France by Canada and used by her troops at the front.

When Canada recovered from the war the question of the Hudson Bay Railway came to the fore again. Up to that time the Canadian Government had sunk £3,200,000 in the venture. On Port Nelson alone £1,200,000 had been spent. While some were in favour of laying the rails again, others were equally determined to oppose the scheme on the plea that the railway would never pay and that sufficient public money had already been lost without throwing away any more.

The Unfrozen Bay

THE principal argument against the railway was that it could be of service only for two months of the year, the Bay being closed to shipping during the remaining ten months by ice. Then it was discovered, by a special commission sent to investigate conditions on the spot, that, far from being closed for ten months of the year, the Bay could be entered and left by ships during six months of the year if icebreakers were used. Much misconception existed concerning this great sheet of water, 472,000 square miles in extent. No part of Hudson Bay comes within the Arctic Circle. Its northern shores are in about the same latitude as the Highlands of Scotland, while Moose Factory, a Hudson’s Bay trading post on the southern shore, is south of London. Port Nelson is south of Riga, Latvia’s great seaport on the Baltic, and Churchill stands on the same parallel as Stockholm, in Sweden. Although the waters round the shore freeze every winter the Bay is never frozen over and is navigable throughout the winter. But Hudson Strait, the entrance to the Bay, is frozen solid every winter and is clear of ice only for some two months in late autumn. By the use of an icebreaker, however, the period of navigation through the Straits could be extended to six months, if not longer.

Another consideration in favour of prosecuting the undertaking was the fact that rich deposits of ore, particularly copper, had been located along the route of the railway.

BUILDING A NEW HARBOUR, the port of Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay

BUILDING A NEW HARBOUR, the port of Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay. The wharf has a length of 1,855 feet and a depth of water alongside of 30 feet. Four vessels can be accommodated at the wharf at one time, and there is sheltered anchorage for other vessels in the harbour and outside.

So it was decided to complete the line and the work was accordingly put in hand. During the building of the harbour at Port Nelson, ships and valuable material had been lost. Of seven ships that carried machinery, stores and men to the port in 1913 three came to grief, two to utter disaster, and a fourth threw her cargo overboard at the mouth of the Nelson River because there were no facilities to unload in time for the vessel to clear the Hudson Straits again before the ice closed the Bay for the winter. These mishaps to shipping at Port Nelson brought forward the question as to whether it was the most suitable site for a port, and the late Sir Frederick Palmer, an expert on such matters, was asked to make survey of the region.

He recommended Churchill in preference to Port Nelson. Churchill stands at the mouth of the Churchill River. The entrance to the river is through a comparatively narrow deep channel, after which the river opens out to a width of over four miles. Being sheltered by rocky bluffs from 40 feet to 70 feet high the water area within the river mouth is protected from all storms. No dredging is required, the depth of water within the river mouth at low tide being 30 feet.

So far as the route of the railway was concerned, it was decided to follow the old track to within a few miles of Port Nelson, when the line makes a sharp bend and continues directly north for about eighty miles to Churchill. The distance from The Pas to Churchill is 510 miles.

The work of rebuilding the line was carried out by the engineers of the Canadian National Railways. It was found that the old track required reconditioning almost throughout its length. For ten years the track had been left to itself and Nature had made useless much of the work that had gone into the line. The sleepers had rotted and required replacing. The permanent way had been badly damaged by successive frosts and embankments had settled. The laying of the track over the final section from the Nelson River to Churchill proved no light task. A few feet below the ground the engineers struck an impenetrable ice cap. The difficulty was got over by raising a high embankment and binding it to the ice cap beneath.

Valuable Metal Discoveries

RICH mineral deposits have been found adjacent to the track of the railway, and branch lines have been built to them. One runs to the copper mines at Flin Flon and Mandy and another to the Sheritt-Gordon Mines on Cold Lake. The Flin Flon and Sheritt-Gordon Mines have been shown, by the exploratory work already done, to have millions of tons of ore, carrying copper, zinc, gold and silver. The Flin Flon indicated ore has been estimated at 18,000,000 tons above the 900-feet level. Copper and zinc are the most important metals in the ores discovered to date. Several gold discoveries have been made in the district and it is reasonable to anticipate that some of these will be successfully developed.

To supply with light and power the mining towns which have sprung up as a result of these discoveries the Churchill River Falls have been harnessed. The power station was built by a force of 800 men. They toiled for two seasons, buried in a forest, building a modern hydro-electric plant at a fall which was unknown to civilization a decade or so ago.

While the work of completing the railway was in hand a gang of mechanics stripped the plant and material already installed at Port Nelson and dispatched it by ship to Churchill. There a wireless station was built and a runway made for aircraft. When the engineers desired to reach Churchill they went by air. Stores and important pieces of machinery were also delivered by this means. Barracks were built and men collected for building the wharf, the grain elevator and other necessary port buildings.

The wharf is 1,855 feet long with a depth of water at low tide of 30 feet. It is capable of accommodating four vessels at one time. There are safe moorings for more ships within the harbour and unlimited anchorage outside. The most conspicuous of the port buildings is the grain elevator. It has a capacity of 2,500,000 bushels of wheat, and, if need be, can be extended to hold 10,000,000 bushels. It is equipped with twelve pipe lines and eight conveyer belts, enabling three freighters to be loaded simultaneously at the rate of 10,000 tons a day. The experience has been that two vessels can be loaded with 250,000 bushels of grain in thirty-six hours, including trimming.

A substantial steel girder structure carries the Hudson Bay Railway across the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids

ON MASSIVE PIERS AND FOUNDATIONS a substantial steel girder structure carries the Hudson Bay Railway across the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids. Smaller rivers were spanned by wooden trestle bridges. The railway was built in conditions that ranged from mosquito-ridden summer heat to a winter temperature of 72 degrees below zero.

On the wharf there is a large freight shed and a storage ground for about 40,000 tons of coal, with two locomotive cranes which are able, with the ship’s tackle, to handle about 1,000 tons of coal a day. There are facilities for loading cattle direct from cars alongside the ship, and the necessary service tracks to shed and railway station. The town of Churchill has been laid out on model lines with a central square, known as Hudson Square, from which radiate spacious thoroughfares.

The various port buildings were put up in two seasons. Everything needed, down to timber and nails, had to be brought overland from The Pas or by steamer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The district supplied nothing. The winter work was trying because of the snowstorms, which lasted for days at a time, when all labour had to be suspended.

In the height of the summer fire was the dread of the engineers. The country is covered with a layer of moss, on which the caribou, moose and other creatures of the Far North live. In hot weather this moss becomes as dry as powder, and the slightest spark from an engine, a carelessly-thrown match or a cigarette would instantly start a fire. Several fires occurred, and on one occasion it looked as if the whole port would be involved. At times the entire camp had to be called to battle with these sudden conflagrations. Everything has been done to make the navigation of the Bay safe. There is a direction-finding radio station at Churchill, and a coast radio station at Chesterfield Inlet. In Hudson Strait there are three direction-finding stations, one at Nottingham Island, one at Cape Hopes Advance and one at the eastern end of Resolution Island.

Interrupted By Seals

IN addition to these direction-finding stations there are certain other aids to navigation, such as automatic lights erected on islands and promontories in the Bay and in the Straits. The men who built them had many strange experiences. On more than one occasion they had to drive away herds of vicious seals before they could proceed with their job.

During the recognized season of navigation, from mid-July to mid-October, the Straits are patrolled by an icebreaker which keeps in close touch with all vessels entering and leaving the Bay. The icebreaker is equipped with radiotelegraph and radiotelephone apparatus, carries a diver, boasts a powerful searchlight and two swift motor launches. The danger to shipping in the Straits is floating ice and icebergs. The first shipment of wheat from the new port was made in the autumn of 1931. In the five seasons from 1931 to 1935 there is a record of ninety commercial crossings from Europe to Hudson Bay, forty-five inward and forty-five outward. There was one total loss, which occurred on the outward voyage in Hudson Straits, and one minor casualty. The loss was found by a competent court to be due to negligence. The record is a satisfactory one and confidence in the new route is increasing. Europe is receiving about 3,000,000 bushels of wheat by the new route every season in addition to dairy produce, livestock, lumber and ore from the mines that have been tapped along the route of the railway. After twenty years of hard engineering work, much argument and an expenditure of about £6,000,000, the iron road across the wilds of Northern Manitoba has been completed, tested as to its practicability over a course of years and now awaits that fuller use as a grain route which should justify its existence. It may well be, however, that mining developments may provide an even more important traffic than the celebrated hard wheat of the Canadian prairie.

DITCHING MACHINE AT WORK during the building of the Hudson Bay Railway

DITCHING MACHINE AT WORK during the building of the Hudson Bay Railway across swampy ground. Used for raising embankments, the machine sucked up earth through pipes on either side of the track, and deposited the earth in front along the line of advance. The earth was then tamped down and sleepers were laid.

[From part 18 and part 19, published 29 June & 6 July 1937]

You can read more on “Canada’s Streamlined Engines”, “Conquest of the Rockies” and “Pioneering in Alaska and Yukon” on this website.

You can read more on “Canada’s Prairie Port” in Shipping Wonders of the World.

The Road to Hudson Bay