Aboard for Hudson’s Bay!
A close-up of the railway that leads through a wilderness to Manitoba's silent seaport
MARGUERITE L. HUBBELL
HUDSON’S BAY RAILWAY are familiar words in the vocabulary of the average Canadian, and there is no single project throughout this broad land, upon which more people speak with authority, albeit their own. It was rather surprising therefore, to find very little really reliable information available, when formulating plans to visit this northern way and it took weeks to evolve a very sketchy itinerary. However, early one August morning, I boarded a train for The Pas, which is the point of origination for this famous railway. Two days later, I was a passenger on the ‘Muskeg Limited’, its only train, en route for Port Nelson.
Many fantastic stories are told of the ‘Muskeg’ and when the epic of railway construction in Canada is written, it will have a whole chapter.
In type, the ‘Muskeg’ I traveled by was very like the usual freight, slightly augmented by an emergency track laying outfit. Its only gesture toward passenger accommodation was one nearly new colonist car.
The sanitary arrangements were of the crudest; the dining car was one’s own grub box, and the drinking water was carried in a large galvanized iron garbage can. It was scarcely pleasing to watch scrofulous Indian children diptheir tin cups into this vessel; then, contrary to the usual prodigality of Indian nature, pour the residue back into the tank.
The train was crowded beyond capacity that morning with the usual types of the frontier. Trappers, traders and prospectors, in slouch hats and high boots. Indians, accompanied by squaws in colorful shawls and multitudes of children, contributed atmosphere. Several white women, one just recovering from a critical operation, were rejoining husbands at remote trading posts in the interior. The ubiqui-
tous drummer, of course, completed the passenger list.
A Train Every Two Weeks
Midst1 great excitement the train pulled out. We achieved Mile 82 at noon. There we lunched with the Diamond Queen. This energetic little woman’s chief claim to honors is a kind heart. The romantic sobriquet is a relic of her early London music hall career when some spectacular diamonds were given her by Barney Barnarto, of South African fame.
Mile 82 is also the detraining point for the Herb Lake mining district, where the famous Bingo mine is located. A weekly service is maintained to this point for the accommodation of the mines. This is about the only item of accommodation that can be laid to the credit of the Hudson’s Bay Railway so far. In spite of the fact that construction ceased and the contractors were paid off in 1918, the stations still go by their construction numbers and the freight and passenger rates are still on a construction basis—fo' r fents a mile for passengers and $1.40 a 100 pounds for f-eight over 214 miles or fraction thereof. It cost $1.40 to send a pair of shoes from Mile 214 to The Pas to be half soled. Altogether, it is a penalty
rather than a privilege to live in the adjacent country.
From Mile 82 to 214 a bi-weekly service is maintained and it is possible, with luck, to achieve Mile 214 in twenty-nine hours. It has been known to take four days, the reason being that from the time construction ceased in 1918 until comparatively recently, not a dollar was spent in upkeep. The track deteriorated so badly that operating on it was by God and by guess, at a maximum speed of eighteen miles an hour. It was suicidal to travel after dusk, and between Mile 214 and Mile 334 it gradually became so bad that service was discontinued.
We traveled dizzily until mid-afternoon. Then stopped and stayed stopped. I had heard some interesting versions of first aid operations in navigating the Hudson’s Fay Railway, so, thinking that some of these might be in progress, I walked down to the engine. The crew and most of the passengers had congregated there. The section gang, part of the ‘Muskeg’s’ personnel, were filling up a hole in the grade, as big as a grand piano. The ballast had vanished and rails and ties were suspended in mid air.
This was my first close up of the track, and I began to appreciate some of the yarns I had heard back at The Pas.
In my inexperience, I had thought a railway track was always level and the rails always parallel. This was different. The best way to describe it, is not to try. Winding, sliding and looning over the right o* way, it was crazier than any railway in the devastated area of Belgium. Unbelievable that a train could stay on those crooked rails! I looked back and found that what we had negotiated was—no worse.
The Hudson’s Bay Railway had not actually sunk in the mud but it remained a railway only by the grace of God.
While repairs were made I sat on the engine and talked to the fireman. He improved my knowledge of the Hud-
son’s Bay Railway considerably and increased my admir ation for the men who kept it alive in spite of the unequacontest with neglect and the elements.
My sooty faced hero explained our delay. “We often stop several times in the course of a trip to repair track. It depends on the season?’ He went on to explain that it sometimes took days to make the required 214 miles. The crew often got out in the swamp and cut saplings to block up the rails and stole ballast from one piece of track to get over another piece. This explained the emergency track laying outfit. Now that section gangs were being put to work, things would be easier and with the advent of a few new ties, they expected to lead quite a peaceful existence. The section gang was an innovation this trip. Such work was usually done by the train crew. Parliament’s recent appropriation of $300,000 ‘for the rehabilitation of the constructed line? accounted for it . . . $300,000, God save the mark! When every second tie was crumbling to powder and not a square yard of ballast on the place!
Recently, with an appropriation of $3,000,000 and several hundred men on the job, a slightly more sincere effort has been made to cope with the situation.
I inquired if they ever ran off the track.
“Oh, yes, quite often.”
I learned that if the engine stopped on the track they could always get the cars back with the help of the first aid appliances behind-—the front deck of the engine was a glorified hospital, with a difference. Otherwise, it took three days to get a wrecking crew from Hudson’s Bay Junction. I surveyed the howling wilderness which began where the right of way left off and with the thought of my fifty pounds of groceries in the baggage car, grew philosophical.
“Well, you can’t make me mad, tell me some more,” I invited. “Are the storms bad in winter?”
“Pretty bad sometimes. The snow drifts so that we can’t see the track, then we are sure to get off. Sometimes we’ve been stuck four days.” That explained bunk cars and their exceedingly well stocked larders. If you wait long enough everything on the Hudson’s Bay Railway can be explained—with one exception.
I asked how long this particular crew had been running on the line and learned to my surprise that most of them had been there since construction days. “Would you not prefer another division, something a little less sketchy than this?”
The answer came unhesitatingly: “No, miss. You see it’s this way. We’ve been here since this road was started and we mean to see it through. They’ll finish it you know. Some day those big guys at Ottawa will wake up to it. Why this is the greatest bit of railway in Western Canada! Some day it will be double tracked. See those
long side tracks?
Know what they’re for? Simple matter to link them up for double track.”
“But why double track?”
“Why? Some day it will be electrified and loaded with fast freights carrying wheat from the prairies to the sea board. Some say Nelson’s a poor port but there’s Churchill . . . Return loads?
Plenty of them! . . .
We’ll bring the manufactured goods of Europe right to the back door of the prairies. This line will lower tariffs and cut our cost of living in two.”
I remembered that it is 670 miles from the centre of the prairies to Nelson, as against 2,000 to Montreal. Here was food for thought. Could there be anything in the dream?
The Frontier Goes to a Party
THE track was fixed. I returned to my seat profoundly admiring the spirit of these men but with hot resentment growing in my heart against the political dodgers who had used the Hudson’s Bay Railway as a vote catcher and had exploited so heartlessly those who had staked their all on the promise of its completion.
Perhaps the railway was an investment for the future, and only as the country paralleling it was developed, might returns be expected. What were the possibilities of the country? It looked bleak and uninviting enough from the car window. As I pondered, the roadmaster came along with his little brown teapot, and while we spread sandwiches from my grub box and drank tea, I learned a good deal more about the line and its possibilities.
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully, with occasional stops to unload passengers and freight at a few tiny posts. The gathering dusk finally made it unsafe to travel any longer and the ‘Muskeg’ quietly drew up beside an isolated water tank in the midst of the great lonely wilderness and parked for the night. The seats were made into bunks and we rolled into our blankets and slept peacefully, if not in privacy. We had traveled from seven in the morning until nine at night and had made only one hundred and fifty-seven miles.
At five o’clock next morning everyone was astir. The train crew, splendid hosts that they always are, invited me to a most excellent breakfast of ham and •ggs served in the caboose. Immediately after we were on our way and we reached Mile 214 or Piquitonia at noon. This is the only point on the Hudson’s Bay Railway as yet rejoicing in an official name. It is also the terminal of the railway, and it boasts of a round house and a coal shed. ‘The Muskeg’ rested there from Thursday at noon to Friday morning. During this time the engine was re-coaled by an unfortunate individual, who did it one shovelful at a time, as there was no coal hoist. These conditions are doubtless considerably improved now for the line is rehabilitated as far as Mile
254. No service is as yet regularly maintained past Mile 214, however.
In the evening occurred the one social diversion of the little settlement: a dance held by ‘The Muskeg’ crew in the school house. This function usually follows a church service, for visiting parsons are always opportunists and the school is the community centre. Everybody went to the dance, including Whites and Indians. Round dances were interspersed with square dances which the Indians loved. Jazz records divided honors with a real fiddler, who called off the square dances in true Red River style. The fun was fast and furious and long after I had given up to utter exhaustion, the tramp of those tirelessly dancing feet and the scrape of that energetic fiddle, stole into my dreams with the dawn.
Next morning I left by gas-car for the end of steel. A gas-car is just an ordinary track-motor with a platform about ten feet square built around it. The driver sits in the centre and the freight is piled about him and tied down—a most necessary precaution on the Hudson’s Bay Railway. The passengers dispose themselves as best they can on top of the freight. With the help of a couple of sleeping bags, I traveled in comfort, even achieving a sleep, as the Royal Canadian Mounted were on the job to see that I didn’t roll off. The weather was glorious, and not a mosquito appeared. The freight rate by gas car from Mile 214 to Mile 334 was four and one-half cents a pound.
Mile 214 is the last of the settlements. From there on are only an occasional trader’s post, wilderness and many deserted construction buildings. A picture of utter desolation, with abandoned wheel barrows lying impotently on their backs. Occasionally a decrepit boot, a broken shovel, or the ashes of a burned out fire gave sign of man’s one time habitation. Over everything brooded the silence of decay. Even the birds seemed to have
abandoned the place, for in all that day, I counted only seven, exclusive of a few ducks. The only other sign of life, was a black bear, traveling in the distance across the swamp.
The track grew worse and worse. At times the car traveled at an angle of fortyfive degrees and why it stayed on the rails, I do not know. Perhaps it was due to, ‘the front wheels being tied on loosely’, according to the local legend. Anyway, some years before Mr. Kitto spoke of ‘the exhilaration of making twenty-five miles an hour over this newly constructed road’; I defy anyone to surpass the exhilaration of fifteen, after its being more or less abandoned to the elements for eight years.
At noon, we reached the picturesque Manitou rapids and passed over the second of the three big stee^bridges on the railway. Later came the only difficult fill and bit of real muskeg on the line. The preliminary work here was a trestle, in spite of expert advice. One bright day it slid into the lake carrying an engine and crew with it. Trestle and engine are still in the lake but the crew swam out and the track was replaced across a rock fill.
At dusk, we reached Mile 332 or Kettle Rapids and early the next morning, ran down the remaining two miles to the Kettle bridge at the end of steel.
Below was the Nelson River. It is a mighty river and from the centre of that bridge, one may view it to advantage. That view takes in the one really spectacular bit of scenery on the entire Hudson’s Bay Railway. The water forces its way through a channel choked by great black ledges of rock. Just above the bridge it is ruthlessly caught and almost strangled by huge boulders only to leap in boiling green and white fury from the maelstrom or ‘Kettle’ beyond. One million two hundred thousand horsepower of potential electrical energy race through here; a significant fact should the road ever be electrified.
On to Manitoba’s Silent Seaport
U'ROM this point it is ninety miles to Port Nelson and the way lies over what is left of the grade on which no steel has as yet been laid. One may either walk or travel down the river by canoe. It is from this point also, that the additional one hundred and sixty-five miles would be projected to divert the present line to Fort Churchill, should that point ultimately replace Port Nelson as the terminal harbor. The freight rate from Kettle Rapids to Port Nelson was fifteen cents a pound.
One brave spirit solemnly shouldered his pack and trudged off to the port, where he arrived a week later, but I walked down to a point below the rapids, where a roomy freight canoe awaited me. My gear was already loaded and with a lusty ‘jakaloo’, my two Indian guides—and good ones they were— dipped paddles, and we were off to Hudson’s Bay.
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Looking over my diary, the details of that journey down the Nelson bring back the incidents of the trail and the thrill of running ‘white water.’ There’s plenty of it for six million five hundred thousand horsepower are running away in the Nelson stream.
We camped under the stars that night and next afternoon reached Port Nelson. Such a quiet place it was. Not a soul to be seen as we pulled in under a most astonishingly big bridge, extending out into a waste of water. “Surely,” I thought, “it must be Sunday.” Alas! ever day was Sunday, for Port Nelson has been abandoned.
They very kindly took me in at the Mounted Police barracks, as there are no stopping places. Early the next morning.
I began to investigate Port Nelson which has considerable historical interest but no landmarks.
Like most places under construction it is considerably scattered and a narrow gauge track connects the various works and buildings. A town site has already been laid out and in the centre stand the once famous but now silent wireless aerial, empty stores and uninhabited bunk houses. This place that one time hummed with the industry of over a thousand men is now silent, grim and inactive. Once the glare of furnaces and the blaze of electric lights made night brilliant; now the glimmer of the glow worm and an occasional furtive flicker from an Indian tepee, alone punctuate the darkness.
Along the waterfront a partially completed dry dock has grown slimy with disuse. Several temporary wharves are disintegrating and an imposing array of lighters, tugs and dredges are bleaching on the beach. Several of these were constructed at Port Nelson but most of them were brought in by way of Hudson’s Straits and it was considered more econoomical to let them lie there and rot, than to undertake the long voyage out. One of the dredges is said to have cost a million dollars to land at Port Nelson and was so entirely unsuited to the work required of it, that it broke down in twenty minutes. Nearby is a fully equipped machine shop. Also a number of inactive but expensive steel cranes, and impotent, but expensive, construction locomotives. Further along, the steel bridge, under which we had landed, extends out for three-quarters of a mile into the estuary. It is composed of seventeen concrete piers and connects the main land with the artificial island or mole which is the proposed terminal. This island is a natural sand bar over which the tide still washes, built around with partially completed crib work. The intention was to build entirely over this island with docks and lay thereon the tracks, elevators and warehouses requisite for loading ships. So far money has been lavishly spent but nothing accomplished that would materially aid in loading out a single ship. The whole space between the island and the main land was to have been built over with terminal facilities.
The approach to this island haven, is up a trumpet shaped estuary averaging six feet in depth. It is twenty miles broad at the base and narrows down in the course of twenty more miles to four and a half at the apex where the mole is situated. The winding channel in the centre of the estuary is said to vary from 1200 feet to 3000 feet in width. It is infested with shifting sand bars and achieves a depth of from eight feet to twenty feet. It is proposed to dredge this channel to a depth varying with the tides from thirty feet to fifty feet. The low lying shores afford no protection from the prevailing north-easterly winds which at times are fairly violent. Shortly after my visit the million-dollar dredge was blown over a mile from its moorings by one of this
variety, and neatly deposited on top of the cribbing at one end of the mole.
What of the Country’s Resources ?
CO MUCH for the physical aspects of ^ the railway itself and of the port at which it was designed to terminate.
What of the country through which the road passes? What of its potential resources?
Pondering over the latter question, I remembered that the roadmaster with the teapot had told me that there was little timber of merchantable value in the area tapped by the railway. The construction people took part of what little there was, and the fires have taken most of the rest. Along a few of the streams which run into the Nelson from the south a small quantity is reported, but the stands reported on the northern tributaries are very sparse, due to the burned-over condition of the country. The Barren Lands begin a short distance north of Nelson, so as far as timber is concerned, that disposes of the area adjacent to the bay.
Other authorities claim, however, that there are quantities of pulpwood available but no reliable figures have been secured as yet. The opinion is hazarded that some day a pulp mill will be built south of Mile 155 which will utilize the power from the Nelson and use the waterways which converge at this point to raft pulpwood from stands scattered roughly from the head of Lake Winnipeg through to the railway.
Fur is undoubtedly one of the greatest resources of this country. The farther north one goes, the richer it becomes. Of course, the advent of settlers pushes the producing area farther back but fur farming is likely to be a future development of the country adjacent to the line. Over a quarter of a million dollars are paid yearly in fur royalties in The Pas district. This does not include fur from the North proper which is covered by the posts throughout the barrens and along Hudson’s Bay and is taken out by the trading companies’ ships through Hudson’s straits.
Agriculturally, except in a few isolated and protected valleys, the country would seem to be discouraging. Except, of course, The Pas district. Most of the land is covered with a thick swamp varying from eighteen inches to ten feet in depth. It would be difficult to drain this as the season is so short that the sun never fully penetrates it, and one has only to dig down a short distance to strike frost, in most places. Even the portions exposed for years along the right of way do not seem to be promising. The most fertile belt is farther south and west around Oxford and Norway House quite a distance from the railway. Down toward the bay, the land has no agricultural value and could not be depended upon even to make settlements self-supporting. This is due to the prevailing north-easterly winds which blight the whole Hudson’s Bay territory, as they come from across country that is still ice-bound. All efforts to grow common garden produce at both Port Nelson and Churchill have failed dismally.
Fish are abundant in most northern lakes and rivers but at present they are little sought after because of the difficulty of reaching the market. The necessity of paying construction rates on the railway has not encouraged the few settlers in the country to send out more than an experimental car or so. The fisheries of Hudsons Bay itself seem to be somewhat over estimated. The Hudson’s Bay Company does not consider it worth while to maintain a fishing fleet in these waters and if the venerable company overlooks anything with profit in it, most of' us would like to be told. The American fleets which formerly operated there have been withdrawn. True, the fisheries of the bay
may be developed, but until more active conservation measures are necessitated by the condition of more accessible fisheries, it is doubtful if the government could be interested.
Prospects For Mines Are Bright
'HpHE real hope of the North and, very possibly, of the Hudson’s Bay Railway lies in minerals.
It should be understood that The Pas mineral area verges on the Hudson’s Bay Railway, roughly from Mile 42 to Mile 80. This district is suspected to be an outcropping of the pre-Cambrian shield and there are evidences of this same formation again adjacent to the railway, roughly, from Mile 1»5 to Mile 205. The latter portion, however, has barely been investigated. A few chance samples have been sent in by trappers and traders, and the Indians have brought in native silver, suspected to be from this district. They do not tell where it is found and none of the few prospectors have as yet uncovered it. The overlode is very heavy, and is a great handicap to investigation when added to the lack of railway transportation and the high cost of labor.
Among the more important districts of The Pas mineral area, is the Herb Lake district where considerable gold development has been done. The Bingo, Rex and Kiski claims in this field have interested the public from time to time. West and north lies Elbow Lake where some prospecting, also for gold, has been done and where a mill was worked for a short time.
Westward again lie the Mandy and Flin Flon claims in the copper area. During the war when the price was high, something like 26,000 tons of copper ore were taken out of the Mandy. This was teamed thirty-six miles, barged 190 miles and rail hauled to the smelter at Trail, British Columbia about 1,500 miles. About $70.00 per ton was cleared after this enormously costly handling. If this ore could have been treated on the ground, just fancy what it would have been worth! A good deal of lower grade ore is left at the Mandy, some that will probably run as high as $25.00 or $30.00 a ton. Existing transportation conditions account for the present inactivity.
The Flin Flon has developed about 20,000 tons of ore. It is quite low grade however and a railway, power plant, a smelter and fluxing material are required to reduce it. Plenty of power, and lime and quartz for fluxing purposes are readily available right in the country. When the railway will come, the gods must decide.
Mineral bearing formations are reported as scattered throughout the barrens and I have been told that native copper, in spectacular quantities, is plentiful around the Coppermine River country. Mineral bearing rock formation is reported about the Chesterfield District, (top of Hudson’s Bay) and on many of the Arctic islands. This territory has, of course, not yet been prospected. Iron ore is said to be plentifully apparent in the islands off the west coast of Labrador and at places along the coast. I have heard that it would not be difficult to load ships with what lies about the shores in this vicinity. Apparently iron is quite common, but just how valuable, commercially, it is doubtful if there are any records to show. It is on points like these, that common sense and enthusiasm divide.
Editor's Note: Since this article was written, work has been commenced by the Government on the rehabilitation of that part of the Hudson’s Bay Railway already built and its completion to Hudson’s Bay. During the winter, supplies arc being pushed up beyond Kettle Rapids and it is hoped that before spring it will be possible to lay steel as far as the Limestone River. Two heavy freight engines have been placed on the line and one tramload of supplies a I day is moving up to Mile‘211,.