Manitoba’s New Seaport
Will Churchill and the Hudson Bay route be a money-saver or a debt-maker? Here is a Westerner's view of the outlook
SNOW-BOUND, raked by icy Northern gales, all but abandoned on the rocky shore of Hudson Bay, is the little settlement of Churchill— focal point in the most daring bid to divert the paths of trade since the Panama Canal sliced two continents asunder. Scarcely more than a score of hardy frontiersmen comprise this winter’s crew at the newly built Northern Manitoba harbor which is the keystone of an arch of Western Canadian hope that seeks to bridge the North Atlantic.
Ice lies in a solid mass across the mile-wide harbor, in which two British tramp steamers loaded more than half a million bushels of prairie wheat four months ago. Gleaming snow is drifting about the towering white elevator. where grain cars were unloaded and boat holds filled last fall as rapidly as at the finest of ocean terminals. .
In the grey haze of the short sub-Arctic day.
Churchill now seems far removed from the sunny afternoon when prairie grain poured down from loading spout to ship hold -—the first cargo to go overseas by the three-century-old Hudson Bayroute. Yet it is not so many weeks since that September day when a weatherbeaten British sailor looked out across the Bay and murmured:
“Blimey, I’ve sailed the seven seas, and this is the eighth, so I should be a ruddy good sailor, shouldn’t I?”
Broad shoulders shrugged as the seaman turned from his argumentative, deck-scrubbing
mates to a new set of workers aboard ship—parka-clad wheat trimmers of Canada’s Department of Railways and Canals, toiling in the holds of the steamer Farnworth as she took her fill of grain from the belching spouts of the steel loading gallery at the dock. F'rom the windswept deck, the soliloquizing British sailor observed further evidence of industry—clawing dredges, hard by, tearing up the river bottom; whistling construction engines steaming to their tasks; and a great white grain elevator rising high above the scattered bunkhouses of the men who built it.
Hudson Bay has in truth become an “eighth sea” with the sudden birth of a prairie port on its rocky shores. Greatest inland body of water in the world, the Bay promises to be furrowed by a lane of shipping unique for many a reason in the history of trade. The opening of Churchill in midSeptember marked a new entry in Canada’s bright record of pioneering achievements.
History, romance, adventure. A chapter of each is written in the building by the Canadian Government of an ultramodern sea harbor on the rock-girt shore where Jens Munck landed with his threescore ill-fated Danish followers in
1619; where one of North America’s mightiest forts was wrecked by French sailors in 1782; where the Selkirk settlers, first colonizers of the prairies, came to Canada from Scotland in 1813.
Yet as unceremoniously as new ports of call dot the workaday travels of the sailor on a tramp steamer, new experiences and new problems have been encountered and surmounted quietly by the trail-blazing workers who transformed Churchill from an isolated trading-post in Northern Manitoba’s barren muskeg country to the most modem of the world’s grain-shipping harbors. Ignoring the glamor of the history they are making, the men who modelled Churchill have set into operation Canada’s greatest experiment since the days of the trans-Canada railway.
A Prodigious Grain Elevator
rT'HE dice are tumbling now in a §50,000,000 gamble, with confident Canada calling the turn against the dusty prejudices of years. If the Dominion is justified in its venture —and the outcome should be known in a year or two—the
grain-growing, livestockraising prairies will revel in the advantage of a newfound outlet to markets sorely needed;
Never before has an endeavor been made in America that equals Canada’s brave achievement in conquering the barrens north of the 58th parallel. The rolling of steel ribbons across the continent to the Rockies and beyond sought out the known wealth of a new land; the sundering of two continents to build the Panama Canal rode to success on the knowledge that busy trade routes would be shortened to half their length. But the halfcentury-old job of paving a trade road from the prairies to the Bay was necessarily a gamble until ships could actually be loaded and sent on their way.
Perhaps the Bay route project is still a gamble, but the odds have narrowed down until a decision is in the proximate offing. A few more journeys inbound through Hudson Straits, a few
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M a n i t o b a’s N ew S e a p o r t
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more oversea cargoes of prairie grain and livestock safely delivered, a touch of good fortune here and there, bringing lower insurance rates and similar advantages, and the hopes of the West’s old-timers will have been crystallized into experience-backed facts.
Almost 1,000 miles to the north of Winnipeg along a rail line of zigzagging steel, Churchill must needs be a hive of feverish industry during its shipping season of three months, if it is to be a success. Granted, however, an even break in world trade and weather conditions—matters beyond the influence of man—the Northern Manitoba harbor will be able to keep in full circulation the rush of business that will be its lifeblood.
No ocean terminal in the world can handle grain faster than the towering snow-white elevator at the Churchill River mouth—a masterpiece of electrically operated efficiency in the heart of the North. No shipping point in Canada can approach Churchill as an ideal maritime outlet for livestock, so close is it to the grazing lands of the Northern prairies. And so on down the line of mechanical facilities—loading and unloading transport inland and shipping over the sea—Churchill, with the great advantage of its proximity to the Western prairies, need fear opposition little.
In grain shipping, Churchill will be able to rank next to Montreal and Vancouver among Canada’s ports, even if the export movement starts only at harvest time. Thirty million bushels of grain can be rushed over the single-track line to the Northern port in the six weeks of open season remaining after the reaping of prairie grain begins. Such a bulk of shipments will cause no embarrassment to the capable new elevator. Simultaneously, its loading spouts will be able to pour grain next season into four boats lined alongside the dock; and three more vessels, if necessary, can be moored in the harbor.
Five hundred cars of grain daily would rumble north over the Hudson Bay Railway if the 511-mile line from The Pas were pressed to capacity. This figure, regarded as a fair estimate, compares with 700 cars a day handled over the old Canadian National lines to the lakehead in the days of single-track service. Daily movement of 500 cars to Churchill would mean the handling of 5,000 000, bushels a week, which would not press the Government-built elevator beyond its boat-loading capacity of 80,000 bushels an hour. But it would mean that every wheel would hum in the frontier harbor when business was at its height.
A shipment total for the season even greater than 30,000,000 bushels could be attained if grain stored over winter started out for Britain and the Continent at the beginning of the open season on the Bay, about July 15. Conservative backers of the Bay route, however, prefer to estimate its possibilities on the basis mainly of new crop shipments, not banking on extension of the present conditions of heavy carry-overs and large early summer stocks.
Comparison With Great Lakes Route
A MORE favorable basis of comparison as against the Great Lakes route is expected to develop hereafter, for lake freight rates last season were at rock bottom, and the lake rates constitute the margin of advantage in favor of the Bay route. Due to the dearth of cargoes resulting from stagnation in the world wheat markets, last season’s lake figures on grain stood at five cents a bushel instead of the usual eleven cents. Ocean rates out of Montreal, including insurance, run seven cents as compared to fourteen cents out of Churchill. Thus in ordinary times, when the eleven-cent lake rate is in force, the Northern port will have a four-cents-a-bushel advantage, as rates from the prairies to Churchill and to the lakehead are approximately the same.
Broadening of the working margin on
shipments out of the Manitoba sea harbor will coincide with the lowering of insurance on hulls and cargoes, deemed inevitable and not far distant in the future. For the two test shipments of 545,000 bushels of wheat cleared for overseas last September, it was necessary to pay insurance rates roughly amounting to eight times the Montreal figure. If this differential is cut even to four times—and charter agents believe it will be before long—it is considered that Churchill will have reached a really competitive working basis with Montreal.
Even a fifty per cent slice in the existing insurance rates will, however, not find the West completely satisfied, in the opinion of Brigadier-General R. W. Paterson, head of the On-to-the-Bay Association, protagonist for years of a prairie sea outlet. General Paterson considers that Montreal and Churchill rates, at least during the admitted three-months season on the Bay, should be on a par. He points out that, while it is 176 miles farther to Liverpool from Churchill than from Montreal, this disadvantage is offset because half-speed is necessary for steamers leaving Montreal until they are 200 miles down river, whereas the pilot is taken off Bay-route steamers when the outgoing boats are about half a mile from the loading dock.
The position of General Paterson finds support in the comment of Captain W. Mouat of the Farnworlh, which was the first steamer to visit Churchill for an overseas wheat cargo. Captain Mouat declared that he would much rather bring his vessel into Churchill harbor after a top-speed journey across the Bay into full sight of the elevator and dock, than steam cautiously for two days up the St. Lawrence into Montreal. The efficient aid of Canada’s radio service from Government stations along Hudson Straits and at Churchill make direction finding and general navigation exceptionally easy on the Bay, the British skipper thought. Ice breakers, he believed, might possibly extend the open season beyond the anticipated three-months stretch.
Livestock And Incoming Freight
'T'HOUGH the Northern trade path has
been regarded primarily as a channel for grain shipment ever since the charter for the Hudson Bay Railway was first granted half a century ago, the handling of livestock promises to be particularly appropriate and profitable. As a matter of fact, the livestock trade should persist through the Straits when Bay grain shipping has dwindled, which it may if the St. Lawrence waterway is some day brought to completion.
Just as the Great Lakes route lowered the cost of carrying bulk commodities from the prairies to the sea, and as lake rates are certain to be undercut by Hudson Bay charges, so the development of the St. Lawrence would bring the commodity rates to a new low level. Bargain prices by the Bay will be able, during the next decade or so. to divert grain to the North from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northern Alberta and even the Northern States possibly, but the major trend will swing back through the East when and if the waterway is completed.
Never, however, will the St. Lawrence development rob the Bay trade channel of its manifest advantages in shipping cattle from grazing lands in the prairie park areas. Shipping through the Straits avoids the long, arduous haul by rail to Montreal, and affords a shrinkage saving of as much as sixty pounds a head.
During the first half of Churchill’s open season this year, it is certain that livestock will move out generously in trial shipments. Loading facilities can be thrown up cheaply and at a moment’s notice. Only one feeding between farm and seaboard will be necessary in draining a large portion of the West’s most prolific cattle country, and this will occur at The Pas. where rail lines from Saskatchewan and Southern Manitoba con-
verge on the Southern terminus of the Bay road. Nothing more than roughage need be hauled to Churchill for the voyage, since grinding equipment at the harbor’s elevator is able to produce feed with almost magical rapidity and efficiency.
The greatest problem of the new-found trade route at the present moment is the question of incoming cargoes. It is conceded that goods of many kinds can be distributed, at a saving in freight charges, to the prairies from Churchill, but only sketchy attempts have been made to marshal together likely items. However. Eastern agents are scanning the possibilities.
Tea and textiles and a host of lines of package-freight could be brought into the prairies by the Bay. Machinery is needed more and more by mines which are being developed in the North. Oil might be brought in for storage or refining at the Northern port, and plans for a storage plant are now under serious consideration by a prominent oil company. Welsh anthracite coal could be an import if objection from Southern Saskatchewan and Alberta softcoal mines were not too strenuous. And so on down the line.
The Dominion Government will soon appoint a general manager to supervise both the Churchill harbor development and the Hudson Bay Railway, it is believed, on the supposition that the two services are inseparable. This move will obviate the inconvenience of importing stevedores from the East to handle only a three-months assignment each year, for it will be possible to take men from the railway’s section crews and put them to work at the docks during the open season. The step will assure, as well, a continuation of the co-operation so marked in the progress of Churchill’s headlong development.
Building Under Difficulties
OWNED by the Dominion Government, the 2,500,000 bushel Churchill elevator —big enough to cover two city blocks and as tall as a twenty-one story building—is the most impressive spectacle at the new-born port. But it is no more imposing than the invisible achievements, the monstrous tasks of river dredging and gravel filling which were handled so hastily, yet so efficiently.
In the rush to get the harbor ready for a test in the fall of 1931, 1,500,000 cubic yards of mud and rock were dredged from the bottom of the Churchill River to make a roomy harbor, and another 500,000 yards will be dredged next season. From the gravel pits located conveniently near Churchill, enough gravel has been taken for “fill” around the new settlement to choke the vast void carved out by hungry dredges —and another 330,000 yards is to be filled next season.
In great part, Churchill has been built on gravel. The shoreline of the Churchill River has been pressed outward from the townsite by dumping in generous quantities, and irregularities in the contour of the construction area have been remedied wholesale. The great elevator, in fact, was built on piles driven into the bed of the ice-layered river 300 feet from shore, for it was necessary to go out into the water to reach soil not frost-laden the year around. After the piles were driven, gravel was poured in to make a firm foundation.
The brief history of Churchill under construction is a record of difficulties surmounted by men who thrive on beating back the frontier—and then seeking again its rough friendliness. Three years ago, Hudson Bay Railway work was balked by the soft surface of the muskeg country, into which ties and rails sank and vanished, but winter construction was named as a remedy. Over barren ground the rail line was run into Churchill in the chill March gales of 1929, before the frozen muskeg became its soggy summertime self. Later the lihe was ballasted and the sinkholes
filled with gravel, making a road easy to maintain in perfect condition.
Industry and ingenuity solved the problem of how to lay a pipe line to supply Churchill with water, though the soil is frozen so far down in winter that drills at 175 feet have still shown frost. Dominion engineers took the same muskeg which delayed railway construction and used it as a four-foot protective covering about a pipe carried overland on piles.
Work has not been done haphazardly in making Manitoba a maritime province. Accurate temperature records and weather charts, delicately correct soundings of the entire harbor bottom and volumes of interesting data, have been gathered by workers of Canada’s Department of Railways and Canals. As an instance of ingenuity, a young engineer evolved a new system of taking temperatures in deep drill holes, checking on frost in the soil. Knowing that cold air drops to the bottom of the hole, he inflated a football bladder to block the hole after insertion of a thermometer, thereby obtaining an accurate reading at any depth.
A Poor Place For “Boomers”
NEXT summer, at the earliest, Churchill will enjoy its first taste of the hard-won adulation of the public. Though the sprawling collection of bunkhouses, cottages and semi-permanent buildings has lodged as many as 2,000 men, the townsite has never been thrown open. It is now suggested that Manitoba may postpone the townsite opening for a year until 1933, when the port will be complete, but the moment the province pulls back the gates the rush of “boomers” will begin, and even drastic supervision will scarcely prevent the invasion of more people than can make a living in the short season. The tide of surplus firstcomers will ebb to the South, disappointed, when the newest Canadian harbor settles down to everyday business.
It is as difficult to forecast the likely
population of Churchill as it is definitely to outline the future of the port itself and the Hudson Bay route. When construction is completed next summer and the entire project is placed on an operating basis, the number of men employed on the port and railway will shrink to a standing minimum. They may be numerous enough to form the nucleus of a summer town, but any further population must arise from incoming business folk or industrialists, and these cannot be many.
The knife-sharp gale off the Bay in winter —and winters at Churchill last six months or more—will hold down the all-year-round population.
“I’ve seen them come up here in the spring, saying they think the port could be kept open twelve months a year,” said one of the construction engineers who likes the north with limitations, “but by the time October rolls around, they’re dam glad to go south again.”
Flowers bloom at Churchill on fertilized ground, and pampered gardens yield radishes, lettuce and other produce, but so rarely and so punily that a good Churchill vegetable dinner is a rare luxury. The farthest North cow in Manitoba grazes on hauled-in hay at Gillam, a divisional point on the Bay line 185 miles southwest of Churchill. No, not many will take up a twelve-months residence at the Bay shore settlement.
A bright future, however, seems not far away for the Hudson Bay route. Hopes of the West country, built upon fifty years of agitation for the development of a prairie outlet to the sea, need be no less roseate because of the rigors of Churchill’s closed season. It is the open season that counts, and the duty of the West is to assure the concentrated rush of business necessary to put the whole project across. Western importers and exporters hold in their own hands the power to make the loading of prairie grain on Hudson Bay in the glow of the northern lights an everyday occurrence.