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Manitoba History: The Hudson’s Bay Company in Northern Manitoba, 1912-1987

by Judith Hudson Beattie
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 15, Spring 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The extension of the political boundaries of Manitoba in 1912 had lest impact on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s operations than did the new transportation and communication developments which followed. In 1912 the Company’s posts were linked to headquarters by the annual ship in Hudson Bay (The Nasco pie made her first trip in 1912). Internally, a complicated network of steamboat, canoes, and York Boats (with difficult portages) in summer, and dog teams in winter linked the Company’s posts. At the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill in 1929, these traditional methods of communication were replaced in some areas by the new, faster medium. The arrival of the HBC’s air service in the late 1930s was even more revolutionary. Isolated posts could be inspected and receive goods, services, and staff on a schedule less rigidly dictated by the changing seasons. The building of air strips hastened the evolution of the Company’s establishments from fur trading posts to merchandise stores.

In 1912 little had changed within the new territory included in the province of Manitoba since the inspection trips taken by James McDougall in 1889 and 1893-1894. The same posts were operating: Cross Lake, Nelson House and Split Lake in one group linked to Norway House by inland boats; Churchill and York Factory which depended upon the annual ship; Island Lake, God’s Lake and Oxford House supplied through York with communication to Norway House; and Lac du Brochet, Grand Rapids and The Pas connected to the Saskatchewan District. Competitors such as Hyers, Revillon Freres, and independent traders had broken the HBC monopoly, but the Company had extensive links, continuity, and the broadest area of activity.

Airplane landing at Norway House, 1936.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

William Chapman, a rather poetic clerk at Split Lake, has captured the importance of the arrival of the York boats and the flavour of daily routine at an isolated post:

Thurs 11 [August 1910]

Still dull in morning but clearing up towards noon when the sun was shining with all its summer glory. York-boats first seen at about 1:30 like spots of paper dancing on the far off water, larger & larger they become, the distinct outlines of the vessels are now visible; and soon the shouts of joy are heard. Unnecessary to say much more about arrival. Boats, five in number, brought goodly loads of merchandise from far-off Norway House. Busy remainder of day & towards eventide checking off cases, bales etc. and at work in store. Split Lake Post, HBCA B.207/1/7, fo.2

Tuesday, 9 May 1911

Business continues quiet, and serene in our Northern commerce, each day the trade grows more tired, yet each day we think nought could be worse. But oh! we long for the strenuous life and that days of a rollicking trade when the happy hunters come bustling in with many a beaver and otter skin (to be unable to hear above the din the cry of an old starving wife, who has nought to trade but a moccasin) for like this are the dollars made. Split Lake, HBCA, B.207/a/7, f0.23

From 1912 until 1929, however, the progress of the Hudson’s Bay Company across northern Manitoba from The Pas to Churchill affected the traditional patterns of operation for the Company. New posts were established to act as depots along the railway or to attempt to head off the increased competition that the rail inevitably brought into remote areas (Wabowden, Mile 137 and Gillam, Mile 327). In spite of early attempts to eliminate the difficulties of York boat transport by using horse teams from Norway House in the winter (HBCA, A.74/44), dogs continued to power most of the winter pack trains. The use of horses resulted in the goods arriving in better condition but the cost of feeding horses was prohibitive and roads were opened to competition. As the District Manager pointed out, “good roads do not always go hand in hand with good fur trading.” (HBCA, A.74/49, p. 23).

By 1918-1919 the Hudson Bay Railway could be used to communicate with Nelson House and Split Lake, but the other inland posts relied on York boat or canoe (HBCA A.74/48). John Bartleman, in recapitulating the routes for 1919-1920, pointed out the difficulties of transportation and communication in the Keewatin District, supplied from Winnipeg. The supplies for Norway House, Cross Lake, Oxford House, God’s Lake, and Island Lake went by elevated railway to be loaded onto the steamers Wolverine or Grand Rapids. In summer the steamer to Warren’s Landing took 3 days, then canoe or York boat took the packs on to Cross Lake (2 days), Oxford House (4 days), God’s Lake (6 days) or Island Lake (5 days). In winter, when dogs were used, the trip to Norway House took 7 days, and a day was added to the trip to Oxford House. Nelson House and Split Lake could be approached by the railway, but even after a day’s train trip it took 3 days by dog train or canoe to reach Nelson House. (HBCA, A.74/49) By the 1920s the use of the canoe had increased as the Indians objected to the strenuous work required to move York boats in shallow rivers, over rough and wet trails and over the hundreds of portages.

Chris Harding, in his annual report for Nelson River District in 1924, summarized the conditions along the coast:

The Capital of $350,000.00 which is invested in Goods and Supplies in Nelson River District is subject to many adverse conditions. We are placed in a peculiar and inaccessible spot on the Map of Canada in a rigerous region of Long distances and slow communication subject to vicissitudes and climate conditions of which nothing is sure nor can anything be run according to Schedule without disappointment. Under these conditions which we labour, endeavouring to carry on the work to the different points on the Bay, contending with ice conditions, Shoal Water, High Tides and tempest, these we overcome with big risk continually. A lot of these goods are given out to the Indians in trust, not knowing when Disease or Death may incapacitate or carry them off. This Debting of the Indians has come down from old times and very difficult to eradicate and can always be considered precarious. Then there are the vagaries of the Fur-bearing Animals, these may be plentiful in some years and in others a scarcity. A good many losses are reported on this account annually. The Indians are our Patrons and this is the way we care for them following along the lines of old customs, which of course is not business. We would like to follow instructions and eradicate this evil if we may call it such but at times we find ourselves helpless for we do not wish to create suffering or hardships among the Indians especially on those years when Game and Furs are scarce. A year of this kind we have just concluded. With these excuses for our feeble endeavours, short-comings, and failures, always trying to follow your instructions and doing our duty, we do trust that your criticisms will be in accordance with the situation in which we are placed. HBCA, A.74,53, pp. 233-234, Outfit 254 [1924]

Cross Lake post store, 1924.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

The arrival of the airplane also vastly changed communication in the north. The airplane was in use in the 1920s. In fact in 1920 the first commercial flight from Winnipeg to The Pas, the first north of the fifty-third parallel, caused quite a stir. In March 1927 the first cargo was carried to the North by plane when Western Canada Airways rushed equipment from Mile 321 (Cache Lake) to Churchill for the Hudson Bay Railway. The Hudson’s Bay Company already had been using private flying companies for inspections and transporting people. An idea of the impact of air travel can be appreciated from the 1929 Oxford House journal kept by the post manager. In June, July and August of that year the writer, Mr. Davidson, recorded the visits of forty planes including RCAF search and surveying planes, mining planes, mail planes, treaty parties, and commercial flights. On 19 August he wrote:

An air force plane arrived this morning from the end of Oxford Lake where Marshall the pilot & two mechanics had stayed the night when they had been on their way to Norway House from God’s Lake at which place they had been for 10 days. The Sikorsky Amphibian arrived from York Factory at two o’clock pm with 7 passengers aboard. After getting 60 gallons of Air Force gas they left for LI [Norway House] but had to turn back from Robinson portage owing to smoke from a bush fire. Four of them stayed here overnight ... A canoe arrived at nine o’clock also on plane HBCA B.156/a/45.

The high cost of transporting goods by plane meant that this new system never completely replaced the traditional methods. Still, by the mid ‘40s use had expanded from inspections of posts to moving people, hauling cargo and furs. This flexibility and the decreased isolation of the posts led to the modernization of the trading posts. Store hours were regularized and on some days they were closed, unlike the old days when managers opened whenever there was a customer.

The Northern Stores that were turned over to the new company in May 1987 were a far cry from the posts scattered across the north in 1912. Operating under the name “Hudson’s Bay Northern Stores” for two years by agreement with The Bay, the new Company runs the following stores in Northern Manitoba: Flin Flon, The Pas, Thompson, Brochet, Pukatawagan, Nelson House, Split Lake, Cross Lake (Food & Retail), God’s Narrows, Norway House (food), Oxford House, Rossville, Snow Lake, Gillam, Island Lake, St. Theresa, Waasagomach, Churchill.

Page revised: 23 October 2012

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