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Manitoba History: Review: Ian Bickle, Turmoil and Triumph: The Controversial Railway to Hudson Bay

by Paul Thistle
The Pas, Manitoba

Number 32, Autumn 1996

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.

Ian Bickle, Turmoil and Triumph: The Controversial Railway to Hudson Bay Calgary: Temeron Books Inc., Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995. pp. 224, ill. ISBN 1-55059-107-X.

Turmoil undoubtedly, however, the triumph referred to in the title—although certainly true in human terms—is clearly shown to be highly uncertain in practical terms. Turmoil and Triumph provides a fascinating glimpse into the many years of travail required to build and then to retain the Hudson Bay Railway as an alternative transportation route serving the transportation interests of western Canada.

Given the current newsworthiness of the potential fates of Manitoba’s northern railway and ocean port facilities, as well as the nearness and dearness of the project to the hearts of western agrarian interests, many readers should be interested in the history of this great enterprise. Written by former The Pas resident, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool employee, and research fellow at the Canadian Plains Research Center, Ian Bickle, the book outlines the many years of human struggle, both physical and political, required to build and then to retain this long mooted alternate route for grain and other exports from Canada’s western interior. In extending earlier academic works on the subject [1], the book focusses on the truly “Homeric” human achievement involved in the survey work and construction of this project. The book also deals with the subsequent campaign to fight against the plague of political machinations directed at scuttling the venture. Although clearly a supporter of the Bay Line himself, Bickle does provide the necessary balance to his account by presenting the major arguments of those opponents who believe that the Hudson Bay Railway route is not in fact a viable one (pp. 148, 201).

Bickle opens his account with a chapter dealing with the 1915 construction labour crisis at The Pas. This is followed by chapters on the role of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, the working conditions during the early phase of construction between 1910 and 1917, the process of surveying the route, the history of the agrarian demand for an alternative to the CPR monopoly, the working conditions during the second phase of construction between 1926 and 1930, and chapters outlining the modern political struggles of the corps of dedicated volunteers to maintain the route in the face of strong opposition from regional interests elsewhere in Canada. Some other useful information on the Bay Line placenames, a 1913 RNWMP report on a dog team patrol from The Pas to Churchill, the technical explanation of the stubborn “sinkhole” problem for maintenance of way, the 1995 “Gateway North” task force report, and a list of contacts for the tourist attractions in Churchill are appended.

Evidence gleaned from RNWMP and medical files is used effectively to portray the poor working and health conditions found in the construction camps as well as the sharp dealings and malfeasance which were characteristic of the early construction period on the part of the subcontractors. Bickle has followed the earlier work of Beatrice Frederick [2] quite closely, even to the extent of using many of the same quotations from sources. He has, however, presented more complete excerpts from these documents as well as valuable additional source material from Frontier College (formerly Reading Tent Association) files. Readers gain a clear picture of construction camp conditions and issues such as ethnic tensions among the labourers from these Frontier College documents. Perhaps most usefully, he has employed extensive extracts taken from a retrospective account by surveyor John Leslie Charles prepared from his own field notes.

The book is illustrated with some rare photographs, including one which pictures the interior of a log shack belonging to some Russian “stationmen.” These men were among the thousands of unsung manual labourers, referred to by surveyor Major J. L. Charles as the “heroes of the Hudson Bay Railway construction,” who built up the much of the 510 miles of roadbed with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. This image gives strong visual support to the descriptions of the workers’ accommodations which have been compared unfavourably with both prisons and dog kennels (pp. 57-8). It reinforces the need for our recognition of the great debt owed by Canadians to these often anonymous “bunkhousemen” who laboured in near untenable conditions to build the infrastructure which now serves as the foundation for our wealth, comfort, and access to resources in this country.

Port Nelson in 1928. Originally planned as the terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway, Port Nelson was eventually abandoned in favour of Churchill.
Source: National Archives of Canada

Clearly, Turmoil and Triumph was written as a popular account and it lacks reference citations, although specific information of this kind is available upon request through the publishers. As revealed by the above list of chapter topics, the book is not presented chronologically and, apart from the initial hook provided by the compelling story of what one might call the crisis resulting from the “reserve army of the unemployed” which congregated at The Pas in 1915, there seems to be little apparent reason for Bickle’s rearrangement of the historical narrative. Those readers who happen to be linear thinkers also may find it hard to discern a clear purpose, save perhaps an attempt to emphasize the construction hiatus between 1917 and 1926, behind presenting the chapters on the preparatory survey work followed by the pre-construction history of reiteration sequence of the route in the middle of the book. The necessitated by the non-chronological narrative the book results in some irksome repetition of arguments and even sentences.

Beyond this somewhat unorthodox composition, there are other minor organisational difficulties. To begin with presentation, the lack of paragraph indentations is somewhat disconcerting to this reviewer as is the numerical style which substitutes a space for a comma when presenting numbers in the thousands. In my view, these stylistic affectations are simply unnecessary detriments to readability.

In a small number of cases, the arguments presented by Bickle are not fully developed and might have benefited from some further percolation and judicious editing, as for example when, in dealing with life on the construction line, Bickle states: “... by today’s standards, conditions were certainly unacceptable” (p. 59). This anachronistic argument is certainly true, but an even stronger point could have been made had the author referred to contemporary practices and standards [3] compared with the compelling evidence which he presents in the previous passages.

In some instances, Bickle’s historical interpretations are questionable as for example his assertion that Jens Munk is credited by most as the “authentic discoverer of the bay” in 1619 (p. 83). This is done without explaining why Henry Hudson should not receive this recognition for his 1610-1611 voyage through the body of water which bears his name. Munk was not even the first European to explore the western shore of Hudson Bay, as that credit belongs to Sir Thomas Button in 1612.

Regarding the evident failure of the project to achieve its vaunted potential, Bickle also argues that “the West simply has never had the voting power to counter the East’s political resistance” (p. 149). In doing so, he seems to quite forget his own previous explanation that the construction of the rail line was at long last agreed to by Laurier’s government in 1908 as a consequence of the rising population and related political power of the western provinces which had become apparent during the first decade of the century (pp.88-9). Bickle also indicates that, after a dangerously long nine year post-war hiatus, the Bay Line was directed to be finally completed in 1926 due to the influence of the western-based Progressives on Mackenzie King’s minority government (pp.92-3). It seems clear that the Hudson Bay Railway would never have been started much less completed with-out the realpolitik in the west, sporadic in its impact though it might have been.

Despite these minor shortcomings, in the end analysis, Ian Bickle has succeeded admirably in his main purpose which is to chronicle the huge problems encountered by the workers on the ground in surveying and constructing the Hudson Bay Railway. He brings some fascinating data to bear on the continuing controversial nature of the project and its background. Turmoil and Triumph is well worth the attention of anyone interested in understanding the origins, practical problems faced by the workers, and the ongoing struggle to preserve the Bay Line and our prairie port.

Notes

1. Howard A. Flemming, Canada’s Arctic Outlet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957); Grant MacEwan, Battle for the Bay (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1975); Derek Redmond, “The Hudson Bay Railway: Its Role in National and Regional Economic Development” (Master’s Thesis, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Queen’s University, 1979).

2. Beatrice A. E. Frederick, “Construction of the Hudson Bay Railway: A History of the Work and Workers, 1908-1930” (Masters Thesis, History Department, University of Manitoba, 1981).

3. Cf. T. D. Regehr, “William Mackenzie, Donald Mann, and the Larger Canada,” In Western Canada Past and Present, A.W. Rasporich ed. (Calgary: University of Calgary and McClelland and Stewart West, 1975), p. 79.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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