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Manitoba History: Commemorating the Construction of the Hudson Bay Railway

by Parks Canada

Number 57, February 2008

On 21 September 2007, at the VIA Rail Station in The Pas, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque commemorating the national historic significance of construction of the Hudson Bay Railway. On behalf of the Honourable John Baird, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, James Bezan, Member of Parliament for Selkirk-Interlake, was joined by local legend Ed Johanson in unveiling the plaque with assistance from Dr. Robert O’Kell, Manitoba Member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada; His Worship Herb Jaques, Mayor of The Pas; Dr. James Mochoruk, Professor of History at the University of North Dakota; Mrs. Sue Lambert, President of The Pas History and Heritage Society; and Mr. Andrew Glastetter, General Manager of the Hudson Bay Railway Company.

A plaque commemorating the Hudson Bay Railway was unveiled at the VIA Rail Station in The Pas, by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada on 21 September 2007.

A plaque commemorating the Hudson Bay Railway was unveiled at the VIA Rail Station in The Pas, by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada on 21 September 2007.
Source: Parks Canada

***

In the 1870s agitation began for a railway line linking the growing city of Winnipeg with a seaport on Hudson Bay. Considered by business and agricultural interests in the West as an alternative to “Eastern domination” and a necessary outlet for western grain destined for Europe, construction of the line did not begin until 1908 due to political and financial difficulties.

Before the financial constraints of the First World War intervened and suspended construction, a line had been built as far as the Kettle Rapids on the Nelson River. One of the major issues confronting the Canadian government was the location of the railway’s terminus on Hudson Bay. In 1912 Port Nelson was chosen, not for its natural harbourage, but for its shorter and easier access. After the war, construction began on port facilities at the mouth of the Nelson River, but in the 1920s, upon the recommendation of Frederick Palmer, an English civil engineer, Churchill was chosen to replace Port Nelson as the terminus, largely because of its natural advantages as a deep-water port.

The Hudson Bay Railway under construction, circa 1920.

The Hudson Bay Railway under construction, circa 1920.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Railway - 19, N13128.

Construction of the railway was a Herculean task. Hundreds of miles of muskeg capable of swallowing large sections of roadbed and track, as well as areas of shifting permafrost, had to be crossed. Aside from Canadian and American workers, immigrants from Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern and Western Europe were employed in the construction of the line. Some 3,000 labourers, living in crowded camps and enduring bitter cold and insects, used picks, shovels and wheelbarrows to build roadbed and bridges and lay the track. On 3 April 1929 the last spike was driven at Churchill, and with the completion of port facilities there in 1931 the Hudson Bay Railway was officially declared open. Today, the work of these railway builders is remembered and continues to serve as an enduring recognition to Manitoba’s northern potential.

Construction of the railway was a victory for Prairie farmers in their long campaign for a rail outlet to the sea on Hudson Bay. Today, the work of these railway builders is remembered and continues to serve as recognition of Manitoba’s northern potential.

The route of the Hudson Bay Railway northward from The Pas was originally intended to terminate at Port Nelson, at the mouth of the Nelson River, but was redirected towards Churchill during construction. Started in 1911, the 800-kilometer line reached Hudson Bay in early 1929.

The route of the Hudson Bay Railway northward from The Pas was originally intended to terminate at Port Nelson, at the mouth of the Nelson River, but was redirected towards Churchill during construction. Started in 1911, the 800-kilometer line reached Hudson Bay in early 1929.

Plaque text

The Hudson Bay Railway

The completion of this railway line from The Pas to Churchill in 1929 was an outstanding achievement and a victory for Prairie farmers in their long campaign for a rail outlet to the sea on Hudson Bay. Begun in 1911 but suspended during the First World War, it required innovative methods of building and maintaining rail lines over muskeg and permafrost. The railway provided an alternative route for exporting Prairie grain, encouraged mining and hydro-electric development and gave travellers an unforgettable experience of Manitoba’s north.

Le Chemin de Fer de la baie d’Hudson

L’achèvement, en 1929, du chemin de fer entre The Pas et Churchill constitue une réussite d’ingénierie et une victoire pour les fermiers des Prairies qui souhaitaient depuis longtemps avoir accès à la mer par la baie d’Hudson. Commencée en 1911, interrompue par la Grande Guerre, la construction de cette ligne nécessita plusieurs innovations, car il fallait maintenir les rails sur le muskeg et le pergélisol. La nouvelle voie facilita les exportations de céréales, stimula l’exploitation des mines et de l’hydroélectricité et permit aux voyageurs de découvrir les beautés du nord manitobain.

Page revised: 8 June 2014

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