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The Grand Rapids Tramway: The First Railway in the Canadian Northwest

by J. A. Rodger Letourneau

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 32, 1975-76 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

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Nearly one hundred years ago, the Hudson’s Bay Company laid down the first railway in Canada’s old Northwest. It was unquestionably a modest affair: three and one-half miles of frail narrow-gauge track, “oatburners” for motive power, six pieces of four-wheeled rolling stock and a hand car. But its last spike was hammered home in the autumn of 1877, and that event made the Grand Rapids tramway a first in the western interior. Its builder was none other than Walter Moberly—the man blazing the tree high in the Eagle Pass in the opening scenes of CBC’s National Dream series.

Twelve years after an eagle pointed the way for him through the Rockies, Moberly, a civil engineer, contractor, surveyor and mountain explorer all rolled into one, was summoned by the Hudson’s Bay Company to overcome vet another obstacle to transportation the turbulent “Grande Rapide” of the Saskatchewan River. For generations the canoe brigades of the Hudson’s Bay Company had paddled up the mighty Saskatchewan to the very foothills of the Rockies. The most formidable hazard along its course lay but two miles from where the river emptied into the northern part of Lake Winnipeg; here the Saskatchewan dropped some 70 feet over four miles in a series of extremely turbulent and fast rapids. For decades the story was the same for the hardy canoemen: upstream, a strenuous portage, pulling the frail birch bark craft against the current with ropes; downstream, perhaps a partial portage and sometimes a terrifying and occasionally tragic passage through the churning waters with half-laden canoe.

By the end of the eighteenth century the sturdy, flat-bottomed York boat largely replaced the fragile freighter canoe. The York boat could take on four times the cargo, yet it was too ponderous to drag upstream with ropes. Along the old portage trail, therefore, a succession of logs were laid over which perspiring crews rolled their cumbersome craft. At length, the Saskatchewan route was abandoned as a major transportation artery because the boat brigades, continually plagued by sickness, the elements and, at times, plain apathy on the part of the halfbreeds who manned them, met with indifferent success. Consequently, for some fifteen years the “outfits” for the northwestern districts were dispatched over the rolling prairies by Red River cart train.

So might it have continued had not the white man introduced the Industrial Revolution into the “great lone land.” While the squealing carts of the Honourable Company jolted across the prairie and the parkland fringe, to the south, American railway builders blazed a path of steel into Minnesota. Soon the river steamer Anson Northup began to call in at Fort Garry to forge a commercial link between the adjacent Canadian and American Wests. The Dominion forestalled American annexationist aspirations by enticing Manitoba and British Columbia into Confederation, and reorganizing the vast expanses between into the Northwest Territories. Union with Canada meant the westward march of settlement which drove the already-overtrapped fur-bearing animals before it. Traders were confronted with longer, more expensive voyages; the Indians and mixed bloods who freighted and trapped for them toiled harder to reap a diminishing harvest. An unstable European fur market, dwindling and undependable manpower, and rising costs compelled the Hudson’s Bay Company to replace the York boat brigades and cart trains with less labour-intensive transportation means. Reflecting upon the hardships of the 1870 season, J. H. McTavish reckoned that events “must render it plain ... that unless a well organized steam service be inaugurated throughout the Country, the transport business of the Company cannot be carried on any longer.”

The advent of the shallow-draught riverboat meant that for an interval each year, the treacherous Saskatchewan could be navigated while its waters were swelled with the icy runoff from distant melting snows. Hence Deputy Surveyor W. S. Gore arrived at Grand Rapids in November 1873 to find “Carpenters and other Mechanics,” hard at work on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s new sternwheeler, Northcote. Although drawing only two and one-half feet of water with a 200 ton load, the Northcote led a precarious career on the Saskatchewan. Numerous strandings and several sinkings sometimes occasioned the need to round up anything that would float to deliver tons of goods that “had been rendered at great expense at the upper end of the Grand Rapids....” Thus, according to Chief Company Commissioner, James Graham, a decision to build a steel-hulled steamer on the Saskatchewan was “wisely forced on us....”

When steam was introduced on the Saskatchewan, a dirt road was cut through the wilderness across the Grand Rapids portage, over which cursing teamsters coaxed wagon loads of goods at a cost of one cent per pound. But often times up to five days were expended discharging and taking on cargo at Grand Rapids “as part of it had to be hauled over the Portage after the Northcote got there and the road being very bad the teams could not take full loads.” Bad enough that the Colvile, with one-third the cargo capacity of the Northcote, required three week-long voyages to and from the Rapids to provide sufficient tonnage for her big sister. Given the capricious nature of the water level, such time-consuming processes could be the crucial determinant of a successful passage or a stranded vessel. In 1873 Surveyor Gore believed a canal could broach the rapids; by 1877 Commissioner Grahame recommended a canal to avoid the obstacle. Alternatives, however, were not at hand. Another Company servant, Alexander Matheson, proposed the use of a steam traction engine to pull freight across. He had noted in an article from the Scientific American that a six h.p. steam tractor could convey twelve and one-half tons of coal “no matter what the grade or how deep the mud.” Reasoned Matheson, “Judging from the performance ... a good road is not necessary ... and perhaps a small outlay on the portage would put it in a very passible state for it.”

The idea of a railroad across the portage first emerged from Company correspondence during the summer of 1876. An unnamed engineer (possibly Walter Moberly) submitted an initial construction estimate of $13,000.00 for a tramway made entirely of oak. But the price for the wood alone—a resounding $3,285.00—prompted Commissioner Grahame to wonder “whether it would not be better to lay a light iron Rail at once such as the Nanaimo Coal Companies have been exporting to Victoria lately by our ships. It may be better ... than to carry oak Rails from the Upper Red River to the Grand Rapid which after being laid down would be in constant danger of destruction by forest fires ...” Donald Smith, a chief Hudson’s Bay Company share-holder—also the man who would drive the last spike of the CPR—persuaded the Canadian government to grant the lease of a right-of-way in return for an option to purchase the work in the future. By Febbruary, 1877 the Honourable Company had apparently settled upon a tramway and it began to wrestle with logistics.

Norman W. Kittson was an American fur trader turned river boat man. He operated the Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamer International which connected at Fort Garry with the Company’s boats working the lower Red River-Lake Winnipeg route to the Saskatchewan. Kittson had thereby developed a keen interest in the improvement of the Company’s transport system. On its behalf he approached an acquaintance in the management of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad for advice on hardware and rolling stock for the proposed tramway. The official found “that our Western manufacturers are not supplied with the necessary machinery to manufacture Rails of the ’U’ pattern, or of crescent shape, ... The best that could be done ... would be a Rail of ordinary Street Car pattern or a T Rail of very light weight, varying from 26 to 32 lbs. per lineal yard.” After making further enquiries at Chicago, Kittson wrote, “I find that the U Rails are not made, and that no I [he meant “T”] rails are made lighter than 48 lbs. to the yard.” Meanwhile London, England and Berlin, Ontario firms had advised the Hudson’s Bay Company that they were prepared to provide “U” rail. R. T. Naylor & Company, the Canadian house, outlined 18 lb. “U” rail laid with tie plates on two sets of sleepers, one longitudinal, the other across, as most suitable for a light tramway passing through swampy terrain. In the end, the Cleveland Rolling Mills offered to roll an attractively-priced 18 lb. “T” rail. The more standpat British and Canadian manufacturers still carried obsolescent “U” rail which their progressive American counterparts had long discarded. Itself highly conservative, the Honourable Company had thought in terms of the inferior “U” rail, but the American price so easily undercut its competitors that Hudson’s Bay management readily accepted the bid, and the “T” pattern.

Having, therefore, arranged through Norman Kittson for the manufacture of rails, Commissioner Grahame drew up a contract with Walter Moberly on 21 May 1877. For $16,500.00 Moberly promised to construct the three and one-half mile tramway by 1 October, and he immediately forwarded an order for rails through Kittson. In Cleveland the foundries began to pour and roll fifty-five tons of twenty-four foot rail lengths to put down three and seven-tenths miles of main line and sidings. Also to be forged were six number three frogs and switchstands, fish plates, bolts and nuts, together with five tons of spikes.

In the interim the contractor addressed himself to the problem of rolling stock. Hudson’s Bay officialdom had pretty well decided that “Dobbin” should continue to furnish the immediate motive power requirements, but the future acquisition of a small steam locomotive was not altogether ruled out, since Messrs. Depew, Howson & Company of St. Paul advised Moberly that “they could make an Engine suitable for such a Tramway ... for $1,500 ...” Regarding cars, the Company originally wanted all-wood construction; then it made a complete about-face to entertain notions of an all-metal car; finally a prudent compromise between weight and durability resulted in a solid oak tram car with iron accessories and undercarriage. Depew, Howson & Company estimated that “platform cars, fitted with brakes &c to carry about 3 to 3½ tons would cost from $200 to $250 each.” But again it was Norman Kittson who enlisted another St. Paul firm, C. N. Parker, to put the cars together according to Moberly’s specifications for the more reasonable sum of $137.00 each. The contractor requested “six strong plain platform cars” made from oak, with “eight strong iron cleats” to be “bolted to each car for reception of upright oak stakes.” The cars were to be six and one-half feet long by five feet wide, supported on two axles fitted with “chilled face” iron wheels fourteen to sixteen inches in diameter, gauged to three and one-half feet. “Strong iron bar connections” for hitching horses were to be fitted at each end. Anticipating gradients on the line, Moberly ordered a braking system of the manual, double lever type “with upright brake stems, wheel ratchets &c.” Parker was also willing to supply three sets of “Whipple Trees” for $10.00 each, plus “two pairs extra wheels fitted to axle” for $24.50 each.

Spring gave way to early summer at Grand Rapids and a hive of activity began to buzz about the lower landing. In early April, G. S. McTavish was appointed to take charge of the Company’s transportation on the Saskatchewan. McTavish arrived that very month in the company of Captain John Griggs and two engineers for the Northcote; they brought with them “two experts” sent from England to superintend the assembly of the new, steelhulled, screw-driven steamer destined to ply the Saskatchewan. The steamer Colvile discharged work gangs, construction equipment and camping gear at Hudson’s Bay Point. Moberly had agreed to obtain all his equipment and provisions from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which in turn consented to transport everything free of charge and buy it back at a fair discount when the tramway was completed.

Moberly was soon at work locating the right-of-way, while his men, organized into grubbing crews, followed the stakes, clearing back the undergrowth thirty-three feet on either side of the proposed track centre to form a fire break. Then they toiled as graders, carefully dumping locally quarried stone and dirt to build up a roadbed two to three feet high. Others scoured the forest for spruce and tamarack, from which crossties were axe-hewn and flattened on two sides. These were laid down, 2,400 to the mile, and rails spiked directly to them, no tie plates being used. Where the roadbed passed over treacherous patches of muskeg or forded the two small rivulets flowing across its path, the track was laid over longitudinal sleepers; three such logs were laid parallel, then the crossties were put down snugly side by side over top, and the rails spiked down. To provide a smooth pathway for horses, the grade was packed throughout with ballast even with the tops of the ties, and it appears that hand-hewn planks were tree-nailed between the rails for the horses to tread over the bridges.

The contractor notified Commissioner Grahame in mid-August that the tramway would be finished on schedule, barring inclement weather. Kittson’s steamers had delivered the tram cars to Fort Garry for $200.00; after transhipment to Grand Rapids, Moberly’s crew quickly enlisted them to haul rails, ties and hardware to end of track. “[T]his week I will have the iron laid to the top of the small hill near the upper landing” reported Moberly: “I graded, laid track and ballasted ¾ of a mile last week Yesterday I cleared & grubbed all the distance to the upper warehouse except about 3 hours work & today have the grading & track laying going on fast.” G. S. McTavish was an able and determined overseer who had vowed “as far as lies in my power” to “push through the transport Service as expeditiously as possible.” With some gratification he reported at the end of August:

On Wednesday we commenced freighting goods over that portion of the Tramway on which the rails were laid, a distance of nearly 1½ miles. Mr. Moberly and I ran the first two trips, and with one horse and truck we managed to haul two tons weight up the steepest grade on the line. The trucks being new, the axles were not very smooth, so that I am in hopes when everything is favourable, one horse will be able to draw three tons over the Tramway as far as the rails are laid ...

Writing to London for instructions pertaining to an upcoming goodwill visit by the Governor-General Lord Dufferin and his Lady, Commissioner Grahame inquired of the Home office: “... as a demand may be made on us to contribute to his reception I am desirous of knowing to what extent the Company would, considering the present depression in business, be prepared to subscribe-.” The Company decided to provide a tour for his lordship up to the Saskatchewan River. The vice-regal party duly arrived at Grand Rapids on 11 September to find about two miles of track laid, all the ties cut and the men clearing the right-of-way at the upper landing. “Mr. McTavish ... came to meet us,” recorded the Countess of Dufferin, “and took us two miles across the portage on a tramway laid down since July, and the first railway in the Northwest. The car was gorgeously lined with coloured blankets, and when we got out of it we jumped into springcarts, in which we did the unfinished part of the railway ... and I put in a rivet in the last piece of the railway and was presented with the hammer.”

In October, McTavish “... found that Mr. Moberly had nearly finished the Tramway on the 6th ..., by the 9th the piece of main line leading into the Store House at the Lower end of the portage was completed and after that his men were employed boxing in the drain, cutting wood, working at ’Lily’ [the new steel steamer] and laying a piece of track at Upper end in front of Store House.” Continued McTavish:

... The grade at the upper end is steeper than at the cutting a mile and a half from the Lower end, but it could not easily be avoided without blasting, and will answer all purposes for some years to come or until an engine is substituted for horse power.

From the top of the grade at Upper end, one horse drew two cars and four and a quarter tons freight with ease to the Lower end.

It appears that Moberly had indeed been temporarily delayed, but not by the weather: “None of the Switch Stands &c for the sidings have been sent,” complained the contractor, “so I will have to make some. Those iron men have not sent you a fair quality rail-spikes, plates, bolts & nuts good ...” In the same report, Moberly suggested that a hand car be added to the fleet of tramcars.

The Grand Rapids tramway was completed on schedule, and Walter Moberly made preparations to turn it over to the Hudson’s Bay Company. “It will relieve us of an immense amount of trouble and anxiety as well as expense in connection with the portage transport, as one horse will now do the work of six under the old system,” explained a jubilant Alexander Matheson. Leaving three horses to operate the tramway, all superfluous animals, wagons and harnesses were loaded aboard the Colvile. Exclusive of the transportation charges of men, material and supplies, the tramway had cost $17,389.00, but it was worth the sum. Vessels could now be discharged and loaded in one day; cargo could be transferred across the portage for one-half cent per pound-half the previous cost! After the first season’s operation, Alexander Matheson concluded, “The Tramway has been a great boon to us, enabling us to do away with most of the men and horses required under the old plan, while transport by it has been so expeditious that the men and horses kept for it are available for numerous other purposes.”

The initial success of the tramway inspired a renewed faith in the old Saskatchewan route; the Hudson’s Bay Council of 1878 stipulated that:

... Chief Trader Alexander Matheson be instructed to receive at the Grand Rapids all goods intended for the Northern Districts ... and have conveyed ... to Cumberland the goods intended for that District and 600 pieces of those intended for the Athabaska District, sending to Carlton ... the goods intended for the Districts of Saskatchewan, English River, Edmonton, Peace River and McKenzie River ...

Little doubt remained that the new tramway was an important key to the successful prosecution of the Hudson’s Bay Company affairs in the Northwest. Having thus modernized its transportation system, the Company sought to divest itself of the administrative and operational burdens connected with it in order to concentrate on the fur trade which had reached a precarious state. While the tramway was yet under construction, steps were being taken to incorporate the Winnipeg & Western Transportation Company to operate “a Freighting and Transportation business by Steamboats and other vessels upon the [waterways of the Northwest] ... and the building and operating of Tramways, wharves and warehouses ... necessary or desirable for the carrying on of said business.” On 13 June 1881 the new company formally took over the Hudson’s Bay Company’s carrying trade; in return the Hudson’s Bay Company received $100,000.00 of W & WT Co. stock, a fifteen per cent discount on freight rates, and the first priority on the shipment of its freight and passengers. The new W & WT Co. received custody of the three steamers Lily, Northcote and Colvile plus the Grand Rapids tramway, and increased its capitalization to $250,000.00 accordingly.

For some twenty years the tramway appears to have paid its way handsomely, faithfully conveying the Hudson’s Bay Company’s business across the portage. The operation of the line was by and large smooth, movement over it being co-ordinated, it was said, by a makeshift telephone fabricated from old cans and wire by an enterprising Company servant. Notwithstanding, the experience of Peter Beardy, one of the teamsters, testified that nothing is perfect. The high point on the portage lay about 650 yards from the upper terminus. The Indian and Métis mule skinners soon hit upon the practice of hauling the cars up from the lake end to the start of the steep grade in the direction of the upper landing. Unhitching the motive power, the drivers would coast the car into the upper terminal, keeping the force of gravity in check by means of the chain brake, (the mule being content to trot along behind). Small wonder that the brakes soon began to deteriorate under the punishment. New brake chains were ordered but not yet supplied. One fateful day, Beardy reached the top of the grade with a loaded tramcar. Tightening the chain brake, he jumped down and, as was the custom, turned the mule loose. Climbing back aboard, he loosened the brake and the car began to roll forward. What followed is described in the reminiscences of an old Indian assistant clerk, who had just sat down to dinner at the upper landing when the Métis began his descent. “A thundering noise was heard,” recalled the clerk:

I dashed out, and here round the bend came a heavily loaded car at a furious speed, a very black French half-breed, with his hair flying in the wind, twisting the brake with all his might; but the chain had broken ... There was a neat gravel walk from the track right up to our front door, and as poor Beardie came to this and noted the big warehouse doors were shut beyond he gave a wild glance around and noting me jumped from the car and slid right up the gravel walk, his feet hitting the step hard. He was half unconscious with the excitement and shock, and on examination I found his legs and stern full of gravel pellets which, as there was no resident doctor, I extracted with a pocket knife, using a log for an operating table.

The car hit some loose freight on the track and dashed through the doors of the warehouse, which fortunately was piled up with flour at that end and acted as a buffer, and the damage was not extensive. On reporting the matter, new chains were promptly supplied; so there was some good come out of the accident. Mr. Mule had quietly trotted back to his stable at the lower end.

During the Northwest Rebellion, supplies for the troops rolled over the tramway in deference to the strategic importance of the Saskatchewan route. Manitoba’s most famous regiment, the 90th Winnipeg Rifles, were accorded special tribute when they passed through Grand Rapids on the way home from Fish Creek and Batoche. “When we landed,” wrote a C Company diarist, Robert K. Allen, “they had the badge of the 90th on the warehouse door, and underneath the word Welcome.”

Although the Grand Rapids tramway fulfilled its expectations, there were signs as early as 1888 that all was not well with the overall operation of the Winnipeg & Western Transportation Company. In January the secretary, Herbert Swinford, advised Angus McLean at Grand Rapids to ready the tramway for the coming season; “but,” he cautioned, “do not Exceed $75.00 if you Can Help it.” Was this merely routine parsimony toward equipment and plant maintenance? Within a few months, Secretary Swinford was again on to McLean:

I have been thinking that we Could make more Economical arrangements at Grand Rapids in the way of Supplying our men with their meals in past years we have always sent out a Cook for the men working on the Tramway which item of itself is rather heavy Now do you think we could arrange with any one there to board them by the week there will be only four or five ...

In the summer of 1892, R. W. Ginn of the W & WT Co. was informing William Clark, the general manager, that drastic steps would have to be taken to reduce the cost of handling freight “to a proper figure.” If one calls to mind the initial effect of the tramway’s construction in paring the old transhipment costs by a half, Ginn’s appreciation of the situation only fifteen years later seems startling indeed. Apparently the running of the tramway proper was subcontracted to a firm known locally as “the Lake Co.”; Ginn’s remarks devolved into a scathing criticism of that company’s gross inefficiency. “We are practically doing the whole of the tramway work ourselves,” remarked the frustrated Mr. Ginn. “We can handle the tramway ourselves,” he concluded, “at much less cost and in a manner to prevent the great delay which takes about all the profit away from the Boat.” Scarcely another month had passed before Ginn again was urging that “we should run the tramway at Grand Rapids ourselves. I can hire two men here with teams, the men to act as firemen [on the steamer Northwest] down & back and drive on the tramway, as a large saving can be made both in expense & in delay.”

What circumstances prompted such drastic reorganization schemes? Another missive to the general manager hinted at a partial answer by noting that there “is no doubt much prejudice against the boats from former days, when it was the policy of the Company to push forward the H. B. Co.’s freight only, and let that of outside parties lie over ...” Such an arrangement had been mutually beneficial when the W & WT Co. had monopolized the carrying trade of the Saskatchewan and the Honourable Company had been its chief customer. Now, however, not only were there a growing number of “outside” users catering to the needs of newly-settled communities, but a powerful newcomer had invaded the hitherto more or less exclusive preserve of the W & WT Co.—the railroad.

Railway communication to Prince Albert and Edmonton was opened in 1891 by the CPR, compelling the steamship company to withdraw its ships from the trade of the upper Saskatchewan. Thereafter a single boat operated only as far as the Cumberland district. Even then, between 1891 to 1898 the Northwest made only nine trips which incurred a total net loss of $3,331.27. Two years later the W & WT Co. closed its books and returned its assets to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The tramway at Grand Rapids had been gradually devaluated to one-third its initial value by 1894. An inspection in 1901 revealed a dilapidated collection of buildings, much of the warehouse space being no longer essential to house the trickle of freight passing over the tramway. The post itself was now manned by a single “temporary servant.”

With the extension of the Canadian Northern through the Dauphin country to the neighbourhood of the Saskatchewan River and the completion of the road’s survey to Prince Albert, the Hudson’s Bay Company sensed the inevitable: “The building of the Railway will have the effect of transforming the Company’s business ... into more of ... ordinary Saleshop trade than Fur trade.” Thus did the annual report for 1900 prophesy the evolution of what has come down to us today as “The Bay”! At a feverish pace, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann pushed their Canadian Northern on to Winnipegosis; then, from Sifton Junction, northward to the Pas in 1907 and Prince Albert the following year. The Hudson’s Bay Company wisely endeavoured to adapt: “By the new route of the Canadian Northern Railway to Winnipegosis Station and thence through Lake Winnipegosis by Steamer to the Portage at the North end of the Lake, Cedar Lake Post can be reached in 24 hours from Winnipeg, and in two more days Cumberland House can be reached by the Company’s steam tug.” While Company management was convinced that the reaches of the lower Saskatchewan were incapable of “ever being developed into anything else but a rat-swamp,” the Company perceived the golden opportunity to push its retaining industry in the more fertile tracts being opened by the railroad.

Settlement sprang up hard on the heels of the Canadian Northern’s survey and construction camps. Native and halfbreed hunters now found it only too easy to do business at the many stores of independent petty traders which began to dot the railroad line. More disturbing yet was the realization that fishing, lumbering and mining industries, which sought to exploit the newly opened wilderness, offered more lucrative employment than the uncertainties of the hunt or riverboat work. The impact of the railroad upon the Hudson’s Bay Company had been profound indeed. The consequences attendant upon railway development were destroying the fur trade as a major revenue source. On the other hand, not only was the iron horse funnelling an unprecedented horde of immigrants into western Canada, but railway expansion northwestward stimulated investment by British, American and foreign capitalists in the resources of the Northwest. The era of the great western wheat boom was in full swing. Viewed in this light, the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s retail merchandising trade looked highly promising. In response to potential markets swelling the Winnipegosis and Dauphin areas in particular, the Company debated setting up a major supply base at some station on the Canadian Northern to serve both the settlers and the fur trading posts still lingering on the lower Saskatchewan. A new steamer, the Saskatchewan, was launched in 1904, but the inauguration of rail communication to the Pas rendered “dispensable” the operation of this vessel within five years. The old Northwest remained on the beach at Cumberland House.

In 1909 too, the ailing trading post at Grand Rapids finally succumbed to the effects of progress. “The importance of Grand Rapids as a Fur Trading Post has ceased to exist,” declared the Company’s annual report, “and as there is no prospect of its being made remunerative, its operation is being discontinued.” Therein after, the topic of inland transportation per se in the Saskatchewan District merited scarce mention; what little traffic there was remaining between the fur trading posts ironically reverted to the York boat and the freighter canoe during the summer, and to teams in the winter. The railroad took care of the long haul to the Company’s key supply depots.

During the year 1921 the Saskatchewan District witnessed a heavy loss in its fur trade. In an effort to recoup whatever it could, the Canadian Advisory Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company approved a request by the settlers of Grand Rapids to purchase the now-abandoned tramway “for the sum of $800.00 which is considered a fair price as the track is practically scrap.” The Company’s land commissioner was further instructed to lease the portions of the tramway on Company property at both ends of the portage for a nominal sum. On 15 December an arrangement was concluded at the behest of Manitoba MLA, J. Morrison, to dispose of the tramway to the provincial government for the above sum. Subsequently. the Federal authorities reminded the Company of Donald Smith’s arrangement. which stipulated that the line was to be turned over to Ottawa if ever it were to be given up. On 4 March 1922, it seems that H. A. Bowman, the Chief Engineer of the Reclamation Branch, advised the chief commissioner. Hudson’s Bay Company, that if the Company and the provincial government recognized that only “the rails and other material on the property” a ere involved in the transaction-and presumably not the right-of-way itself. which belonged to the Federal government-the deal would stand: otherwise, the Company would have to return the $800.00. The conditions sere unacceptable to one party or the other probably the Province-for the money was refunded, and the lease to the tramway surrendered to Ottawa. Consequently, the Manitoba government had to negotiate with Ottawa for the tramway, and with Hudson’s Bay Company separately for the property at the terminal points, which was eventually transferred to the Local Government District of Consul, and still later, to Manitoba Hydro.

For some forty years, Grand Rapids slumbered peacefully, becoming merely a port of call for the MS Keenora; but undaunted tourists who ventured that far north discovered the memorable thrill of riding the old tramway across the portage to run the foaming turbulence in a canoe guided by a native paddler. The tramway, however, must have been operated as a tourist attraction on an irregular basis, for as early as 1932 one disappointed party found it unmanned. They had to content themselves with a ramble by foot over the mossy, flower-strewn right-of-way, among rusty rails, and crumbling ties, enveloped as in a corridor by the forest growth looming on either side to the very foot of the roadbed. The once-sturdy, little team cars lay mildewed and forlorn.

For one last, fleeting moment in the early 1960s the Grand Rapids tramway became the focus of public attention. Manitoba Hydro began construction of a $140 million hydro-electric project near the mouth of the old Saskatchewan River and a work gang treaded a path along the right-of-way one final time to pull up some two-thirds of the tramway which was due to be flooded by a man-made lake. Soon, in response to the controlling floodgates, the water behind the dam started to rise; gradually the present inundated the past. Yet even today a portion of the barren right-of-way is above the water level. The remaining one-third not affected by the dam remains in situ, though badly deteriorated and vandalized. One short section was removed and relaid near the museum in Grand Rapids together with the replica of a tram car built by Manitoba Hydro.

Thus was the Northwest’s first railroad conceived, constructed, operated and abandoned. Even though as far back as 1882 there was confidence that the route by the Grand Rapids would be the most economical and direct way of exporting the grain of the Northwest to Europe once the projected railway to Hudson’s Bay was built, this project was not to be completed for another half-century. The Hudson’s Bay Company never modernized the tramway; no donkey engine ever replaced the faithful mules on the portage. As history would have it, before Walter Moberly’s gang secured its last rail in place, CPR navvies south of St. Boniface were already pushing through the first link in an all-rail transportation system which would render obsolete the Grand Rapids tramway.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Grand Rapids Tramway (Northern Manitoba)

Page revised: 20 April 2012

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