Port of Churchill gives Prairies direct link to the sea

Winter parkas and pickup trucks are common sights on the Prairies. So are mosquitoes, sleds and golden fields of wheat.

Ships and seaports? Not so much.

Despite being situated in the middle of Canada ? far from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts ? Manitoba is home to the Port of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. It is currently Canada?s only major northern seaport.

The area has a long history, predating the province and even the country.

Long before Henry Hudson became the first explorer to sail into the waters of the bay in 1610, Aboriginal Peoples were already hunting and living in the area.

Further exploration brought more Europeans to the area in the 1600s. The formation of the Hudson?s Bay Company in 1670 and the accompanying fur trade brought even more exploration and development.

Known as the Hudson Bay route, the passage to the Atlantic Ocean provided some advantages to the traditional overseas route.

For the Hudson?s Bay Company, it provided easy access to European markets from its trading posts. It was also shorter. From a Prairie perspective, the Hudson Bay route shortened the transatlantic voyage by well over 1,000 kilometres.

Despite the advantages, there were also drawbacks ? primarily the weather. Due to the challenges and hazards posed by the cold and ice in the north, the shipping season was short.

Along with the federal government?s efforts to encourage settlement in the West came calls for the creation of a northern port on Hudson Bay. As early as the 1880s the debate centred on a suitable location for it. Frustrated by the monopoly practices and broken promises of the railways, westerners pressured the federal government to build a port to provide a shorter route for grain shipments to Europe.

It ultimately led to the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill.

Before Churchill, though, there was Nelson. From the beginning the debate focused on the best location for the port ? Churchill or Nelson.

Prior to the 1908 federal election, a survey was conducted on the two locations. Although most captains seemed to prefer Churchill because of its safe harbour, Nelson was chosen as the site because it was believed it would cost less to develop.

The location at Churchill was about 100 kilometres further away than Port Nelson. In addition, the tracks would have to be laid over the tundra and there were fears that blasting would be required to create the port. The proposed townsite also had its limitations.

In 1912 Nelson was finally chosen as the location. Initial promises called for the port to be completed in 1915, but the deadline for the problem-plagued project was pushed back. The First World War eventually intervened to bring an end to all work in 1918.

With the West continuing to clamour for the construction of the railway, the government ordered new surveys in 1926 and hired a British engineer with harbour experience to take another look at the relative merits of Churchill and Port Nelson.

Setting aside millions of dollars that had already been spent on the project, Frederick Palmer concluded Port Nelson would never be a good harbour and selected Churchill instead.

Construction on the railway was not completed to Churchill until September 1929. Over the ensuing years other infrastructure was completed in the area, including the construction of docking facilities and a massive grain elevator. At the same time, various agencies and merchants also set up operations at Churchill.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)