Manitoba's Forgotten $6M White Elephant

by George Siamandas


Manitoba boosters had always dreamed of a port on Hudson Bay, and from 1880 on a debate raged as to whether the port should be at Churchill or at Nelson at the outflow of the nelson River. In 1908 Laurier acting on an election promise sent out surveyors to select the correct location. Most ship captains favoured Churchill because of its safe harbour. The surveyors were not able to complete their assessment of Nelson because of poor weather.


Churchill was 100 km further and the railway would have to be built over tundra and as yet they had no experience in laying track over such terrain. There was also the fear that the Churchill option would need blasting of rock to create a port, and the site had limitations for townsite development. Port Nelson offered a superior site for townsite development as well as being closer resulting in lower railway costs. Work was begun in. In 1912 after the Borden conservatives had been elected the minister of railways decided in favour of Port Nelson.


In June of 1913 work proceeded under DW McLachan, the chief engineer, known as the "Little Iron Man". Despite difficultieswith in the harbour they went ahead full steam. They had to overcome a very narrow and shallow channel which they did by building an artificial island further into the water connected by a bridge. During 1915, nine hundred men, mostly "foreigners," worked on the project at Nelson while many thousands worked on the Hudson Bay Railway. The newly completed lighting plant let them work around the clock. WW1 brought an end to the project and all work ceased in 1918.


An enquiry in 1919 found that the chief engineer McLachan had never approved of the Hudson Bay railway nor the terminus of Port Nelson. Yet he had used his ingenuity and had done everything in his power to build it nonetheless. And the delays continued. In 1926 another enquiry lead by famous British engineer Sir Frederick Palmer concluded that Nelson could never be a good harbour. His report said that "the approach to Nelson can only be considered a constant menace to shipping." Palmer recommended Churchill as the port and the new destination for the HB railway.

In 1927 the decision was made to reverse the earlier decision of Port Nelson and make Churchill its new destination. Six million had already been spent. It took till Sept 13, 1929 to complete the HBR and it was not until 1931 that Port Churchill was complete. The whole bill came to $60 M. Benefits accrued to places like The Pas as the HBR was built. The Pas became a centre for lumber, fur trapping, mining and railway construction. Land values boomed.


There is still the 17 span steel bridge to the artificial island. In the middle of nowhere. Its an interesting lesson in planning, and in how a political football is never worth the trouble. That it took 50 years to complete should have said something about its soundness much earlier.


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