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Port Nelson, Northern Metropolis! (Or Not)

March 11, 2009

One of the most salient facts about Canada is that, with the exceptions of Edmonton, Saskatoon, and St. John’s in Newfoundland, every one of Canada’s fifty largest cities lurks near the border with the United States. The popular conception of the country as cold and barren isn’t that far off.

Not that this stopped the Canadian government from spitting into the wind for the first fifty years of the country’s independence—and on and off since then too. Many early books and government documents extol Canada’s north as an analog of the American West. It hadn’t been developed but there is a very strong sense of “yet” to the modern reader. Practical programs to bridge that gap abounded. For example, the federal and Ontario provincial governments spent a great deal of time, money, and effort trying to get the Great Clay Belt of northern Ontario settled for farming despite a climate too cold to make it worthwhile. The holy grail of northern development, however, was Hudson Bay.

It’s not hard to see why. Despite its name the bay is actually an inland ocean, a cold version of the Mediterranean or Gulf of Mexico. When agriculture was king of the economy, it was one of three potential solutions to the problem that Canada’s richest farmlands were isolated by considerable geographic barriers. As the Canadian prairies developed, it was a question of what to build so all the grain could get out: a series of locks and canals down the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to Montreal (the highest point ocean-going ships could reach from the east); a railway to the west over the Rockies to Vancouver; or a relatively short rail-line north to a new port on Hudson Bay. Two of these worked out, one didn’t—but it was tried.

Canada had a small fur-trade port on the bay already, Churchill, but it was at the mouth of the Churchill River and correspondingly useless. That waterway winds through unsettled northern Manitoba to Saskatchewan. Much more appealing was the Nelson River, which hooked up to Lake Winnipeg (and so the major railway yards at Winnipeg itself), and from there to the very border of British Columbia via the Saskatchewan River system. There was also the important consideration that the mouth of the Nelson was closer than the Churchill’s outlet; it would be cheaper to build toward it. The only problem was that there was no settlement at all where the Nelson flowed into Hudson Bay, but a little government money could fix that, right? The project was so appealing that Ontario and Manitoba had squabbled over who would receive that part of the Northwest Territories, though Manitoba had won the argument by the time building started.

And so was born Port Nelson, Manitoba. Beginning in 1912, a site on the northern bank of the river was laid out, and a railway survey pushed from The Pas in northern Manitoba, past the northern edge of Lake Winnipeg and then on to Port Nelson.

A wharf was built at the site in the spring of 1913. Proper building and settlement began later that year, but even this early effort encountered the two problems that would plague the site: the ships bringing the crews and equipment had to battle through iced-up waters to reach the Nelson, and the wharf proved to be inadequate to their needs. Weather and engineering were already ganging up on Canada’s potential northern pearl.

The dredge being used to build the harbour was towed all the way from Toronto through the head of the bay only to run aground. Another ship bringing vital supplies of livestock and a radio ran aground and froze solid before much could be retrieved. Another carrying timber couldn’t unload because of the inadequate facilities and froze up within the Nelson itself; a team had to dynamite their way in to kill a coal fire in the engine compartment. Still, by 1914 the town had a jetty and proper wharf, a small local railway to move cargo around, and radio contact with the outside world had been established. Port Nelson had a population of roughly 750 (though that was entirely workers for the project, not actual inhabitants).

Unfortunately, it turned out that a port on the banks of the river was not going to be possible. The Nelson would deposit so much silt on any jetty that it would be impossible to maintain. The project leader eventually decided to build a truss bridge out to an island in the centre of the channel where the silt problem was less severe, and put the port facilities there. It was built that year (and can still be seen to this day), but the projected opening of Port Nelson was pushed back to 1916.

Meanwhile, the railway connection between Port Nelson and the more-populated parts of Manitoba was in trouble. It had fallen well behind schedule due to a shortage of labour and steel — World War I could be thanked for that. There were doubts that if the railway were finished that there would even be coal available to run it, that resource being subject to wartime rationing. A private company, the Canadian Northern Railway, had been selected to build the line, but the CNoR had also built Canada’s second transcontinental line only to discover that the country really only needed one. Profits were elusive, and eventually the company was nationalized in September, 1918—the concept of a major railway going out of business being unthinkable while there was a war on.

At that point, the Port Nelson project—both town and railway—was abandoned. The population of the town had dropped to only 100 river surveyors in the spring of 1918; there had been only one person resident, a caretaker, over the previous winter. Money was cut off a few months prior to the CNoR being taken over. The remaining population left the settlement to rot, and the ghost town is still there ninety years later.

The whole mess was ignored for two years until new mineral discoveries in the north forced politicians to think about the project again. It was tossed to a Senate Committee for study, and the conclusion was that $6.3 million dollars (something like $300 million dollars in today’s money) had been thrown at the wrong destination. Churchill was the better site after all. The MacKenzie King government arranged for Port Churchill to be developed and it was opened in 1931, where it stands today as Canada’s only port on Hudson Bay. It’s important not to overemphasize this, though: Port Churchill’s traffic is puny in comparison to Vancouver and Thunder Bay at the head of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

On the other hand, Churchill saw its first Russian ship last year, and got its first inbound cargoes of the 21st century at the same time. The company that runs the port likes to point out that it’s a shorter sea journey to Rotterdam—until recently the world’s busiest port, and still huge by any reasonable standard—if you go from Port Churchill instead of taking the St. Lawrence. In another fifty years Churchill may have boomed to the point that someone decides that Port Nelson was not such a bad idea after all. It was just in the wrong century.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 10:22 AM

    This is fascinating. I’ve often dreamed of driving to Gillam, Manitoba, then taking a rubber raft (with outboard motor) down the Nelson River and up the coast of Hudson’s Bay to Churchill. Then the train back to Gillam. I wonder if anyone has ever done this….

  2. October 12, 2015 8:30 PM

    Well, me voici over three years later, and still dreaming…..

    • John Wilms permalink
      May 15, 2019 12:43 PM

      Well, what would it take to get your idea moving. I like it too. A good summer adventure. Then float plane from the coast up to Churchill and the restored train link home to WInnipeg.

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