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Canada’s Prairie Port

When the freighter “Pennyworth” sailed in 1932 to Churchill, Hudson Bay, she opened up a new commercial route to the prairie provinces of Canada. She was the first vessel to prove that the navigation of these subarctic waters was practicable for freighters

THE HARBOUR OF CHURCHILL as it was in 1933

THE HARBOUR OF CHURCHILL as it was in 1933, one year after the Pennyworth arrived there. The Rio Claro, a freighter of 4,036 tons gross, is seen in the background steaming up the sea channel into the harbour. In 1933 nine ships entered the harbour; in 1934 the number was thirteen.

ON Tuesday, August 2, 1932, the Pennyworth, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, cleared from the port of Antwerp and began a voyage that was to open up a new seaport in the Barren Lands of Canada.

Clerks in warehouses can now inscribe those magic words “Via Hudson Bay” on bills of lading and feel no sense of strangeness, no quickening of the imagination. Via Montreal - via Vancouver - via Hudson Bay: all routes are equally commonplace now. When, however, we sailed from Antwerp, with our unusual and varied cargo, we inaugurated a new era for the Canadian north. We carried the first passengers ever to step ashore from Europe on the long wharf of Churchill, Canada’s new seaport on Hudson Bay, in Manitoba, the prairie province.

This is the story of that memorable trip. It was pioneering, the blazing of a new trail across the Western Ocean. We were bringing the humdrum into a world of romance, subduing the savage north and making it into an everyday trade route, penetrating its grim remoteness in the interests of commerce. Churchill - formerly known as Fort Churchill and later as Port Churchill - lies on the northern boundary of the prairie province, at the mouth of the Churchill River, which flows north into the Hudson Bay. In summer the neighbourhood of Churchill is a region of bare rock and swamp, the breeding ground of mosquitoes and of the vicious black-flies and bulldog flies of the subarctic. For the remaining nine months of the year it is a desolation of ice and snow, with a meagre population of white and half-breed trappers scattered over vast areas, in addition to roving bands of Eskimos and tribes of Chippewyans and Crees.

The Pennyworth is a tramp cargo vessel of 5,388 tons gross. When she sailed in August 1932, she was taking us to a land of utter desolation, where nothing grows, where men live only by killing and where the pelts of wolf and fox and Arctic hare are the recognized currency.

Before leaving England we had stowed aboard a strange assortment of cargo. There were thirty-two tons of liquorice, three big teddy bears, bricks and bootlaces, blankets and bread-saws, clothes lines and cutlery, lubricating oil and glass and, amongst many other items, cases of china stamped with the words, “First Shipment by Hudson Bay”. There were also 1,200 cases of whisky on board.

At Antwerp there had been a further addition to this heterogeneous conglomeration of merchandise. There was almost nothing we could not have found in an emergency in the vast echoing holds where this tiny cargo of under 400 tons, for all its diversity, scarcely relieved their stark emptiness.

It was not the Eskimo, with his strong white teeth, who would chew the liquorice, and the teddy bears would never startle the native polar bears of the Hudson Bay. The goods were consigned to the south, to Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Regina and points west. The cargo was the first to enter Canada for the prairie cities by the new Hudson Bay route.

We cleared from Antwerp on that Tuesday, at 4 pm. Sixty-four hours later we had left the sunshine and soft winds and smooth seas, and were through the Pentland Firth, taking a last look at Scotland. The hazy contour of the island of Lewis away to port was a wistful sight that must have lingered in the memory of emigrants bound for a new life in Canada, or for service with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

We faced the bitter fury of the Western Ocean, where it piles up in long steep seas and frequent storms and where the south-west gales have thousands of miles of open ocean behind them to whip the seas to giant size.

By the morning of August 6 we were butting into a strong head-wind that freshened hourly. The ship, light and lively with her exiguous cargo, pitched and reared - lifting her forefoot clear and bringing it down with a smashing jar that shook her from stem to stern. The gale lasted for three days, tearing and screaming. Huge seas piled up and our speed was reduced from the steady 11½ knots in the North Sea to an average of only 4½ knots.

At last the savage squalls that heralded the end arrived - fierce screaming gusts of fury. The gale was blowing itself out. On August 9 it moderated, the seas became smoother and that night we had our first view of the Aurora Borealis. Long pencils of light darted up and vanished and thin veils of glowing gossamer trailed across the sky. The noise of our passage, the swish and surge of seas alongside, the thud of the screw and the subdued clanking of the engines were too loud yet to let us hear the faint elusive crackling that accompanies the Northern Lights.

Early on August 10 we sighted our first ice - several enormous bergs, 200 miles east of Greenland and well out of the regular track of ice. One berg that we saw was over 150 feet high, with a growler (small berg) appearing awash a quarter of a mile from its base. Thousands of birds wheeled round the top of the iceberg. It was one of the most beautiful sights in the Seven Seas, with the thin sunlight touching its base with an emerald colour and great seas crashing into it, wearing it to fantastic shapes and booming into great yawning black caverns. All the time streams trickled down its precipitous cliffs and were snatched at by the wind and blown in feathers of spray away to leeward.

The wireless operator soon got into touch with Resolution Island, at the north side of the entrance to the Hudson Strait. Here the first of the Canadian wireless direction-finding stations is located. A message of greeting and welcome came through, and a promise of news of the ice-fields whenever the station could communicate with the Canadian Government ice-breaker and patrolship N. B. Maclean.

Our skipper, wise in the ways of ice, had altered course some time before, to pass sixty miles south of Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland. He feared not only ice but also a shift of wind that might bring fog. This would have left us helpless and with no option but to heave-to, go slow ahead or drift until the fog dispersed.

Fifty-one Icebergs in Sight

Next day we had startling proof of the captain’s wisdom and foresight. We got in touch with a fishery supply ship which reported herself hemmed in with bergs thirty miles south of Cape Farewell - exactly where we should have been had we maintained our course. That night we entered Davis Strait, which separates Greenland from the north-east coast of Canada. Ahead of us now lay Hudson Strait, guarded by Cape Chidley and the Button Islands on the south and by Resolution Island on the north.

Hitherto we had followed the path of the wandering Viking, who a thousand years before had crossed the Western Ocean in his undecked longboat in search of new coasts; but now we were in waters redolent of more recent romance and coloured by the long and daring search for the North-West Passage. Cabot, in his second voyage of 1498, had coasted along the shore of Labrador as far north as the entrance to Hudson Strait; Frobisher saw it in 1576-78, and Davis, in 1585-87, observed the entrance from the distance as he sought northwards for the elusive Passage. Weymouth sailed a hundred leagues up Hudson Strait in 1602, and in 1610 Hudson himself explored its limits. After them came a number of other navigators to add to the thrilling story of the inhospitable ice-bound North.

Davis Strait greeted us with strong head-winds and steep seas, but after the fury of the ocean crossing they seemed of little consequence. Of much greater interest were the whales that we sighted at intervals throughout the day and the great bergs that came sailing down the strait. At one moment we counted fifty-one, all bigger than anything that ever disturbs the equanimity of the masters of the great swift liners which make a ferry-boat’s passage of the crossing from Europe to Quebec.

THE HUDSON BAY ROUTE to the prairie belt and Western Canada

THE HUDSON BAY ROUTE to the prairie belt and Western Canada. For months in the early part of 1932 the Canadian Government ice-breaker and patrol ship N. B. Maclean had been charting the new route to prepare for the arrival of the Pennyworth.

The temperature was variable, and throughout the day we had spells of bright sunshine, alternating with gusts of sudden chill wind from the north. Next day the wind was icy and the bergs more numerous. The temperature fell to 38° F. and to 37° F. in the water. We picked up a message, too, from the N. B. Maclean, announcing that she was steaming east to meet us and escort us through Hudson Strait. She gave us warning of a dangerous ice-field ahead and advised a course well to the north. She also reported intermittent patches of fog.

At 1 pm we made our landfall, sighting Cape Chidley, the northernmost point of Labrador, and the Button Islands. By 4 pm we were steaming in sheltered water in sight of the wireless station on Resolution Island, where three men exist in utter isolation. These men report the movements of ice, record the weather and keep in touch with in coming and outgoing vessels. Even with powerful glasses we could see nothing but a rocky cliff-bound coast-line and patches of lingering snow, with icebergs stranded in the shallows, some of them towering high above the cliffs.

Sunday was clear and sunny, but bitterly cold, with a keen wind coming down from the Arctic. The second great thrill of the voyage came at 10.30 am, when the N. B. MacLean hove in sight - a sturdy, trim ship with the lines of a cruiser. Her master, Captain Balcom, spoke to us through the wireless telephone. He and his sixty officers and crew had devoted weary months to plotting a course on the chart, tracking ice and currents, tending lights and navigational signs, and generally preparing the way that was to turn Hudson Bay into a safe commercial highway of Empire. Our arrival was the culmination of their work and proof of the success that attended it.

The ice-breaker altered coarse and escorted us up the strait towards the broken ice-field that lay ahead. There were fewer bergs now, but the sea was strewn with masses of ice hewn into the most fantastic shapes. Here was a great slab, wallowing in the slight swell, as if it were a polar bear swimming; there an almost perfect reproduction of a swan, with a thirty-feet-long neck stretched out and ending in a massive head and beak; elsewhere, mushrooms reared forty or fifty feet on slender stalks rising from a hidden bulk beneath the surface.

At times we were surrounded by drifting ice moving rapidly eastwards with the, current. Several times we had to ring down to half speed or less for greater safety. Innocent enough those lumps of ice looked, many of them awash; but in salt water ice floats with only about one-ninth of its bulk above the surface. What might seem no more than a small slab that the ship’s stout plates would crush to fragments would be a formidable block that might have crumpled the ship’s bows or stove in her sides at the merest touch.

Canada's prairie portTHE FIRST FREIGHTER to enter Canada’s new port. This photograph shows the Pennyworth approaching the quay at Churchill on August 17, 1932. A vessel of 5,388 tons gross, the Pennyworth was built in 1916 as the Gogovale. She is 410 feet long and has a beam of 53 ft 6 in and a depth of 28 ft 5 in. She is now registered at Montreal.

THE PILOT ALONGSIDE THE PENNYWORTH, at the entrance to the Churchill River. The pilot came aboard from the Canadian Government’s tug, the Graham Bell. The tug is a vessel of 250 tons gross, registered at Quebec, and has a length of 100 feet and a beam of 26 feet.

There are three sources of ice in Hudson Strait. The most obvious is the shore ice that forms locally along either coast towards the end of October and gradually hardens into a broad coastal belt stretching many miles out and not breaking up until late June. The middle of the strait never freezes over, perhaps on account of the currents that keep the water constantly on the move. For eight months in the year, however, it is rendered practically impassable by great ice floes carried back and forth by the tides and jamming between the two strips of coastal ice.

The second source is Arctic ice. Bergs are carried down from Baffin Bay by southerly currents along the east coasts of Baffin Island and of Labrador. Some of these bergs enter Hudson Strait through Gabriel Strait, others pass south of Resolution Island and, helped by easterly winds, are carried west to Big Isle, where they cross over to the south of the strait and are carried back out into the Atlantic at Cape Chidley.

The third source is the Foxe Channel, from which come not only local ice but also enormous floes from the Gulf of Boothia, by way of Fury and Hecla Strait. The local ice can be distinguished by its discoloration and by the quantity of rubble mixed with it, whereas the formidable Boothia ice is free from discoloration. There are four directional wireless stations supplying weather forecast broadcasts - at Resolution Island, Cape Hopes Advance (Labrador), Nottingham Island (Hudson Strait), and Churchill. After the strait has been entered there are only four courses to be set on the 900-miles voyage to Churchill. Navigation is therefore simple, although some deviation may have to be made on account of ice conditions. The route is open from early in August until the end of September, although the passage might be made in safety for a longer period - from late July until October.

We passed to the south of Southampton Island (north of Hudson Bay), thus just avoiding the Arctic Circle, which runs to the north of the island; but at one point we were within about 500 miles of the North Magnetic Pole and the cold remained intense. In the afternoon the horizon ahead grew dim and a thin pencilling of haze upon it gradually extended, rising as we approached, until suddenly we were enshrouded in fog.

Ice was all round - bergs, no longer huge, but as large as any seen about Belle Isle, growlers and drift ice hurrying to the sea. Fog never lasts long in the Hudson Strait and six hours of it are considered a long spell. It is sporadic, too, and by no means frequent, whereas on the St. Lawrence River route to Quebec and Montreal it occurs during the greater part of the year and may last for days.

On this occasion, the fog lifted in two or three hours. Towards eight o’clock the sun set directly ahead of us. Fifteen minutes later we were startled to see the sun reappear well above the horizon and proceed once more to set. This time, however, there was no dazzling golden track of reflection from it across the water to our eyes. It was an ice mirage, a phenomenon of the Arctic regions that we were to observe for several nights in succession.

That night the temperature fell to 31° F, and the ship was coated with ice. The lookout in the bows, crouching behind an improvised screen of canvas lashed to the rails, must have suffered intensely; but in those waters a lookout is most essential and keen eyes are needed to spot the thin line of white in the darkness where broken water betrays the presence of drifting ice slabs.

Once during the night the engines were rung to full astern, shaking the ship violently with their vibration, as a huge berg loomed up directly in our path; but the morning was clear and the coating of ice on the decks gradually melted away. At ten o’clock, however, we ran into fog again, and now felt our way cautiously behind the ice-breaker, which sent out messages by wireless every few minutes to keep in touch and warn us of bergs. Our siren sounded at intervals. Now and again, eerily, a muffled echo would come back out of the fog, given off by the precipitous sides of a berg that was dangerously close.

ONE OF THE FIRST GRAIN CARGOES to be loaded at Churchill

ONE OF THE FIRST GRAIN CARGOES to be loaded at Churchill went into the Pennyworth. When her holds had been cleared and the necessary shifting boards erected in them, the long pipe-arms were swung from the grain elevator and the grain began to pour in. About 8,000 tons of grain were loaded on this occasion.

Once more the fog dispersed rapidly, and the sun burst through. The temperature rose swiftly to 45° and by noon to 54°, which seemed comfortably hot, with blue sky and smooth water and no trace of ice. We had reached the mouth of Hudson Bay.

We stopped near the N. B. MacLean. She sent over a dory and we took on board a pile of letters to be posted in Churchill. We sent the dory back with all the magazines and books we could spare and got under way once more. After a farewell salute the ice-breaker steamed back on her monotonous patrol to await the approach of the next inward-bound freighter.

There are no bergs in Hudson Bay, which is considerably larger than the North Sea. Shore ice, however, forms in the extreme north. Along the east shore, the ice, three to four feet thick, stretches out to a distance of about sixty miles in winter, but on the other shores of the bay it seldom reaches more than five miles out. The succession of winter gales breaks it up into gigantic floes that move about the bay and form rafted ice, sheet piled upon sheet as the floes collide or drive ashore, so that along the coast a barrier is formed as much as thirty feet in thickness.

The exploration of the bay was begun by Hudson in 1610. He cruised right down the eastern shore, and wintered in James Bay, at the southern extremity of Hudson Bay. The following spring he insisted on exploring farther, setting a course westwards instead of heading northward for home. The crew, who had suffered privations, mutinied and cast Hudson adrift in a small boat.

Two French fur-traders, Grosielliers and Radisson, claimed that they had reached the bay overland from the south in 1662. For this reason the French government later laid its claims to the territory. At the time, however, France offered the two traders no support. They went to England and succeeded in interesting Prince Rupert and other prominent men. In 1668 a ship was sent out to the bay to trade.

A Royal Charter

The success of this voyage led to the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company - the “Honourable Company of Merchant Adventurers Trading in the Hudson’s Bay”. In 1670, with Prince Rupert as first Governor, the Company received a royal charter carrying an absolute monopoly over the trading and administration rights not only of the bay itself but also of the entire territory of the strait and the hinterland to the south.

The first trading post was built in 1668 in James Bay, at the mouth of the Rupert River. This was Fort Charles, later known as Rupert House. Other posts were established on the shore of Hudson Bay at Fort Nelson, Moose Factory, Fort Albany, Fort Severn, Eastmain and Churchill. For more than a century these posts, heavily fortified, were called upon to withstand repeated attacks by French traders and ships of war, and at one time the Company lost all but one post. The Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, however, recognized Britain’s claim to the territory, although raiding continued. It was some time yet before the traders were allowed to carry on their work and their explorations in peace.

Early on Tuesday, August 16, we were in touch with our destination, Churchill. As we steamed south-west, we ran into the tail of a gale. It was twenty-four hours before we made our next landfall - Churchill itself.

By 9 am we were off Eskimo Point and slowed down to take the pilot on board. He came out in a small tug, the Graham Bell, and climbed on board to greet the captain, who was dressed now for the occasion in formal uniform and gold braid.

The magnificent new grain elevator at Churchill

AN OUTPOST OF COMMERCE in the Barren Lands of Canada. The magnificent new grain elevator at Churchill is capable of loading as much as 10,000 tons of grain in one day. In 1935, only three years after the Pennyworth had taken her first grain cargo on board, 2,407,000 bushels of grain were exported from Churchill to Europe.

There is little need for a pilot at Churchill. The entrance to the river is simple. A vessel runs parallel with the shore for some distance, then swings hard round to port and so sails smoothly between the low cliffs. The six-miles-wide river opens out ahead and there appears the towering structure of the elevator, with its long gallery running down the quay. The captain, who had been here the year before, himself took the wheel and steered us in.

We slid easily alongside the quay, a manoeuvre as simple with a 6,000-tons freighter as when a London river steamer ties up alongside Tower Pier. By 9.30 am Customs and other officials were on board. A dozen or more Port officials and others, including Major MacLachlan, the man who built the Hudson Bay Railway, with his wife and secretary, thronged the saloon,all longing to talk and some to sample the ship’s whisky, a luxury forbidden in the north.

Others came - trappers from their summer shacks on the point, gingerly crossing the gangway and stepping down for the first time in their lives on to the deck of an ocean steamer. Blank-faced young Indians came from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post across the river, moving off at length to paddle back home and boast of their marvellous experience.

Before noon the hatches were off and the first slings of cargo were going ashore - the first cargo to be landed at the new port. The “stevedores” engaged for the job were local men, labourers almost entirely ignorant of the handling of slings and winches. For six days the crew slaved, from five in the morning until midnight, and earned substantial wages.

The grain in the elevator was of the best grade, with an absolute minimum of moisture content. When the holds had been cleared and the shifting boards erected, the long pipe-arms were swung out from the gallery, and the golden cargo began to pour on board.

The quay at Churchill can accommodate three large freighters at one time and the elevator can load as much as 10,000 tons of grain in a day.

Modern Navigational Aids

WE loaded 8,000 tons of grain and 800 tons of bagged flour in the ‘tween-decks. At 11 am on Wednesday, August 24, we cast off from the quay and were inward bound for home. The outward voyage had occupied fifteen days, which is a good average time for a tramp steamer for the Montreal passage. Bill MacKenzie, the oldest trapper in the district, sailed from Orkney on June 29, 1878, in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ship Ocean Nymph, to take up service with the Company as an indentured labourer. He reached Churchill on August 14, after a voyage of forty-five days. After all those years spent in the north, he sees Churchill, a desolate trading post, grown to a seaport, a township with banks and hotels and shops, with a railway station and a telegraph and post office. For two hundred and fifty years the Hudson’s Bay Company has used this route and its losses in shipping disasters have been negligible. Our own passage proved that with modern aids to navigation, with an efficient lighting and buoyage system, and directional wireless stations at strategic points, the Hudson Bay route can be used by a normal cargo steamer.

We were fitted with a wireless echo-meter sounding device, and with this we had no fear in fog, for it gives fifty readings a minute and disposes of the danger of running aground. Further, we were able to plot our course on the chart and record soundings every half-hour, thus assisting in the work of survey carried out by the Canadian Government.

Another essential was the gyro-compass, which is independent of magnetic attraction. During parts of the passage through the strait and across the bay, it showed the deviation of the magnetic compass to be fatally wide, for there are many magnetic fields and disturbances in the area. We should have pursued an erratic and probably dangerous course had we relied on the old type of ship’s compasses.

A HEAVY SEA coming aboard the foredeck of the Pennyworth

A HEAVY SEA coming aboard the foredeck of the Pennyworth during the gales she encountered in the Atlantic on her first voyage from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Churchill. In the right foreground is a rope fender, lashed to the bollards.

Churchill, long noted for its situation in one of the best natural harbours in the world, has a long and romantic history. It was fortified in 1718, but fifteen years later the fear of its vulnerability led to the building of Fort Prince of Wales on the long promontory that guards the entrance to the river from the west side. This was one of the strongest fortresses of the north, 350 feet square, with walls 20 feet high and with heavy batteries of guns.

In 1811, the Earl of Selkirk, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, took out a band of settlers to found the Red River Colony. The settlers were brought to Canada through the Hudson Strait and landed at York Factory, whence they struck south-west for the prairies. The settlement was afterwards reorganized and became, in 1870, the province of Manitoba, which therefore was first colonized and had its first contact with Europe via Hudson Bay.

The railway from The Pas (on the Saskatchewan River), the most northerly township of any size in the province, was projected early in this century and begun in 1910, with Port Nelson as the objective. About 6,000,000 dollars (£1,200,000) were spent on harbour works at Port Nelson before the attempt was abandoned, and the railway diverted north to Churchill, a much better position for the harbour. It was not, however, until twenty-one years later that the last mile of steel was laid, and the Barren Lands were linked up by rail with the south and civilization.

Several important mineral fields were discovered during construction adjacent to the railway and various branch lines were built to serve them. Their future lies through the Hudson Bay route, which offers them quick and easy access to the European market, just as it offers to the prairie belt 500 miles south a swift outlet for its grain, its cattle and its farm produce.

Short Cut to Western Canada

ON the return voyage in the Pennyworth we carried thermostats in the holds and ‘tween-decks. These functioned perfectly, and recorded a temperature of no more than 52°, so that butter and cheese and other dairy produce could quite well be carried without refrigeration in ordinary freighters, at much less than the freight charges necessary in ships specially built for refrigerated cargoes. Cattle, too, are not exposed to the arduous and exhausting railway journey of over 1,000 miles before being shipped, and this should benefit livestock exporters to a considerable extent. For example, the distance to Edmonton (Alberta) from Montreal by land is 2,158 miles, and by the Great Lakes 2,464 miles, but from Churchill it is only 1,146 miles, a saving of more than 1,000 miles by this route.

At first no harbour charges were levied at Churchill, but now that the route is established normal charges are made, although these still are considerably below the cost of berthing, discharging and loading in most other seaports.

Altogether ten vessels visited Churchill in 1932 with a total gross tonnage of 46,978. The Pennyworth alone carried outward cargo and the entire fleet carried away a total of nearly 80,000 tons of grain. In 1933 nine ships visited the port. The total export of grain that year was 2,707,889 bushels.

The year 1934 saw thirteen ships at Churchill. Two of them made a quick turn round and came back for a second time. The Dalworth (R. S. Dalgliesh, Ltd) unloaded 1,576 tons of general cargo; bunker coal landed from her and two other ships brought the total imports up to 2,466 tons.

In 1935 the Wentworth (R. S. Dalgliesh, Ltd) carried out 2,582 tons of general cargo, and 2,407,000 bushels of grain were shipped to Europe. The motor vessel Leopold L-D made history by sailing from Churchill on August 23, having arrived on August 20. She reached Churchill again on her second voyage on September 17. She took just over three weeks for the double ocean crossing, including the time in Europe.

THE FIRST SLING OF CARGO to be unloaded from the Pennyworth at Churchill

THE FIRST SLING OF CARGO to be unloaded from the Pennyworth at Churchill contained cases of whisky. On August 17, 1932, 1,200 cases were unloaded. Other cargo included crockery, glass, cutlery, bricks, barbed wire, lubricating oil, sweets and toys.

You can read more on “Filling the Ship”, “The Great Lakes” and “The North Atlantic Ice Peril” on this website.

You can read more on “The Road to Hudson Bay” in Wonders of World Engineering.