Hudson Bay Railway

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The Hudson Bay Railway is a historic rail line between Winnipeg, MB and Churchill, MB on the southwest shore of Hudson Bay. The railway was controversial from the start. The greatest controversies were in the selection of Port Nelson or Churchill for the port on Hudson Bay and the delays between constructing sections of the railway. This Wiki article mainly describes the section of railroad from Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay.

See Port Nelson for additional information on the ill-fated port terminal of the Hudson Bay Railway.

Hudson Bay Railway


A transportation route from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay was contemplated as early as the mid 1800’s to replace the traditional water based fur trade route from Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg to York Factory on Hudson Bay. The railway was eventually constructed in phases by several railway companies. A chronology of the deliberations and construction are as follows;

  • Early maneuvering: 1875-1884
  • Hugh Sutherland’s forty miles: 1884-1890
  • Lobbying for public construction: 1900-1908
  • Hudson Bay, SK. to Kettle Rapids on the Nelson River near Gillam: 1908-1919
  • Kettle Rapids near Gillam to Churchill: 1927-1929


Conceptual Map Promoting the HBR as a Trade Route, 1887.

From Winnipeg, Manitoba the railway runs on the west side of Lake Manitoba through Dauphin and Swan River to Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan. The line then branches off northeast to The Pas and then onto Amery, northeast of Kettle Rapids on the Nelson River, where it turns due north to Churchill on Hudson Bay.

Impetus for the Project

The earliest advocates in the 1860’s envisioned the route as a means of enabling the growth of British North America and the breaking of the major obstacle to growth - the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company. With the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway and major immigration and agriculture in the 1870s and 1880s, the case for a railway to Hudson Bay became even stronger. By paralleling the historic canoe routes of the fur traders, the rail line would counter the Canadian Pacific monopoly and would have the additional advantage of reducing the length of time for the sea voyage to the world grain markets.

Early Maneuvering

Dr. Robert Bell, a Winnipeg physician, began a series of studies in 1875 into the practicability of the route. In 1878 he explored the north shores of Lake Winnipeg and the upper and lower reaches of the Nelson and Hayes rivers. In 1879 he explored the middle reaches and prepared the first accurate map of the Nelson River. In 1880 he examined the Churchill River and voyaged from Churchill to England. As a result of Dr. Bell’s activities and advocates such as Henry Yule Hind, general interest in the route became common. This in turn resulted in Dr. Bell becoming an agent of the Canadian Geological Survey. After spending two years in the region, his faith in the route deepened. Manitoban and Canadian politicians became engaged, resulting in charters being granted in 1880 to two companies; the Nelson Valley Railway and Transportation Company, and the rival Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway and Steamship Company.

Surveys were made by both companies in 1880 and 1881. Despite intensive promotion, the project languished and did not receive financial support. In the winter of 1883/84 pressures forced a union of the rival groups. In 1883 Hugh Sutherland, president of the amalgamated Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway, was elected to parliament. By 1884 Sir John A. MacDonald began to support the railway and $70,000 was voted for exploration. Hugh Sutherland was jubilant and declared that his company expected to start construction that year.

Hugh Sutherland’s Forty Miles

The land grant authorized for the Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway proved insufficient to commence construction in 1884. Manitoba then approved the issuance of $1 million of bonds which were secured by the land grant. However, in 1885 Louis Riel reappeared as the leader of the Northwest Rebellion and the financing disappeared. In 1886 this delay was then overcome and additional observations of the navigation aspects were ignored. Hugh Sutherland made preliminary arrangements to start construction. The West Cumberland Iron and Steel Company shipped four thousand tonnes of steel railways and fastenings on credit for twelve months. Mann and Holt, the contractors, began construction northward from Winnipeg in the fall of 1886. By winter they completed 40 2/3 miles of railway to Shoal Lake in the Interlake. Then until 1890 a series of financing and government support problems resulted in a halt in the work and a lack of finances to pay debt incurred. Despite Sutherland’s final efforts up to 1900 the railway efforts failed. Yet he had managed to kept the dream alive, with Hugh Sutherland ranking as the father of the Hudson Bay route.

Lobbying for Public Construction

After Hugh Sutherland, other promoters took up the arguments for the Hudson Bay route. By 1900 Mackenzie and Mann’s Canadian Northern had built northwestward from a Lake Manitoba and Canal Company line to a point 20 miles into the Northwest Territory. It reached Swan River and progressed generally northward to Mafeking, just south of the then provincial boundary. At Mafeking it turned westward and crossed the provincial line. In all 300 miles of line had been built yet it was only 100 miles closer to Hudson Bay than it was at Gladstone, Manitoba. Under pressure from prairie constituents in the mid 1900-1908 period, Canada and the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan renewed their intense interest in the project. By then the Mackenzie and Mann line was completed to Prince Albert. Mackenzie and Mann had rights to the Hudson Bay railway and made proposals to complete the line. In 1907 Sir Wilfred Laurier’s government had not overcome objections to the two proposals. Meanwhile, Canadian Northern constructed the railway from Hudson Bay Junction to The Pas. In the election of 1908 both the Liberals and the Conservatives finally committed to the immediate construction of the Bay route.

Saskatchewan to the Nelson River

Saskatchewan River bridge

From an engineering standpoint, the Hudson Bay Railway had its beginning with the surveys undertaken by the Department of Railways and Canals in the fall of 1908. The Canadian Northern line to The Pas was so lightly built that trains seldom attempted the trip north from Hudson Bay Junction. Five survey parties were employed between The Pas and Hudson Bay. About 150 miles from The Pas, separate lines were run to the mouths of the Nelson and Churchill rivers. The route to mouth of the Nelson River was 67 miles shorter and the terrain was better but it entailed two crossings of the very large Nelson River. The route to the mouth of the Churchill River had greater mileage of muskeg. The preliminary field work was completed by August 1909. The most important question, unresolved since 1880, was the selection of the terminal port, Churchill River or Nelson River. The many expeditions had explored mainly the navigation through Hudson Straight. John Armstrong, Chief Engineer of the Hudson Bay Railway surveys, examined both ports. The evidence seemed to favour a port at the Nelson River particularly since the route was shorter, but doubts remained. In 1910 the Laurier government decided to proceed with construction at the southern end of the rail line and to conduct further examinations of the potential terminal harbors. By mid summer the Department of Railways and Canals issued contracts for the construction of a 850 foot bridge across the Saskatchewan River at The Pas.

Hudson’s Bay Railway Drawing Office Staff 20th July 1916

Despite the start of construction, a number of hurdles and difficult problems remained; changes in government resulted in a halt of work, the extension of Manitoba’s provincial boundaries northwards to Hudson's Bay, and the choice of the terminal. Before the end of 1912 the selection of the Nelson River as the port terminal was decided upon, and is then referred to as Port Nelson. By years’s end, the entire railway from The Pas to Port Nelson was under contract to J. D. McArthur. Fifty miles of roadbed had been graded from The Pas. The laying of rails was awaiting the Saskatchewan River bridge which was completed by spring 1913. The picture in this section supplied by David Malaher shows the “Hudson’s Bay Railway Drawing Office Staff 20th July 1916”. William Barnett is 5th from the left. Prominent in the middle is an individual with the name Murray.

By the end of the 1913 season 110 miles of steel had been laid. At the end of 1914 rails had reached Mile 214 from The Pas and work was underway on the steel bridge across the Nelson at Manitou Rapids. Beyond Manitou, the grade was complete to the second crossing of the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids near Gillam (Mile 332) only 92 miles from the Hudson Bay. The plan was to complete the work by the summer of 1916, but the outbreak of WW1 delayed the projected date to the fall of 1917. The schedule was plagued by labour shortages and a fire that destroyed the contractor’s tram-laying outfit.

Major J. L. Charles, Q.C., D.S.O., LLD., P Eng. was engaged in the preliminary surveys, design, and construction until the end of 1915 until he left for the War. Charles and two others applied for leave when grading was completed for the season, and was measured, calculated and recorded, together with final maps and profiles. Trait, Mackenzie and Charles walked on the frozen grade some 150 miles to board a train to The Pas and on to Winnipeg. Resident Engineers were required to provide a transit and level at their own expense, costly items for new engineers. Major Charles left his on the job and they were safely stored.

A large percentage of embankment over muskegs was built from side borrow of inferior materials including peat. Track was laid after the embankment was frozen and the roadbed was strengthened the following summer by train-filling. The bridge across the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids, a major structure, was not scheduled until heavy materials and equipment could be moved forward by rail.

HBR Kettle Rapids Bridge

By 1917 the Hudson Bay route was in serious jeopardy. All railways except the Canadian Pacific became insolvent and under the circumstances the Bay route was allowed to languish. In 1917, except for some filling and ballasting, work came to a halt with the completion of the steel bridge over the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids. Grade was completed to Amery and clearing to Port Nelson. Much work remained at the new port terminal. The Dominion of Canada had spent $13.8 million on the railway and $6.3 million on Port Nelson.

Kettle Rapids to the Churchill River

In 1919, with insincere appropriations by Canada, 450,000 ties and 825 tons of rails, along with construction equipment were taken from the railway by Canadian National and used to improve western branch Lines. Promises to replace the materials were unfulfilled and the line was being reclaimed by the wilderness. The “Muskeg Special” did operate to Mile 214 for prospectors who's discoveries resulted in the Mandy, Flinflon and Sheritt-Gordon mines.

In 1922 the Department of Railways and Canals engaged engineer D. W. McLaughlin to estimate the cost of completing the Port Nelson terminal. His estimate was $20.5 million for a port that would still be inadequate and the usefulness for shipping grain was in doubt. Debate and lobbying by the On-to-the-Bay Association continued until, after changes in government in 1926, Mackenzie King’s cabinet approved a budget with its provision for the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway.

Engineers J. B. and J. W. Tyrell had suggested an alternate route to the mouth of the Churchill River in 1926. Railway Minister Dunning engaged Frederick Palmer, an English civil engineer to examine the ports. Palmer strongly recommended for a Churchill River port in August 1927 based on a cost estimate for a Nelson River port of $26 million compared to $8 million for a Churchill River port. The estimates favoured the Churchill port even after allowing $5 million for the extra miles of railway to Churchill. The most economical route was to follow the Hudson Bay line to Mile 356 at Amery and then north 150 miles to Churchill.

In the winter of 1927-28, Major J. Leslie Charles, the engineer in charge of location, went out ahead of the end of steel to locate the new line and work out alignment and profiles. Major Charles had a party of 25 men and 60 sled dogs. Operating for four months in temperatures far below zero, he returned with complete blue prints including a survey of the mouth of the Churchill River for the port. The region west of the Lowlands seemed at first a favourable location for the railway to Churchill. After inspecting it Charles ruled it out because of the greater distance, considerable curvature required as well as rise and fall. Furthermore many springs and seepage were observed exuding from the slopes which would cause glaciation and culverts, both dangerous and costly for a rail line. Therefore he decided to strike due north through the inhospitable “Land of Little Sticks” where only stunted spruce merged into the barrens.

CN decided that Charles’s work should be repeated under non-winter conditions. So Charles set out with Luke Clemens and two first nation guides in early September, sloughing through the muskegs, seldom dry below the knees and frequently wet to the waist. After a month of walking, Charles notified authorities that nothing had changed his mind about the route.

Selecting the route

Upon returning, Mr. Charles was asked to carry out a formal survey of the route. In 1928 the roadbed was pushed northward. The track laying crew consisted of nearly 3000 men under the jurisdiction of Claude Johnson, an engineer of the Canadian National Railways. An endless chain of about 2000 wheelbarrows moved from a train at the end of the rails along planks to dump gravel along the line staked out by the surveyors. Between the gravel train and the end of the fill was the track laying crew. At the end of steel was the tracklayer, a car equipped with hoists and cranes. On one side an endless belt carried ties from freight cars and on the other side a similar belt brought forth rails. The new rails were spiked down and the rails were bolted together.

At the end of the 1928 season the engineers decided on a bold plan to complete the last 60 miles to Churchill. The gravel pits froze hard and by the same token, the muskeg surface froze. Although this surface was not smooth the surface was level enough and hard enough to support the tracklayer. By April 1, 1929 a railway without a roadbed had stretched the last 60 miles and reached Churchill. During the following summer, the gravel ballast was dumped under the track without the encumbrance of the track laying crew. The line opened for traffic on September 10, 1929.

Track laying machine, 1928/29
Hudson Bay Railway, 1969


In the end the Hudson Bay Railway never achieved what it was set out to accomplish. To this day it has been an uneconomic enterprise, never carrying enough tonnage to be sustainable. Only persistent lobbying on the part of western Manitoba and Saskatchewan grain shippers has kept it in operation. Today (2017) it’s future is in doubt as the grain terminal has been shut down. The railway mainly serves small communities and the town of Churchill with domestic freight shipments and tourists.


Hudson Bay Railway 55 miles south of Churchill, 1930

Many stories are available of the primitive methods employed in the surveys and construction of the railway. Major Charles recorded his exploits using dog teams and first nations for winter surveys. Other stories record the inhumane conditions the men toiled and lived in.

Key Players


  • Dr. Robert Bell, Winnipeg physician, initial observations of the Nelson, Hayes and Churchill Rivers.
  • Hugh Sutherland, President of Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway constructed 40 miles from Winnipeg to Shoal Lake in the Interlake.
  • Mann and Holt, contractors for Hugh Sutherland's 40 miles.


  • John Armstrong, Chief Engineer for Hudson Bay Railway
  • J. D. McArthur, contractor for The Pas to Port Nelson, completed rail to Kettle Rapids and grade to Amery and Port Nelson
  • Major J. L. Charles, Q. C., D.S.O., LL.D., P. Eng., survey design and resident engineering on section from The Pas for 150 miles until 1915


  • D. W. McLaughlin, engineer, engaged to prepare estimates to complete the Port Nelson Terminal
  • J. B. and H. W. Tyrell, engineers, suggested an alternate route to Churchill in 1926
  • C. S. Gzowski, System Chief Engineer for CNR, initiated location survey to Churchill
  • H. A. Dixon, Western Region Chief Engineer, CNR, directed initial survey to Churchill
  • Sir Frederick Palmer, English Civil engineer, examined Port of Churchill versus Port Nelson
  • Major J. L. Charles, engineer in charge of location from Amery to Churchill
  • Ross Wilkinson, locating engineer, assistant to Major Charles
  • Major J. G. MacLachlan, District Engineer, CNR responsible for upgrading The Pas to Kettle Rapids & final section to Churchill
  • J. W. Porter, Acting Chief Engineer, 1914, Winnipeg, Chief Engineer, 1918, The Pas
  • William Barnett, Engineer 1914 - 1918, The Pas


  • Turmoil and Triumph: The Controversial Railway to Hudson Bay, Ian Bickle, 1995, Review by Paul Thistle, Manitoba Historical Society
  • Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984, David Malaher P. Eng., Manitoba Historical Society
  • The Manitoba Professional Engineer, June 1992, Manitoba Mourns the Passing of Major John Leslie Charles, O.C., D.S.O., LL.D., P.Eng.
  • Wikipedia, Hudson’s Bay Railway (1910)