Seaport of the Prairies

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The Article

The following is an extract from the Winnipeg Free Press article "Manitoba's moving pictures"

This is probably one the more ambitious movies about Manitoba history if not Canadian. It depicts a train trip by Saskatchewan and Manitoba politicians and businessmen (and Manitoba Free Press reporter H.B. Guest) from The Pas north along the Hudson Bay rail line that hugged the Nelson River. The line was built in 1910-11, but not finished. The intent was to go all the way to what was called the Port Nelson at the mouth of the Nelson at Hudson Bay.University of Winnipeg Filmmaking and History of Film professor Howard Curle said Seaport was made as an promotional film as were many films of the era.

They were not so much as to entertain, but to explain to an audience a new idea or technology.He said it also uses a technique of placing a camera on the front of the train, creating images known as a phantom ride."The technique was already well-established," Curle said. "It was very popular." Where the rail line ended at Kettle Rapids near Gillam the party of almost two dozen men got into canoes paddled by "hardy" Cree Indians to a few kilometres short of their destination at the mouth of the Nelson River at Hudson Bay. Government boats took them the rest of the way.

The expedition and film were put together to restart efforts to develop Port Nelson, described in the film as "the hope of Western Canada." Port Nelson was later called one of the most colossal mistakes of government. Ever.At the time, the development of the port was one of the most ambitious public projects ever undertaken in Canada.

The dream was to allow prairie farmers and big grain companies a direct route to ship their wheat around the world. Plus develop the north.That was the plan, anyway.A couple of things got in the way. The First World War broke out in 1914 and resources such as steel, coal, ships and men had to go towards the war effort. Port Nelson also proved difficult to tame. The river’s currents and the bay’s tides were behind several ship wrecks during construction. One wreck involved a specially-made 1,155-ton ocean-going dredger washed ashore during a storm in 1924. It’s still there.Governments also changed. And what was considered an Herculean engineering feat a decade earlier saw Port Nelson abandoned in 1918 in favour of Churchill, which opened in 1931. The full story of Port Nelson and the Hudson Bay Railway is on the Manitoba Historical Society’swebsite.Seaport of the Prairies was produced by a group called the North Country Tourist Association, ostensibly to promote Manitoba’s north as a place of tourism and commerce -- well before the Nelson was harnessed for hydro development.However, it appears more so Seaport of the Prairies was simply made to lobby for work on Port Nelson to continue over going further north to Churchill. Once Seaport was released, not much was heard from the North Country Tourist Association again. In following months, questions were raised in the legislature on who paid for the trip. Filmmaker Frank Holmes, who went on to become one of the province’s most prolific filmmakers, also had to go to court to get paid.In the end, the participants on the excursion to Port Nelson had an adventurous trip, but Seaport of the Prairie had little if any political value.

Who’s in it: MLA William Ivens, a leader in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, MLA Nicolas Bachynsky, MLA George Compton, MLA James Breakey, Moose Jaw Mayor W.W. Davidson and former Winnipeg mayor Charles Gray.

The Video

Train trip by SK and MB politicians and businessmen (and Manitoba Free Press reporter H.B. Guest) from The Pas north along the Hudson Bay rail line. Youtube Link