In the early days, most families lived up in Jockville, the hill behind the Port of Churchill near Cape Merry – no one is really quite sure why its called Jockville. Back then, it was a collection of tar-paper shacks with limited power supplied by the Port’s steam house. Only a couple shacks remain today, pretty dilapidated but still with a great view of the bay.
Closer to the river, a collection of prospector tents signified the Dene and Metis families that had traditionally traded with the Hudson Bay Post, Fort Churchill, still on the west side of the river. Sled dogs were tethered here and there but aside from that there wasn’t much traffic up at Jockville.
Families grew tiny gardens of onions, carrots and lettuce in the summer and set nets in the tidal zone for grayling and char. Beluga whales were harvested on days off, the meat and oil sold to top up your annual income. In the summer, residents played baseball, fished and went for walks along the coast. For those who stayed the winter, most water was chopped and carried from Isabelle Lake, five miles to the east. Most headed back south or further north, spending much of the winter out on the trapline.
Just over the granite ridge, things were different. The railway had reached Churchill – resulting in the whole ‘community’ – then only a handful of buildings – being relocated to the east side of the river. A international grain terminal and port was being constructed, an arctic shipping lane destined for a big future! At its peak, the construction crews numbered around 1,500 men – no women allowed (with very limited exception), they were a distraction. Even the men had to get a permit to travel north on the rail line. Men worked all hours of the day, cranes moved steel, dredges opened the harbour. Smoke, steam and sweat mixed with the saltwater air.
On the other side of the port construction and railway tracks, Port employees and Cree trappers established a mirror of Jockville – another shanty community known as The Flats. While Jockville slowly disappeared, the Flats remained, now more of a weekend getaway than anything – still a pretty interesting place though.
Sandwiched between all of this was the new townsite. A school was soon established and a school teacher, Mr. Leonard Budd, was brought into the community. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was one of the first to set up shop. Of course, the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches were both already there, each competing for souls.
Gradually stores developed in the main townsite, circling Hudson Square. Riddoch’s Trading, the Hudson’s Bay Company Post and Sigurdson Martin were among the first to be established, first near the present-day tank farm and soon relocated to Hudson Square and a hastily drawn out town site. Despite the seasonal surge in numbers, there might have been one hundred permanent residents in this sub-arctic seaport.
Eventually, a community hall was built and there were dances each week. A small band, including piano and violin, would supply the music. The train arrived once a week, usually on a Monday. It carried cargo, passengers, supplies and most importantly mail. The weekly routine consisted of meeting the train, hurrying home to read and answer letters; the replies ready to be sent with the train the following morning.