The idea of a railway to Hudson Bay first arose in the late 1800s. The government of Canada had sent three separate teams to explore options for a Hudson Bay Railline between 1885 and 1903. By 1906, construction began in The Pas, Manitoba, despite the lingering question of its final destination, Fort Churchill or Port Nelson.
Survey crews eventually recommended Port Nelson, across the Nelson River from York Factory, but construction of the line met with changes in government, project delays and a complete halt during the First World War. Work was officially suspended on Port Nelson in 1917. Ten years later, the harbour at Nelson was determined to be too shallow and contain too much silt to be a viable deep-sea port. Parts of the rail line were then then changed to the Churchill River.
After the many years of delays and political wrangling, the new route to Churchill was hastily built. Linn tractor and horse-drawn sleigh would forge ahead laying much of the track in the winter of 1928. Steam shovels and train cars would off-load gravel along the track. The following summer, work crews would come along, lift the tracks and transfer the gravel underneath – primarily by shovel, wheelbarrow and sweat! Of course to complicate matters, early in the summer, frozen gravel piles would have to be broken up by pick or ax.
The final spike was driven on Good Friday or March 29, 1929, despite many parts of the track still requiring ‘upgrading’. Not to mention the fact that it would take two more years before the line would be extended to the station and yards in Churchill proper – a full twenty five years after official construction began on the Hudson Bay Railway.
Regular rail service would follow four months later, commencing September 14th. There was a buffet on the passenger train available for 85 cents – ham, eggs, potatoes, toast and tea. The train itself had one express car, one baggage, two private coaches, a buffet sleeper where meals were served, two day coaches and fifteen wheat cars.
At that time, the longest stretch of straight track between Churchill and The Pas was a total of 17 miles (possibly 17 more miles than there is today). The train would cover the 510 miles, from The Pas to Churchill, in about 25 hours.
The Sons of Martha Cairn, erected in 1932, is a memorial to the men who died during the construction of this railway.