Sailing to Hudson Bay Aboard the General Store
In the late 1870s, waves of Icelanders emigrated to Canada, claiming settling in Manitoba’s Interlake region and even forming the Republic of New Iceland.
In 1876 as with the very early groups of emigrants Sigurdmundur Sigurdson sailed with his mother Oddny and seven of his brothers and sisters to Canada.
The family settled and farmed in Arnesbyggd or Arnes for short. Arnes was a small community in the heart of the ‘New Iceland’.
But, as the years passed, he eventually turned his gaze to new ventures and new horizons. The depression loomed over the farming industry and it seemed time for him and his two sons, Sigurmundur (Oskar) and Palmi, to move on. He looked north, visiting both Edmonton and The Pas to scout out opportunity. But it was Churchill, heralded as the next major international seaport, that won out. Sigurmundur and sons set out to move the family store from Arborg (near Arnes) to Churchill.
Churchill was a bustling frontier town. A tent city extended from the Port of Churchill across to Jockville and down towards the newly relocated townsite. Men travelled to Churchill from across the prairies to build the port, the new water pipeline from Lake Rosabella and put the finishing touches on the new railway.
There was one problem, however. Workers in Churchill needed a government issued permit to work and live in the community. This both served to weed out the ‘ne’er-do-wells’ that are inevitably attracted to the frontier. It, of course, also served to keep ‘unscrupulous speculators’ and, of cource, potential competitors to the Hudson’s Bay Company out of town.
Sigurmundur and Sons found that they could get a rail pass to come up to Churchill as workers not as entrepreneurs. Of course, the best way to get an Icelander to do something is to tell them they can’t do it.
In the late 1920s, leaving their families in the south, they travelled to Mile 412, the northernmost point accessible without a railpass, still about 100 miles south of Churchill. Here, with the assistance of a boat builder named Rasmussen also from the Arnes area, Sigurmundur and his sons built their own Peterhead Boat, christened the Oddny in honour of his mother who after all had made the boat journey to bring him to Canada. The Sigurdsons would trade in Churchill, railway be damned.
The next year, they sailed up the Nelson River and out into Hudson Bay, destined for Churchill. For the next few years, they would haul freight, travelling each year from Churchill to trade at the York Factory treaty days.
By 1933, Sigurmundur had gained a permit and lease to establish a general store in Hudson Square. He soon arranged to bring the rest of his family up to Churchill, including his daughters Svana, Sigrun and Helga.
Sigurmundur got a permit and lease to build a store on Hudson Square so he moved the rest of the damily from Arborg in 1933 – including his daughters Svana, Sigrun and Helga.
Sigurmundur would unfortunately pass away the next year and Sm Sigurdson General Store closed. His sons, Oskar and Palmi would spend the next few years trapping and trading north of Churchill, covering the regions around Long Point, Seal River and North River. Oskar fluent not only in Icelandic but also Inuktitut enjoyed a fair degree of success in the final years of the fur trade.
By 1938, Oskar and Palmi along with Fred Martin established the Maguse River Trading Post, sixteen kilometres outside of Arviat, and Hiwalik Trading Posts in what is today Nunavut.
In the winter, supplies and furs would be shipped in an out by dog team and snowshoe but each summer, the Oddny would continue to run freight north along Hudson Bay.
Maguse Trading Post shut down in 1950 and the buildings eventually sold to the Eskimo Gospel Mission. Through the 1940s, the U.S. and Canadian military presence in Churchill had become a going concern and the store had reopened in 1947. Osker, Sigrun and Fred Martin focused their efforts on the newly reopened store, christened the Sigurdson & Martin Supermarket and Ship Chandlers Emporium.
Oskar and Palmi still worked the land, heading north to Seal River to prospect and still following their traplines through much of the winter. But with Maguse was closed and the days of the fur trade in decline, this became more and more of a ‘recreational’trip.
As for the Oddny, without supplies to run north, she would eventually come to rest on the Flats, near the Adananc Whaling Plant. After sitting drydocked for several years, the Oddny was sold to the Rankin Inlet nickel mine and headed north.
The Sigurdson & Martin Supermarket ran for many years and still stands in its original location facing Hudson Square. It has been shut down for a couple years now but in a town that has been declared dead many times over, you never know when the next ‘Oddny’ carrying a stubborn speculator is around the corner.
- prepared by Kelsey Eliasson