The Hudson Bay and Strait Expeditions of the 1880s
By Season Osborne
Imagine sitting in a shack on Hudson Strait at 55 degrees below zero.
In the winter of 1884-85, 16 men did just that. They were left at five different observation posts along Hudson Strait for a year as part of a Dominion government project to assess an Arctic shipping route.
The first Prairie wheat was shipped east in 1878 via the Canadian Pacific Railway, which charged exorbitant freight rates. Frustrated farmers began to look at alternatives to get their grain to European markets. The shortest possible shipping route was via Hudson Bay and Strait to the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1884, the Dominion government decided to make a first – hand assessment of this route. It voted to spend $70,000 to outfit a steamship and set up six observation posts along Hudson Strait where men would live and study the strait year-round. Over three summers, a ship would pass through Hudson Strait to assess its navigability. The expeditions would also determine a suitable port on Hudson Bay at either the mouth of the Nelson or the Churchill Rivers. The 33-year-old hydrographic surveyor Lt. Andrew Robertson Gordon would command the expeditions aboard the powerful Newfoundland sealer Neptune.
Fithy-five men made up the ship’s company. Nineteen of them would live at the observation posts for a year. These men were all under 30 and unmarried. They had signed up for a year of adventure in the name of science, for 35 dollars per month.
On July 22, the sailing-steamship Neptune cast off from the Halifax wharf. Its decks were piled with lumber and sections of prefabricated observation station buildings. The ship also carried the furniture, and all supplies for the posts, including sacks of hard coal for the stations’ stoves, barrels of salted meat, root vegetables, kegs of vinegar, coffee, lime juice, boxes of cocoa, and provisions enough to sustain the men for up to 18 months. When it left Halifax, the Neptune carried 833 tons of cargo.
The ship wended its way northward from Nova Scotia, through the Strait of Belle Isle, and up the coast of Labrador, giving a wide berth to icebergs.
After rounding the tip of Labrador on August 5, Gordon chose the location for the first observation station at the southern entrance to Hudson Strait in a small sheltered bay on Cape Chidley. Gordon named it Port Burwell, in honour of Herbert Mahlon Burwell, the 21-year-old observer in charge of the station. Stores were landed and the station building erected in three days.
Each observation station was basically a 16 by 20 foot cabin, divided into three rooms with a porch. The buildings were designed with double walls and a sheathing of tarred paper between for insulation. It was recommended that the men cover the house with sod as further insulation. This was sage advice, except that the buildings were erected on rocky ground with no insulating sod for miles.
Each station was equipped with a sundial and timepiece, which was to be tested at noon when there was sunshine. As well, daily temperature, barometric pressure, tides, and weather conditions were all to be noted in detail with particular attention to the formation, breaking up and movements of the ice. Also, observations of birds, fish, other wildlife, and flora were to be recorded.
Four other observation stations were established along the Strait: one on the east coast of Big Island on the north side of Hudson Strait, which Gordon called Ashe Inlet after William Austin Ashe, the station observer. A third, on Hudson Strait’s south side, was named Stupart Bay after 27-year-old Robert Frederic Stupart. A fourth station, Port de Boucherville, was erected on Nottingham Island and named for observer C.V. de Boucherville. The fifth observation station, Laperrière Harbour, with Arthur Laperrière in charge, was erected on Digges Island 45 miles south of Nottingham Island. These islands lie on either side of the entrance to Hudson Bay.
That summer, the Neptune crossed Hudson Bay to Churchill. The harbour at the mouth of the Churchill River is wide and deep, ideal for large ships’ anchorage. A week later, the Neptune departed with a stock of fur clothing for the station men, and headed south. Gordon was not impressed with the shallow anchorage in the Nelson River and dismissed it as an unsuitable port.
On September 20, the Neptune headed east through Hudson Strait, calling at the stations on its way to drop off furs and bid a final farewell. It would pick up the men the following summer. At Ashe Inlet, the three intended for the sixth station re-boarded the Neptune. But with no signs of a good harbour, Gordon abandoned the idea of a station on Resolution Island. The Neptune headed south. On September 30, it anchored on the north side of Nachvak Bay on the Labrador coast. Here they erected the last station, and landed stores. Gordon named it Skynner’s Cove after lead observer William Skynner.
The Neptune proceeded to St. John’s harbour, anchoring on October 11. The first Dominion government expedition to the Arctic had been successful. Six research stations had been established and men left there to carry out important scientific observations.
The following summer, the Hudson Bay and Strait expedition headed north aboard the British naval ship Alert. Commander Gordon felt the Neptune was not fit for an expedition ship. This likely had something to do with the pungent smell of the seal oil-saturated wooden sides of the sealing ship.
The Alert left Halifax at the end of May 1885 to ascertain the earliest the ship could make passage of the Strait. However, the ship struggled up an ice-riddled Labrador coast, finally drifting and was caught in the ice for three weeks. The ice tore away the stem piece, and the Alert had to return to St. John’s for repairs. As a result, the expedition didn’t arrive at the mouth of the ice-clogged Strait until July 27.
Fifteen men were onboard to replace the men at the five Hudson Strait stations. (The station at Skynner’s Cove in Labrador would be closed, as it didn’t add to the knowledge of the ice conditions in Hudson Strait.) The men would be dropped off to spend the summer with the station men already at the posts, who would be picked up on the Alert’s final passage east through the Strait. The ice was so thick and hummocky at Port Burwell that the ship couldn’t get in, and the new observers had to scramble over it to the station. Heavy ice also prevented the ship getting into Ashe Inlet and the three station men also had to walk the two miles across the bay.
The Alert reached Stupart Bay on August 22 to discover the men had abandoned the post. Robert Stupart had left a note detailing how the winter of 1884-85 had been exceptionally hard, resulting in 18 local Inuit starving to death. Fearing the ship wouldn’t arrive, the men departed in an open whaling boat for Fort Chimo 300 miles away. At Port de Boucherville on Nottingham Island, Gordon discovered that one of the station men had died of scurvy. Life at the remote posts had not been easy.
The ship visited Churchill and York Factory, on the Hayes River, before making the final voyage back through a stormy Strait. It had been a harrowing trip through the ice that year. The risks of such a route looked like they outweighed the benefits.
The third expedition left Halifax June 24, 1886, again encountering ice the entire way up the Labrador coast. Entering Hudson Strait on July 9, the Alert’s passage was blocked by a massive field of ice. It laboured through it for 20 days to Churchill before carrying on to the Nelson River. Railway advocates preferred Nelson because it was closer to Winnipeg, but Gordon was adamant that the mouth of the river did not provide adequate shelter, and would also require dredging to make it suitable for freight-carrying vessels.
On the trip back through the Strait in September, the stations were dismantled. The men, supplies, and building materials were taken onboard and brought home. Skynner’s Cove, however, was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The expedition docked in Halifax on October 10.
Gordon tabled his final 125-page report in August 1887. Based on his three-year experience, he felt that the Strait was only navigable from the second week of July to the first week in October. His eagerly awaited report fell far short of an endorsement of a Hudson Bay Route, and the government decided not to sponsor the project. Gordon’s report was shelved.
The question of a Hudson Bay Route was periodically revived over the next several decades. However, 40 years later a railway was built to Nelson, but it proved unsuitable and a port was then constructed at Churchill. The first grain was finally shipped through Hudson waters in 1929. Today, Churchill is Canada’s only Arctic seaport. The current shipping season is from mid-July until the beginning of November. Only a few weeks more than Gordon had recommended.