The ’59 Trail, Part Two

Jerry F, Going Postal
The ’59 Trail.
The ’59 Trail,
Unknown Artist, reproduced with permission

Part 2 of my uncle, John Alldridge’s 1959 report from Canada’s Far North for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

Winnipeg, Monday

I flew into Winnipeg in a blizzard. Dry, eye-stinging snow was spinning about the runways like tumbleweed.

This was May. But in Manitoba winter was still hanging on tight by its teeth.

After the steam-heat of Montreal and Toronto, and 18 hours in a pressurised cabin, that first blast of ice-cold prairie air hits you like a smack in the face!

The blood starts tingling and for a moment you feel slightly drunk, prepared for anything.

If a dog team had been sent to meet me instead of an eight-seater taxi the size of a bus I shouldn’t have been surprised. I might even have preferred it.

The driver, who told me right out that his name was Bob Macdonald, looked like Spencer Tracey playing a comedy part.

Bob — going on 70 I would judge (you just don’t ask a Winnipeg cab driver his age) – is a home-grown Canadian. He is the son of pioneer Scots who came out from the Old Country in the mid-eighties.

Winnipeg was still Fort Garry then; a stockade round a trading post flying the blood-red flag of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

From my bedroom window on the eighth floor of the Fort Garry Hotel I can see about all that is left of Bob’s dad’s Winnipeg; the gateway into the original fort built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1836.

You can’t get very far away from the spirit of the frontier in Winnipeg. With men like Bob Macdonald around, how can you?

After a few bottles of “Pioneer” beer in Bob’s company you get the impression that the Indians are only six blocks away and it’s time to pack and go.

There is a sense of impermanence about the place. As if the whole population of a quarter-of-a-million people is just camping here for the night and will be a hundred miles northwest by this time tomorrow.

Even the public buildings seem to have been run up in a hurry about 50 years ago and left unfinished because the architect had to catch the last wagon train West.

The most important building in Winnipeg — to me, at any rate — is also the ugliest. This is the dingy red-brick block down by the railway yards that calls itself Hudson’s Bay House but is affectionately known to all Canadians as “the Bay.”

Up there in the heavily Edwardian executive suite they showed me a map of Canada that covers almost all of one wall.

Pinned to that map were thick clusters of names resonant with history, of forgotten wars, early explorations, of old Indian and Eskimo country, of new oil and mining towns.

The names of all 250 of them stretch west from St. John’s in Newfoundland, through the great forest belt and across the prairies to Vancouver on the Pacific.

Each of these Company posts flies the oldest and proudest house flag in the world — the British Red Ensign with the monogram HBC in one corner.

Once that flag flew exclusively over log cabin stores where Bay store-keepers bought beaver-skins from the Indians. The Company’s motto “Pro Pelle Cut Em” means, roughly, “a skin for a skin”.

Today that same flag flies over the Bay’s six great department stores, along the new chain of smaller Bay stores in the new “boom towns” and over trading posts in the Far North where the post managers are more interested in selling deep-freeze units to miners than animal traps to hunters.

The Bay still trades with the Eskimos and the Indians. But it also deals with housewives in the big cities, with mine and mill workers in the “bush” towns, with Montreal fur brokers, with New York union leaders and international oil men.

No flag as yet flies over what is the Bay’s greatest single asset: its vast mining estate in the oil-rich west, where its holdings represent almost half of the Bay’s estimated 165 million dollar market value.

And so here in 1959, almost 300 years after King Charles II granted the Bay its royal charter and only 90 years after it almost lost everything in a financial panic that sold out nearly a million square miles of land to the government for £300,000, the Bay has become — in the words of one of its officers — “the most hellishly modern old-fashioned company in the world.”

But these things were above my head. I was lost in a world that can talk glibly and interminably about Hudson Bay Oil and Gas and Continental Oil and AlCanCo.

Instead, I went out again into that knife-keen air and drove 20 miles out of town to old Lower Fort Garry.

If you want a picture of what life was like in the pioneer west you must come here to this old, grey-walled, red-roofed fort, set on its emerald green knoll on the banks of the Red River (which isn’t red at all, but a rich chocolate).

Since it was built in 1832 as the Canadian home for his English bride by the Bay’s tough little governor, George Simpson, the fort has been practically everything from trading post to national monument.

From here the first Scots and Irish immigrants rumbled north in those terrible rickety Red River carts. From here the Red River boats began the long haul upstream, sometimes using the Bay’s blankets for sails.

Each winter, until 1907, up the frozen river and through those same gates dashed the rival dog teams loaded with the pick of the season’s furs. Eight to 10 toboggans might carry £5,000 worth between them.

And in 1873 the “scarlet riders” of the new North-West Mounted Police spent their first winter in the fort.

In what used to be Governor Simpson’s dining room I had an excellent lunch.

There was a young couple having lunch in that fine old colonial dining room. For them it was a very important lunch. And a sad one.

He is a young surveyor employed by a mining company. Tomorrow he leaves for Pond’s Inlet to the far north of Hudson’s Bay, where the Bay trades for white fox furs and life is run on the ancient barter system.

He will be away for three months. So for them this was a long goodbye. The authorities don’t approve of white women living so far north.

After lunch they made a tour of the old fort. And the last I saw of them they were standing, hand in hand, looking unseeing up the Red River.

Below them was the old portage from which so many men have taken the trail north. And so many women have stood and watched them go…

Reproduced with permission
© 2023

Jerry F 2023