Canada - To Europe By Hudson Bay
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT must have become apparent to the most casual observer that transportation has been to Canada more than a system of exploitation by capital. Transportation has been to Canada an integral part of her very national life—which, perhaps, explains how with the exception of extravagance incident to a period of great prosperity her railroad systems have been founded on sound finance from bed-rock up. In spite of huge land grants—in all fifty-five million acres and in the case of one railroad wild stock fluctuations from forty eight to three hundred dollars—it is a question if a dollar of public money has ever been diverted from roadbed to promoters' pockets. Certainly, in the case of the strongest road financially in Canada, no director of the road has ever juggled with under-ground wires to unload worthless securities on widows and orphans. Railroad stocks have never been made the football of speculators. Charters in the old days were juggled through legislatures with land grants of eight and twelve thousand acres per mile; but at that time these acres were worthless ; and the system of land grants has for the last ten years been discontinued. Because railroads are a necessary part of Canada's national development, state aid of late has taken the form of loans, cash grants and guarantee of bonds by provincial and federal governments. This has given Canada's Railway Commission a whip handle over rates and management, which perhaps explains why railroads in Canada have never been regarded as lawful game by the financial powers that prey. Including municipal, provincial and federal grants, stocks and bonds, Canada has spent on her railroads a billion and a half. Including capital cost and maintenance, Canada has spent on her canals $138,000,000. On steamship subsidies, Canada's yearly grants have gradually risen from a few hundred thousands to as high as two millions in some years. Nor does this cover all the national expenditure on transportation ; for besides the thirty-eight millions spent on dredging and improving navigation on the St. Lawrence, twelve millions have been appropriated for improving Halifax Harbor; and only recently federal guarantee for bonds to the extent of forty-three millions was accorded one transcontinental. This road was so heavily guaranteed by provincial governments that if it had failed it would have in. volved four western provinces. Its plight arose from two causes—the extravagant cost of labor and material in an inflated era, and the depression in the world money markets curtailing all extension. Workmen on this road were paid three to seventeen dollars a day, who would have received a dollar and a half to four dollars ten years ago. In fact, the owners of the road themselves received those wages thirty years ago. Sections cost one hundred thousand dollars a mile which would formerly have been built for thirty thousand; and prairie grading formerly estimated at six to eight thousand dollars a mile jumped to twenty and thirty thousand dollars. In coming to the aid of the Canada Northern, the government did no more than Sir John Macdonald's government did for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885, and the prosperity of the Canadian Pacific Railroad has amply justified that aid.
Canada's transportation system has been a national policy from the first. Her first transcontinental she built to unify and bind confederation. Her second two transcontinentals she launched to carry commerce cast and west, because the United States had built a tariff wall which prevented Canada moving her commerce north and south. Her canal system to cut the distance from the Great Lakes to the seaboard and to overcome the rapids at "the Soo," at Niagara and on the St. Lawrence has simply resolved itself into an effort to move seaboard inland, on the principle that the farther inland the port the shorter the land haul and the lower the traffic toll. Owing to the enormous increase in the cargo capacity of lake freighters in recent years, grain ships reach Buffalo carrying three hundred thousand bushels of western wheat, and Canada's Welland Canal has worked at a handicap. Until the Canal is widened, the big cargo carriers can not pass through it, and the necessity to break bulk here is one explanation of more than half Canada's western traffic going to seaboard by way of Buffalo instead of Montreal.
For years the proposal has been under consideration to connect the Great Lakes with the St. Lawrence by way of a canal from Georgian Bay through Ottawa River. This would be a colossal undertaking; for the region up Mattawa River toward Georgian Bay is of iron rock, and to build a canal wide enough for the big cargo carriers would out distance anything in the way of canal construction in the world. Both parties in Canada have endorsed what is known as the Georgian Bay Ship Canal; and estimates place the cost at one hundred and twenty-five millions ; but traffic men of the Lakes declare if the big cargo carriers are to have cheap insurance on this route, the canal will have to be wide enough to guarantee safe passage; and the cost would be twice this estimate.
On no section of her national transportation has Canada expended more thought and effort than improving navigation on the St. Lawrence. This, in its way, has been as difficult a problem for a people of seven millions as the construction of Panama for a people of ninety millions. Consider the geographical position of the St. Lawrence route ! It penetrates the continent from eight hundred to nine hundred sixty miles. Montreal, the head of navigation on the St. Lawrence, is the farthest inland harbor of America with the exception of two ports—Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico and Port Nelson on Hudson Bay. Galveston is seven hundred miles from the wheat fields of Kansas. Port Nelson is four hundred miles from the wheat fields of Manitoba. Montreal is—roughly —a thousand miles from the head of the Lakes, one thousand five hundred miles from the wheat fields of Manitoba, two thousand two hundred miles from the wheat fields of Alberta. Montreal's great advantage is in being situated so far inland. Her disadvantages are from the nature of the St. Lawrence. First, the port is closed by ice from November to April. Second, the St. Lawrence is the drainage bed of inland oceans—the Great Lakes. Third, it passes into the Atlantic at one of the most difficult sections of the coast. South of Newfoundland are the fogs of the Grand Banks. North of Newfoundland the tidal cur-rent beats upon an iron coast in storm and fog. To save detour, St. Lawrence vessels, of course, follow the route north of Newfoundland through the Straits of Belle Isle.
When Canada began dredging the St. Lawrence in 1850, the channel averaged a depth of ten feet. By 1888, the channel averaged twenty-seven and one-half feet at low, water. Today a depth of thirty to thirty-one feet has been, attained. At its narrowest points the St. Lawrence has a steamship channel four hundred and fifty feet wide and thirty feet deep from side to side. In the days when high insurance rates were established against the St. Lawrence route, there was practically not a lighthouse nor channel buoy from Tadousae to the Straits of Belle Isle. Today between Montreal and Quebec are ninety nine lighted buoys, one hundred and ninety-five can buoys ; between Que-bec and the Straits, three light ships, eighty gas buoys, one whistling buoy, seventy five can buoys, four submarine bell ships, and a line of lighthouses. Telegraph lines extend to the outer side of Belle Isle, and hydrographie survey has charted every foot of the river. In spite of these improvements, insurance rates are four to six per cent. for lines to Canada, where they are one and one-half to two and one-half to American ports.
What with three transcontinentals, a complete canal system from seaboard to the Great Lakes and an outlet for western traffic through Panama, one would think that Canada had made ample provision for transportation ; but she has only begun. If she is to be the shortest route to the Orient, she must keep traffic in Canadian channels and not divide it with Panama and Suez. If she is to feed the British Em-pire, she must establish the shortest route from her wheat fields to the United Kingdom ; and if she is to overcome the disadvantage of harbors open only half the year, she must secure to herself some other advantage—such as access to the harbor having the shortest land haul and therefore the lowest freight rates in America. There is another consideration. If when Canada is raising less than three hundred million bushels of wheat her transcontinentals are glutted with traffic and her harbors gorged, what will happen when her wheat fields raise eight hundred million bushels of wheat? So Canada has cast about for a shorter route to Europe by Hudson Bay, and both parties in Dominion politics have backed the project.
At a time when the food supply of Great Britain must be drawn almost solely from her colonial possessions and the United States• and Argentina, when her very national existence depends on the sea lanes to that food supply being kept open—a route which shortens the distance to that food supply by from one thousand five hundred to three thousand miles becomes doubly interesting.
Take a mental look at the contour of North America ! All the big export harbors of the Atlantic Coast are situated at the broadest bulge of the continent—Halifax, St. John, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore are all where the distance across the continent from the grain fields is widest. That means a long land haul.
Take another look at the map—this time at a revolving globe! Any schoolboy knows that a circle round a top is shorter at the ends than around its middle. The same of the earth. East and west dis-tances are shorter the nearer you are to the Pole, the farther you are from the Equator.
To England from Eastern Asia by Suez is fourteen to eighteen thousand miles. To England from Asia by San Francisco is eleven thousand miles, by Seattle ten thousand miles, by Prince Rupert and Hudson Bay seven to eight thousand miles—representing a saving by the northern route of almost half round the world.
Another point take a compass ! Stick the needle on Hudson Bay and swing the leg down round New York and up through the wheat plains of the North-west. Draw lines to the center of your circle—to your amazement, you find the lines from the wheat plains to New York are twice and thrice as long as the lines from the wheat plains to Hudson Bay. In other words, Mr. Hill's wheat empire is one thousand miles nearer tidewater to Hudson Bay than to New York. The three prairie provinces of Northwestern Canada are from four hundred (for Manitoba) to eight hundred miles (for Alberta) distant from ocean front on Hudson Bay. They are from one thousand two hundred to two thousand four hundred miles dis-tant from tidewater at Montreal and New York and Philadelphia.
That is if land rates were the same as water rates —the Hudson Bay route to Europe would cut rates to England from the Orient by half, and from the wheat plains by the difference between one thousand two hundred miles and four hundred, and two thousand four hundred miles and eight hundred. But land rates are not water rates. From Alberta to the Great Lakes is roughly one thousand two hundred miles. From the Great Lakes to tidewater is roughly another one thou-sand two hundred miles—either by way of Chicago-Buffalo, or Lake Superior-Montreal. For the one thousand two hundred miles from Alberta to the Great Lakes, grain shippers at time of writing pay a rate of twenty-two to twenty-five cents a bushel. For the one thousand two hundred miles from the head of the Lakes to Buffalo, the rate is three cents, from the head of the Lakes to Montreal five to six cents. In other words, the rate by land is just five to eight times higher than the rate by water.
To the argument shorter distances by half by the northern route is added the argument cheaper rates as eight to one.
That is why for twenty years Canada has gone sheer mad over a Hudson Bay route to Europe. For obvious reasons the ports in Eastern Canada have fought the idea and ridiculed the whole project as "an iron tonic from rusting rails" for the cows. That has not stopped the West. Grading is under way for the railroad to Hudson Bay from the grain plains. The Canadian government is the backer and the builder. Construction engines, dredges, steamers now whistle over the silences of the northern inland sea; and Port Nelson, which for three centuries has been the great fur entrepôt of the wintry wastes, now echoes to pick and hammer and blowing locomotive intent on the construction of what is known as the Hudson Bay Railroad. Should the war last for years as wars of old, and Port Nelson become a great grain port as for three centuries it has been the greatest fur port of the world, the navies of Europe may yet thunder at one another along Hudson Bay's shallow shores, as French and English fought there all through the seventeenth century.
The Hudson Bay railroad hung in mid-air for al-most a quarter century. It was regarded by the East as one of the West's mad impossible "boom" projects. Hadn't Canada, a country of seven million population, a railroad system of 29,000 miles? Hadn't the Dominion spent $188,000,000 on canals heading traffic to the St, Lawrence? Why divert half that traffic north to Hudson Bay? Surely three great transcontinental systems for a country with a population not larger than New York State were enough. So argued the East, and a great many conservative people in the West. Better make haste slowly, especially as it was becoming more and more evident that Canada would have to come to the aid of two of the transcontinentals or see them go bankrupt.
Then something happened. In fact, two or three things happened.
The population, which had remained almost stationary for half a century, jumped two million in less than ten years. Immigrants began pouring in at the rate of four hundred thousand a year—they were coming literally faster than the railroads could carry them.
It sometimes takes an outsider's view of us to make us realize ourselves. Do you realize they asked that your three grain provinces alone are three times the area of the German Empire? Here is a grain field as long as from Petrograd to Paris and of un-known width north and south. You have 480,000,000 acres of wheat lands. (The United States plants only 50,000,000 acres a year to wheat.) You are cultivating only 16,000,000 acres. If there is a grain blockade now, what will there be when you cultivate 100,000,000 acres? Yes—we know—you may send Alberta grain west by Panama to Liverpool; but even with half going by Panama, can the Great Lakes St. Lawrence route take care of the rest? We hear about a constant shortage of cars ; of elevators bulging with grain every September; of miles of lake cargo carriers waiting to get in and out of their berths every October before navigation closes. Do you know—they asked—that you have five times more traffic—seventy-two million tons — going through your canals than is expected for Panama? Do you know your rail traffic has jumped from 36,000,000 tons in 1900 to 90,000,000 tons in 1912? If you sent 200,000,000 bushels of wheat abroad in 1912 and 158,000,000 bushels in 1914--a poor year—what will you send in 1920 with twice as much land under wheat?
Two other comparatively unpondered facts were the hammers that drove the argument for a Hudson Bay route home and forced the Canadian government, irrespective of party, to back the project. The two facts were these—of Canada's agricultural exports eighty per cent. went to Great Britain, In spite of Canada spending a billion on her transportation system, look at the fact well—it is a poser—only from thirty-two to forty per cent. of her export trade went out by Canadian routing. Why was that? The Department of Railroads and Canals in its annual re-port explains elaborately that sixty per cent. of Western Canadian grain went out by the Duluth Buffalo route instead of Ft. William Montreal because the lake rate of the former was cheaper as three to six cents a bushel; but there is nothing in this argument because Montreal is tidewater. Buffalo is not. To the cheaper Buffalo rate you must add five cents to New York, proving the American routing really two cents a bushel higher. Yet sixty per cent. of Western Canadian wheat went out by the costlier routing. Why? For the same reason that if you jam a bag too full it bursts. Because the Canadian transcontinentals simply could not take care of the traffic blockading tracks and ports and elevators.
So in spite of the funny man's jokes about a Hudson Bay route being "iron tonic for the cows," Canada launched on another all-red, to-the-sea railroad project.
What of the road itself?
I camped in the region a few years ago when the venture was still in air. The wheat plains terminate just west of Lake Winnipeg in an interminable swamp region that has been the home of small furs from the beginning of time. Saskatchewan River here literally widens to seventy miles of swamp, where you can barely find foot room dry soled except in winter, when the marsh turns to iron ice twelve feet thick. Through this swamp country runs a ridge of rock northeasterly to Hudson Bay. Down this ridge run Nelson and Hayes and Churchill Rivers ina succession of rapids and lakes, wild rough barren country, where you can paddle in summer or course by dog-train in winter for four hundred miles without sight of arable land or human dwelling. Along this ridge the railroad runs from the wheat plains. It is a route destined for the present to be barren of local traffic, but that also is true of the stretches along Lake Superior, or across the desert of the Southwest. Back from the ridge coal deposits have been found, and traces of copper, the mines of which have not yet been located. I myself saw chunks of pure copper from the Church-ill River region the size of one's hand, but the veins from which the Indians brought it have not yet been located. In time these great deposits may be worked as oil and coal and gold and silver have been taken from the American Desert, but for the near future the Hudson Bay Railroad will carry little traffic but that received at its terminals.
The western terminal connecting with the wheat railroads is the Pas, an old, very old fur post of the French wood runner days, on the Saskatchewan west of Lake Winnipeg. Here the railroad touches the Canada Northern and will doubtless later connect with the Canadian Pacific Railroad and Grand Trunk. To any one who knows the region well it seems almost a pity that the western terminus could not have been Grand Rapids just northwest of Lake Winnipeg. Here is a fine wooded high park country with the un-limited water power of nine miles of a continental river walled into a canyon half a mile wide. But the country west of Lake Winnipeg is as yet untouched by a railroad, though one can hardly conceive of a city not some day springing up at this the head of 'Manitoba navigation. Eastward from the Pas to Hudson Bay it is four hundred miles plus. Construction presents no great difficulties except bridging, and that can hardly be compared to the difficulties of canyons in the Rockies and drouth in the desert.
For years there was sharp contest whether the ter-minus on the Bay should be Nelson or Churchill. Churchill is one of the best harbors in the world, land locked, rock protected and fathomless; and Nelson is probably one of the worst—shallow, with sand bars caused by the confluence of the two great rivers emptying here, exposed to open sea. But the balance of favor on the Bay is how long can navigation be kept open. Navigation is open a month earlier and a month later at Nelson than at Churchill; so the Dominion dredges have gone to work to make Nelson a fit harbor.
How long is navigation open on the Bay? The Dominion government has sent three expeditions to ascertain this, though data might have been obtained from the Archives of the Hudson's Bay Fur Company covering the record of over two hundred years. Both the Archives and the official expeditions record the same—navigation opens between the middle of May and the first of June, and closes about the end of October. Seasons have been known when navigation remained open till New Year's, but this was unusual. So as far as the opening and closing of navigation is considered, the Hudson Bay route is not far different from the Great Lakes.
Hudson Bay itself is in area about the size of the Mediterranean. Because it is so far north the impression prevails that it is afloat with ice. This is a false impression. Hudson Bay lies in the same latitude as the North Sea and the Baltic, which are freighted with Russian and German commerce, but the climate, of course, is colder. The ice, which has given the great inland sea its ill repute, comes from the Pole and goes out through the Straits, seldom coming down the Bay in the season of navigation.
The Straits are the real crux of the Hudson Bay route to Europe, and there is no narrow neck of land to cut a way of escape through to open sea as at Kiel and Cape Cod. The Straits have been navigated by fur-traders since 1670, but the fur-traders could take a week or a month to the four hundred and fifty miles of Straits. They could afford the time to float back and forward with the ice packs for six weeks, and as many as seven vessels have been wrecked in ten years. To this tale of wreckage in the Straits, friends of the Hudson Bay route answer as follows :
First, the fur-traders' vessels were little discarded admiralty vessels of small tonnage and rickety construction. Give us ice jammers such as the Russians use on the Baltic, built narrow and high of oak, not steel, to ride and crush down through the ice; and we can take care of high insurance rates. Second, the Straits are still an utterly uncharted sea four hundred and fifty miles long and from seventy to one hundred and fifty wide. This is not so long as the passage up the St. Lawrence. In such an inland sea as these Straits there must exist safe as well as un-safe channels, shelters, smooth reaches. Let us get the Straits charted and marked with buoys, with telegraph and cable points, and we shall navigate these four hundred and fifty miles. The questions of light-houses need not bother the Straits, for the season of navigation is also the season of long daylight.
Three advantages must be put on the credit side of the Hudson Bay route:
Distances to tidewater cut by half.
Distances to Europe cut by a third.
Rates reduced on grain as eight to one.
Against these advantages must be placed three handicaps:
The danger of an uncharted sea in the Straits.
Necessity for enormous elevator and storage room.
Mr. Hill's wheat country may begin wheat cutting in July. The Canadian Northwest is lucky if it cuts before the eighth of August. Consider the area of the big wheat farms! The whole of August is taken up with cutting and threshing. It is September or October, before the wheat is hauled to market, and it is November before it reaches seaboard. In November navigation on the Bay closes, and one hundred, perhaps two hundred million bushels of wheat must be held by the farmers, or the elevators, till May. This means interest on money out of the farmer's pocket for six months, or storage charges. On the other hand, there will be no danger of stored wheat "heating" on the Bay. The cold there is of too sharp a type, but this is a danger in many of the all the year round open harbors.
For twenty years the Hudson Bay railroad has been a project up in air. It is now a project on graded roadbed. Before these words are in print Hudson Bay Railroad will be on wheels and tracks. Then the real difficulty of the Straits will be faced, and probably—as Russia has overcome the difficulties of the Baltic—so will the Canadian Northwest overcome the difficulties of this hyperborean sea.