Power from the Churchill River, Part I

This is taken from the book "Gold and Other Stories as told to Berry Richards : Prospecting and Mining in Northern Saskatchewan" edited by W.O. Kupsch and S.D. Hanson. It was published by the Saskatchewan Mining Association in 1986. The interviews took place in about 1978.

Electrical Power is a necessary and integral part of the development of mineral resources. The large ore body at Flin Flon is partly within the bounds of Saskatchewan, and the power needed to develop the ore body came from Saskatchewan, from the power station at Island Falls on the Churchill River, about 60 miles northwest of the big mine.

Pelle Hagberg went to Island Falls in 1930...

I went up as an operator of the plant. I started out on the lowest rung as a third operator, and from there to second operator, and first operator. Then I became the statistician. And I designed the houses for the company.

The first trip in was the 12th of June, 1930. We went by "Dinky", a little steam engine used to bring sand to the smelter over a narrow gauge track, out to Mari Lake, and then by barge to Camp 4 across Mari Lake where we stayed overnight.

So I took out my fishing line — it was afternoon — and I started to catch pickerel. I never saw anything like it. They bit one after the other, so I fed the whole camp.

The next day we continued by canoe. At one point we had two canoes hooked together. We walked the portages and packed the stuff. These were pioneer days. It was over 60 miles to Island Falls from Flin Flon.

When we arrived there, all that was there were log buildings and tents. They had started the power units. Number 1 unit was started up on the 8th of June, 1930. Number 2 came on the 17th of June. Number 3 on the 11th of July. Then they built Number 4 in 1937 when they needed more power. And Number 5 got in on the 22nd of May, 1939. Number 6 went on the 26th of May, 1948. Then Number 7 went on line on June 5th, 1959. At the end the total capacity was 109 megawatts, at that time the largest plant in Saskatchewan.

My education before I came to Canada was as an architect, but I took what I could get, and got involved in house building. At Island Falls the material was brought in by Linn tractors and on sleighs. The roads were iced. There was one trip when we went through the ice, with the whole set-up, but no life lost. I didn't like it very much, that was in 1935.

The houses were quite good. No insulation, just tarpaper and asbestos siding. I argued about this. I wanted insulation.

They were electrically heated. We had one heater for the basement, a five kilowatt size, I think, and a larger one for the main floor. We produced power at 110,000 volts and transformed it down for local use.

There are 29 houses there and a staff house. And we built a community hall, all volunteer local labor. We seemed to have more interest in doing something in those days. The company supplied the material and equipment and we supplied the work.

They shut the townsite down when the plant became automatic. Now there's nobody living there except the caretaker, and he serves meals to operators who go up there once a week. So there are 29 modern homes, sitting there empty, rotting away.

Bob Ash spent some time at Island Falls, in the "early days"…

I went to Island Falls — and I can still remember the exact date; it was October the 20th, 1935. The reason I went up there was because the company was enlarging the plant to about twice the capacity. Up until 1935 Island Falls had been a fairly small community, but with the enlarging of the plant it became a much bigger centre.

I was among the first up there in this new development period. There were about three or four hundred fellows working there for the period from 1935 to 1938, mostly all working on construction of the new power house.

I was working in the office, a kind of liaison guy between the company — Churchill River Power, a subsidiary of Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting — and Fraser-Brace Company, the construction outfit.

At that time they were milling about 3000 tons a day in Flin Flon and they were enlarging the plant to about 6000 tons per day capacity. And that's what it pretty well has stayed at since. At that particular time I think they had three large units at Island Falls, but I'm not an electrical engineer. They did the underwater structure for an additional three or four units, which in a matter of a few years were all turned on.