Power from the Churchill River, Part II

This is 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 in 1986 by the Saskatchewan Mining Association.

The Churchill River basin lies in the central and northern parts of the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and extends into the province of Alberta. The greater part of the area is included in the pre-Cambrian peneplain of northern Canada and has a gently rolling surface characterized by rounded outlines that have resulted from long continued and profound erosion. The river is peculiar in that it is composed of chains of lakes connected by falls, rapids and stretches of swift water which makes it difficult to navigate and numerous portages are necessary to pass these points. In earlier days the river was used to a considerable extent by the fur traders, but traffic has practically ceased since the advent of railway transportation.

The river rises in Churchill Lake in western Saskatchewan, but some of the tributary head waters are in Alberta, and the total length from Churchill Lake to Churchill, where it enters Hudson Bay, is approximately 1,325 miles. In this distance there is a fall of over 1,300 feet which is well concentrated in the numerous falls and rapids along its course, making it a very valuable stream for power purposes, particularly so as the large lakes in the drainage basin and extensive areas of swamp and muskeg afford means of natural regulation. The total drainage area is about 114,500 square miles of which possibly 80,000 square miles is above the power site. There are excellent facilities for storage as the drainage basin contains several large lakes of which Reindeer Lake, Lac la Ronge and Ile-à-la-Crosse Lake may be mentioned, and it would be a comparatively simple matter to dam the outlets of these lakes and impound large quantities of water.

In the drainage basin above the power site the rock formations consist mainly of granite or gneisses which are exposed along the river channel. In the areas away from the river the rocks are covered with glacial drift, sometimes to considerable depths, and these consist of till, clay, and sandy formations; where suitable cover exists the country is covered with thick growths of poplar, spruce, birch and jack pine. Some good stands of merchantable timber are to be found in the valley bottoms, but most of the timber is too small for commercial use.

At present little information has been obtained as to the flow of the stream, but a minimum of 10,000 c.f.s. and a maximum of 35,000 c.f.s. was recorded during the years 1928-1930, and there is reason to believe that a much higher maximum flow has been attained at some time in the past, which may have amounted to as much as 100,000 c.f.s., judging from old high water marks.


The Flin Flon mine was first discovered in 1915 and some efforts were made to develop the property, but little success attended these efforts owing to lack of transportation facilities and a successful method of treatment of the ore. Sufficient work was, however, done to reveal the presence of a large body of copper-sulphide ore and an option on the property was secured by the Whitney interests in 1925. Experimental work was carried on during the years 1926-1927 and the results were sufficiently encouraging to warrant the purchase of the property. Arrangements were immediately concluded for the construction of a railway from The Pas to Flin Flon and investigations of possible water power sites were started. A considerable amount of study was given to the power possibilities of both the Churchill and Nelson rivers and the site at Island Falls was finally selected as the one most suitable to the needs of the company.


The location of the power site was in a region remote from the point where power was to be used and the only means of access was by canoes with frequent portages between lakes. No roads existed in this area and the distance from the mine to the power site was about 70 miles.

It was therefore obvious that a transportation system would have to be built to connect the job with railhead, which would be capable of handling the large amount of material and supplies needed by the construction crews, during both the summer and winter seasons, and this work was started during the summer of 1928 and completed the following winter. During this period a total of 43 miles of forest road had been cleared and graded. Camps were established along the route, docks built at the end of each lake, and several large scows of 20 to 30 tons capacity had been constructed. A bush telephone line connected the camps and terminal points.

Winter transportation was handled by trains of sleighs hauled by tractors of 100 h.p. Each train was made up of about six sleighs, tractor and heated caboose, and operations were carried out on a definite running schedule, the time for the round trip varying from thirty-six to forty hours. The average load per train was 77 tons, but loads up to 120 tons were hauled.

The total amount of freight handled during the construction period was 35,000 tons, 70 per cent of which was handled during the first winter.

The work of erecting the construction camp was started during the winter. Operations were also commenced in connection with the location and clearing of the transmission line.

The permanent camp buildings were erected during the winter of 1928-1929, and the two sawmills were busily engaged in preparing lumber for building and construction purposes.

Power for construction purposes was first supplied by portable engines, but a small power site had been located at Spruce Falls, about 14 miles from the job, and a temporary power plant was constructed at this point, with a transmission line to Island Falls. Power was transmitted at 26,000 volts and stepped down at a substation to motor and lighting voltages.

This small plant was in operation for over a year and supplied 4,700,000 k.w.h. of electrical energy. The dams and power-house were of timber construction and the plant consisted of two 1,250 h.p. units coupled to 1,000 kv.a. vertical type generators, 600-volt, 3-phase, 60-cycle, speed 400 r.p.m., 40-foothead. The transformers were located apart from the building and consisted of a bank of three 667 kv.a. units 600 to 6,600/26,400 volts with lightning arresters for protection purposes.


The design of the plant was based upon the use of local material as far as was possible, in order to save transportation of structural material, and the layout of the plant was so arranged that space was also economized so as to keep the cost of construction within reasonable limits.

From start to finish the whole of the work was completed in a little over two years, but actual construction of the permanent works was completed in sixteen months, and power was being supplied to the mine twelve months after the first ground was broken.

Construction of the works was carried out by the Fraser-Brace Engineering Company Ltd., of Montreal, who were also responsible for the general design, and the cost of the undertaking was approximately $7,100,000. (Excerpts from Marshall, 1931)