Reproduced with permission from the Route North Roots magazine, 2007-01-03

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October/November, 2006 North of 53°, Canada
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Forty-two days on thin ice
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Stories>Forty-two days on thin ice

frozen lake


After the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company Limited had made their final decision in 1927 to build a hydro-electric power plant on the Churchill River at Island Falls, Saskatchewan, they were confronted with the serious problem of transporting the necessary machinery, supplies and equipment to this inaccessible part of the province.

In order to comprehend the difficulties, fears and anxieties in undertaking a thing of this nature, it will be worthwhile to tell something of the characteristics of the country through which the freight must pass.

The country is very flat and spotted with many lakes; the land areas are covered with timber growths, most of which are of second growth jackpine and poplar, a great many of which have been blown over.

Long warm summer days make this region a pleasant vacationing district in spite of flies and mosquitoes which infest the swamp lands.

The great glacier was responsible in many ways for the numerous lakes which literally cover the country. Long and narrow, they often parallel one another for long distances, forming long continuous water routes which have proven beneficial in many ways.

Scouting done by Tom Creighton early in 1926, and later aerial photographs, assisted in the selection of a satisfactory route to the Churchill River power sites.

The sudden changes from a temperate climate to a frigid one require most extreme precautions. The seasons can never be depended upon.

The time of year in which the snow falls, after ice is once formed, determines directly the probable thickness of the ice. Should the snow fall early in December, the snow will act as a blanket and thin unreliable ice will be the result. The weight of the snow often sinks the ice and causes it to become flooded, the water on top of the ice then forming slush ice which is bad and very treacherous.

The small lakes start freezing over around October 20, the large lakes towards the latter part of November. It is not unusual to have a thaw in January and have most of the snow disappear in the open spaces. In the first week of March temperatures as high as 74 degrees F (21 degrees C) have been experienced. The snow disappears on these occasions and all freighting is usually brought to a standstill or carried on under heavy expense and with the greatest difficulty. The ice thickness on Flin Flon Lake varied from two feet in 1926 to four feet in 1928. It was therefore necessary to keep the above irregularities in mind when working out a practical way of moving 23,000 tons of freight from the steel rail terminus at Mile 87 of the Flin Flon Railroad to Island Falls, a distance of approximately 70 miles by land and lake.

A Linn Tractor broke through thin ice at Barrier Lake.

The type of tractor to be used was given considerable study. The Caterpillar tractor was too light and could pull only a limited load. The Linn tractor, on account of its tremendous tractor force which was directly proportional to the weight which could be loaded over and above the traction belts, was investigated and purchased for the undertaking. To use Linn tractors meant that the ice must be at least 20 to 24

Heavy loads like this electrical transformer needed at least 24 inches of ice inches thick, and this could not be guaranteed if moderate temperatures prevailed and unusual amounts of snow fell. In order to provide for the likelihood of just such a condition occurring, three light Caterpillar tractors were purchased which could be used to clean the snow away and allow the frost to thicken the ice. Fortunately, in 1929, we had colder weather than any previous record had shown and the snow fall was lighter than previously experienced.

Eight water tanks iced the 23 miles of portages

To offset the lack of snow it was necessary to ice all the portages, the total length of which was 23 miles. Eight water tanks with a capacity of 30 tons of water were built and operated at two to three mile intervals along the road and were pulled along on sleighs. Two horse teams were used to draw these tanks. The water was allowed to run out through the holes of the tank, the holes being directly outside of the sleigh runner tracks.

When the weather was extremely cold the water would freeze directly when allowed to run on the roads. These roads, at places, were actually built up to two to three feet above the normal ground level. The river siding where the sleighs were loaded was thoroughly iced. The tractors would cut this ice up when passing over it, so it was necessary to apply water continuously in order to keep the roads in condition. It was necessary to operate tanks both day and night at certain places. The mud bottoms of the shallow lakes made the shore approaches very dangerous, it being necessary to lay down corduroy on the ice and build an ice road over the top of the poles. Where the water was deep no such trouble as this was encountered.

A crew of 210 men were involved in the move

It required a considerable force of men to brush out a 40-foot road, clear the stumps away and grade out the muskeg lumps and the obstructing clay and rock. To avoid bad grades and costly constructions it was necessary to do considerable engineering. Eight camps were established along the route, equipped with telephones.

These camps contained grub supplies and a caretaker who usually was a first class cook. A garage with all the necessary machinery for making repairs to tractors was built at the railroad siding and an expert staff of mechanics and machinists held in readiness to make repairs at all times of night and day.

One thousand gallon tanks were installed at Mile 40 and Island Falls so that the tractors could replenish their gas supply.

The railroad yard at the Mile 87 Siding contained a warehouse track, two main siding tracks side by side, each available for unloading cars on opposite sides, a spur with a ramp built at one end for unloading tractors and shovels, etc., spur track for storing gasoline tank cars, and a temporary trestle track for unloading timber along. From 20 to 25 cars were unloaded each day, the material being placed directly on the sleighs. Two shifts were used to do the unloading, one night and one day. A 60 ton Holt pulled the loaded sleighs from the cars and over the scales and down on to the iced lakes where they were made up into trains of five to eight sleighs each. A small 30-ton Caterpillar and team spotted the empty sleighs for loading. The Linn tractors picked up their trains on the ice and were always on the go, night and day. A caboose with four bunks, a cook stove and eating tables was attached to the end of the train and accompanied the tractor. One crew slept and rested while the other operated. These cabooses were replenished with food at the end of each trip. The tractor always went into the garage for the mechanics to look over and keep in running order at the end of the return trip.

The loaded trains were dropped at Island Falls end and the tractors returned immediately with a string of empty sleighs. Caterpillar tractors spotted the loading sleighs for unloading and made up the train of empties.

Freighting started December 18, 1928, and ended on March 31, 1929. The bulk of freight was moved between January 10 and February 22 the loads on the Linns (over the tracks) were only three to four tons at first, due to poor ice conditions. These loads were gradually increased until a maximum of 13 tons per tractor was hauled.

The tractors when loaded with 13 tons could pull a total live load behind them of approximately 100 tons. They would run three to three and a half miles per hour loaded, and six to seven miles when returning empty.

A heavy load on ice too thin

The tractors broke through the ice in numerous places where the water channels were narrow and water currents kept the ice from thickening.

The roads on the lakes were ploughed from 20 to 60 feet wide, were all brushed by small evergreen trees at intervals of 200 yards, on one side of the road. This prevented the tractors from becoming lost during blinding snowstorms. Miles were marked by posts at regular intervals throughout the entire route.

Unknown driver and Linn tractors at Mile 86

The freight was brought to Mile 87 from points all over Canada and the U.S. Shipments were so arranged that a proper amount of tonnage arrived at the siding each day. Should delays in delivery occur other available material was substituted on short notice. Shipments in transit on the railroad were checked up at every divisional point.

Twelve tractors were purchased to haul the freight. The hauling was done however, by 11 tractors, as No. 3 tractor was damaged by fire on the 19th of December and reconditioned for service by March 15.

Accurate account and check was kept on all tonnages. Freight checkers worked night and day, and okayed every load before sending it forward. A crew of 210 men performed all the work.

Over 25,000 gallons of gasoline were consumed during the hauling season, along with 154 barrels of oil.

Twenty-three thousand tons of freight in 42 days. Twenty-seven million, in 1928 dollars, was spent on Flin Flon and Island Falls before any money was returned from the sale of metals.

This account of the freight haul to Island Falls was written in 1940 and published in the 10th anniversary booklet of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of Flin Flon Lodge. Author was not listed.

More pictures below. Click on an image for a larger view.

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