[Flin Flon, Manitoba History] By Tractor Train – by Emmett E. Kelleher ((MACLEAN’S Magazine – March 1, 1930)


The story of a rail-less railroad which moved 23,000 tons of freight into the heart of a wilderness “on time”

IT WAS past midnight—the weather several degrees below zero. The snowmobile sped along a newly cut road in northern Saskatchewan. A night of inky blackness. Trees rushing by like black spectres of a lost army. With the hum of the motor and the whistle of the skis on the glazed snow, I was almost dozing to sleep when we rounded a curve and the swaying of the car roused me.

I blinked through the frosted windshield at a pair of strange lights that appeared suddenly up ahead. High, extremely bright, and set wide apart, they looked like the eyes of some ancient mammal that had returned to its northland home. The nearer the lights approached, the more deeply fascinated I became.

The orbs of dazzling white loomed right in front of us. Our driver swung his car off the trail. The machine ploughed easily through a three-foot snowdrift. A sterner and a mightier roar of machinery filled the northerh murk. Peering through the window I caught a glimpse of the largest tractor I had ever seen. Coupled behind were six loaded sleighs as large as circus wagons. At the rear end was a caboose, the warm yellow glow from its window contrasting vividly in my mind with the frigidity of the night.

“Good drag, that,” our driver remarked, as we lumbered on to the trail once more and raced into the obscurity toward Flin Flon. “Bet she goes 100 tons or more.”
Such was my introduction to the most remarkable phase of the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company’s great waterpower development at Island Falls on the Churchill River in Saskatchewan.

I had seen in operation the tractor train system which a year ago set a new record for winter freighting in Canada—the sleigh railway which in one season transported 23,000 tons of supplies over a sixty-nine-mile tractor route into the wilderness to further a great northern development.

“North of 53”

THE Island Falls project holds a unique position in the opening up of the North. It is the first major hydro-electric undertaking in that glamorous “north of 53” section of the three prairie provinces.

A $6,000,000 development, in its initial stages it will produce 44,000 horsepower of electrical energy; ultimately the output will be increased to 86,000 horsepower. A considerable block of this power will go to the great new mine at Flin Flon, sixty miles distant.

Another block will be used by the Sherritt-Gordon mine and town, and a move is now on foot to extend the transmission line to The Pas, the gateway town of Northern Manitoba. Work on the project was commenced less than two years ago, but so rapid has been the progress made, that power will be surging over the transmission line to Flin Flon by July 1 of this year.

And had it not been for the sleigh railroad this achievement would have been impossible.

Visualize for a moment the problem that confronted the engineers who undertook the task. At Flin Flon was a great mine waiting to be powered. At Island Falls on the Churchill River, sixty miles distant, there was power ample enough to operate not one mine but many.

In between was nothing but wilderness. No railways. No roads. Only the water route which was so dotted with portages as to make water transport of bulk freight impossible. And thousands of tons of freight had to be taken in to the Falls if the Churchill was to be harnessed.

What to do? There was only one answer. The trick had to be turned in winter over frozen lake and trail. And so it was. It took a million dollars to do it and more than a little of the dauntlessness which is characteristic of the men who are pushing back the barriers of the hinterland, but the fact remains that it was done.

As always, the first essential was a man. And in this case, the engineers found their man in Charlie Morgan, of The Pas, who had been doing freight, road and general contracting in the North for twenty years. He had become known for his success during the war years in freighting ore from the famous Mandy copper mine— the “glory hole” that was the talk of the mining world.

A native of South Wales, he had come to Canada twenty-seven years ago and journeyed into the North where he had learned the ways of the wilderness and tasted the joys and sorrows of the frontier. He held the record for freight haul per horse team. He knew the North like a book. He was accustomed to large scale freighting operations. So Morgan got the contract.

A Rail-less Railroad

EVEN the person who has seen the novel tractor train system in action finds it difficult to realize that the shipping of 23,000 tons of freight from Winnipeg to Mile 87 on the Flin Flon railway and thence to the Falls was a million-dollar job. But when one examines the system stage by stage as it developed, its magnitude becomes more apparent.

First, there was the problem of a right of way. This took the form of a sixty-nine-mile winter road from Flin Flon to the Falls. This had to be cleared and where necessary graded. As such things go in the North, it was not a particularly tough proposition in itself, but it cost $50,000.

Portages had to be cleared, grades had to be sliced down and camps had to be erected along the way. When the road was finished in the autumn of 1928, the maximum grade had been reduced to four per cent so that the puffing tractors which were to provide locomotion would not be overtaxed.

Then there was the question of mechanical equipment, which by the time the purchasing was done had cost in excess of $200,000. Locomotives were found in a dozen 100 horsepower caterpillar tractors, supplemented by two gasoline “yard engines.”

For use in connection with “maintenance of right of way,” were nine 100-barrel water sprinklers with which the maintenance crews kept the portages and grades iced well enough to provide good traction for the caterpillar treads of the engines. Three snowplow attachments were also secured for storm emergencies, but little trouble was experienced with snow. Strangely enough, the chief operating difficulty was with rain: of which more later.

And then there were the sleighs which were the freight cars of the system. They were of a size which would cause wonder on a city street. The standard horse sleigh has a thirty-six-inch “run,” which means that the distance between the runners is thirty-six inches. These sleighs boast a five-foot run, and each weighs 2,200 pounds empty. Built in Winnipeg from special designs, 170 of them were brought to the North to make the railless railroad a reality.

Once the system was in operation it functioned very much as does an ordinary railway. Divisional points were established at the Flin Flon siding and at Island Falls. Eight camps were established along the right of way, these being the stations, so to speak.

The usual train consisted of the locomotive, six sleighs and a caboose. Each train carried a crew of four men, two engineers and two brakemen. They worked in six-hour shifts and ate and slept in the caboose. All trains operated under “running orders” and on a strict schedule, and traffic was kept moving twenty-four hours a day.

At the Terminus

WELL do I remember the first time I visited the nerve centre of the system—the yard at the Flin Flon terminus—at night. I swung off a Flin Flon passenger train and stepped down into a scene of seething activity. Scurrying freight clerks, row upon row of box cars, yard engines buzzing around like bees, swiftly moving freight handlers, creaking cranes, snorting tractors, and the whole picture made as brilliant as day under the rays of a battery of flood lights suspended high in the air. It was strangely reminiscent of a circus getting on location at night, or a movie company working on some spectacular night shot.

In charge was a Flin Flon engineer, M. A. Roche, whose job it was to see that equipment and supplies were ordered at the proper times, that they left Winnipeg on schedule and reached the yards in time to coincide with Morgan’s running orders to the Falls.

Departure of a loaded train was accompanied by all the usual rites associated with a similar occurrence on a steam road. Train orders were dispatched on the run from the yard office to the crews. Checkers rushed to finish last minute inspections. Yard engines shunted themselves off to a safe distance. The engineer waited hand on throttle; on the dot the rear-end “brakie” waved his “highball” and the long line of “cars” creaked off into the night.

ABOVE all else, congestion on the road had to be avoided. Morgan, the contractor, was on hand to make sure that each train had its correct assignment of freight, that there were no hitches to prevent the crews from following their running orders, and that the trains pulled out of the siding on time.

He used his own sedan for trips between the siding and the power site, and for speedy sorties out on the road whenever the telephone reported that a train was overdue. Snowmobiles were employed as trouble shooters and expert mechanics kept constant tab on road equipment. One hundred and sixty men composed the personnel of the system.

On the average it took a train thirty-six to forty hours to complete the trip from Flin Flon to the Falls and back again, while the records show that the average load per train was seventy-seven tons. During the first winter, 337 scheduled trips were made between December 18 and April 4 when last of the season’s haul of 23,000 tons was shunted into the Falls. This year’s total will probably be in the neighborhood of 16,000 tons, the back of the job having been broken with the first year’s effort.

Engineer Jim Scouten had the honor of driving the record pay load of the first season. On February 6, 1929, his train started out with 112 and a half tons, arrived at the Falls without mishap, and was back again at the Flin Flon yard in 39 hours, 15 minutes. A heavier load was taken over the route but it was made up of gasoline for tractor consumption—122 tons of it.

Of the total tonnage freighted in during the record winter, cement led the list of individual items with 13,000 tons. That is a lot of cement, but 80,000 yards of concrete was needed in the dam alone. The cement contractors had to have half a million blocks, each measuring 8 by 8 by 16 feet.

Food was transported to the amount of about 1,000 tons. Workers on big construction jobs—there were 800 of them at the Falls camp—are notorious for their appetites, and the cuisine the writer enjoyed on his trip to the Falls was a bright spot in the winter’s gastronomy.

Although, in the end, the project was carried through to a triumphant conclusion, the task was not without its heartaches—particularly at the start. A railway train doesn’t mind the rain, but a tractor train not only dislikes it, but is often beaten to a standstill. Rain plays hob with a nice, icy roadbed, and a tractor drag of 100 tons or so has the habit of sinking into the slush.

It was raining on December 18, 1928, when the first trial run was made. The weather didn’t cause concern at the time because officials were confident that the traditional cold of the north would come in a couple of days. But it was raining when December 23 rolled round, and everyone was worried. Each day clocking by meant a day closer to break-up in the spring. Twenty-three thousand tons of freight is a lot of avoirdupois to be moved about in the north country.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars would have been lost if the winter was too mild. But good fortune decided to favor the attempt to write freight history “north of 53.” By Christmas, the cold snap had set in, and during the remainder of the winter the elements did not harass the tractor trains.

In spite of the scope of the work, there were few mishaps or delays. On a trial run at the start of the season, one of the big 100 horsepower tractors plunged through the ice on a small lake. But it was retrieved and placed in service again. On another occasion, an engine fire halted the march of one train. However, the tractor was rebuilt in the shops at the Falls siding.

And there has been only one “wreck.” That happened on a down grade when a sleigh pole snapped, and the momentum of the train so jostled the loaded sleighs that a few of them toppled over. The loads were soon recovered, and the tractor railroad continued to operate “on schedule.”

Thus the march of civilization into the once silent places of the North.


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