[Ontario Gold mining history] The Red Lake Marines – by Leslie Roberts (MACLEAN’S Magazine – November 15, 1937)


Freighting that ties up the air lanes with ice and water routes is a big job

BILL COOK, transportation executive at the Red Lake base, said, “If you’re all set, let’s get going.” The mechanic cast off from the dock. The pilot gunned the motor. The ship taxied out into clear water, nosed into the wind, raced over the choppy surface, stepped into the air.

Behind us the town of Red Lake faded toward the northern horizon a town of 900 people who live in virtually the same circumstances of creature comfort as may be found in Aurora or Orillia, excepting the absence of railroads or motor highways. Back in Red Lake, nattily uniformed waitresses were spreading white damask and spotless silver on the tables in the hotel dining room; guests were debating politics and the stock market in deep armchairs in the lobby.

Around the streets youngsters were wondering if this Infantry Paralelasis, or whatever it is, would mean longer holidays, the way it did in Toronto. Their mothers were plugging electric-iron cords into wall sockets, buying steaks down at the shops along the Main Street sidewalk, talking bridge, tennis, plans for the coming badminton season with their neighbors. Travelling salesmen were selling bills of goods, looking at their watches, asking their customers to make it snappy, because they wanted to catch the next plane south.

Young gentlemen of the town were debating the merits of favorite softball teams, or talking about the distant hockey season and who planned to import who from where. The editor of the Red Lake News was writing a paragraph about Mrs. Smith’s impending tea-fight . . .

The plane droned along, crossed a spit of land, passed over another broad body of water, halfway across which could be seen a sturdy tugboat southbound, at the head of a procession of empty scows. Gullrock Lake, Two Island Lake fell behind. The plane came over a narrow, sinuous river, began to give away height.

Cook cupped hands to mouth and yelled, “We’ll be there in a couple of minutes!” This, then, is the story of half a dozen pieces of isolated railroad track, ranging from a furlong to three and a half miles in length, each of which starts from Nowhere and ends at Nowhere Else but which, considered collectively, comprise the life line of the bustling industrial area which lies north of the railhead towns of Hudson and Sioux Lookout in the sovereign province of Ontario.

Why should anybody build little strips of railroad deep in the Northern bush? And after he builds them, how does he make them work? To learn those things was the purpose of the present expedition.

New Kind of Railroading

IN A BRIEF clearing beneath us a short smokestack reared through the roof of a slab-sided building. On one side, white water tumbled over rocks, curling around the comer of a cape. On the other, reaching to the water’s edge below and above the rapids, ran the steel which enables heavy freight to be carried across the furlong length of Snowshoe Portage. At the south end a tug swung into view, hauling a string of six scows on the end of a hundred feet of towline. Bill Cook shouted something about “Just in time.”

The pilot turned about, skimmed the ship up-river again, landed on a small lake two miles away to avoid the dangers of shoal water along the Chukuni’s twisting channel. Thence we taxied back through the narrow waterway, reaching the portage just as the marine railway began to go into action.

Ninety tons of freight comprised the load to be taken across, six scowloads of fifteen tons each. As we landed and walked across the portage to the slipway at the south end, deckhands were leading the first barge into the slip. On the crest of the clearing, beside the engine house, a huge flatcar, constructed from heavy steel beams and mounted on railway trucks, stood ready to move down to the waterside on signal.

The car itself was controlled from the engine-house by means of a steel cable paid out from a drum, operating exactly as a mine hoist is controlled except that this hoisting equipment lies flat on the ground to control a car running along the surface.

Down at the water’s edge, somebody gave a signal. The flatcar began to roll down the tracks toward the slipway into which the lead scow had been towed. Steadily it coasted down the hill, came to the water’s edge, kept on rolling into the water, and disappeared from sight under the freight-laden barge.
Another signal sounded. The cable began to haul in the reverse direction.

Slowly the scow began to rise in the water and approach the bank, lifted and carried by the flatcar which had slipped into the water underneath it. The nose of the flatcar appeared, dripping wet. Within a few seconds, car and scow, the latter riding the former, were high and dry, moving up the tracks toward the crest of the hill.

Passing the crest, they slid steadily down toward another slipway at the northern end of the portage, where the flatcar rolled again into the water and disappeared. The scow floated off it. Deckhands moored the scow; the flatcar reappeared and set off on its return journey across the height of land to fetch another barge.

Your reporter pinched himself mentally; began to think about Alice in Wonderland, Jabberwocks and suchlike phenomena. But the end was not yet.

No Other Like It

WE HAD been told about Red Lake’s marine railways before coming into the country. Various people had said that they constitute the neatest trick in the history of Northern transportation – – a history in which neat tricks are as common as fleas on a stray mongrel. At the railroad tracks in Hudson, Bob Starratt, who is probably the number one freighting genius of the Canadian bush, had urged us not to leave the district without witnessing the operation, because there isn’t another like it in the world.

So we had come—to watch a string of Starratt scows, towed by a Starratt tug, jump overland. What we expected to see and more particularly to hear, was a considerable bother and to-do.

Instead, we saw the flatcar roll back and forth across the portage, sliding under its scow at the south end, lifting it bodily from the water, rolling over the tracks to the north side, refloating its load, returning to repeat the performance.

Nobody yelled at anybody. No sirens shrieked. Nothing bumped into anything else. As the barge-laden flatcar crossed the land, another scow was moved into the loading slip. As the car returned light to pick up this scow, the refloated one at the other end of the track was led away on tow-ropes, hitched ready for its continued journey.

Thirty-five minutes after the first barge began to move across the furlong of Snowshoe Portage, the entire string had been carried across and was beginning to move north again behind a new tug, while the engineer banked his fire and crossed the track to feed his chickens. All of which is something new under the transportation sun.

A Unique Development

TO VISUALIZE the reason for these remarkable marine railroads of Northwestern Ontario it is necessary, first, to examine the country in relation to the needs of those who opened its mineral deposits.

Early in the 1920’s, the Howey brothers made the strike which became the Howey mine. The early stages of its development were spectacular in the extreme, primarily because of the advent of the dramatic Jack Hammell, who impressed Provincial Government aircraft into Howey service to bring the first mining plant into Red Lake and, incidentally, focused the attention of the mining world on the possibilities of the airplane as a bush transport medium.

But the gold deposits of Red Lake, as discovered at that time, were essentially low grade, which meant that low freighting costs must be secured, else there could be no Howey Mine. So the backers of the district began to examine the possibilities of, first, a water route for summer freighting and, second, a tractor route for winter use.

The water route from the railroad at Hudson into Red Lake possessed notable advantages and several disadvantages. On the former side it was comparatively direct, not a great deal longer than the air line, an argument in favor of low costs. On the latter, however, stood several impediments to traffic in the guise of overland jumps, an item which can pile up carrying costs with considerable ease. In any case, the backers of the district tackled the problem.

In 1926 freights began to move north slowly from Hudson, from Lost Lake into Lac Seul and across its broad expanse for almost fifty miles into the English River. Here the first problem had to be faced—the carrying of goods and machinery around turbulent Ear Falls (currently harnessed to supply electric power for mines within 100 miles radius).

A rough road was cut through the bush, over which freight was packed, first by man-power, later by horses, into the lower reaches of the Chukuni. Seventeen miles farther on a jump-over had to be made at Snake Falls, again by man-power.
Higher up the line again all loads had to be packed, tump-line fashion, across the portage known as Sam’s —commemorating a gentleman of ochre coloring who organized a carrying crew over the trail at that place. After another half-mile came the brief crossing known as the Short Portage. Six miles along the water highway again came the business of transferring freights across Snowshoe, whence goods could move unimpeded to journey’s end in Red Lake. The job was still a costly business, too costly to permit of profitable operation of low-grade gold deposits.

Little by little the marine railway idea was unfolded. In 1929 the short portages were equipped to handle scows overland, but the longer pull, around Ear Falls, remained in its primitive, horse-equipped, expensive condition—while the Howey operators went around muttering into the necks of their flannel shirts, announcing that unless freight rates could be cut even lower they wouldn’t be in business much longer. Into these dolorous circumstances the gangling figure of “Lucky Bob’’ Starratt was propelled by what he describes as force of circumstances.

Low Transportation Cost

STARRATT had come into the country in 1928. equipped with a $40 bankroll and a borrowed outboard-motored canoe, in search of fortune in the freighting business. According to the record he was doing pretty well—principally because he was and is a citizen who abhors red tape and slow-poke methods, the sort of hombre who, once he accepts a contract to carry your goods, either gets them there as promised or leaves town.

Mr. Starratt had some very desirable customers in the Red Lake country, and so was in no way enamored of the idea that they might have to shut down and walk away from their Northern occupations. The Government was dickering with the mine operators about the possibility of giving aid. The gold-hunting people were talking about appropriations, sharing-cost ideas and suchlike schemes.

Meanwhile Master Starratt, who by this time had made a little money, went to work and built the portage, equipped it with a marine railroad and then, having to all intents and purposes hog-tied the cheap transportation business, promptly gave to his competitors access to the new road.

The idea, he explained, was to open up the country. You can’t open up the bush, he added, by placing a lot of restrictions on the other fellow, nor by making it hard for him to operate. This Lucky Bob Starratt is quite a fellow.

Finally Government and miners agreed on the division of costs properly to equip the entire marine rail system, built another overland route alongside Starratt’s at Ear Falls. Today Red Lake water transportation costs are down to a point at which it is possible for the lowest-grade mine in the Dominion, a mine which returns only slightly more than $2 in gold per ton of ore, to function.

While all these matters were in hand a new camp suddenly flashed spectacularly across the golden sky —the camp which now houses those two handsome young producers and dividend payers. Central Patricia and Pickle Crow, the latter producing the highest gold value per ton of rock mined on the American continent. Profiting by their experience in the western side of the district, the transportation genii of the country, the Messieurs Starratt et al. went into action with considerable speed as soon as it became apparent that a new producing section had opened up.

In short order three marine railroads of the Red Lake type were installed between Hudson and Lake Saint Joe. Added to these was a fourth, consisting of three and a half miles of standard gauge track equipped with old Canadian National flatcars and a gasoline locomotive. To complete the route into Pickle Crow-Patricia country, a gravelled highway was constructed -with Government assistance-over the last twenty-five miles of the journey, from Doghole Bay to the mines, over which all freight for the northeastern area now passes.

Tugs move day and night throughout the open water season, hauling their lines of laden scows on long towlines which prevent bumping in choppy water or narrow rivers, enable tugs to maneuver more easily. The portages run day and night, rain or shine. Freight landed on the sidings of Hudson today reaches journey’s end in Red Lake or Patricia in from twenty-five to thirty-five hours. You can’t beat that by many eyelashes down in the Main Line country.

But this is no seasonal operation. As soon as the snow flies and ice begins to form along the margin of the lakes and rivers, the tugs and the scows head south for the docks of Hudson to rest and recuperate from the business of moving more than 20,000 tons of machinery and supplies during the summer months.

Then the tractors come out and the long lines of swings (common or garden double-truck sleighs to you and me) snake across the ice behind them. Red Lake bound from Hudson, or en route to Patricia country from near-by Savant, which offers the shortest and easiest tractor route into the eastern side of the country.

A Highly Organized District

WINTER ROADS have been cut across the portages.

These, added to the ice-bound lakes, complete routes over which the steady stream of freight pours into the North throughout the winter months, plugging steadily forward, day and night, relief crews sleeping in the caboose which brings up the rear of each train, engines never switched off from the time of departure at railhead until the last swing-load is delivered at the mines.

Last winter Starratt’s fourteen tractors and 100 swings carried almost 4,000 tons of freight north, much of it into parts of the country which can be reached only by aircraft during the open water season. His competitors lifted the total to twice that amount. Add that to 20,000 tons hauled by water, and say. 10,000 tons carried by air (in addition to passengers and mail) and some idea will take form as to the nature of activity in this country north of the tracks in Northwestern Ontario.

Beyond doubt it is the most highly organized mining country in the Canadian hinterland. At Red Lake, one early-autumn day, your observer counted no less than twenty-four airplane take-offs and landings, craft of six commercial companies being involved.

This is a country of comfortable hotels, electric light, highly organized industry, well-groomed community life.

Gold made the country what it is. The airplane opened it and maintains its lines of rapid communication with rapid-fire service during the daylight hours. But it is to the inventive minds behind the isolated lengths of steel which start from Nowhere and finish at Nowhere Else —the designers of the winter tractor routes, the Starratts and men of that ilk that the credit for making it an economic, profitable possibility belongs.

Inventive Genius

SOLUTION of the tractor-freighting problem was no simpler than the creation of the marine railway system. When Jack Hammell set out to make his young Pickle Crow hum, for example, he tossed a huge machine-freighting order into Starratt’s lap one morning in Toronto with the laconic instruction, “Get it there. I don’t care how. That’s your business.”

Whereupon Lucky Bob went to work to figure out ways and means. As soon as plans were laid, he notified Hammell. Then the freights slowed down to snail’s pace and nothing came into the siding at Savant. Starratt walked up and down the tracks, biting his nails and talking to himself inside the hood of his parka. Spring lay just around the corner. By the time the shipments began to arrive—Diesel engines, boilers, hoists, mine cars; nice, light, simple little impedimenta, all of it— sun was beginning to honeycomb the snow on the lakes.

Before the tractor trains were halfway to Lake Saint Joe, loads were beginning to go through the ice along the shore. Pleasant work, riding a ten-ton tractor at the head of a string of loaded swings across a lake, wondering when the ice-road beneath you will cave in, dousing you and the load in twenty feet of water! But the Pickle Crow plant went on, which was Mr. Starratt’s principal interest in the matter.

From it all, he will tell you, he learned a lot; notably that the time to run tractors is before the sun gets hot, not after. The result is a winter-freighting business which compares favorably for efficiency with the summertime operation over the lakes, the rivers and the marine rails.

Nowadays, the freighters say, it’s a cut-and-dried operation, running on schedule, tying up water or ice routes with the rapid transit of the air lanes. Starratt himself keeps fifteen tugs and eighty scows on the move throughout the summer. Fourteen tractors and almost a hundred sets of sleighs go all winter.

In conjunction with these his ten airplanes are in the air from dawn to dark, scuttling through the skies from Hudson to Red Lake, Sioux Lookout to Pickle Crow-Patricia area, Winnipeg and Kenora to a dozen different mining zones in the northwestern area.

All these came from a $40 bankroll, a borrowed canoe and the urgent desire to win fortune in the carrying trade.

What Lucky Bob Starratt and his fellow Red Lake Marines have done is completely in character with the practices and habits of the Northwestern Ontario bush country as a whole.

For inventive genius and clean cut action, these people make the brain children of the charming Harold Bell Wright and the revered but unlamented Horatio Alger look like a motley array of second-raters.


For more historic print articles about Canadian mining, click here:http://republicofmining.com/historic-articles-about-northern-ontario/