Sitting on the east bank of the Churchill River where it empties into Hudson Bay, CHURCHILL has the neglected look of many remote northern settlements, its unkempt open spaces dotted with the houses of its mixed Inuit, Cree and white population. These grim buildings are fortified against the biting cold of winter and the voracious insects of summer. Like York Factory, Churchill began life as a fur trading post, with the Hudson’s Bay Company building its first fort here in 1717 and using it for shipments to Britain until the 1870s when better trade routes through the USA took over. The development of agriculture on the prairies then brought a reprieve and in 1929 the Canadian National Railway completed a line. Unfortunately, the port has never been very successful, largely because the bay is ice-free for only about three months a year. So, with its grain-handling facilities underused, the visitors who flock here for the wildlife (particularly the polar bears) – or the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) common in the skies between late August and April – have thrown the town a real lifeline.
In 1682, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fur-trading post at York Factory, a marshy peninsula some 240km southeast of today’s Churchill. From here the direct sea route from England was roughly 1500km shorter than the old route via the St Lawrence River, while the Hayes and Nelson rivers gave access to the region’s greatest waterways. Within a few years, a regular cycle of trade had been established, with the company’s Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens heading south in the autumn to hunt and trade for skins and returning in the spring laden with pelts to exchange for the company’s manufactured goods. The company was always keen to increase its trade, and it soon expanded its operations to Churchill, building its first fort here in 1717.
In the nineteenth century the development of faster trade routes through Minneapolis brought decline, and by the 1870s both York Factory and Churchill had become unimportant. The subsequent development of agriculture on the prairies brought a reprieve. Many of the politicians and grain farmers of this new west were determined to break the trading monopoly of Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario and campaigned for the construction of a new port facility on Hudson Bay, connected by rail to the south through Winnipeg. In the 1920s the Canadian National Railway agreed to build the line, and it finally reached Churchill in 1929. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the railway workers in the teeth of the ferocious climate, the port has never been very successful, largely because the bay is ice-free for only about three months a year.