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The Lake Superior Route

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1967, Volume 12, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From The Nor'Wester

The great difficulty with which this country has to contend is its inland position. The Red River, Assiniboine and Saskatchewan districts form a magnificent portion of the continent, no less rich in natural resources than extensive in geographical area; but the means of communication with other countries are as yet imperfect. Our distance from the seaboard renders imports expensive, and exports all but impossible. Home industry is thus exerted solely to meet local wants, the import trade is checked, and immigration is discouraged if not prevented.

There are three routes to this country-denominated respectively the "Hudson's Bay", "St. Paul", and "Fort William". The first is the route by which we have been importing from time immemorial, but it is both hazardous and expensive. On account of the severe cold, it is only about two months in the year that vessels can pass through Hudson's Straits, and not an hour can be lost in landing the passengers and cargo at York Factory, if the captain wishes to return the same year to England. Instances are known in which the ship had time only to land her passengers, the fear of being ice-bound compelling her to start back at once with all the goods. And even though they may be safely landed at York Factory, experience teaches that we cannot count with certainty upon the goods reaching the Settlement the same year. The navigation of Nelson River is obstructed by water falls and portages, and Lake Winnipeg is too large to be safe for small open barges in stormy weather. The voyageurs are subjected to slavish hardships, and owing to the difficulty of procuring men for the tripping to Hudson's Bay, and the generally disagreeable nature of the whole business, master-freighters are fast giving it up. We may therefore set aside this route as impracticable. The extreme cold which must ever envelope Hudson's Straits will discourage any attempt to improve Nelson River, especially as it could be done only at an immense outlay. As to the St. Paul route, which has of late become the favorite, it is to be remarked that it lies through a foreign country. We could not avail ourselves of it in the event of difficulties arising between Great Britain and the United States; indeed, it would only be a help to the invasion of this country. Much as we rejoice to see our neighbours in Minnesota rendering their intercourse with us as easy and expeditious as possible, we would far rather have our best and permanent route through British territory. Apart from the military difficulty, however, the St. Paul route, so far as regards the navigation of the Red River, has not as yet realised the expectations of its projectors. The route by Lake Superior presents itself as on the whole the most desirable. It is on British territory, and is the straightest to the Pacific. Fort William is nearer to us than St. Paul or York Factory, and once there we may say we are on the St. Lawrence. A great portion of the route, by water as well as by land, is passable without further improvement, and if there are some obstacles they are not greater than are to be found on each of the other routes.

Red River Cart Train

This channel of communication was greatly in vogue in the time of the North-West Company of Montreal, and was at one time much used by the Hudson's Bay Company. Recently, it has been explored by Mr. Dawson [1] and pronounced practicable. We believe the time not far distant when it will be thoroughly opened up. Geographically, it is a necessity, and there are many signs pointing in the same direction. The company lately formed in Canada is still alive, though very dilatory in its movements. We have learnt through a private channel that the Canadian Government have promised 5,000 towards the improvement of the road between Lake Superior and this Settlement, provided the North-West Transit Company furnish the surplus necessary to complete it, and that Mr. Dawson, the late President of the Company, had gone to England to interest London capitalists in the scheme and to endeavour to procure a grant from the Imperial Government. We find, moreover, by a late number Of the St. Paul Pioneer that the Canadian Government intend establishing, for a limited term, two free ports - one at Sault Ste. Marie for Upper Canada, and one on the St. Lawrence for Lower Canada. If the Canadian Government give two such substantial tokens as these of their desire to open up the Lake Superior route, they will deserve our lasting gratitude.

It seems to be the opinion that our people cannot pass English goods through the States under the American Bonding Act. The Quebec correspondent of the New York Times says:

The Red River merchant, who now goes to St. Paul, Minnesota, for his supplies, taking his furs with him, will hereafter be induced to go to Fort William, on our side of Lake Superior, for there he will get his goods free from the 20 & 30 per cent duty which he has to pay on all that he gets which has passed your frontier to St. Paul. The Toronto Leader has the following on the same subject:

The Red River Colonists are very disadvantageously situated and most unfairly treated with respect to their commerce. Denied the benefits of the Reciprocity Treaty, and not being in a position to take advantage of the American Bonding Act, they have to pay tribute to a Government to which they do not owe allegiance. If they get foreign goods via St. Paul they must pay on them high rates of duty, which go into the American Treasury.

If correct, this is to us a serious matter, and will continue to be so until the Canadian route is fairly opened up. But we doubt its correctness. The Hudson's Bay Company imported largely from England last year, via St. Paul, without paying anything to the American Treasury; and we understand that a private merchant will receive this year a supply, in bond, by the same route. Our press and other printing material, and a stock of books, came through last year in the same way. This is only common justice. In case of any trouble, how-ever, on this point, the road from Lake Superior ought to be forth-with proceeded with. If it were once made to Lake of the Woods, we think we could almost give a guarantee that our people would turn out and make it complete to this Settlement.


1. Simon James Dawson (1820-1902) appointed by the Canadian Government in 1857 to explore the country from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan River.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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