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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> The Thunder Bay Historical Society > The Dawson Route to the Northwest


Thunder Bay Sentinel, Sept. 9, 1875.

Our attention has been called to a pamphlet entitled, "Our Northern Empire," written by Mr. Ross, the well-known contractor, who built that portion of the Pacific railroad from Duluth to Moorhead. Mr. Ross gives a brief description of Manitoba and the Dawson route, and as he is a thoroughly practical man, his remarks are of more than usual interest to intending settlers. His pamphlet was written last year, and from his description it will be seen that the Dawson route has many advantages as a line of communication. The following extracts will repay perusal:

If economy be the object, go by steamer to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, and thence by the Dawson route to Manitoba, principally in steamers, steam transport and portages over which teams and loaded wagons can go without breaking bulk. As this route is new and comparatively unknown, and passes for 450 miles through a wilderness of dense forests, lakes and rivers and cascades, inhabited only by Indians, a more detailed description may be acceptable.

Route to the Northwest—Lake Superior may be regarded as the seaboard to the Northwest Territories. It is of itself a great inland sea, and by means of the canals of the Dominion, and the Sault Ste. Marie canal of the United States, it is accessible during the season of navigation to vessels from the ocean.

It is from this great lake that routes available, or susceptible of being made so, as lines of communication with the vast unpeopled territories which have fallen to the lot of this Dominion, must, in the first instance, be sought for, and any information regarding these from travellers or others will doubtless be acceptable to Canadians.

In looking for a route to the interior of any country, regard must be had to a harbor which, if such can be found, should be in a place naturally safe and easy of access from the sea on one side and practicable as a starting point to roads on the other. These conditions seem to be met with at Thunder Bay, formerly the grand emporium of the Fur Companies, and now the starting point of the road to Manitoba, commonly known as the "Dawson route." The magnificent bay is well sheltered, having the peninsula with the high promontory of Thunder Cape to the east, Pie Island to the south, and further out Isle Royale, guarding it from the surge of the great lake. The Bay itself, however, is of such dimensions that a surf rather uncomfortable to small boats sometimes rises within it, but at Prince Arthur's Landing, the place from which the road. starts, perfect shelter has been obtained by means of a one dock, recently constructed by the Dominion Government.

Thunder Bay, however, has a rival in Nepigon Bay, a landlocked sheet of water at the northern extremity of Lake Superior, which has also been spoken of as a starting point for a route to the west. It is claimed for it that it is completely sheltered, as it no doubt is, but it is objected to, on the other hand, that it is shallow (the Pays Plat, of the Voyagers), so intricate as to be impracticable of navigation to sailing vessels without the aid of a tug, and so completely landlocked as to assume the character of a small inland lake, freezing a month earlier than Thunder Bay in the fall, and remaining a fortnight or three weeks longer covered with ice in the spring. Last spring was an unusually cold one, and it is claimed for Thunder Bay that it opened the first week of May, while Nepigon was locked up with ice till the 23rd.

The steamers, it is said, navigate Thunder Bay all through November, while Nepigon Bay is closed with the first cold weather; and finally, that Thunder Bay is easy of access to sailing vessels at all times. On the other hand it is claimed for Nepigon Bay that it is 80 miles further east, and that the railroad route from it to Manitoba is no greater than from Thunder Bay. There is a diversity of opinion as to the best route for the main line; some advocate the lake shores to Nepigon Bay, others the same line continued to Thunder Bay, while a third favor a route to the north of those in question, along the English River and Lake water system stretching east and west between Lake Nepigon and old Fort Garry at the head of deep water on the Red River, 30 miles from Lake Winnipeg, and thence west to the southwest angle of Lake Manitoba; others, mariners, etc., from Ottawa to the Georgian Bay, and by rail straight to Garry. Thunder Bay has the advantage at least in the fact that it has warm advocates in the population of Prince Arthur's Landing, who do not fail to sound its praises, while Nepigon Bay reposes amidst unbroken forests in the silence of nature. A little to the west of Prince Arthur's Landing is the valley of the Kaministiquia, where there is said to be a great deal of agricultural land, and it is highly desirable that settlement should be encouraged, for the want of the bulkier articles of agricultural produce must, for some time to come, operate disadvantageously both in keeping open lines of communication, and to the mining interests now coming into prominence in this district. Leaving Prince Arthur's Landing, the traveller for Manitoba sets out on the Thunder Bay Road. This road leads from Prince Arthur's Landing to Shebandowan Lake, a distance of forty-five miles. It is mostly gravelled and in good condition throughout. On this road a large number of wagons are maintained for the conveyance of passengers and freight. There are stations at intervals of 15 miles with accommodation for the teamsters and travellers. The land on some points of this road is remarkably good, and to judge from the crops in the little clearings already made, would prove very productive on cultivation.

Shebandowan Lake. This lake possesses a steam tug, and a barge and a number of boats, which are maintained for the conveyance of passengers and freight. The tug has a run of twenty miles between Shebandowan and Kashaborive Stations, at both of which places there is good accommodation for emigrants. Kashaborive Portage is a well-gravelled road, three- quarters of a mile in length, leading from Shebandowan to the last Kashaborive Lake, a smooth stretch of nine miles, and the last on the eastern slope of the watershed. On this lake a tug and barge are also maintained.

Height of Land carrying place or portage, is one mile in length, and leads from the lake last mentioned to Lac des Milles Lacs, a large sheet of water tributary to the Winnipeg. is lake sends bays and arms in every direction, and it is quite bewildering from the number of islands with which it is everywhere studded. There seems to be abundance of fine timber in the country of Lac des Milles Lacs, and the natives report extensive groves in the Seine, the river by which it sends its waters to Rainy Lake. On this lake the tug has a run of twenty miles to Baril Portage, a carrying place only sixteen chains in length.

Baril Lake, the next of the water stretches, is eight miles in length. A tug and a barge are placed upon it for the transport of passengers and freight to Brule Portage, twenty-one chains long, where comfortable houses have been constructed for the accommodation of emigrants.

Windegoostigqqn Lake, fourteen miles in length, stretches between Brule and French Portages, at which latter place, in order to facilitate navigation, a drain has been built. A tug with a number of boats traverse the lake daily, carrying passengers, etc. On French Portage, the frames of two barges have been put up, one intended for Windegoostigoon, and the other for Kaogassikok Lake. French Portage is a mile and fifty chains in length, gravelled and in excellent condition.

Kaogassikok Lake, with Little French Lake and River, rendered navigable by means of a dam, forms a sheet of water sixteen miles in length. A tug and barge, the latter of a different type from, and smaller than, those in the upper lakes, afford the necessary means of transportation at present, but a larger barge will be afloat soon. Pine Portage, at the west end of Kaogassikok Lake, and Deus Rivieras Portage, are in close proximity, the former thirty-six chains and the latter thirty in length. An intervening pond or lakelet is crossed in boats. Pine timber of large size and good quality is abundant about these portages, and it is said, there are extensive groves of these woods inland.

Sturgeon Lake is navigable for a distance of seventeen miles between Deus Rivieras and the Maligne, having been rendered so by means of a dam. At Island Portage, also, it is proposed to build a, dam, a most important work, which, when completed, will raise the waters of the Maligne River to a height sufficient to make navigation of slack water between the dam last mentioned and Island Portage. At present there are some rapids and ripples, which render it necessary to maintain a considerable force of voyageurs. When the dam above mentioned is completed, steam will be used here, as upon all the other sections.

Nequaquon Lake or Lac La Croix. Island Portage above mentioned is only fifty yards in length. Baggage is passed over on a slide. Lac la Croix, a fine sheet of water studded with islands, is rapidly passed over by means of a tug and barge. The next great portage or, as it is called, the Nequaquon, leading from Lac la Croix to Namuekan Lake, is three miles in length. By the opening of this portage the long detour by the Loon River has been avoided, and twenty miles in distance saved.

Namuekan Lake. This is a fine sheet of water full of islands and on it a barge and tugs are always in readiness for the conveyance of passengers and freight between Nequaquon and Kettle Falls at the head of Rainy Lake. The portage at Kettle Falls is short and the fall only eight feet. Arrived at Rainy Lake, a handsome and powerful steamer is in readiness to carry passengers to Fort Frances, a distance of forty-seven miles. Rainy Lake is a fine sheet of water extending its arms far to the north and east, receiving numerous tributaries from various directions, the principal of which are Sturgeon River, the Seine, and the Manitou. The aggregate area drained by these rivers is not short of fifty thousand square miles, and in many parts of this extensive region there are valuable forests of pine which will no doubt prove inviting to the lumbermen, a class of pioneers who have hitherto shown themselves the most valuable in opening the wild lands of the Dominion to settlement.

Fort Frances, once a grant emporium of the fur trade, and still the chief rendezvous of a powerful tribe of Indians, is, from its natural advantages, likely soon to become a place of great importance. The falls immediately in front of the Hudson Bay Company's Fort presents unlimited water power and the ground is naturally well adapted for mill sites. Perhaps the day is not distant when these falls will rival the Chaudiere on the Ottawa in the number of mills they set in motion.

Rainy River. From Fort Frances to the Lake of the Woods, the navigation is unbroken, and on either side of this magnificent stream the land is of a quality not to be surpassed, covered in general with heavy forests, but presenting in some places openings and cleared lands which had evidently been cultivated at some remote time. In these openings are occasional mounds, which, here as elsewhere, show the wide range of country which must have been occupied by the mound builders. The lands on Rainy River are, without doubt, well adapted for cultivation, and settlements established here would form an excellent stepping stone to the prairie land of the west. From the mouth of the Rainy River to the northwest angle of the Lake of the Woods, the distance is about fifty miles, making with the Rainy River a stretch of one hundred and thirty miles of navigable waters. Navigation, however, extends to Rat Portage, some thirty or forty miles to the north of the northwest angle. From Rat Portage by the winding river of Winnipeg, is about 150 miles. Winnipeg River consists of a series of rivers and lakes, with rapids and short portages between them, and might, it is said, be rendered navigable at a moderate outlay. From the northwest angle to Fort Garry, by the road, is ninety- five miles, the first seventy miles being through wooded country and the balance through prairie.

Such is the Dawson Route in its general features. First a road of forty-five miles leading from Thunder Bay to Shebandowan Lake, then a series of navigable sections, with short portages between them, covering a distance of some three hundred and twenty miles, and lastly a road of ninety-five miles over level country, from the Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry.

The value of this line of communication even in its present state, affording as it does, the means of access through British territory to the North West, cannot be overestimated. Much has been done, but a great deal more still remains to be accomplished. Those only who have been accustomed to carry on operations in new countries can appreciate the difficulties which must have been encountered in opening up a line of four hundred and fifty miles through a wilderness of forest and lake, but to those who have thought of the future of the vast regions which have fallen to the inheritance of the Dominion it will appear but a very moderate beginning. There is nothing more striking in travelling over the Dawson Route, than the evident care that has been taken, to apply and distribute comparatively small means in the manner best adapted to produce a general result. No place has been neglected, and at no point, if exception be made of the necessary bridges, and dams and the large steamers, has there been any great expenditures. The outlay has been proportionate in the different sections and the result is a line available with about equal facilities throughout its entire extent.

In view of future and greater works, the value of this line becomes apparent. It will afford the means of transportation of men, material and supplies, for no time should be lost in increasing its capacity, and this might be done at a comparatively small outlay. Lines of telegraph along the whole route, but more especially on the lake roads at either end, are immediately necessary. They would lead to the saving of an amount equal to their cost in a year or two, and in the meantime, greatly tend to facilitate order and organization. The navigable sections might be connected in most cases very easily by locks, thus saving trans-shipment and plant.

In fact, the whole line might, without difficulty, be rendered navigable from Shebandowan westward to the Lake of the Woods, and, if this were done, and. the great Pacific Railway or branch lines from it made to tap this water route at various points, a very large amount of timber would be rendered available, both for the supply of the prairie region, to the west, and the markets of the Dominion, and the adjoining States, to the east, while to the railway itself it would afford no small amount of traffic.

Taking, however, a wider view still of the subject, and considering the magnificent lakes and rivers on the Dawson Route, together with Lake Winnipeg, and the Saskatchewan, etc., in relation to the future, there is, in this remarkable chain of waters, the means of making navigation continuous from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains; and I believe that any scheme of a Pacific Railway which should ignore or sacrifice the most direct and practicable route for the national thoroughfare, by which oceans and empires are to be connected, or miss the most available connections with the immense inland system of fresh water navigation afforded by the lakes and rivers of the north land, which at no distant day will be the seat and centre of a hundred millions of people, would be nothing less than a national misfortune.

But the government and the people of the British Empire are deeply interested, and desirous of connecting their farextended Empire by the shortest and most practicable route. This route is from the west coast of Great Britain, across the Atlantic Ocean, on a westerly course, to the east coast of British America, and thence westerly across British America to the east shore of the Pacific Ocean, and from thence by the Pacific Ocean to Calcutta, Sidney, China, Japan, etc.

The advantages of this route are national as well as local, and present many important advantages.

1st.—It will connect over 200,000,000 British subjects with the seat of, and centre of, the Empire, by the shortest and cheapest route on the globe, and by the shortest route, the empires of China and Japan, with 500,000,000 of industrious people, with the commercial metropolis of the Dominion and the Empire, and thus secure the trade and travel of a people whose trade has enriched every nation who has had the fortune to secure it, both in ancient times and in modern times.

2nd.—Much of the vast annual expenditures for transit on other lines would be disbursed on the new route, enriching the owners and country through which it passes and would open up for the settlement and occupation of the now overcrowded agriculturists of the Empire, the most fertile and largest unoccupied district in North America, from which the bread supplies of the artisans and the operatives of the Empire would come, and in turn would furnish a home market for the products of their industry, and thus distribute among the industrious classes of the Empire, millions sent abroad annually to purchase the food which the country cannot produce.

3rd.—It would annihilate the hopes of internal traitors who aim at the dissolution of the Empire.

4th.—And would render the nation independent of external rivals or foes. The route has an abundance of coal at each end and the centre, with open harbors the year round on either ocean.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: This work was first published in 1964 or earlier, and the author of the work was anonymous. To the best of my knowledge, the author of the work was unknown at the end of the year 50 years after the work was published, meaning that this work would be in the public domain in Canada, per section 6.2 of the Copyright Act. Note also this link. See disclaimers.