The Railway vs the Express

York Boats under sail

This image of York Boats sailing on Lesser Slave Lake is from the Glenbow Archives, na-2283-10, and I have used it with their permission. The HBCA has the same image, though they say it is taken on Lake Winnipeg: the story is below.

Everything ends. Even the York Factory Express, that ran for twenty-six years across the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton House, came to a sudden, crashing, end. Surprisingly, its death was caused by the opening of a new railway in Panama.

The last outbound York Factory Express was led away from Fort Vancouver in 1854, under clerk Henry Shuttleworth, whose story we find here: He didn’t make it home again until spring, 1855, because of the high water that ran against him in the Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan Rivers.

But his failure to make it home to Fort Vancouver was not what caused the end of the York Factory Express: the creation of a new railway in Panama did. In 1855, Governor George Simpson sent specific instructions that the Fort Vancouver gentlemen were not to send an express across the mountains that year. (They forgot to send the same information to Fort St. James, and Donald Manson sent men upriver to Yellowhead Pass to pick up the incoming express-men who, of course, did not arrive.) Instead, the gentlemen who were leaving the territory boarded a steamship for Panama, and crossing the Panama Isthmus by rail, boarded a new ship to bring them north to Montreal and Lachine. The name of the railway, which began its run in January 1855, is the Panama Railroad Company.

So the York Factory Express no longer went out to Fort Assiniboine and Edmonton House after 1854. Fort Assiniboine was closed down as a result, although Jasper’s House remained open for a while. The Saskatchewan Brigades continued their journeys out for some years after the York Factory Express ceased its run, but even that changed. For this information we go to the book, Arctic Trader, by Philip H. Godsell, who joined the HBC’s fur trade in 1906.

Godsell sailed in the Pelican for Hudson Bay and arrived at York Factory in July or August of that year. Interestingly, his experiences aboard ship while crossing the ocean and the Bay were much the same as those who came before him. He did not remain at York Factory for long, but was sent upriver to Norway House. There he angered Chief Factor McTavish, and was sent off to serve at God’s River (In the York Factory Express journals this is the Shamattawa River, just up the Hayes River from York Factory.) But when Godsell returned to civilization with his furs, he brought them upriver to Norway House — not downriver to York Factory! Everything was changing because of a railway, as you will see below. This is Robert Campbell’s story:

The route by York Factory was gradually being changed when [Robert] Campbell arrived there to take up his new charge. 

“There” was the the Swan Lake District, on the prairies west of Lake Winnipeg and Red River, and the time was the early 1860s. This information comes from page 153 of the book, Campbell of the Yukon, by Clifford Wilson [Macmillan of Canada, 1970]. The information continues here:

In 1858, as an experiment, part of the Red River District outfit had been shipped via Montreal and St. Paul by rail, and thence sent up to Fort Garry by river and Red River cart brigade. The cost of freight sent from London to St. Paul proved to be considerably lower than if it had been sent by the old route to York Factory; furthermore, the northern route was much slower, and consequently high interest charges accumulated over the period between the purchase of the trade goods in Britain and the selling of the furs there some years later. 

So once again, a railway was faster and more efficient than the Brigades that carried out the furs and brought in the papers or passengers. The Hudson’s Bay Company was a business that depended upon the selling of the furs in the London markets. The faster the trade goods were traded for furs, the quicker the furs returned to London, where the Company made its profit on the trade goods they had shipped out two years or more earlier! So it made sense that York Factory was no longer the supplier for all points east of the Rocky Mountains. York Factory remained the headquarters for all the posts on Hudson Bay and James Bay, but almost everything for the interior came through St. Paul and Red River to Norway House. “The experiment of 1858 showed the way to faster delivery of goods and increased profit, and more and more goods and furs were thenceforth transported over the Montreal-St. Paul route.” So everywhere, both east and west of the Rocky Mountains, the railway was changing the HBC’s fur trade. 

Take a look at the above image, which is an image almost the same as that on the cover of The York Factory Express. This image is from Glenbow Archives, and they describe it as being York Boats on Lesser Slave Lake, on the Athabasca River east of Fort Assiniboine. The Hudson’s Bay Company has the same image: but its description says it is of the York Boats “on their way from Norway House to Oxford House.” That confused me for a while, until I realized that it meant that when the photograph was taken, the York Boats were delivering the necessary trade goods downriver to Oxford House and God’s River, and are not going all the way to York Factory. Again, this was the result of a railway changing the HBC’s business.

Some of the Red River boats still went down the Hayes River to York Factory, apparently. Does that mean the Portage la Loche Brigades, or the Red River Merchants — I do not know. As we know from Augustus Peers’s journal, in the 1840s the Red River Merchants still sent their boats down the Hayes River to York Factory and return. A few weeks later, the Portage la Loche Boats came from Red River to Norway House, where they picked up the goods to be delivered to Portage la Loche far to the north. They delivered them to the Portage, and picking up the Mackenzie’s River District furs, delivered those to the London Ships at York Factory, just before the ship sailed home in August. Then the Portage la Loche Brigades returned to Red River with the goods for that place that had arrived with the London Ship from  York Factory. But at this time, there was no railway to affect or change the HBC business.

It appears that the Athabasca Brigades ran separately from the Mackenzie River Brigades, perhaps because it carried the Mackenzie River District’s passengers out of the territory, as well as their own. In the early years it might have gone all the way to York Factory. In the early 1850s, Chief Factor James Anderson sent James Green Stewart out from Fort Simpson (Mackenzie’s River District), to Athabasca Lake where he was delivered by the Athabasca Brigades to Norway House. It is also likely that, after the goods began to be delivered to Norway House via St. Paul and Red River, that the Saskatchewan Brigades also abandoned the Hayes River route to York Factory. In fact, I found this, in Ernest Vorrhis’s “Historic Forts and Trading Posts:” 

In 1856 the Company built a fort, known as Cedar Lake House, about half a mile below the main Cedar Lake on the right or west bank of the [Saskatchewan] River. This fort is shown on the Johnston map, 1877, and is included in all lists of the Hudson’s Bay Co posts to 1926…

This house is still west of Grand Rapids, at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River. But there was also a house at Grand Rapids, and so here is some interesting information on what happened to the Saskatchewan Brigades:

Cedar Lake House was built by the Hudson’s Bay Co very near the site of old Fort Bourbon. The Report of the Department of the Interior, 1875, says, “The original post of the Hudson’s Bay Co. at the mouth of the river has been abandoned and a new one established on their Reserve, some six miles higher up the river, at the head of the [Grand Rapids] portage, which the river steamer descends to.” About 1875 the Company constructed a tramway four miles long, parallel to the rapids, at both ends of which the Company maintains a house. A description of the Grand Rapids and of the forts is given in Hind’s Canadian Expedition, vol. 1, p. 460.

A tramway might not be the same thing as a railway, but pretty close. The HBC fur trade was changing everywhere. At this point we are talking about the Grand Rapids, see here:

I had forgotten about the steamships that would have taken over for the Saskatchewan Brigades. (West of the Rockies the Brigades took over delivery of trade goods via the Brigade Trail from Fort Langley to Fort Colvile.) In a short post put out by the magazine, Prairies North, they say that although, “the Age of Steam along the Saskatchewan River was short, it played a vital role in moving goods and people through this part of the world.” The blurb continues:

It was all about money. The Hudson’s Bay Company has been trading into the Canadian northwest by canoe and York boat since the 18th century. But the coming of the railway in the 1870s meant that goods from eastern Canada could be shipped by rail as far as the Red River, and from there by steamship to Lake Winnipeg and up to the Saskatchewan River and all the way to Prince Albert and Edmonton, where connections could be made to the lakes and rivers of the north country.”  

So if you want to find that article on Steamships, look for a Spring 1918 or 1919 article in Prairie North Magazine.

After Confederation in 1867, the railway was part of what was being used to tie the country together, coast to coast. “Without railways there would be and could be no Canada,” historian George Stanley wrote. Construction was begun on the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 and the last spike was driven on November 7, 1885. That would have had little effect on the Saskatchewan Brigades as that line came no where near Edmonton, I believe. It was also inadequate for the task of transporting the flood of immigrants to the Prairies after 1900, and the Canadian Northern Railway came to Edmonton a few years later. Did the Hudson’s Bay Company use it? I don’t know. That is outside my history.

But I know the York Boats transported many new settlers into the region around Edmonton — in fact, all across the prairies. The Swampy Cree who live at Norway House were the men employed in the job of rowing these boats up and down the rivers. A child, who rode in these boats, had a lot to say about the experience in travelling in them. Her married name was Dorothy Boggis, and she wrote “York Boat Coming,” published in the Beaver Magazine, 1954.

If you want to know more about the York Factory Express, then you may order my book, here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.



5 thoughts on “The Railway vs the Express

  1. Nora Lande

    So interesting. Andrew Flett worked for HBC for 36 years, Robert Campbell was his superior in the McKenzie district. Upon retirement Andrew Flett and family moved to Red Deer Hill in Saskatchewan, eventually relocated to Prince Albert SK. Andrew Flett was my g g grandfather, his oldest son John Flett was my g grandfather. I have done the genealogy, these were fine men.

  2. Brault

    The Calgary and Edmonton Railway (C&E) opened August 1891, terminating in Strathcona across the Saskatchewan River from Fort Edmonton. The CNR arrived in Edmonton in 1905, so I imagine the HBC used the C&E for those 14 years.