Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson’s Bay Railway

This photo is believed to have been taken in 1913 for a promotional book on Brandon. While it shows the BSHB yard in Brandon, there is a wealth of other detail. There are a number of billboards visible advertising chewing tobacco, an auto race event at which they would also play “auto polo” and a circus coming to Brandon on July 21. There are several railway cars visible at the bottom of the photo. The car in the bottom right hand corner of the photo appears to be a boxcar. The other car is a GN “dozer” which was used to plow snow in the winter which explains the cupola on the car on the right hand end of the car. A railway employee would ride in the cupola to blow the whistle at level crossings and signal the engine pushing the dozer when it became necessary to stop

In addition to the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian Northern Railway, which later became part of the Canadian National Railway, Brandon had a third railway, the optimistically named Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson’s Bay Railway (BSHB) which was a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. While the line got to Brandon, it never got to Saskatchewan, never mind Hudson’s Bay.

The BSHB originated in 1903 when a group of Brandon businessmen obtained a charter to build a railway from the US border to Brandon and on to Hudson’s Bay through The Pas. The charter expired in 1905 with no work ever being carried out. At this point, James Hill, founder and President of the Great Northern Railroad (GN), purchased the shares of the BSHB and began construction of the railway.

Hill had been a member of the group of entrepreneurs that built the CPR; however, he fell out with the group over the CPR’s agreement with the federal government to route the CPR north of Lake Superior. He wanted to route the CPR south of Lake Superior by crossing into the USA at Sault Saint Marie and crossing back into Canada west of Lake Superior. This route would run through an area that could generate traffic for the CPR while the area north of Superior offered few possibilities to generate traffic. However, Hill ignored the reality that the federal government could not support a railway that partially ran through the United States. Hill left the consortium and went on to build the GN empire; however, he always carried a grudge for the CPR. He built a number of branch lines up into Canada to drain traffic away from the CPR and the BSHB Railway fit into this plan.

The BSHB had a rail yard in Brandon which was located just south of Pacific Avenue between 11th and 18th street. As well, the railway had an engine house and servicing facility to the west of Pacific Avenue. The BSHB also had a connection between the Canadian Northern and CPR in Brandon so it handled some interchange of traffic between them as well as interchanging rail cars with either of these railways.

The BSHB ran north from the GN at St John, North Dakota through Bannerman, Boissevain, Minto, Hayfield, and Brandon. There was a Canadian customs office at Bannerman, Manitoba to handle BSHB traffic. The line crossed the Souris River at Bunclody on a large wooden bridge. The BSHB also constructed a large earth fill on the approaches to the bridge. While the bridge is gone, the filled approaches are still in existence at the site. The line entered Brandon from the west and paralleled the CPR on the way in.

The GN station, which was a single story brick building with a limestone foundation, a prominent bay window and a large passenger platform, can be seen in the center of the photo towards the east end of the yard. There were lawns both east and west of the station. Twelth street did not run north all the way to Pacific but rather ended in the station’s parking lot so providing vehicle access to the station. Thirteenth street did run through to Pacific Avenue.

BSHB had a team track along the south edge of their yard. This team track ran further to the east in the back alley between Rosser and Pacific Avenues. There were some ten businesses in Brandon including grocery wholesalers which backed onto this team track and had loading doors onto the track. Railcars could be spotted at these doors to allow the car to unload.

To the east of the station, across 11th Street, was the Codville and Company warehouse. South of Codville, across the alley, was the Borbridge Western Limited saddlery building. Borbridge made leather goods such as harness and saddlery, all of which would be in great demand in Western Canada at the time this photo was taken. South of this building was the Merchants Bank which still stands at the corner of Rosser Avenue and 11th Street. This building is now occupied by the Brandon Chamber of Commerce.

At the east side of 12th Street, across from the station, was the Brandon Grocery Company building. One can make out the doors on the north side of this building which allowed the company to access rail cars spotted on the team track in front of these doors.

The McCabe Grain Company built 12 grain elevators on the BSHB but any grain handled through the elevators would either be hauled south to Minneapolis to be sold into the flour mills there or moved to Duluth where it could loaded onto ships to be moved further east. The port of Duluth seems to have handled some volume of Canadian grain as for some years there were grain inspectors employed at Duluth by the Canadian Board of Grain Commissioners.  However, Duluth as a lake port for Canadian grain fell out of favour, probably as the result of the “Crow Rate” being implemented, the further development of the grain terminals at the Lake Head, and the risk of American wheat varieties with their generally lower gluten content being mixed into shipments of Canadian grain moving through Duluth. Grain could also be moved to Brandon and interchanged onto either the CPR or Canadian Northern there. However, whether McCabe could have been competitive on this movement is a good question as the interchange would cost money and Great Northern would not be interested in having its boxcars committed to long hauls to the Lake Head on Canadian railways, particularly in the fall when the cars would have lots of work moving US grain to US destinations.

It seems that the BSHB was the reason for the grain elevator in Boissevain that was somewhat south of and at a right angle to the CPR line. This elevator, or more likely the site of this elevator, was originally on the BSHB line and, when the line was abandoned, the grain company continued to use the elevator by connecting the elevator’s team track to the CPR line.

The GN did handle a volume of fruit traffic on the line which was moved to the grocery wholesalers in Brandon.

The BSHB was never a great success for the GN. The Great Depression finally did the BSHB in and GN abandoned the railway in 1936. The CPR bought the BSHB trackage in Brandon as the team track provided some volume of traffic; however, the GN buildings were demolished. By the 1980s, the BSHB yard was inactive and the trackage was removed. Later, the east end of the BSHB yard was occupied by an disused feed mill and grain elevator with apartment buildings occupying the west end of the yard. As the BSHB rail line was laid on the prairie with minimal grading, most traces of the BSHB outside of Brandon are long gone.

The story of the BSHB has a lot of connection to Manitoba’s agricultural history. Hill left the CPR over the agreement with the government to build the mainline north of Lake Superior where there was little traffic to be had which drove up the costs of operating the CPR’s rail line in the area. The CPR had competition to meet in Eastern Canada which kept the CPR freight rates down in the east. In Western Canada, until the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk built rail lines east, there was no competition to the CPR so the CPR was free to hike its western rates to pay for the line north of Lake Superior. As a result, Westerners were not pleased with the CPR and became interested in building a rail line to Hudson Bay and tide water as they thought this line would free them from high rail freight rates on east bound grain. Optimism seems to have blinded them to the reality that Hudson’s Bay was ice covered for most of the year and it was a long voyage for vessels to and from the western shores of the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean through lonely and dangerous waters. So railways such as the BSHB were chartered and James Hill bought the railway to poke a stick in the eye of the CPR for building north of Superior.

Page revised: 7 December 2022