HBC Montage.

Red River Flood

Logo. Logo.

Spring 1950, will long be remembered in Winnipeg as the year of the Red River Flood. Lyndale Drive, on which our house stood, was particularly vulnerable as it followed a large bend of the river. The City of St. Boniface, using all the equipment at its disposal, built a huge earthen dike which ran behind the houses across the drive from us. The waters of the Red River kept rising and we had to build a wall of sandbags on top of the dike. Quantities of sandbags were flown in from all parts of Canada and rows of trucks dumped loads of sand at every street corner. Everyone pitched in, either filling and tying sandbags or tossing the filled bags along a human chain to the top of the dike. As the water crept up steadily, it was feared that the weight of the combined sandbags and earthen dike would collapse the bank of the river, so a secondary dike was built right on top of Lyndale Drive itself. The earth was excavated from a large vacant piece of land just to the right of our house. After the danger had passed, there was a huge area of seven or eight acres dug down to a depth of ten feet. Instead of filling it in, the City fathers sodded it over and turned it into a playing field which is still known as the Norwood Flood Bowl. Dyke behind Hudson's Bay House. The safety of the whole city Of Winnipeg was in jeopardy and regular work was at a standstill. Hudson's Bay House was closed down to all intents and purposes. It was surrounded by piles of sandbags to keep the water out and all depot stocks of ammunition and other merchandise had to be moved from the basement to the third floor. Along with everyone else in the neighbourhood, I was busy working on the dike. One day I got a call from Mr Chesshire. 'Are you all right, Ross?' he asked. 'How about your family? Have you moved them out yet?' When I told him the family was still with me, he roared, 'Don't be a damned fool, man. Get them out of the city at once. The Company will go good for all expenses and if any of your personal belongings are damaged, we'll replace them.' I immediately wired my old friends, Sid Turner and his wife at Minaki who had a cottage down by the lakeshore which they rented out for the summer. Their reply came right back.


We packed their bags that evening and tried to get aboard one of the last buses crossing the Norwood Bridge but the driver wouldn't let us on with our dog, so I flagged down a passing truck. We climbed into the back of it and spent that night at the home of Bea's brother, Bob, on Dorchester Avenue. Next day, I put them all on the train for Minaki and breathed a sigh of relief. At least Bea and the children were safe. Whether they would have a home to return to, was debatable.

Through the good offices of Peter Wood, then assistant controller with the Company who was attached to the military in charge of flood operations, I was given the job of going around to all the canteens which had been set up in schools and community clubs in St Boniface to feed the workers on the dikes, Sandbags inside Hudson's Bay House. and to check and re-order supplies. I had a Navy amphibious vehicle with a driver and we careened to and from various sections of Winnipeg picking up and distributing chicken, pie, baked beans, hamburgers, doughnuts and even the local Ukrainian delicacy - perogies. Everybody worked like Trojans. The people of Winnipeg pulled together, working side by side until the danger was past. I know of at least one couple who met while piling sandbags and who recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. After the waters of the Red River receded, I was able to go down to Minaki for the weekend to see the family who was having a wonderful time. The three girls were enrolled in the local one-teacher school and enjoying it, so Bea decided to stay there until the end of the school year. In July, I took my month's holidays and spent the time at Minaki with them. The kids were brown as berries, loved the lake and all four of them learned to swim. I even got in a few good rounds of golf on the Minaki Lodge course through the courtesy of the pro, Jack Milligan. When we returned to Winnipeg, most of the mess had been cleaned up and our house was still intact with not a drop of water in the basement.

That fall, on a trip to Portage la Loche, I ran into an infuriated and highly upset John Blackhall... Now sixty-five, he was retiring from the Company's service and had written the Personnel Department to find out what his pension would be. He was incensed at the reply. 'Just look at what they're going to give me to live on,' he raved. 'It's not a pension...it's an insult. After all my years working for the Company, if this is all they can give me, they can keep it. I won't even call in at Hudson's Bay House on my way home to Scotland.'

It took quite a while and a lot of talking but I finally got him calmed down. When the new contributory pension scheme was started, old-timers in the Company's services were given the option of staying on the old plan. Being a faithful servant and fully confident that the Company would always look after him, John had elected to stay on the old pension scheme.

'Aren't you a commissioned officer in the Company, John?' I queried.

'Yes, I am. I'm a commissioned trader and still have my letter to prove it,' he growled. 'A fat lot of good that is.'

' I think you're being a trader should have some effect on your pension. I have a suggestion. Wait until you're not so upset, then write a letter - a reasonable letter, John - to Personnel Manager and tell him that you aren't satisfied with the amount of your pension.' I had his attention now and he listened closely. 'Stress that you are a commissioned officer and ask that your pension be re-examined. Don't get mad and write anything in the letter that you might regret', I warned. 'When I get back to Winnipeg, I'll follow it up for you.'

Originally, the Hudson's Bay Company was run along semi-military lines. There were officers and servants. For the most part, the servants were tradesmen, carpenters, blacksmiths or boatmen who were hired at a specific wage for a set period of time.

The commissioned gentlemen, on the other hand, looked after the trading business. Starting out as apprentice clerks, they were then promoted to clerk, junior chief trader, chief trader, factor, chief factor and ultimately, Inspecting Chief Factor. Although their annual salaries were small, they were entitled to a percentage of the Company's shares and the dividends resulting there from. After 1871, the holding of shares by commissioned officers was done away with, much to the displeasure of the officers concerned. They were no longer entitled to share benefits but it still made a difference when they retired on pension. Very slowly, the system was reduced until the titles were merely honorary and, in the end, these titles were done away with altogether. John Blackhall was one of the few Company employees who still held commissioned rank.

I took the matter up with Dick Phillips who had been personnel manager for about a year, replacing Clifford Hartford who was now in Edmonton as manager of Western Post Division. Dick Phillips was a strange individual., very quiet and uncommunicative. He had no previous fur trade experience and no empathy for post managers or their mode of life in the bush. He was adamant that he had made his calculations and that they were correct. Just as adamantly, I insisted that he consult with the Canadian Committee Office before he replied to Mr Blackhall

The Canadian Committee granted John Blackhall a pension that was sufficient to ensure that he and his wife lived comfortably in their retirement. I was sorry, however, that the whole affair had happened, leaving a bad taste in John's mouth after 45 years of faithful service.

One result of this unfortunate episode was that I took a dislike to Dick Phillips because of what I saw as his rigid attitude, and from then on, I conducted most of my business with his department through his very able assistant, Don Ferguson.

I promoted Steve Preweda to replace John Blackhall and Carl Shappert was made manager at Dillon. Carl had the makings of an excellent post manager but his great interest was in radio and television. When he left the Company to take over a business of this nature in his hometown in Saskatchewan, I was sorry to see him go. John Marshall was transferred from James Bay District to replace him. John, the son of a local missionary, was brought up around Moose Factory and Dillon was his first posting.

Steve Preweda and the local officer of the Department of Northern Affairs at Portage La Loche got their heads together. Both were married and each had a young child. Neither of them liked the idea of being cut off from the rest of the world during freeze-up and break-up period and they decided to do something about it.

Scouting the countryside, they found a long gravel ridge with a few trees and a lot of scrub just south of the post. They worked in their spare time with a borrowed mission tractor and converted the ridge into a landing strip big enough to accommodate a twin-engine Anson plane. When it was completed to their satisfaction, they advised Saskatchewan Government Airways. On the next scheduled flight, Stu Miller flew into Portage La Loche, looked over the strip carefully and decided that it was fit for landing. Thus weekly scheduled flight from La Ronge was extended from Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows to Portage La Loche

The Federal Government established a post office in the Company store. When the local Chipewyans received their first Eaton's mail-order catalogues, they were delighted. Order after order was filled out and sent to Winnipeg for Eaton's to supply 'Cash on Delivery'. To their great disappointment, they found out that they had to produce cash to obtain the merchandise. They approached Steve and asked him to advance them credit to pay for the goods they were buying from Eaton's. They were flabbergasted when he said 'No'.

The post office would only hold the parcels for ten days after which the goods were returned to Winnipeg. For the first few months, the weekly plane was loaded both ways with C.O.D. packages going to La Loche and being returned as 'not paid'. Eventually, Eaton's mail-order department got wise to the situation and the names of those ordering merchandise which they could not pick up were put on a proscribed list. The C.O.D. parcels from Eaton's dwindled to a trickle. But the catalogues were still looked forward to, read and used in the biffy. When Len Coates was transferred from Patuanak to Stanley in the summer of 1950, Stan Woodard, Don Wilderspoon (left) and Hugh Ross. a young clerk from Gilbert Plains, Manitoba was promoted as manager in his stead. Stan had been well trained by Bill Watt at Ile-a-la-Crosse and I had no fears that he would do well. He celebrated his promotion by marrying Beatrice Smetka, a nurse in the local mission hospital. That same summer, I lost Bill Smith who was transferred from Southend to my old post of Grassy Narrows in northern Ontario. Jim Boatman, formerly a clerk at Foleyet, arrived with his wife Polly to take Bill's place. In the early fall, I had the pleasure of taking Don Wilderspoon (left in photograph) around the district on an inspection trip. He had come out with me from the Old Country as an apprentice in 1930 and I hadn't seen him since. Part of his time was spent in Ungava and latterly in the MacKenzie River District in charge of Fort Simpson; now he was being groomed as a district manager. He asked me all kinds of questions and, from the lofty heights of my two years experience, I tried to answer him truthfully. One of his worries was 'How do you get along with experienced post managers - men who are older than you?'

'Don't worry about the older men, Don,' I assured him. 'They know their jobs and will be of great help to you. At least I have always found that to be the case.

'Yes but suppose they don't do what I want. Then what?'

'As a last resort, you can use your authority as a district manager and order them, but I hope for your sake it never comes to that.'

Don Wilderspoon went on to be Manager of the James Bay District where he was well-liked and respected by the men at his posts.

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"Date Modified: June 30, 2024."

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