The Indigenous Roots
The Swampy Cree occupied the land that would one day be The Pas for centuries and it is believed that their ancestors migrated from the southeastern Prairies of Canada as long as 9,000 years previous. According to the oral traditions of the Swampy Cree, they have occupied the area since a time before memory. Archeological evidence shows evidence of people occupying the area as long as 4,000 years ago based on carbon dating.
The Cree of the Prairies and up into The Pas moved through the area using the water routes of the Burntwood River, the Grass River and the Minago River. It was the Minago River that would be used for the journey to the Hudson’s Bay Company forts to the east. The Pas area was a historical gathering place for the Indigenous where they would travel for spiritual healing. In the summer, they would come to the area to cultivate the land, fish and harvest, while also practicing the ceremonial way of life known as the Grand Medicine Society.
Many bands of Indigenous shared the territory, and shared a common language of the Swamp Cree n-dialect. This allowed for interrelated families that created strong social bonds, which would come together through the year for social and cultural activities, as well as important ceremonies.
Various digs in the area have found pottery, arrowheads and other artifacts that date back 2,500 years at least, as well as other discoveries that show caribou hunting may have been taking place as far back as 7,000 years ago.
Typically, due to the use of smaller canoes, the Indigenous would avoid the larger bodies of water such as Lake Winnipeg.
At the spot that would be The Pas, the Indigenous would often gather there who would journey down the Nelson River to trade at York Factory.
In 1871, the Pas Band was organized through the signing of Treaty 5 by Chief John Constant.
Timber rights in the area were granted to the Opaskwayak (OH-PASK-WA-YAK) people and in 1904, a sawmill was opened on Mission Island. Soon after this point, the band surrendered their land on the south of side of the river and in 1908, moved the sawmill to the north side. The sawmill would operate until 1930 and many of the current buildings on the reserve are still standing from those years, and were constructed from the wood produced at that mill.
Today, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation is located next to The Pas.
One of the most notable Indigenous to come from the area is Duncan Mercredi, who was born in Grand Rapids but moved to the area when he was 16 to attend high school. Over the course of his life, he has become one of Canada’s leading Indigenous poets and has published four volumes of poetry. Currently the Poet Laureate of Winnipeg, in 2021 he won the Manitowapow Award at the Manitoba Book Awards.
In talking about The Pas, it is important to also talk about a man named Henry Kelsey. Kelsey had been born around 1664 and he would join the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1684 and was posted at York Factory. He would begin exploring for the company in 1688, and would continue to do so for the next several years.
In 1690, he was told by the governor of York Factory, George Geyer, to journey up the Nelson River to find the most remote Indigenous people to trade with. On June 12, 1690, he left York Factory with a group of Indigenous guides and began to canoe up the Nelson River to the southwest.
On July 10, after traveling nearly 1,000 kilometres and passing through five lakes and 33 portages, he arrived in the spot that would one day be The Pas. He would name the spot Deering’s Point, and as I mentioned it was a gathering spot for the Indigenous.
This made Kelsey the first European to reach the area that would be The Pas, and he would spend the winter there before continuing on his journey that would make him not only the first European to reach the Canadian Prairies, but also the first known European to sight and describe grizzly bears, the bison and the great bison hunts.
In 1740, southeast of the location that would one day be The Pas, the French would built several forts to control the chain of lakes to the west of Lake Winnipeg. One of those forts was Fort Paskoya, which was in a good location as it allowed for trading with the Indigenous who came down the rivers from future Saskatchewan. The name Paskoya came from the Cree’s word for the narrows, but may have also been named after the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. This first Fort Paskoya would only last for a short period of time.
A second Fort Paskoya was built around 1750 and was first occupied by a man named Joseph-Claude Boucher. In 1754, celebrated explorer Anthony Henday visited the site and called it “hogstyle”. This fort would last until 1759 when it closed after New France was taken over by the English.
In 1775, there was a trader located at the site briefly and there is evidence that the North West Company had a small trading post at the site, once again showing its importance in the fur trade through the 18th and into the 19th century.
The RM of Kelsey
I don’t have to explain where the name for the Rural Municipality of Kelsey comes from, because it is of course Henry Kelsey, but this district has its own unique history separate from The Pas, so I wanted to focus on it a bit.
The RM is actually one of the most unique I have ever seen as it isn’t a whole piece and instead contains a large around The Pas, but then farther to the north, the communities of Wanless and Cranberry Portage. The Opaskwayak Cree Nation is also part of the rural municipality. In all, it covers an area of 867 square kilometres.
I will get back to talking about The Pas and the various things in and around the community, but I am going to talk about some of the things you can find in the RM of Kelsey, especially in the Cranberry Portage section.
Cranberry Portage has been an important portage route for longer than fur traders have been in Canada, far longer. The portage route actually dates back at least 2,000 years and the first European to go through the area is believed to be Joseph Smith, who did so in 1763. Other famous explorers who came through the area include Peter Fidler and Samuel Hearne.
If cemeteries are your thing, then along Umpherville Road, there is a very old Metis cemetery that dates back over a century. The cemetery is untended, but its history is deep and can be an interesting site to explore on a nice summer day. Of course, as this is a final resting place for many, be respectful.
Within Cranberry Portage is the Cranberry Portage Heritage Museum. Located in the Canadian National Railway Station that was built in 1929, it has been a Municipal Heritage Property since 1992. For several years, the building sat empty but in 2012 it was turned into a museum that officially opened on May 31, 2015. The museum currently highlights not only the rail history of the area, but the wider Indigenous and immigrant history.
The history of the portage is honoured at the Cranberry Portage Monument. Erected in 2003 to honour the three-kilometre portage, which was used heavily from the 1760s to 1800 when the route was abandoned for the Hayes River and Nelson River route that allowed for the use of York Boats. The portage was still used by trappers and prospectors until 1928 when the village began to be developed. The monument features the story of the portage, as well as a full scale model of a canoe that was used by the Indigenous and early explorers.
Founding Of The Community
The origin of the community gets its start thanks to Herman Finger, and I will talk more about him in the next section. When he created his Finger Lumber Company, he would in turn create the community of Fingerville for the workers at his company.
The Pas itself began as a natural campsite thanks to being on the high dry banks of the Saskatchewan River. There had been several names for the area that The Pas would one day be located. The Cree called it Opasquia, which translates as the high wooded narrows. When fur traders arrived, they began to refer to the place using the Cree name but calling is Pasquia instead due to the French language pronunciation. That name slowly began to shorten until it was Le Pas in French and The Pas in English. As the founders of the town were English, the name was filed as The Pas.
That natural camping site slowly became a settlement and that settlement became The Town of The Pas in 1912, the same year that the area became part of Manitoba. The first mayor of the community would of course be Herman Finger.
The same year that The Pas was made a town, there was an Anglican and Catholic Church, a post office, train station, newspaper and a hospital.
Over the next decade, the community would grow as buildings popped up on a weekly basis, while water and sewer lines were installed. Seen as the Gateway to the North in Manitoba, the Courthouse would be built in 1916, further showing the importance of the community for the provincial government.
Today, over 5,000 people live in The Pas and it is the 10th largest community in the province, and the largest town in the province.
As was mentioned in the previous section, one of the most important individuals from the early history of The Pas was Herman Finger, who owned the Finger Lumber Company and was elected mayor when the town was incorporated in 1912, serving until 1916.
Born in Wisconsin, he would become the man often referred to as the founder of The Pas. As one of the early pioneer businessmen, he carved out the town and laid the foundations for the lumber industry. In Wisconsin, he would begin to work in the lumber industry for the Gerry Lumber company and by 1890 he saw that the northern United States was ending and he came to Canada for new opportunities. In 1907, he would come to the area that would be The Pas after spending time in Port Arthur, Ontario.
Arriving in the area, he began to plan out the townsite that would surround his sawmill.
One unfortunate aspect of his business dealings was that he would pressure Ottawa to limit the reserve on the south side of the Saskatchewan River that belonged to the Indigenous. During the first auction sale of the land, he would purchase several lots using his own funds.
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The next step was getting the railroad, and for that he approached McKenzie and Mann, who were railroad builders, and he was able to bring in the Hudson Bay Junction to The Pas. He did this by guaranteeing 17 cars of lumber weekly along the line.
In 1919, he would sell his lumber company for $1.5 million. In 1923, he died, one year after his wife from a heart attack. His funeral was held in Winnipeg.
Finger Station, located along the line to The Pas would be named for him and that station is still used to this day by Via Rail.
Sam Waller Museum
If you want to learn about the history of The Pas, then one of the best places to visit is the Sam Waller Museum. Located in the old courthouse that was built in 1916, it highlights the history of the Indigenous, the fur traders, mining and transportation in the community.
The Pas Historical Society had been created in November of 1977 by a group of senior citizens from The Golden Age Club. So, who was Sam Waller?
Sam Waller had come to Canada from England when he was 16 and began working on a farm in Ontario. During the First World War, he served as a stretcher bearer in the trenches of France and would survive the war. After working around Canada, he would come to The Pas in 1939 to teach, which he would do until 1946. Through the years, he also began to collect materials and specimens for teaching the children about history and the natural world. Waller was also known for disliking mechanical things, likely coming from his days in the trenches seeing the machines of war. Over the years, he developed a massive collection of items and in 1955, he decided he wanted to set up his Little Northern Museum in town. He would buy a lot in town, and with two buildings from The Pas Lumber Company, he set up his museum. It would take him one year to arrange his holdings in the museum. In 1970, the local Rotary Club constructed a larger building to house the Museum.
This museum was the first of its kind in Canada’s Northern region and he would attend to it every day. His health would begin to decline in 1960, and on March 18, 1978 he would be taken to the hospital with shortness of breath after battling pneumonia. He would die soon after. When the Historical Society was created in 1977, Waller was made an honorary member.
Through his museum, it was Sam’s wish to quote:
“Portray life as it once was in the distant past. Give the young the opportunity to see visions and the old to dream again their dreams.”
Today, in the museum that bears his name there is Sam’s Gallery, which is a smaller version of Waller’s Little Northern Museum that features many of the items he collected over the years.
Prohibition and the SS King George V
While the Prohibition Era in the United States is far more well-known, Canada and many provinces had their own prohibition. In Manitoba, the prohibition era began in 1916 and would last until 1923 after illegal speakeasies and bootleggers began to flourish.
For those in The Pas who enjoyed a bit of alcohol, they had to get creative and that is where the SS King George V came in. This ship was a floating beer parlor for awhile but eventually the local police decided to crack down on it and gave the owners a $200 fine for selling alcohol. That may not seem like much, but that $200 would be about $3,500 today.
Captain Horatio Hamilton Ross, who owned the Ross Navigation Company, also found a loophole related to the selling of alcohol. It could be purchased for sacramental uses. In order to get a liquor permit, he would establish the Church of the Cult of Omar to accomplish this.
I like to look at some of the unique residents of a community, so I want to highlight Horatio Hamilton Ross. Born in Scotland to Sir Charles and Lady Ross of Rossie Castle, he had a childhood that was lavish and happy but he felt the need to travel and explore. He would leave Scotland around 1900 and began to explore, going around South America and reaching San Francisco where he would then travel to Alberta and spend his days in the Rockies where he became a working cowboy and would build a large hotel at Medicine Hat. He would also work as a ranch manager, a gold prospector and several other careers in the Canadian West.
In 1905, he would build the S.S. Assiniboia, which was a 70-foot sternwheeler for cruising along the Saskatchewan River. He would take it, after briefly hitting a sand bar, to Winnipeg.
After the Mandy Mine was discovered, he would see opportunity and he created the Ross Navigation Company which would operate barges and steamships for the mine, including the S.S. Nipawin that could carry 100 people.
During one year in the busy season, he wanted to take his friends on a pleasure cruise but none of his ships were available. He would say, quote “Oh hell, I’ll have to get another one.”
Going to Cedar Lake, he bought another boat, took it back to The Pas and called it the S.S. O. Hell.
Sadly, in 1925, when he was 55, he was cleaning a gun when it accidently went off and killed him.
Ross Avenue in The Pas is named for him.
The 1913 Fire
I often like to talk about fires on the podcast because they are often one of the most important moments in a town’s history. A fire can change a town, reshape it and bring in new laws that protect generations not yet born.
The Pas would have arguably its worst fire on Dec. 13, 1913 when strong winds took a small fire that started on the second floor of the Imperial Hotel at 5 a.m. and spread it through the town. Guests at the hotel were forced to leave wearing only their sleeping clothes.
By the time the fire was out, a span of only three hours, the Imperial Hotel, the drug store, poolroom, jewelry The Lyric Theatre, which had only been completed one week earlier was also destroyed. The total loss from the fire was estimated to be $70,000, or $1.7 million today. Only half that amount was insured.
The fire didn’t spread beyond a house on the block thanks to 70 feet of clear space and the hard work of the fire brigade.
The First Plane Arrives
The first plane to ever arrive in Northern Manitoba would land in The Pas on Oct. 15, 1920. It was on that date that Pilots Frank Ellis and Hector Dougall touched down in the community flying an Avro Plane powered by a 110 HP Le Rhone Rotary Engine.
The plane had planned to fly directly to The Pas but bad weather forced them to fly just over the level of the trees and alter their course. Watching Canada Geese shifting to the south, away from the storm, so they followed. They would reach Hudson Bay Junction but not able to see a good place to land, they decided to go against the heavy wind with low fuel and land at The Pas. Finally, they were able to reach The Pas, landing with a thud as their fuel ran out, into the muskeg. At the time the community had a population of about 50 and everyone came out to see the plane. Ellis would state, quote:
“With the help of local residents we set about extricating our aircraft. About two hours of daylight was left. By Sunday noon sufficient clearing had been done to attempt a take off.”
Farley Mowat and Lost In The Barrens
For any fan of Farley Mowat, The Pas may be somewhat familiar as it served as the setting of his book Lost in the Barrens, published in 1956. This was the first of two young adult novels that he wrote to be set in the community.
In the book, the community is the main trading centre where the protagonist gets provisions and supplies before returning to the bush. Set in 1935, it is a coming of age tale about two boys in their teens. One boy is white, while the other is Cree and together they embark on a mission to relieve the starvation of a neighbouring village.
The book would win the Governor General’s Award in 1956, and the Canada Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award in 1958. It was also adapted into a 1990 television movie that was shot in Winnipeg.
Curse of the Viking Grave, the sequel, would also mention The Pas.
The Railway Station
Railway stations are incredibly important to the survival of a community and The Pas would get its own station in 1928, located right in town. There was optimism for the growth of the community in the 1920s and that led to the building of a Second Class railway station in The Pas which was unusual for its large size, use of brick and the multi-coloured bricks that created a decorative effect for it.
The building still stands in the community and is a landmark for it, harkening back to the days when the community functioned as a terminus and distribution centre for northern Manitoba, and its importance in the mining and forestry industry.
Built in 1897, the chapel was one of the first to be built in the area of any denomination and it was the first Roman Catholic Church to be built in northern Manitoba.
The chapel was built by Ovide Charlebois who would travel to the Indigenous of the region to address their medical, educational and spiritual needs. He built the structure using logs that were floated down the Saskatchewan River from Cumberland House. The glass and shingles for the church were shipped in from Prince Albert and it would operate as the local church until 1918 when it was replaced by another church.
The church is the second oldest structure in The Pas and serves as a link to the years before the community truly ever existed.
Another old church, one that is even older than the chapel I mentioned earlier, is Christ Church, which was built in 1896 and has a link to another church that was built half a century earlier. The Devon Mission was founded in 1840 and was the first self-supporting Anglican Mission in the northwest region of Canada. The Richardson Rescue Party would winter there in 1847 on their way to search for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin.
The furnishings of that original mission were moved to Christ Church upon its completion.
Christ Church is also an important site in terms of its relationship with the Cree, where four painted canvas panels of the Latin alphabet are still found. These were used to teach the Indigenous of the area during the early days of settlement.
Today, the church remains in active use and retains much of its integrity.
Northern Manitoba Trappers Festival
One of the most historic events not only in the area, but in Manitoba, takes place every year in The Pas. Called the Northern Manitoba Trappers Festival, its origins date back over a century. It is not only the oldest festival in all of Manitoba, but one of Canada’s oldest winter festivals.
The origins of the festival date back to 1916 when local pioneers organized The Pas Dog Derby as a means to publicize the opportunities of the area, and to push for more development in the area. At the time, the derby consisted of several events, but it was all around the competitive dog race. From that, the World Championship Dog Race would develop as part of the festival.
This first race, held on March 17, 1916, went for 241 kilometres across the snow and ice. At the time, it was the longest dog race in the entire world. The race would go from The Pas to Carrot River, Cranberry Portage, Flin Flon and Cumberland House.
The festival would be held every year until 1931, except for 1917 to 1918. At this point, the economic conditions forced the festival to end for the next 17 years. In 1948, the festival would be held in conjunction with the Annual Fur Advisory Convention. The success of the new Northern Manitoba Trapper’s Festival was a huge success, with huge crowds and a profit made. The race was adjusted in 1948 with three daily laps of 50 miles each. Today, the race is run in 35-mile heats, three in total, over the course of three days.
Since 1948, the festival has been held every year