The following series of photos were taken in August 2001 by David Smith
who served at the base in 1960-61.
CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO SEE THE INTERIOR FLOOR PLAN
|BASE: The main, 'T' shaped Operations Building is still there
but in a very deteriorated state. Most notably missing is the water tower.
The HFDF shack is out on the tundra about a mile away . There was a baseball
diamond across the road and polar bears often liked to sun themselves at
home plate which made playing ball a bit of a challenge at times.
(Photo by David Smith)
The wing to the left of the main entrance was the accommodation or barracks
portion and encompassed both the upper and lower decks. When any Chiefs
and PO's, lived on board lived, it would be on the
The wing to the right, on the lower deck, contained the mechanical section and the heating plant. There were storerooms for Naval and Victualling stores. The upper deck was used for the cafeteria and the messes; the officers' wardroom was just above the main entrance.
The LS and below mess was at the far end of the wing. Adjacent to it was the Chiefs and PO's mess. Since the building was 'T' shaped, the portion not shown in this photo was, on the lower deck, the offices for the CO, XO and the admin writers. The upper deck of that wing behind an "authorized personnel only" door was fitted with an electronic lock To the right, at the end of the corridor was the Cryptocentre and the landline portion of the Communications centre. Beside it was the electronic workshop. Across the corridor was the office suite, Operations Officer, Ops Chief, etc.
This structure was built on stilts sunk deep into the permafrost and was one of a kind construction. Because of its uniqueness Soviet diplomats (engineering types) came to Churchill, with authority, to look at this method of construction in the Arctic. How high were the stilts? Doug Stewart, a Churchill matelot, was able to park his 1962 Ford Anglia beneath the building, with room to spare.
|Chiefs & PO's and Men's Messes: Sliding panels would separate the Chiefs and Petty Officer's Mess from the "lower decks". The tiles on the floors are exactly the same tiles that exist in the Diefenbunker outside of Ottawa - obviously military issue in those days. (Photo by David Smith)|
|Dormitory. The military had a penchant for building such things as dormitories in an 'H' shape but given the complexities of having to fabricate the very deep pilings to deal with the permafrost, it is suspected that the architects chose a less complex and cheaper design for this building.(Photo and copy by David Smith)|
|This diesel generator provided emergency power to the base in the event
commercial power became unavailable. (Photo by David Smith)
Ian MacPherson recalls an incident which occurred in October 1964 involving
a major power failure. "I was returning home from school on a very cold
and gray day and noticed all the lights in the PMQ area were out. Arriving
home, I found my Dad having a nap (make and mend). I said to him "Dad all
the lights are out". His reply was "of course I turned them out". I said
no. All the lights are out...everywhere in Camp. This got a very immediate
response from him. He was the Chief Stoker and of course he was worried
about the base power being out and of course no "radio" work would be possible.
He phoned the base and found that the duty L.S. Stoker1 had
been able to flash up the emergency generator plant (yes it worked). Dad
immediately called the duty driver to run him down to the base. All was
well at HMCS Churchill but the power at Fort Churchill had already been
was down for 3 to 4 hours and this situation caused officials to start
planning an emergency evacuation by air2. There were approx.
4,000 people living there at the time and as there was no heat to any of
the buildings. Fortunately power was restored and we family members could
take off our parkas as heat came on. Ian MacPherson
|View at the rear of the Ops Building. Standing on the loading dock (outside the tech shop) the camera is pointing at the rear of the mens dormitory. The water tower was demolished to keep people from climbing it. (Photo by David Smith)|
|In August 2007, Doug Stewart paid a visit to the former Churchill Operations building after a 50 year absence. Like a true sailor, although battered and bloodied, the building refuses to succumb to time and the elements and is the only former military structure still standing. (Photo by Doug Stewart)|
|Doug Stewart considered this to be a derelict and crewless ship so he took salvage rights into account at 58°44'51.35"N , 94° 7'13.86"W and ceremoniously designated the property as Canadian Navy! (Photo via Doug Stewart)|
|The salvage has been completed and the building is back in Navy hands
- at least in thought.
Actually, the Churchill Archives show that the University College of the North had approached the Manitoba Government to negotiate a transfer of the building from the Federal Government. It was agreed and the Province of Manitoba was given authority to handle the process. Now, every entrepreneur wanted the property. Through bureaucratic and political ineptitude, the University was forced to withdrew from the transfer. They have since established a small campus in the Town of Churchill. The Navy Base property is now administered by the Churchill Ports Commission, a Canadian Federal Agency. (Photo by Doug Stewart)
|In 2017, artists from around the world came to Churchill Manitoba and painted murals on many of the buildings around town, mostly vacant ones. HMCS Churchill was one of them. This aerial phorto was taken by Gordon Goldsborough using a drone.|
|There are only two practical ways to get in and out of Churchill -
by plane or train. This is the Churchill train station as it appeared
in August 2001. As a national heritage site, it is being restored by the
Railroading on the tundra, muskeg and permafrost has its challenges. Initially, a very thick base of gravel, perhaps several feet thick has to be poured over the tundra and muskeg in order that the tracks "float" on top of this "soup". It's a never ending job of constantly adding more gravel as the tracks sink over time. To prevent numerous derailments as a result of track problems, trains are limited to speeds of around 30 km per hour on the most critical sections of track. Trains typically consist of mostly grain cars and a few passenger cars. (Photo by David Smith)
|Hudson Bay Railway: Due to summertime thawing of the tundra, utility poles would soon start to lean and fall over if left unsupported. To overcome the problem, the utility poles were mounted in tripod fashion as depicted in this old postcard photo. The poles are no longer in use. (Postcard photo via David Smith)|
|Aerial view of the Port of Churchill showing the grain elevators taken from a postcard photo. The 140,000-tonne elevator with unit train unloading capacity has the ability to clean, grade, store and transfer bulk grains from railcars to oceangoing vessels. Four deep-sea berths, including one tanker berth can handle a vessel size up to 57,000 DWT. The Port of Churchill is located closer to 25% of Canada's western grain production than any other port. (Submitted by David Smith)|
David Smith , who served at HMCS Churchill, reminisces. " This little missive will be of special interest to those of you who served in Churchill Manitoba as I did in 1960/61. I was surprised to learn, since returning to Churchill in the summer of 2001, how many former Foreign Service Communicators had actually lived and worked in
this foreboding place.
One might ask what prompted a visit. For starters, it was where I began my first real job working for the Navy. Further, my wife Janice comes from Winnipeg but had never been in Northern Manitoba and lastly, my curiosity as to whether the old base was still standing got the better of me. As the saying goes....getting there is half the fun and this certainly applies to the VIA Rail trip to Churchill. Travelling to Churchill, one has but two choices - fly or take the train. All roads end at Gillam. The distance from Gillam to Churchill is 296 kms and takes almost nine hours as it crawls over the muskeg on tracks that essentially float on top of it. This portion of the trip is definitely “different”. Departing from Winnipeg, the train actually goes west into Saskatchewan and only then heads
north back into Manitoba and through such places as The Pas, Thompson and finally Gillam, the last stop before Churchill.
From Winnipeg, the trip takes two nights and a day so a sleeping compartment is recommended. One suspects that VIA Rail is not overly concerned about the state of the tracks –given that they no longer own the rails from Gillam to Churchill. That portion of the track is now owned by our friends south of the border. Surprisingly, in contrast to the ancient rail cars we were in , the meals were superb which made it easier to overlook such things as no heat in some compartments. My 84 year old Mother-in-law was accompanying us and of course, it was her compartment that lacked heat. Train travel to Churchill in 2001 however was a major improvement from that of my first trip in the fall of 1960.
I don't remember any full-sized shower on that trip being included in my Navy financed travel. But then, as a 19 year old newly minted sailor, who would have cared! As the train trundled northwards, settlements became few and far apart until, on the second day, we left any sign of human habitation whatsoever behind and travel over the muskeg began in earnest. It had been impossible to forget my 1960 trip and those memories came flooding back quickly as the train cars lurched from side to side and walking from one car to another became an adventure as the floor between the cars would drop far more than I thought they should. Running rails over spongy floating muskeg is without question a real challenge and that challenge had not changed in 2001. Grain cars from recent grain trains lying on their sides providing Canada geese with a real feast did not instill a sense of
confidence. The maximum speed for this part of the trip averages about 35 kmh and there were times travel was even slower than this speed.
Slowly the trees thinned out and it was evident by looking at the stunted branches which grew only on one side
which way the prevailing winds blow. Eventually the trees ceased altogether. One of my most vivid memories from 1960 was how telephone lines were supported. Each “pole” consisted of a tripod made up of three poles, a design meant to prevent sinking into the muskeg. Those poles are still there today but are no longer used. Single poles held up with guy wires are now the system used to carry those all-important communication lines into this isolated port on the shores of Hudson Bay. I was impressed with the fact that a rail line continues to exist and still works under such conditions. Grain shipments from Churchill are the reason of course.
Two days out of Winnipeg, we finally arrived and in spite of straining for a glimpse of the old Navy base, I couldn't see it. After boarding a little tour bus (having joined a group of tourists with a little finagling) the owner of the bus was so pleased that I had lived in Churchill that he handed me the keys to a modern mini-van and told us it was ours until we left. Our only instructions were to leave the keys in it when we left. With only a couple of roads in Churchill, he had reasonable assurances I wasn't about to drive off with it! My focus was now to find out about the base and to my surprise it still existed. Within a few minutes we were outside the old base and what a sad sight to see. While the old base was in a sorry state, it was still easy to enter via the loading dock and it didn't take long to find my old dorm that I shared with seven other sailors. The OPerations Center, the men's mess, the admin offices, everything was still there and even though almost 40 years had passed since I was last in this building, it was still recognizable, even in very dilapidated shape. My mother-in-law and wife humoured me while I poked around and delighted in remembering long-forgotten details .
Standing amidst this flotsam and jetsam did not deter my recall of life in HMCS Churchill. I could almost see Rick Flett standing outside the base getting our photo taken or Pete Hurst standing behind the bar in the men's mess as he served up a cold beer on his off-duty hours. No more shiny floors, no spotless dorms, and of course no sailors. Just the three of us, the wind whistling through the broken windows and a badly treated building that has been ravaged by people, time and weather for the last 33 years (HMCS Churchill closed down in 1968).
Readers might be tempted to ask if the trip was worth it but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It had been at the top of my “to-do” list for many years and I have no regrets. Yes, I would go back again but somehow I suspect I would be doing so on my own. My Manitoban born and raised wife wasn't as enthralled with my experiences in the sub-arctic as I was. Any further trips will be solo I fear. Good times and even greater memories".
1. The RCN had discontinued used of the term "Stoker" in the mid-50s and had gone over to "Engineering Mechanic", but the popular term continued to be used for quite a few years thereafter.
2. This illustrates how early it gets cold in Churchill when a major evacuation was being considered in October. Although Churchill is sub-Arctic, just slightly north of the tree-line, it certainly had all the characteristics of an Arctic location.
1) Dr. Gordon Goldsborough <gordon(at)mhs.mb.ca> Head Researcher & Webmaster Manitoba Historical Society, Winnipeg, MB,
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