Great Canadian RIVERS 


Aerial view of York Factory
ca. 1925 / York Factory
National Archives of Canada/PA-041571

Samuel Hearne and the Upper Track Fur Trade Route
Archives, artifacts and anecdotes provide a composite sketch of the history of the Grass River as an established 18th and 19th century fur trade route. Known as the "Upper Track," the route extended southwest from the Hudson's Bay Company post of York Factory, on the shore of Hudson Bay, along the Nelson River, through the Grass River system, across Cranberry Portage at the river's southwest end, and down a tributary of the Sturgeon-Weir River to the Hudson's Bay inland trading headquarters at Cumberland Lake.


Cumberland-Bound: The northern river route was well known to Cree trappers who carried their furs to York Factory at Hudson Bay, and to The Pas, where inland French fur traders had set up shop. It appears to be the route that Samuel Hearne, veteran Hudson's Bay Company explorer, took when he journeyed from York Factory in 1774 to found Cumberland House, the Company's first inland trading post. Hearne's journals record his departure, along with 2 Englishmen, 6 native guides (4 "upland Indians" and 2 "home Indians"), and 5 canoes, laden with "180 lbs. Brazil Tobacco, 130 lbs. Powder, 100 wt. of Shott & Ball, 6 Gallns Brandy, 6 Do White Waters and some other trifling ariticals of Trading goods." The river, however, soon proved to be much too shallow for this weighty cargo, and some of the supplies had to be sent back to York Factory.


It was a month later when the Hudson's Bay party pitched their tents at Ne-me-o kip-a-hagon (Sturgeon Weir River). When Hearne arrived at his original destination of The Pas, he was shocked to find that "Montreal Pedlars" (as they were known to the English) had long ago infiltrated the area and established a brisk trade with aboriginal trappers. Finding The Pas to be "bare of all kinds of woods," Hearne and his men chose Pine Island, on the southern edge of Cumberland Lake, as the site of the Hudson Bay Company's official competition to the French fur trade.


Middle Track: The Grass River/Nelson River Upper Track was one of 3 fur trade routes between Cumberland House and York Factory. The "Middle Track" followed the Hayes River southwest from York Factory to the Fox River, through Utik and Cross Lakes, to the Minago River and Moose Lake to the Summerberry River, the Saskatchewan River and on to Cumberland Lake. The 17th century explorer Henry Kelsey is thought to have travelled this route as early as 1690, followed by Anthony Henday and Matthew Cocking in the mid-1700's.


Lower Track: It was the "Lower Track," however, that became the preferred route of Hudson's Bay Company traders in the late 1700's. Neither of the 2 upper routes could accommodate the bulky York Boats that became the standard freight craft of the latter-day fur trade. Although the Lower Track route (along the Hayes River, through Knee Lake, Oxford Lake, Robinson Lake, the Echimanish River, the upper Nelson to Norway House, and across the north end of Lake Winnipeg to Cedar Lake, The Pas and the Saskatchewan River) was difficult and treacherous, it was considered to be the most passable and reliable of the 3 routes. The Hayes River Route became the highway to the west, while the Middle and Upper Tracks were merely secondary roads.


David Thompson at Reed Lake


Herb Lake: Ghost of a Gold Town
A few sagging storefronts, shrouded in brush, are all that remain of the general stores, bunkhouses, tea rooms, school and churches of Herb Lake, on the eastern shore of the Grass river's Wekusko Lake. The former gold mining community has been a ghost town since the late 1950's, when the last of the mines shut down.

Herb Lake's first wave of activity came in 1914, when gold was discovered on the shores of the lake. The Rex Mine began production in 1917, but ceased operations 8 years later. Mining resumed at the Laguna Mine in 1934, bringing miners and their families into the remote Manitoba community. Services proliferated, and at its height, the village included a barber shop, pool hall, post office, laundry, blacksmith shop, hotel and beer parlour.

Getting to Herb Lake required a 2-day ride by horse and wagon over a 20 kilometre stretch of rough road between the railway station at Wekusko, to the south and the tiny village of Herb Lake Landing. From the Landing, travel to Herb Lake was by water up the eastern shore of Wekusko Lake.

So constant and far-ranging were the wilderness travels of explorer, surveyor and fur trader David Thompson that it comes as no surprise that he visited the land of the Grass River waterway more than once.


In 28 years of almost continual explorations, surveying expeditions and trade missions, Thompson covered an astonishing 88,000 kilometres and surveyed over 5 million square miles of territory. In 1796, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, he discovered an alternate and more direct route to Athabasca country. Later, as an employee of the rival North West Company, he travelled within a few kilometres of the headwaters of the Mississippi River, penetrated the formidable barrier of the Rocky Mountains, and descended the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Trained by the Hudson's Bay Company's first chief surveyor, Philip Turnor, Thompson became one of North America's most skilled navigators and map-makers.


Thompson visited the Grass River early in his career, when he accompanied Hudson's Bay Company manager Malcolm Ross to Reed Lake (now part of Grass River Provincial Park) in the summer of 1794. Ross, head of the Company's western headquarters of Cumberland House, had been sent to construct a new post, Reed Lake House, on the Grass River/Nelson River "Upper Track" fur trade route. From Reed Lake, Thompson continued downriver to York Factory, returning in the early fall with 3 canoe-loads of trade goods for the new post. He and Ross spent the winter at Reed Lake; in the spring of 1795, they left together for York Factory, their canoes packed with furs collected during the winter's trade.

By the time Thompson returned to Reed Lake in the fall of 1805, he had "crossed over" to the rival North West Company, journeyed to the land of the Mandan on the Missouri River, travelled through much of northern Alberta, led an expedition on the Bow River to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and explored much of northern Lake Superior. He had also married Charlotte Small and become a father of 3 children (of an eventual 13) that often accompanied him on his journeys. The Thompson family spent the years of 1804 - 1806 in the northwestern Manitoba territory that he called "Muskrat Country," wintering at a Reed Lake trading post not far from the one he had helped to found 11 years earlier. In March of 1806, the Thompson's 4th child, Emma, was born at the Grass River post.