Flin Flon, 1927-37: Booms, busts, strikes and rogue cows

As 1927 drew to a close, the fledgling Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co., Limited was incorporated.

Operations would not begin until 1930, a timeframe indicative of the enormous task of establishing a functioning mining and processing operation in a remote northern outpost.

Years later, retired HBM&S general manager W.A. (Baldy) Green would summarize the magnitude of the project in a letter quoted by the book Flin Flon: “In retrospect I feel that all those good people who pioneered those early days have something to be proud of in their part of rolling back the frontier of the north. In a space of two and one half years, a railroad was built. A hydro-electric plant erected on the Churchill River. A high-voltage power line built from Island Falls to Flin Flon. An extensive and complex metallurgical plant built at Flin Flon, a portion of Flin Flon Lake dammed and dewatered. Both underground and open-pit mining operation established.”

article continues below

Of the group that made HBM&S possible, Green wrote: “We had a great family of people, growing up together, learning to take the bitter with the sweet but creating something for the good of the country and mankind.”

By the time HBM&S was fully up and running, the Great Depression had thrown countless men out of work. The frail economy served as a powerful recruiting tool for companies that, like HBM&S, offered steady, good-paying work.

As Flin Flon put it: “From the beginnings of Flin Flon mine and metallurgical plant until the mid-1930s, there was a notable influx of men desperately seeking jobs to support families left behind in prairie towns and on farms. Men who had no idea of what life would hold for their future came to the northland prepared to work diligently in most cases and to carve out a new home in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan wilderness.”

Flin Flon became the quintessential boomtown. In 1928, the community’s population was estimated at 270; by 1930 the number was 2,000; and by 1935 it was up to 5,000.

The influx of people spurred a massive infrastructure expansion, including the opening of Main School in 1932. The school stood on the present-day hospital property.

“Teachers from those very early days remembered overcrowded classrooms with growing numbers every day,” says Flin Flon historian Gerry Clark. “Classes went on wherever space could be found. Under the company staff house in a pool hall. Teachers never had enough books. Every kid brought his dog.”

In 1933, Flin Flon was incorporated as a municipality. Ernie E. Foster was elected as the first mayor. Another historic event came in 1935, when Flin Flon signed Canada’s first municipal policing contract with the RCMP.

Glen Campbell, who moved to Flin Flon as a toddler in 1929, shared his memories of the early days of the community.

“We lived at an area called ‘The Point’ and it was north of the smelter. It was an island, like a peninsula,” Campbell said in a 2013 Reminder interview. “We were kind of squatters there, I guess. There was quite a few people who lived in that area.”

Two other early Flin Flon residents were Victor and Isabel Bowes, who moved to the fledgling community from Ontario in the 1920s.

Jobs were scarce, so Victor, a plumber by trade, jumped at the chance to work for HBM&S. He started at the company in 1928 and was joined by his family – Isabel and children Walter, Babe and Beatty –
in 1929.

In a 2013 interview, Babe and Beatty still remembered walking down the company rail tracks to attend school.

Babe went to Main School. Beatty was a student in Flin Flon’s first, or one of the first, kindergarten classes, held at the old Community Hall in the first half of the 1930s.

As a child, Beatty came down with potentially fatal double pneumonia, prompting her doctor to recommend she drink fresh milk.

Victor got the family a cow, named Bossy, to supply milk not only to his children, but also to other kids at The Point.

Bossy was believed to be the first or second cow in Flin Flon, and thankfully her nutritious milk helped nurse little Beatty back to health.

Unfortunately, Bossy’s own long-term prognosis was not so good. She was fatally struck by one of the first trains passing through the community.

While present-day Flin Flon is often celebrated for its relative safety, this was not always the case. Trevor Watt, a fourth-generation Flin Flonner, recalls that his great-aunts and grandmother, early Flin Flon residents, lived on North Avenue.

“The story is told that my great-grandfather would not let the girls go down to Main Street on their own, as it was not necessarily a safe place for them in the early ’30s,” says Watt. 

Another interesting piece of history from this era relates to 27 Club. It was a club for those associated with the Flin Flon development in all phases up to December 1, 1927. Nearly 200 people were eligible to join, and the club met for decades.

Membership in 27 Club included some still-familiar Flin Flon names. Among them: Akert, Allen, Callinan, Channing, Floch, Guymer, Phelan and Waldron.

 

Early labour strife

Flin Flon historian Gerry Clark details the famous HBM&S strike of 1934:

A strike! How could that happen?

Most of those who went on strike had only been in Flin Flon a relatively short while. Everyone knew how lucky they were to have a job. Many had arrived penniless and desperate.

The company had worked hard to provide a community life. This is why Phantom Lake was developed.

When the Mine Workers’ Union set up its pickets, company bosses like R.H. Channing and W.A. Green clearly were surprised and felt betrayed.

So what can explain the strike? It is still a hot-button question.

The company cut wages 18 per cent but could still pay shareholder dividends. Many issues caused hard feelings. Paying for electricity, when it was abundant and free, galled many.

Safety was an issue at the company. Maybe strike leaders stirred the pot and maybe folks went along with the idea of standing up to the company without thinking about the consequences.

It was a terrible crisis for the new community. The RCMP, which had a reputation for harsh strike-breaking tactics, had brought in a large number of officers. There was a rumour the Mounties had a machine gun on the Flin Flon hotel.

The company refused to negotiate; and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, accusing it of trying to start a communist revolution. This, after all, wasn’t so long after the Russian Revolution.

The strike came to a head in three weeks. Mercifully it ended a lot less violently than it might have.

The company offered the workers the chance to vote on the strike. There was a tense standoff on the steps of the new community hall, where the vote was held.

A group of women, wives of strikers, blocked the entrance, beating up anyone who tried to go through them. Some got beat up pretty badly.

By noon the police, the company and the town decided to close down the vote before something worse happened. By this time the strike leaders were all known. Arrests were quickly made and people taken out of town by train.

A week later the strike broke, the men went back to work and for more than 36 years there wasn’t another strike here.

© Copyright Flin Flon Reminder

Comments

NOTE: To post a comment you must have an account with at least one of the following services: Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ You may then login using your account credentials for that service. If you do not already have an account you may register a new profile with Disqus by first clicking the "Post as" button and then the link: "Don't have one? Register a new profile".

The Flin Flon Reminder welcomes your opinions and comments. We do not allow personal attacks, offensive language or unsubstantiated allegations. We reserve the right to edit comments for length, style, legality and taste and reproduce them in print, electronic or otherwise. For further information, please contact the editor or publisher, or see our Terms and Conditions.

comments powered by Disqus

Christmas POLL

How do you think COVID-19 will affect your holiday plans?

or  view results