The presence of lead south of the Great Slave Lake, named by Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was known by the Slave Indians who, according to Hearne melted down the ore and used the metal as weights for their fishing gear. The ore body was “discovered” in 1898 by prospectors on their way from Edmonton to the gold fields of the Klondike. The Boston Syndicate was attracted to the area in 1921 followed by the northern Land-Zinc Company in 1929. But it was not until the 1950s that the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (COMINCO), principally controlled by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, began an intensive program of drilling that proved the presence of a substantial body of lead-zinc ore that could be profitably exploited.2 COMINCO’s declining lead-zinc resource in southern British Columbia, and the prospect of having to import ore from abroad for the smelter at Trail, B.C., required the deposit at Pine Point to be mined and transported south by rail.3 COMINCO’s need to develop Pine Point through its subsidiary Pine Point Mine coincided with the Conservative Party leader John Diefenbaker’s “Road to Resources” program for northern development, which he initiated on becoming Prime Minister of Canada in 1958. The GSLR became part of that program.4
There was general agreement that the railway was “a work for the general advantage of Canada”5 but which route it should follow became a contentious issue that eventually required the Prime Minister to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the matter and report its findings. The Chairman of the Commission was Justice Marshall E. Manning. The other two commissioners were Professor W.D. Gainer of the University of Alberta and J. Anderson-Thompson, a surveyor and engineer from Yellowknife.
Although a number of routes had been suggested only two merited serious consideration—the eastern starting at Waterways and the western commencing at or near Grimshaw. Advocates of the eastern route pointed out the greater potential for mineral, petroleum, hydroelectric and forestry development in the area through which the railway would pass, and that it would lead to a more balanced transportation network, offsetting the Mackenzie Highway. Those supporting the western route stated that the railway would serve an already established agricultural area with even greater potential for expansion, and aid in the development of a lumber industry. It was argued that agriculture and lumbering would result in a more stable economy than mineral exploitation could provide.6 In the final report Anderson-Thompson opted for the western route, Gainer for the eastern, and Justice Manning gave a tepid endorsement for the western. The government decided for the western route.7 CNR historian G.R. Stevens mentions that a contributing factor for the rejection of the eastern route was the presence of the only northern sanctuary for the whooping crane in the Wood Buffalo National Park through which the railway would have had to pass.8
Canadian National Railways, builder and operator of the railway, commenced location surveys in December, 1960 with the requirement that the line be completed on or before December 31, 1966. A ground-breaking ceremony took place at Roma on February 12, 1962 and on November 18, 1964, a train of 36 cars loaded with ore in excess of 2,000 tons, left the Pine Point mine for Trail and Kimberly.9 It was recognized that the railway could not be self-supporting at the start so Pine Point Mines Ltd. accepted certain conditions over the first 10 years of operation. The company was to ship no less than 215,000 tons of ore and concentrate annually at a rate of $7.75 per ton; it would pay an additional charge based on a current world market value for the ore that would amount to no more than $20 million; and any deficits resulting from a reduction in the volume of traffic from the mine would not be borne by CNR.10
The GSLR traverses a series of low plateaus separated by wide, shallow valleys, the only major obstacle was the Meikle River which required a 2000-foot bridge. Muskeg between Keg River and Hay River was easily circumvented without undue increase in line length and very little permafrost was encountered. The maximum grade obtained was six-tenths percent and curves were mostly between 4 and 6 degrees.11
New building techniques enabled work to be carried on throughout the year despite the severe climate in winter.12 A number of labour-saving machines were developed to speed the work, especially the self-propelled “in track” machine that was capable of laying track at 10-feet per minute.13 The presence of the all-weather MacKenzie Highway meant that materials could be trucked and stockpiled, but perhaps more importantly its presence “psychologically ... was a boon to the large numbers of men engaged on the different phases of the project and isolation was not the bug bear it might well have been that far north.”14
By 1972 there were 119 employees, 17 of whom constituted a floating gang operating over the whole length of the railway.15 The railway was “equipped ... with a fairly-advanced form of automatic train operation.”16 In 1975, 9,008 carloads (612,224 tons) of concentrate, agricultural and forest products were moved south, while 6,092 carloads (370,608 tons) principally fuel, chemicals, building materials and steel pipe were transported north.17 The mining operation at Pine Point was closed down on December 31, 1991, but a stockpile of ore and concentrate necessitated keeping the branch line operating from Hay River.18 Finally at the end of 1992 and early in 1993 the rail was removed.19
Lumber and grain constitutes 95 percent of the traffic south, while fuel to Hay River is the major commodity freighted north.20