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North West River: Steeped in Canada’s Pioneer History

May 2023 | By Pat Brennan

The most northern road in Labrador comes to an abrupt end at the west bank of the North West River.

However, the town of “North West River” and its vital amenities – sits on the east bank of the wide river.

What to do?

From its founding in 1743 as a fur trading post until 1961, the outside world connected to the town via boat or by snowmobile or dog team in winter. In 1961 the province of Newfoundland and Labrador brought new life to North West River by stringing a cable car across the river.

The cable car could accommodate six people, each with a dog and two bags of groceries. It made a difference in this town – the oldest community in Labrador. “I used to know everybody in town, but after the cable car arrived there were strangers in town I didn’t know,” said one veteran resident.

There were good reasons to cross the North West River. The town at the mouth of the river, where it empties into Lake Melville for many decades, had the only hospital on Labrador’s North Atlantic coast, plus the only school and was home to one of the Hudson Bay Company’s busiest and most profitable fur trading post.An image of a miniature of Hudson Bay

In 1980, the province built a concrete bridge across the North West River and the town blossomed to nearly 600 souls. The retired steel cable car now sits on a pedestal beside the Hudson Bay trading post, which today is one of Canada’s most innovative museums.

An image of Miniatures The museum depicts the history and lives of the town and its pioneers with a collection of exactingly crafted miniature mechanical diorama models. There are tiny models cutting up fire wood. There’s a four-piece Eskimo trading post band playing brass instruments, people sit on the Hudson Bay trading post dock dipping their fishing lines into the river. Sea planes circle hang from the ceiling pushed by its rotating propeller.

The diorama displays were created by radar technician Elmer Karl Lakata, now 86. In 1954 shortly after joining the United States Air Force he was posted to Goose Bay, a RCAF base in Northern Labrador where fighter pilots from various NATO nations were posted to train with low level flying a firing live ammunition in Labrador’s vast wilderness.

Lakata fell in love with the nearby town of North West River and fell in love with one of the town’s young women.

An image of miniature eskimos He started carving small models of North West River’s pioneer residents doing pioneer things and then built small electric motors to animate the models. Lakata and his wife North West River wife now live in New Jersey, but return to the town each summer usually to create another animated display of its lifestyle.

North West River flows into Lake Melville, a 140-kilometre-long estuary of the Churchill River. It is open to the North Atlantic and thus attracted many explorers – mostly trappers.

Hudson Bay Company opened a fur trading post at North West River in 1843 because the river was the principal route into the animal-rich northern Labrador as far as James Bay.

Most of the fur trapping and river routes were mapped out by 33-year-old Minna Hubbard, a former school teacher from Bewdley, Ontario on Rice Lake. In 1903 her husband died during an exploration of North West River’s tributaries and she blamed the incompetence of his exploration party.

In 1905, she set out with her own exploration team to fulfill her husband’s mission and clear his name as an incompetent explorer.

Her incredible story of overcoming hardships is told in the museum on the river’s east bank.

When the fur trading industry was significantly reduced by the Great Depression most of North West River’s trappers got steady jobs building the new air base at Goose Bay.