Although little has been recorded about human settlement at Setting Lake, it is certain that generations of indigenous people fished, hunted, and trapped along its shores. By the early 1900s, a few Cree families from Cross Lake and Nelson House were living at the south end of the lake.
We know the names of many of these people. We know that some were permanent residents, and some were seasonal, much like today’s cabin owners. And we know that many people who live in the Wabowden-Setting Lake area today are their descendants.
The first settlement, Chanscatch Sagahigan, was located on a bay on the north shore near the mouth of the Grass River. Sagahigan is a Cree word meaning “lake”. The meaning of “Chanscatch” isn’t as clear, but there are a couple of interesting ideas.
According to the late Joe Colombe of Wabowden, the community was named after an old man from Cross Lake whose last name was Scatch. This is a plausible explanation; today dozens of Scatches live in Cross Lake.
Historian Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont believes Chanscatch may be a Cree adaptation of the name “John Scatch” and he provides evidence that a man with that name trapped at Setting Lake.
Shirrit-Beaumont has a second theory. He writes, “Martha Jonasson…remembers that her uncle, Wellington Beebe was nicknamed ‘Chanscatch’ because he was born at Setting Lake.” At the time Setting Lake was known locally as John Scott’s Lake and Shirritt-Beaumont wonders aloud if “John Scatch” was derived from “John Scott”.
Among the families who settled at Chanscatch Sagahigan were Baptiste and Mary Garrioch who moved from Cross Lake to Setting Lake with their daughters, Emma, Mary, and Sarah in the 1890s. According to Sarah’s daughter, Bella Monias, the family lived at Cross Lake during the summer and trapped at Setting Lake in the winter.
Joseph Tait, a lay reader, lived at the mouth of the Grass River for many years. Three of his children are buried in the little graveyard on the point. It is also the resting place for Roddy Garrick’s wife, Betsy Spence, and John Linklater’s first wife, Mary.
Gravesite at John Tait’s Cemetery Credit: D. Henry
Several families established another lakeshore settlement called Monkey Town a few miles downstream. Joe Colombe; his widowed mother Emily Colombe and her family; Roderick Flett and his wife; John Linklater with his first wife Mary, then second wife Sarah; Sandy Crait and his wife Catherine; and Nathan Moose and his wife – all called Monkey Town home.
Chanscatch Sagahigan and Monkey Town on Setting Lake, and Mile 137
Credit: Raymond Shirrit-Beaumont
At the beginning of the twentieth century the people at Chanscatch Sagahigan and Monkey Town still followed a traditional way of life. But change was in the air. Construction of the Hudson Bay Railway had begun in 1911. By the summer of 1913 over ninety miles of steel had been laid northwest of The Pas. The survey parties and the rail line were moving closer to Setting Lake.
Major J. L. Charles, CNR’s Chief Engineer in charge of the surveys Credit: Eira Friesen
HBR Survey Crew Credit: Margaret Carter
That winter the track reached Turnbull siding, fourteen miles west of present day Ponton. Bay Line engineers arrived at Setting Lake and set up headquarters for the next leg of construction.
HBR Location Engineer – W J Clifford
Credit: Library & Archives Canada
Setting Lake, it seemed, had a promising future. The Pas Herald, which served as a local and regional newspaper, wrote about it in glowing terms.
“Setting Lake, with its adjacent lakes and streams, abounds in fish of every kind, and when the Hudson Bay railway is completed, there is every probability that a large and profitable fishing industry will be operated here.
The mining industry is also shaping itself creditably…A number of well-known prospectors scattered through the district, all speak very highly of the prospects here. With the development of these two industries in the immediate and tributary vicinity of Setting Lake, this will undoubtedly be a very important point in the near future.
The location, which overlooks the beautiful Setting Lake, with its thousand scenic surprises, upon a sloping heavily wooded plateau, is altogether a choice selection, with many natural advantages. Setting Lake is the gateway of the north with its outlet to the Nelson, its waler route to all the principal Hudson Bay posts of the north, and its present population has every confidence that it will be a permanent, active and modern centre.”
MacLean’s magazine heaped on more accolades, noting both the Grass River’s potential to generate electricity and the region’s mineral wealth.
“Lynx Falls, at the eastern end of Setting Lake, is forty-three feet in height and for scenery is unsurpassed, even competing with the Great Niagara. One may stand here upon a ledge of the granite rock and gaze with awe at tumbling water above and below. Just below is Sandy Falls, forty-two feet high, also very pretty and well suited for water-power development.
Running parallel to the railway is the Metishto River, and then the Grass River, and a continuous chain of waterways, a series of lakes linked together by rivers, until Split Lake is reached and joined by the Nelson River.
Already some prospecting has been done in the vicinity of Herb Lake, and here some very good gold values have been discovered. The district may be the scene of the next great “gold rush.”
Over the next few months another forty miles of track was laid, connecting Turnbull rail siding to a point one hundred thirty-seven miles north of The Pas, about five miles southwest of Setting Lake. In the summer of 1914, the first train carrying men and materials rolled through the wilderness to that spot – a place the Cree called “Meskanakanihk”, meaning a trail or pathway.
The “Muskeg” arrives at Mile 137
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Canadian National Railway announced that Mile 137 would be no ordinary rail siding; it would be the first divisional point north of The Pas. Meskanakanihk would now officially be known by its English name, “Division 2, Goose Lake, Mile 137”.
CNR required a large labour force to turn a relatively simple rail siding into a divisional point. The prospect of employment drew hundreds of men to the area.
Construction crews built repair shops for steam locomotives and rolling stock, a roundhouse, a 60,000-gallon water tank, coaling and sanding facilities, freight and baggage sheds, sewer and water systems, bunkhouses, and a sizeable passenger station.
Wabowden Train Station Credit: prairie-towns.com
Hundreds of others were hired as labourers on railway construction gangs.
Men Laying HBR Track Credit: Sam Waller Museum, The Pas
In 1915, a new gravel pit opened four miles from the station and Mile 137 took on added importance.
Loading Gravel for Hudson Bay Railway Credit: Sam Waller Museum, The Pas
The designation of a town as a divisional point often fuelled its growth and development. Mile 137 was no exception.
Station at Mile 137 Credit: Library & Archives Canada
At Setting Lake some people pulled up stakes and moved a few miles south to Mile 137. They built homes between the Goose Lakes and the tracks and put down roots. These few scattered homes grew into a village that would be given a new Cree name, “Pikwapisko Meskanahkanihk – “the place of the metal road”. It would come to be known by various English names – Mile 137, Goose Lake, Setting Lake, Bowden, and finally, Wabowden.
Mile 137’s location on a portage route between Nelson House and Cross Lake gave it a natural advantage when it came to commerce. The new rail line transformed the growing community into the hub of a vast regional transportation network and a first-class year-round supply distribution centre. Eventually Mile 137 would handle all mall, freight, and fur shipments to and from Cross Lake, Norway House, Oxford House, God’s Lake, Nelson House, and Island Lake.
Trappers and traders immediately recognized the benefits of the Bay Line. Cross Lake trader, Arthur Mercer was among the first. In February 1915, he travelled to Mile 137 and took the construction train known as the “Muskeg” to The Pas where he sold over four hundred mink and two hundred fox pelts.
News of the shorter, faster Bay Line route spread like wildfire. It caught the attention of trappers and “free traders” who lived at Setting Lake. The following winter, Pat Lamont, W.F. Rose, and other Setting Lake men hopped the Muskeg and travelled to The Pas to sell their furs. It was the beginning of a brisk trade in a brand-new market.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, the dominant player in the fur trade for 250 years, took a lesson from these independent traders. Since the 1870s it had shipped furs from its Cross Lake post to Winnipeg in two stages. The first leg was by dog team to the company’s post at Norway House, a gruelling ten-day trip. From Norway House the furs were shipped to Winnipeg by steamboat.
Hauling Furs to Market Credit: Hudson Bay Heritage
Now the Company could take its furs from Cross Lake House to Mile 137 and ship them by rail to The Pas. The dog team trip took just two days and shipping costs were reduced by more than half. By 1918 the Hudson’s Bay Company’s was doing all its freighting from Mile 137.
Pat Lamont, one of Setting Lake’s “free traders”, spotted an opportunity for an even more lucrative business venture. In 1917 he left Setting Lake, moved to Mile 137, and opened a general store that would serve not only townspeople, but also railway workers, trappers, freighters, prospectors, and speculators who were moving into the area.
Lamont wasn’t the only one to see a bright future in retail. Down the street, Dick Davidson was opening his own store, selling traps, flour, sugar, tea, and luxury items like sewing machines. By 1919, Lamont and Davidson were business partners and Tom Riddoch had opened the Great West Store.
Lamont and Davidson 1924 Credit: Library & Archives Canada
By 1920 Davidson, Lamont, and Riddoch were key players in Mile 137’s economy. The Pas Herald and Mining News reported,
“Lamont & Davidson seek out the fur trappers in out-of-the-way places and exchange merchandise for their furs. The Great West Stores have their headquarters here. It is the largest free-trading concern in the north, the creation of Tom Rlddoch, and a successful enterprise.”
However, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the world’s oldest and most powerful fur trading enterprise, was not happy with the situation. With an empire spanning the entire continent, the Company did not yet have a post at Mile 137. It wanted a piece of the action AND it wanted to drive its competitors out of business.
The HBC resorted to tactics it had used a hundred and fifty years earlier when it engaged rival fur trade giant, the North West Company, in hand-to-hand combat for pelts and profits. Ruthless competitors, the two companies had moved into each other’s territories; burned each other’s boats and forts; bribed each other’s traders; and raised the prices they paid for furs, forcing their competitor to match their price or lose business.
Exhausted by the trade war, the violence, and legal wrangling, the two giants called a truce. The companies merged in 1821. Each tried to buy the other out and take control but, with deeper pockets and British political connections, the Hudson’s Bay Company name was retained and the North West Company ceased to exist.
And now, a century later, from its posts at Cross Lake, Nelson House and Split Lake, the HBC faced off against new rivals – Tom Riddoch’s Great West Store, Lamont & Davidson, and the areas free traders. In November 1919, The Pas Herald and Mining News reported,
“The Hudson Bay company is on the trail of free traders and fur buyers throughout Northern Manitoba and it is after them in a competitive way, by boosting the price of furs [it pays]10 times the skies.
Free traders are coming into The Pas angered and empty handed. The old company has been letting things go along loosely during the war, and recently it awakened with a roar and sent out its fastest dog runners to all posts, with the word to get the furs any way.”
One of the Company’s first acts was to purchase the Great West Store from Tom Riddoch. The acquisition, in the fall of 1922, gave the firm a strategic base at Mile 137 right next to the railway. The HBC called its new depot Setting Lake Post. It’s unclear why the name was chosen. It likely followed the lead of the post office, which had opened under that name a year earlier.
James Murray Cran was the first post manager and evidently a very capable one. By the time he left in 1927 to work as a cash fur buyer on the HBR, the post was doing a brisk business with “prospectors and white trappers, and there [were] also a number of Cree Indians, originally belonging to Nelson House and Cross Lake, trading and trapping from the Setting Lake Post.”
The Setting Lake Post Office had opened on April 1,1921. Again, it is not clear why the Government of Canada gave it that designation; reliable mail delivery depends on a place having a single, unambiguous name. Railway points, like Post Offices, are also named in a systematic way to avoid confusion.
Now the village had two official names. To add to the confusion, there were now two geographic locations – less than five miles apart – that the Government of Canada had officially designated as “Setting Lake”.
For the next few years, the village went by both names, but it appears that the town council adopted the new one fairly quickly. In November 1922, The Pas Herald and Mining News reported, “At the last meeting of the Town Council of Setting Lake it was decided to make a public tennis court, and this is now on its way to completion.”
By 1927, the village was also known as “Bowden”. That year, CNR and the federal government put an end to the confusion. The railway point was renamed “Wabowden” after the Department of Railways and Canals’ Chief Engineer, W. A. Bowden and the post office was renamed to match the name of the station.
Locals still used the popular old name – Mile 137. But the name “Setting Lake” was soon forgotten by everyone – everyone it seems, except the union that represented the workers that maintained the railbed and tracks – the Brotherhood of the Maintenance of Way Employees Setting Lake Lodge No. 1801.
By 1927, a little more than ten years after the first train had pulled into the station, Wabowden had become a thriving community with two established trading posts and a new retail outlet, F. W. Quinsey’s store. The railway employed as many as sixty men in its divisional yards and more on construction gangs. And there were independent businessmen – trappers, freighters and men who fished to feed the dogs that hauled freight.
The village boasted a small logging operation, a school, restaurant, barber shop, boarding house, and recreation facilities – a pool room, tennis courts and a tennis club. The local canoe club had opened on the 1923 May long weekend. Its summer activities included a tour to Nelson House and a regatta during treaty days. With the Bay Line almost complete, Wabowden settled into its role as a railroad town and resupply centre.
Nineteen twenty-eight generated a burst of excitement with reports of high-quality mineral deposits, including silver, at Setting Lake but the enthusiasm was short-lived.
Setting Lake Prospectors 1928
Credit: William Hales Woods Collection Flin Flon Archives
For the next half century – through the Great Depression, the War Years, and mining developments in Flin Flon, Thompson, and other parts of the north – Setting Lake was a very quiet place.
The last families who lived near the mouth of the Grass River moved away; most settled in Wabowden. And while people still fished the lake, and trapped, and hunted seasonally, it wasn’t until the 1970s when the Province of Manitoba opened a cottage subdivision above Sasagui Rapids that a permanent settlement was re-established at Setting Lake.
Setting Lake’s community celebrates its diversity. The lake draws people from near and far. Some families have very deep roots. Their ancestors are the people who lived at Chanscatch Sagahigan and Monkey Town at the south end of the lake a hundred years ago. Their people fished, hunted and trapped at Setting Lake for thousands of years before that.
Some folks are twentieth century pioneers who came north in search of a better life – and found it, or at least part of it, at Setting Lake. They are the men and women who cleared the land and built cabins a half a century ago. Others are the children and grandchildren of those pioneers. Some are newcomers.
As it was a hundred years ago, Setting Lake is a mix of permanent and seasonal residents. Permanent residents believe there’s no better place to call home than Setting Lake. Seasonal residents believe there’s no better place to be than Setting Lake – whenever you can!
Some permanent residents make the daily commute to jobs in nearby communities; some are lucky enough to work from home; some are retirees who live at the lake year-round while others are “snowbirds”.
How ever you look at it, one thing’s clear. Old timers and newcomers, seasonal and permanent residents, the young and not-so-young, we all agree – life is better at Setting Lake!!
The author, Donna Henry, is a former Parks Canada Superintendent for York Factory and Fort Prince of Wales National Historic Parks, a founding Director of the Grass River Corridor Tourism Association and a research associate with Sinora International.