Freeport — the camp site that was the region’s largest community

A story of the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway

© 2018 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert was one of the most ambitious undertakings of its time. To facilitate completion of the mega-project, the company’s prime contractor, Foley, Welch & Stewart, created a number of construction camps along the route.

The main construction camp for this area was located at the east end of Burns Lake on what is now the site of Babine Forest Products Ltd. Established in 1912 and known as Freeport, the town allegedly got its name from an adjacent property owner who hailed from Freeport, Illinois, but it also served as the head of navigation on Burns Lake. (Scows that ferried men and materials to work sites up and down the valley docked there.) Whatever the source of its moniker, Freeport – which at its peak was home to as many as 1,500 inhabitants – had a reputation as a freewheeling, uninhibited town.

Freeport had a single main thoroughfare, South Clarke Street, that boasted at least one hotel, a barbershop, a general store, several restaurants, and the usual complement of honkytonks. Behind these buildings was a tent town that housed railway workers, drovers, scow loaders, muleskinners, gamblers, and other camp followers.

Accounts of the day suggest that most anything could be bought in Freeport. Bootleggers peddled home brew around town and ‘ladies of the night’ smiled beguilingly at passersby from the doorways of hastily constructed shanties. Prices were steep, though; a loaf of bread that sold for $.10 in Winnipeg cost ten times as much in Freeport.

Freeport’s reign as the region’s largest community was short-lived. Within a few years, railroad construction moved on, and so did most of the town’s inhabitants. Yet it did survive long enough to host a murder – but that’s a story for another time.

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