One of the earliest people to inhabit the Churchill region were the Thule people who first settled the area around 1000 A.D. These nomads were probably the ancestors of the modern Inuit people. Around 500 A.D. another culture, the Dene, came from the north. By the time of European contact, Cree and Chipewa tribes lived and hunted in the area.
In 1619, a Danish party led by Jens Monk wintered at the mouth of the Churchill River. Beset by scurvy, only 3 ofthe more than 60 original members of the expedition survived to sail back to Europe. By 1717, the Hudson Bay Company (one of the world’s oldest existing companies) established a log trading post at the river mouth to capitalize on the exploding fur trade. The little developing town took the name of Churchill from John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough (the local high school is called the Duke of Marlborough High School today), who was an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill.
The Hudson Bay company built the impressive, massive stone fort on the north bank of the river’s mouth, finishing it in 1741. French captain La Perouse took the fort without a shot, but it was relatively quickly re-occupied by the British. The reconstructed fort still stands today and is a popular summer tourist attraction.
Churchill continued as a stable and relatively thriving outpost over the next several centuries. The Hudson Bay Company still operated the main town store until the late 1980s, when it was sold to the Northern Company. The Northern Store, as it’s called, is still the main grocery and department store for residents.
In the 1920s, grain farmers in the Canadian prairie provinces saw the need for a port that was more conveniently located for shipping grain and other goods to European markets than the Gulf of St. Lawrence Seaway. Because of its location on the west shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill was actually closer to Europe by sea than through the more southern seaway.
The Port of Churchill was born and in 1929 the railroad tracks from Winnipeg to Churchill were completed. Two years later the first ships sailed to northern European markets. No longer exclusively dependent on the fur trade, Churchill grew over the next decades.
World War II brought the need for defense support, and in 1942 the United States Air Force established Fort Churchill. After the war, it became a part of the Distant Early Warning system, or DEW Line, as a first line of defense against attack on both Canada and the US by the Soviet Bloc. At its peak, Churchill boasted a population of up to 15,000 people.
After the Cold War began to subside in the 1970s, Fort Churchill was de-commissioned and largely dismantled. The airport, with one of the longest heated runways in the world (to accommodate huge, fully-loaded B-52 bombers), was kept intact and serves as the town of Churchill’s airport today.
With the loss of the military, Churchill’s population dwindled to only a little over 1,000 people. Jobs were scarce, mainly provided by the Port of Churchill and support services to the northern communities in the Northwest Territories.
However, in the early 1980s, a resident, Len Smith, struck a friendship with a US photographer named Dan Guravich who was working on a story for Smithsonian Magazine about the polar bears that visited the town dump to scavenge food. Len offered to guide Dan to help him get photos for the story, and soon both realized that there was a potential market for bringing tourists up to see the bears in the fall, before the bay ice formed.
Eventually, by cannibalizing an old dump truck, snow plow and other vehicles, Len developed the first Tundra Buggy®, as he called it. It had enormous, low-pressure rubber tires for travelling the rough, snowy terrain, all-wheel drive and could hold up to 26 passengers. Dan Guravich and a friend and business associate, Randy Green, of International Wildlife Adventures (www.wildlifeadventures.com ), led many of the early trips to see the polar bears.
Churchill’s name was now on the top of the list of must-see destinations in the rapidly developing nature tour market.