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Freight Swings

Freight swing.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A5405-2

Freight swings in Saskatchewan can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century. The establishment of the rail lines in the 1880s and the network of branch lines established throughout the 1920s allowed for freight delivery to many communities in the south. For northern Saskatchewan the absence of a rail network made freight hauling much more difficult. The northern terminus of Saskatchewan’s rail network in the early 20th century was Big River, and many freight swings originated from this location; others originated further north out of La Ronge, Flin Flon, and Ile-à-la-Crosse. Because freight hauls were extremely large and heavy, horse-drawn sleighs were the most reliable form of Transportation: for the next decade horse-drawn caravans, from six to ten sleighs in length, traversed across the frozen lakes and rivers of Saskatchewan’s north during the winter. The northern freighting industry boomed in northern Saskatchewan during the 1920s, owing in large part to the growth of the commercial fishing industry. Freighters would gather their horse teams in communities such as Big River and La Ronge and pull numerous wooden sleighs north with supplies; they would return two or three weeks later with loads of fish from commercial fisheries scattered throughout the north. The freight swings went as far north as La Loche, Cree Lake, and Brochet Lake.

By the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, mechanized equipment was replacing the horses, and tracked vehicles began to pull the freight swings. These “cat swings,” as they were often called, were more efficient and comfortable than the horse-drawn sleighs: they could travel day and night; needed only a three- or four-man crew; contained a heated caboose for the driver and crew; and could pull much more freight than a team of horses. By the 1950s, overland roads began to reach some communities served by the freight swings; trucks were much faster, more efficient, and could travel to northern communities year-round. Those communities without road connections at the time were serviced by aircraft. By 1960, the freight swings that had served Saskatchewan’s north for forty years had thus become obsolete.

James Winkel

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