1939 Cat Trains Come North

Each year tens of thousands of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles travel the Mackenzie Highway from Alberta into the Northwest Territories yet few who travel this modern highway realize that it began back in the late 1930s as a ‘cat train’ trail.

For more than a hundred and fifty years freight transportation into and out of the north relied on boats travelling the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers. With the discovery, in the 1930s, first of radium and uranium on Great Bear Lake (map) then gold on Great Slave Lake there was a need for the transportation of heavy freight for this fledgling mining industry during the winter.

Tracked tractors or, as they’re more commonly known, Caterpillar Tractors, were developed in the early 1900s and by the 1930s had become strong enough and reliable enough that people started looking at ways of using them to haul freight during northern winters.

They came up with what became known as the ‘cat train’. A cat train is simply one or more caterpillar tractors pulling large, heavy sleighs or skids where tons of freight is carried. At the end of each cat train was a caboose where the men operating the cat train ate and slept, even while the cat train was underway. Cat trains operated only during the winter when the ground was frozen solid.

During the winter of 1938-39 a cat-train trail was surveyed and cleared from Grimshaw, Alberta, near the town of Peace River, almost a thousand kilometres north to Yellowknife. This trail followed much of the same route used today by the Mackenzie Highway.

On April 12, 1939 the first cat-train arrived in Yellowknife. Sixteen sleighs pulled by four caterpillar tractors and carrying 80 tons of freight had taken thirty-nine days to travel the 928 kilometres from Grimshaw to Yellowknife!

Cat trains were used extensively in the north until the late 1950s and early 1960s when techniques were developed allowing for the construction of ice roads capable of carrying heavy trucks.