Arctic Barges L.A. Learmonth, Scotty Gall and Johnny Norberg - An Unusual Tribute to the Fur Trade

by George Duddy 2016

The <em>L. A. Learmonth</em> testing the Alexbow ice breaking bow pushed by the tug <em>Irving Birch</em>

The L. A. Learmonth testing the Alexbow ice breaking bow pushed by the tug Irving Birch

Recently I watched an episode of the Polar Sea television series showing a collection of yachts at the western end of Bellot Strait barred in their western pursuit of the Northwest Passage. The 25 km long passage was completely blocked at its western end by impenetrable ice. From its eastern end, the Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker CCGS Henry Larsen, leading a Russian arctic cruise ship and another vessel, appeared and smashed through the flows at 10 knots. Once her work with these vessels was complete, Larsen turned to reopen the closing ice and stood by until the yachts safely passed into open water. Without the assistance of the ice breaker, these smaller ships would not have been able to pass. It was reminiscent of the much earlier recollections I had read of Captain Leopold McClintock’s repeated unsuccessful attempts in his weakly powered ship Fox to break through blocking flows at this same location in 1858.

It is fitting that Henry Larsen was the tasked vessel, named for the Master of the RCMP schooner St Roch, the third vessel to navigate this strait (west to east 1940-1942). Perhaps a more appropriate name would have been Scotty Gall after the first navigator to have successfully transited this waterway. He did it in 1937 in a small motor schooner Aklavik similar in size to the yachts freed to pursue their passage by the Henry Larsen. The second vessel to navigate the passage was the Hudson’s Bay Company motor boat Seal under Ernie Lyall in 1938.

Screen shot from TV Series the
Polar Sea shown on the Knowledge Network - CCGS <em>Henry Larsen</em> breaking

Screen shot from TV Series the Polar Sea shown on the Knowledge Network - CCGS Henry Larsen breaking ice to enable trapped yachts to proceed through Bellot Strait  (photo courtesy series producer Michael McMahon)

It is surprising, given the fact that the fur trade was instrumental in establishing the string of settlements across the Northwest Passage strengthening Canada’s sovereignty in the arctic, that its navigators have not been better recognized with the naming of government vessels that now ply the area. Panarctic Oils in 1968 and 1969 named steel barges constructed in support of their operations in the high arctic in honour of three fur trade pioneers, all of whom were retired Hudson’s Bay Company employees. Unfortunately the life of these vessels was so short or their tasking so obscure that they are barely remembered in our maritime history.

Panarctic Oils was created by the Canadian Government in partnership with a large number of private oil companies set up to exploit the petroleum potential on Canada’s arctic islands - principally on Melville and Devon Islands - while at the same time establishing and maintaining sovereignty in the area. Their efforts were highly successful in identifying huge gas reserves and they were also successful in producing and transporting 2.8 million barrels of oil from the small Horn Brent oil field on Cameron Island to Montreal between 1985 and 1996. While the operations were probably uneconomical, the company was successful in demonstrating the technical feasibility of arctic petroleum production. The extraction was not without risk and danger. Two of their initial gas wells produced spectacular blowouts and fires that required experts to extinguish.  Water pouring into a relief well and spewing out the open main bore at their 1969 Drake Point discovery site resulted in an ice cone two hundred feet high.

The location of Panarctic Oils’ 150 wells and other information about their operations are shown on presentation slides from a luncheon meeting of The Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers Arctic Section held in Calgary on April 21 2010.

Map showing location of barges sunk - Atlas of Canada - Toporama

Map showing location of barges sunk - Atlas of Canada - Toporama - with mark-ups by Author

Two of the barges, the L.A. Learmonth and the Scotty Gall, were named for retired Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employees Lorenz Learmonth and Scotty Gall. They were constructed by Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. Limited at Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) in 1968 to the designs of German and Milne Naval Architects of Montreal. The third, the Johnny Norberg, (sister vessel to the Scotty Gall) named in honour of Captain John Norberg, was constructed by St. John Shipyard in New Brunswick in 1969.

When Panarctic Oils was formed they purchased the rights for a special ice breaking bow from its inventor Scott Alexander former crew man of the St Roch. The device known as an Alexbow, functioned much like a snow plough, cutting the ice from below the surface and pushing it to the sides when advanced through the ice. The L.A. Learmonth was equipped with such a prototype bow for testing in the arctic. Unlike the other two vessels, which were 175 foot long eight compartment tanker barges designed primarily for transportation and storage of artic diesel fuel, the 190-foot L.A. Learmonth was a dry goods vessel with ten separate holds and covered hatches. A formal launching ceremony was held for the L.A. Learmonth at the shipyard on July 5, 1968. The vessel was sponsored and launched by Mrs. Scott E. Alexander the wife of the Alexbow inventor. Lorenz Learmonth, also attended.

L.A. Learmonth</em>, tanker barge <em>Scotty Gall</em> and tug <em>Irving Birch</em> in Arctic  Convoy

L.A. Learmonth, tanker barge Scotty Gall and tug Irving Birch in Arctic  Convoy - (photo courtesy Dave Benedet - more photos are included on the Auke Visser website)

Details of the successful 1968 voyage north to the Panarctic Oils base at Rea Point on Melville Island are sketchy. The L.A. Learmonth (ON 328551) and the Scotty Gall (ON 328552) were towed north by the ice strengthened tug Irving Birch. Well known arctic navigator and former captain of the RCN wind-class ice breaker HMCS Labrador, Commander Robbie Robertson shipped on the tug as navigation advisor. Robertson was at the time a business partner of Scott Alexander, Naval Architect William German and retired naval Captain Tom Pullen with Northern Associates.

The tow left Dartmouth, Nova Scotia after loading fuel oil into the Scotty Gall and arrived at Rea Point in early fall 1968. They followed the northern “McClure” limb of the Northwest Passage through the arctic islands. The L.A. Learmonth carried an 1,800 ton cargo of cement, drilling mud and drilling casings, while the Scotty Gall was loaded with 480,000 gallons of diesel. At Rea Point the Learmonth’s cargo was discharged and the Scotty Gall was grounded on the beach to serve as a fuel supply and reservoir for the drilling operations. It is not known how she was employed after that but the vessel remained on Transport Canada’s records until 1997. After taking on water ballast the L.A. Learmonth and the tug returned to Resolute near Cornwall Island where tests were made of the Alexbow which worked quite well in continuous ice unbroken by ridges to a thickness of four feet.

An attempted repeat voyage in 1969 with the Irving Birch towing the L.A. Learmonth loaded with drilling supplies and a new tanker barge the Johnny Norberg loaded with diesel proved to be a complete disaster. Both barges were lost and there was a resulting spill. The loss occurred in an ice flow only a few thousand yards from open water and just fifty nautical miles short of their destination at Rea Point. Irving Birch, pushing the Learmonth and towing the Norberg, was following the CCGS Labrador when the ice breaker suffered engine failure in a pressure ridge. In the crush of the flows the tug had to detach herself from the barges. The Learmonth tilted, the cargo shifted and she sank immediately while the Norberg trailed behind, with a punctured hull leaking her diesel cargo. Despite losing a large amount of her fuel cargo she remained afloat. The incident attracted considerable publicity as it was the year the mammoth Humble Oil tanker SS Manhattan was undertaking her pioneering voyage through the Northwest Passage to test and demonstrate the feasibility of shipping Prudue Bay oil to the U.S. east coast.

The perceived hazard to navigation posed by the drifting hulk of the Norberg provided a convenient reason for the Canadian Government to dispatch Navy divers to “secure her to the bottom” (read scuttle) thus removing the problem of the oil spill. Lost on her maiden voyage in the year of construction, it is difficult to determine if the Johnny Norberg was ever registered in Canada.

While interest in the barges was brief, due to their short service, their naming was a commendable action by Panarctic Oils . The three former Hudson’s Bay colleagues L.A. Learmonth, Scotty Gall and Johnny Norberg were intimately involved with the opening of the arctic.

Photo “Outfit 275” Vol 24 March 1945 issue of “Beaver”

“Outfit 275” Vol 24 March 1945 issue of “Beaver” (image courtesy of Canada’s History

Like many HBC apprentices Lorenz Learmonth and his brother David were recruited in Scotland. Lorenz made his way to his first posting on the Labrador coast on the HBC supply ship Pelican in 1911. Apart from service in the First World War (1914 – 1919) his entire working career was spent in the arctic fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company. When he began service the HBC did not have a post north of the Arctic Circle. He retired in 1957 when the construction of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line was in full progress and the fur trade was ending. In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on the CBC’s "The National" in 2006, his nephew Dermot Campbell described his uncle as: "He was a quiet, self–reliant, dedicated individual. He loved the Arctic, and he was a man of his word. He told the company he would do something or if he told a friend or a relative he would do something, it was done."

Lorenz Learmonth was tremendously talented and could handle sled dogs, survive long journeys through the wilderness, was fluent in Inuit dialects, and proficient in handling the business of the fur trade. He left a legacy of photographs and articles to various Canadian archives. Images and articles also appeared in the “Beaver” magazine. Learmonth was held in high regard by the crew of the St. Roch and referred to as "our friend" by her Captain Henry Larsen. This would seem a compliment bestowed on Learmonth of the highest order. He was intensely interested in arctic history, the Inuit culture, anthropology and archaeology. As a result of his residency on King William Island and through his research, he became a local expert on the lost Franklin expedition. He was elected as a Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America when the honour was established in 1948.

One of Learmonth’s passions after transferring from the eastern to the central arctic was the establishment of the final fur trading post at Fort Ross at the eastern end of Bellot Strait, linking fur trading posts and communities across the entire arctic. The story of how he and his apprentice D.G. Sturrock made a remarkable whaleboat and canoe journey from King William Island up the western coast of the Boothia Peninsula - first by boat and then across its tip by land portaging their canoe and out board motor for the final crossing of Bellot Strait - is told in “Trading into the North West Passage” by Richard Finnie in the September 1937 edition of the “Beaver” magazine. (The article also relates the first successful navigation of Bellot Strait in the small motor schooner Aklavik by Scotty Gall and his crew, a remarkable achievement given the remoteness). Despite the many hardships and dangers he encountered- including suffering broken ribs from a fall of Aklavik’s rigging as he attempted to board the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Nascopie -  Learmonth stayed on for two years to manage the new post.

Arctic fox pelts in warehouse at
Fort Ross

Arctic fox pelts in warehouse at Fort Ross. A fashion craze for this fur precipitated development of settlements along the Northwest Passage. (image courtesy of Nunavut Archives)

During a long retirement spent living in Georgetown, Ontario he continued to pursue his love and interest of the arctic. These are words he penned for his friend Richard Bonnycastle former popular Hudson’s Bay Company Arctic Manager and subsequent founder of Harlequin Books: "He was a clever man, a wise man, a reasonable man.  He was a lovely man."

Somehow I think these words should apply to Learmonth as well. He died suddenly at Georgetown on December 10, 1985.

Scotty Gall on the <em>Aklavik</em>

Scotty Gall on the Aklavik - in various Company vessels from 1923 – 1937 he was the first citizen to traverse the full length of the Canadian portion of the Northwest Passage from the Alaskan Border to Halifax. (image courtesy of Nunavut Archives)

In addition to outstanding service to the HBC, Scotty Gall also served the north firstly as an appointed official then later as an elected government representative of the Northwest Territories. He was particularly passionate in trying to provide job opportunities for northerners and to reduce living costs. His crowning achievement in 1937 was the first ever navigation of Bellot Strait in the NW passage as captain of the motor schooner Aklavik. This was accomplished with well known trader and trapper Patsy Klengenberg and his family, fellow employee John Ford and native pilot Tommy Norkow. This was only one incident in a long and full northern life.

When Scotty Gall arrived to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Canada’s mostly westerly outpost at Herschel Island in 1923, the HBC was struggling to dominate a new fur trade on the arctic coast. The relatively new post established in 1915 was the beach head for trade and during Gall’s working life he was to see the establishment of a string of fur trading posts and permanent settlements along the southern limb of the Northwest Passage. Canada relies on these settlements as proof of its sovereignty in the arctic. Tuktoyatuk (replacing Herschel Island in 1934), Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak (Spence Bay replacing Fort Ross), Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet were all established by or had strong connections to the fur trade.

second letter of commendation received from Fur Trade Commissioner Ralph Parsons

The second letter of commendation received from Fur Trade Commissioner Ralph Parsons – the voyage had been a triumph of arctic navigation but for Scotty a personal tragedy

Scotty Gall lead an adventurous life in the north and was a true pioneer for helping to establish the fur trade and improve conditions for those living in the north. His story is told in the article “Remembering Ernest James (Scotty) Gall” based on collaborative research between his great nephew Iain Cameron in Scotland and this author. There are two additional articles relating to Scotty: the first an interview by John MacFarlane and Sven Johansson and the second concerning a Beament painting (rescued by MacFarlane) depicting the historic meeting of the Aklavik and the Nascopie at Fort Ross.

Captain John Norberg on the Hudson’s Bay Company supply vessel <em>Nigalik</em>

Captain John Norberg on the Hudson’s Bay Company supply vessel Nigalik. (image courtesy of NWT Archives)

John Norberg was a member of a remarkable and well known northern family. His Swedish born father Pete is described as a true adventurer while his Gwich’n mother Doris Kwatlatyi was an arctic heroine. John’s sister Agnes, who married American trader Slim Semmler, is extremely well recognized in the north. In 1967 she received the National Council of Jewish Women award as the ‘Woman of the Century in the North’. She became the first woman Justice of the Peace and the first woman member of the government of the Northwest Territories.

Pete and Doris were married in triple marriage ceremony at Old Crow Yukon in 1909. She met an untimely death in 1916; caught in a blizzard, she froze to death selflessly saving the nieces in her care by wrapping them in her clothing and protecting them with her body. Motherless at an early age, John and Agnes spent much of their childhood in a residential school at Hay River. As teenagers, John and Agnes joined their father Pete on the arctic coast in 1925 where he was engaged as a trapper and fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Pete was one of the few Europeans who understood and communicated with the Inuit people of the central arctic who up to the early part of the twentieth century had only limited contact with the outside world.

 Pete and his helper Henry Bjorn established the first trading post on King William Island in 1923.

John continued to work with his father until Pete disappeared on a winter journey from a camp near the headwaters of the Coppermine River to Fort Hearne in 1933. Although John and RCMP Corporal Wall searched extensively, Pete was never found.  In 1936 John purchased the small trading schooner Eagle from William Storr when Storr became a partner with Arthur Watson and Slim Purchell in a venture to bring the rum runner Audrey B to the arctic to start a floating trading business.

Captain John Norberg with motor schooner <em>Eagle</em> at Coppermine, Oct 15 1945

Captain John Norberg (left) with his motor schooner Eagle at Coppermine, Oct 15 1945. Photographer L.A. Learmonth (Image courtesy Hudson’s Bay Archives Photo HBCA/1987/E363/4)

John married a local Inuit girl Lena Kopiona in 1946 and they raised their family of 5 boys and 4 girls on Read Island in the Coronation Gulf. In the navigation season John operated a freighting business with the Eagle. In 1956 he sold the vessel and moved the family to Tuktoyaktuk to take up employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The hulk of the Eagle remains today on a beach at Cambridge Bay.

It did not take the Hudson’s Bay Company long to recognize John’s navigational abilities. These skills, like those of his father and Scotty Gall, had been learned largely from the school of hard knocks. He was quickly promoted and put in charge of the company’s trading vessel Nigalik. Later he went to Vancouver to write exams for both mate and master to serve on the larger company vessels such as the Banksland, Nechilik and Fort Hearn. For many years he served on these vessels across the central arctic delivering the vital goods and supplies needed to sustain communities initially reliant on the fur trade established throughout the Northwest Passage.  He continued with the Hudson’s Bay Company until 1956 when the company sold its vessels and withdrew from the arctic navigation freight business. He then worked for Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL) in various capacitates based at Tuktoyaktuk.  After retirement from this company in 1978, John, like his sister, served the community as a Justice of the Peace. In 1968 he presented evidence to the Berger Commission on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. A large part of his testimony brought attention to the hazards and risks posed by an oil spill in arctic waters - ironically a year later the barge bearing his name caused the first arctic oil spill.

John Norberg passed away at Tuktoyaktuk in 1978. Many of his children and grandchildren live in the north and continue to contribute to its advancement. His son Gordon, who provided information for this article, ended a long and varied career as manager of marketing and traffic coordination for NTCL. His first granddaughter Edna Elias recently completed her term as fourth Commissioner of Nunavut.

One of the last items in the Learmonth fonds of the NWT Archives are two photographs of Parry’s Rock. This isolated boulder on Melville Island was engraved by the crew of the Royal Navy ships HMS Gripper and Helca in 1813 denoting the remarkable penetration of these sailing ships from the east into the Northwest Passage decades before the Franklin expedition. It is not known if Learmonth took these photos or they were given to him but as a keen student of arctic history he was certainly aware of their historical significance. The rock, the classic highway marker of the Northwest Passage, also became a claim marker of Canadian sovereignty in the arctic after it was branded by Captain Joseph-Elzear Bernier with a plaque in 1909. Bernier lead many expeditions into the north on the Canadian Government steamship Arctic between 1904 and 1911.

Parry’s Rock

Parry’s Rock, the great road marker of the Northwest Passage, at Winter Harbour Melville Island, here travelers stop to pay their respects, make their marks or even leave life-saving messages. (image courtesy of Nunavut Archives)

It may have been a strange but satisfying thought to Learmonth when he viewed the photographs to realize that the bones of the barges honouring his friends and he lay within a hundred miles of this landmark. True, they were in the Northwest Passage but it was in a branch hundreds of mile further north than the one he and his colleagues were familiar with and the vessels were being used in a far different pursuit than the fur trade. It is unfortunate that the service of the barges and their tasking is so obscure that they are not better known in the realm of arctic navigation. It is beyond the scope of this article to comment on whether Panarctic Oils realized their objectives with the barges; the drilling supplies and fuel delivered in 1968 must have made a significant contribution to the Drake Discovery well.

Panarctic Oils attempted to recognize Learmonth, Gall and Norberg reminding us that the fur industry contributed greatly to advance Canadian interests in our arctic regions. These men helped to establish the early trade that lead to the opening of the arctic to other commercial ventures. It remains to tell whether their pioneering efforts will continue to be built on to achieve significant economic benefits for the next generation. Perhaps it could be quantified in this way: the existence of over 150 bore holes into the rock of the arctic islands provides a much more secure anchor to our Canadian sovereignty than a few anchor bolts on Bernier’s plaque on Parry’s rock.

References and Acknowledgments

Most of the books, websites, archival sources and articles used for reference purposes are mentioned directly in the article or shown as notations on the exhibits and watermarks on the photographs.

The writer used articles with permission from the “Beaver” as well as archival information from the Jack Woods family fonds of the NWT Archives Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre including documents concerning the NW Passage trip, articles from the “Moccasin Telegraph” and photographs.

The following books were used as sources for the article: “The Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas” by Captain F.L. McClintock, “Arctic Trader” by Philip H. Godsell, “A Gentleman Adventurer The Arctic Diaries of Richard Bonnycastle” by Heather Robertson, “Arctic Man” by Ernie Lyall, “The Big Ship” by Henry Larson, “Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil - The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan” by Ross Coen and “The Robbie Touch - Exploits of an Uncommon Sailor” by Donal Baird. Wikipedia articles and the 1968 and 1969 Volumes XVIII and XIX of “The Article Circular” were particularly useful for relating the accounts of the barges and Panarctic Oils while transcripts of the interviews of the Berger Commission provided the testimony from John Norberg.

Thanks to Gordon Norberg, John Norberg’s son and the Norberg family, for supplying and reviewing information about the Norberg family, to Dave Benedet former drawing office employee, marine engineer, historian and author,now retired, who supplied information about the Port Arthur built barges and to Auke Visser for allowing links to his websites. Grateful acknowledgement (with apologies to any inadvertent omissions) also to the following individuals who supplied information or helped with the review and publication of the article: Robin Weber (NWT Archives), James Gorton and Bronwen Quarry (HBC Archives), Tanja Hutter (Canada’s History), Helen O’Neill, Naval writer David Bruhn, Nauticapedia colleagues John MacFarlane and Lynn and Dan Salmon and my partners in the “Scotty Project” Iain and Janis Cameron.

To quote from this article please cite:

Duddy, George (2016) Arctic Barges 2016.


Site News: March2nd, 2019

Databases have been updated and are now holding 56,584 vessel histories (with 5,550 images) and 58,184 mariner biographies (with 3,673 images).

© 2002-2019