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Race across Labrador

By: | June 10, 2011

On June 27, 1905, two teams of explorers set off on a race across Labrador’s interior.

Jenny Higgins
Past Tense is about Newfoundland and Labrador's history. It appears every second Friday and is based on Jenny's writing for the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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On June 27, 1905, two teams of explorers set off on a race across Labrador’s interior. The starting point was North West River, in central Labrador, and the final destination was about 1,000 kilometres north at Ungava Bay. It was rugged and rough terrain – one of North America’s last uncharted frontiers.

Leading one expedition was Dillon Wallace, a New York attorney who had already tried to cross Labrador’s interior two years earlier. That trip ended in failure, and in the death of Wallace’s friend and partner, Leonidas Hubbard. Heading up the second team was Mina Hubbard – Leonidas’s widow. She wanted to finish the work that had killed her husband and believed Wallace was trying to appropriate the praise and recognition that rightfully belonged to Leonidas.

Leonidas’s Expedition

Leonidas Hubbard. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, MUN.

On July 15, 1903, 31-year-old American journalist Leonidas Hubbard left North West River with Wallace and George Elson, an experienced trapper and paddler from northern Ontario. Unfortunately, a series of mistakes and bad luck hampered their progress from the outset.

Hubbard based his plans on maps of Labrador which, although the most accurate at the time, mistakenly showed a single river where there should have been five. As a result, expedition members paddled up the wrong river on the second day of their journey, sending them badly off course.

A string of other problems compounded the error. Bad weather slowed their progress, an unusual scarcity of game made hunting difficult, and neither Hubbard nor Wallace packed enough clothes to withstand the elements.

Cold, hungry and disoriented, the party decided to turn back on September 15. Hubbard’s condition, however, quickly deteriorated and by mid-October he could go no further. Wallace and Elson prepared a camp for him and proceeded east. The two men planned to retrieve a store of flour they discarded on the journey out and then part ways – Elson would search for help, while Wallace would return to Hubbard with flour.

Elson arrived at a trapper’s house about a week later, but when rescuers reached Hubbard’s camp on October 30, he had already died. By then, Wallace was in a highly confused and weakened condition – since leaving North West River three months earlier, he had lost 75 pounds and gangrene had appeared in his foot.

Once Wallace and Elson recovered, they both accompanied Hubbard’s body back to New York for burial in May. In 1905, Wallace published a best-selling book about the expedition, The Lure of the Labrador Wild. He also announced his intention to return north and complete the work that killed his young friend.

Mina Hubbard

Dillon Wallace (right) and George Elson, 1903. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, MUN.

Mina Hubbard didn’t know about her husband’s death until Jan. 22, 1904, when she received a 10-word telegram from Wallace: “Mr. Hubbard died October 18 in the interior of Labrador.” She sank into deep mourning and hoped Wallace’s book would pay tribute to Leonidas’s memory. However, when Hubbard read an early manuscript of Lure in November 1904, she felt it unfairly depicted her husband as a naïve and inept adventurer.

She secretly planned her own Labrador expedition and invited George Elson to join the team, as well as Gilbert Blake, a Labrador trapper who helped rescue Wallace in 1903. She also hired two of Elson’s friends from the Hudson Bay area, Job Chapies and Joseph Iserhoff.

The rival expeditions departed North West River on the same day. Both hoped to reach Ungava Bay by the end of August, but they chose different routes and methods – Hubbard stuck to the course her husband plotted in 1903 and took enough food and supplies to last the entire trip; Wallace followed an old Innu portage route and packed a lighter load, hoping to catch wild game along the way.

In the end, Hubbard and her team enjoyed the most success, reaching Ungava Bay on August 27. Hubbard later produced accurate maps of the Naskaupi and George River systems, which were accepted by both the American and British Geographical Societies. She also published an account of her journey, A Woman’s Way through Unknown Labrador.

Wallace’s party, meanwhile, became lost a few times and had to spend much time and energy hunting for food. He arrived at Ungava Bay on October 16, about seven weeks after Hubbard. Although Wallace supplied new information about land north of the Naskaupi River, geographical authorities generally accepted Hubbard’s work as the most substantial and useful.

Based on Jenny’s research for the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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