The Radium Franklin to get a new lease on life

An historic tugboat is being restored to its former glory in Hay River, N.W.T.

The vessel that towed barges on Great Bear River is being donated to the Hay River Museum Society

The Radium Franklin, which was built in 1951, towed barges on the Great Bear River, carrying supplies to and ore from mine sites. (Submitted by the Northwest Territories Department of Infrastructure )

A piece of the Northwest Territories' history is being restored to its former glory.

After sitting in a dry dock in Hay River for four decades, the Radium Franklin tugboat has been pulled free and will be getting a little TLC before it's put on display by the Hay River Museum Society. 

"She has some bruises and scratches, absolutely," said Brian Nagel, a director with the territorial Department of Infrastructure, which is funding the project along with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

"They're resilient boats, you know it still has some life left in it."

Built in 1951, the Radium Franklin towed barges on the Great Bear River and was one of four tugboats on a supply chain carrying goods to, and ore from, Port Radium. The site on the shore of Great Bear Lake near Deline, was mined for radium, uranium and silver at different times between 1932 and 1982.

"It's a rich history that we have for the barge and tug business," explained Nagel.

"I don't think most people realize how critical that was to the North and to the growth of the North that was a lifeline for a lot of these communities up the river and then our communities in the salt water as well."

When the mine at Port Radium shut down, there was an attempt to use the Radium Franklin as a yarding vessel in Norman Wells, Nagel said. But it was too light and was replaced by the Radium Miner when it was retired around 1979. 

It's expected that the Radium Franklin will be put on display, along with covered barge 412 and archival photos and documents, in Hay River by this fall.

The Radium Franklin while it was still in use, on the Great Bear River. (NWT Archives/W. Bruce Hunter fonds/N-1981-002: 0033)

"It'll be kind of nice when they have it all set up that you'll be able to see these vessels as they were in their glory days,"  Nagel said. 

'What about the people?'

Danny Gaudet, who negotiated Deline's self-government agreement, says "it's time that people started recognizing" there was an operating uranium mine in the Northwest Territories. But he said he would also like to see recognition for the people that worked there.

"It's nice to bring these boats back and recognize what the boats [have] done but what about the people?"

Many Dene from Deline were hired to carry and transport uranium from the Port Radium mine without any protective gear. The community became known as the "Village of Widows" after 14 Dene men associated with Port Radium died of cancer in the late 1980s. 

An aerial photograph of the Port Radium mine site on Great Bear Lake. (NWT Archives/Edmonton Air Museum Committee Collection/N-1979-003: 0600)

Relatives of the former workers have long believed their deaths were the result of uranium exposure. A government report did not confirm the connection, but Gaudet says the community is still recovering from the impacts of the mine and he would like to see an acknowledgment from the Canadian government for putting people at risk.

"Generations later, we're trying to do everything we can to try to retain the culture, language, our heritage," he said. 

"Every day we see Canada apologizing to other groups for things that it's done … but Canada still doesn't seem to recognize the fact that we participated in mining and transporting the ore that they used and sold to the Americans."

Some uranium from the Port Radium mine was sent to New Mexico for use in the Manhattan Project, a top-secret research project between 1939 and 1946 that produced the first nuclear weapons during the second world war.

In 2007, the federal government announced it would be paying almost $7 million for a second cleanup of the mine. While it was closed to the standards of the time in 1982, uranium and silver tailings were left behind along with broken-down fences and open mine shafts.

In 2016, an environmental study determined the new remediation methods were working as planned.

An unidentified man stands by stacks of pitchblende concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium in 1939. (NWT Archives/Richard Finnie fonds/N-1979-063: 0081)


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Brian Nagel as Brian Pratt.
    Mar 31, 2019 8:05 AM CT

With files from Alyssa Mosher