When Robert Starratt arrived at Hudson, Ontario with his wife, Iris, and their children in April 1926, the town was little more than a train station isolated in the forests of northern Ontario. Gold – tons of it –had been discovered the previous year locked in the 2.5 billion-year-old rock of the Canadian Shield. Thousands of young prospectors flooded to the Red Lake area seeking their fortune. Starratt realized that the greatest challenge in extracting this gold would be transporting the heavy mining equipment deep into the bush. At that time, this could only be accomplished by canoe portage in the summer and tractor train in the winter, and so Robert Starratt invested his meager savings in a motorized freight canoe, leaving only $40 in his pocket for operating expenses.
Starratt’s reputation for efficiency spread quickly, and in August, after just five months in the area, he was offered a job by the Hudson Bay Company, managing their transportation systems from Red Lake. In 1928, Starratt and two friends, George and Colin Campbell, won a lucrative freight contract with the Howey mine, the largest operation in the region at that time. Starratt and his partners bought up the equipment and facilities of his former employer, Hudson Bay Transport, and the Northern Transport Company was born.
Northern Transport Company introduced marine railways to the area in 1929, reducing the cost of summer freight service from $80 per ton to $13. In 1930, continuous track tractors reduced winter freight costs from $250 per ton to $60. In 1930, Starratt bought out his partners and was the sole owner of Northern Transport. In 1932, Starratt purchased his first airplane. Harold Farrington was hired as pilot for Gypsy Moth CF-AGX, which was used to patrol the tractor train and portage routes. It was not until 1934 that Starratt bought a plane powerful enough to begin transporting freight by air. That aircraft was Fokker Super Universal CF-AJB, which was also the last of Super Universal to fly in Canada.
By 1939, Starratt had renamed his company Starratt Airways and Transport and was operating 10 airplanes of various types alongside his mixed operation of tractors and marine rail. That year was Starratt Airways’ best, with 12,600 passengers and 3,250 tons of freight moved by air, and another 17,000 tons of freight delivered by land and water. This huge swell in traffic made Hudson, Ontario one of the busiest freighting airports in North America through the 1930s.
To his employees, Bob, as he was simply known, was not just an employer but also a friend. “Bob was President of the Company and inspired such loyalty that each employee felt a vital part of it,” recalled one employee, C. William Cook, at a Starratt Airways reunion in 1967. Bob Starratt sold his company to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1941. It was later reformed, along with eight other bush companies from around the country, into Canadian Pacific Air Lines. After selling their company, Bob and Iris retired to Florida, where they remained until Bob passed away in 1967. Today, the Starratt family continues to call Hudson, Ontario home, where they operate Lac Seul Floating Lodges.
Image is from a painting by Les Waller.