Churchill (Inuit: Kuugjuaq) is a town on the west shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Canada, just south of the Nunavut/Manitoba boundary. It is most famous for the many polar bears that move toward the shore from inland in the autumn, leading to the nickname "Polar Bear Capital of the World" that has helped its growing tourism industry.
A variety of nomadic Arctic people lived and hunted in this region. The Thule people arrived around A.D. 1000 from the West, and later evolved into the present-day Inuit culture. The Dene people arrived around 500 from farther north. Since before the time of European contact, the region around Churchill has been predominantly inhabited by the Chipewyan and Cree natives.
Europeans first arrived in the area in 1619 when a Danish expedition led by Jens Munk wintered where Churchill would later stand. Only 3 of 64 expedition members survived the winter and sailed one of the expedition's two ships back to Denmark. Danish archaeologists in 1964 discovered remains of the abandoned ship in the tidal flats some miles from the mouth of the river.
After an abortive attempt in 1688-89, in 1717 the Hudson's Bay Company built the first permanent settlement, Churchill River Post, a log fort a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Churchill River. The trading post and river were named after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill), who was governor of the Hudson's Bay Company in the late seventeenth century. The fort was built mostly to capitalize on the North American fur trade, out of the reach of York Factory. It dealt mainly with the Chipewyan natives living north of the boreal forest. Much of the fur came from as far away as Lake Athabasca and the Rocky Mountains.
In 1783, Hearne returned to build a new fort, a short distance upriver. Due to its distance from areas of heavy competition between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, it remained a stable, if not profitable, source of furs.
Between the years of decline in the fur trade and surfacing of western agricultural success, Churchill phased into and then back out of obsolescence. After decades of frustration over the monopoly and domination of the Canadian Pacific Railway, western Canadian governments banded together and argued for the creation of a major new northern shipping harbour on Hudson Bay, linked by rail from Winnipeg. Initially Port Nelson was selected for this purpose in 1912. After several years of effort and millions of dollars, this project was abandoned and Churchill was selected as the alternative after World War One. Surveys by the Canadian Hydrographic Service ship CSS Acadia opened the way for safe navigation. However, construction and use of the railroad was extremely slow and the rail line itself did not come to Churchill until 1929.
Even once the link from farm to port was completed, commercial shipping took many more years to pick up. In 1932 Grant MacEwan was the first person to cross through Churchill customs as a passenger. This was purely due to his determination in taking the Hudson Bay route to Saskatchewan from Britain—most passengers returned via the Saint Lawrence River.
In 1942, the United States Army Air Corps established a base called Fort Churchill, located five miles east of the town. After World War II, this base was jointly operated by Canada and the United States for experimental and training purposes and was in operation until the mid-1960s.
Naval Radio Station Churchill, callsign CFL, was activated as an ionospheric study station by the RCN in support of the U-boat HFDF net and became operational on August 1, 1943. Around 1949, Churchill became part of the Canadian SUPRAD (signals intelligence) network and remained in that role until it closed its doors in 1968. The Operations and Accommodations building still remains today but is abandoned.
This area was also the site of the Churchill Rocket Research Range, part of Canadian-American atmospheric research. Its first rocket was launched in 1956, and it continued to host launches for research until closing in 1984. The site of the former rocket range now hosts the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a facility for Arctic research. Churchill still hosts a rocket range and subsequent Spaceport Canada effort; currently located at Fort Churchill.
In the 1950s, the British government considered establishing a site near Churchill for testing their early nuclear weapons, before choosing Australia instead.