Preparations for the Camp
The Department of Munitions and Supplies, which later became the Wartime Housing Commission, was responsible for the construction of the camp and the maintenance of proper living standards. Construction began in the summer of 1943, and by October, 450 German prisoners (captured in North Africa) arrived at the camp to take up residence and work. In November 1944, more than 31,000 German prisoners of war were detained in Canada. Lumber for the camp was sawn at Dewitt’s Mill, which was located on the northwest shore of Lake Audy. A contingent of Alternate Service Workers (i.e., pacifists, conscientious objectors) was stationed at this mill camp.
For four months they aided in preparations and assisted contractors hired to do road repairs and camp construction. Most of the pacifists at this camp were single young Mennonite men from surrounding villages and farm districts.
In total, there were fifteen buildings erected at the Whitewater camp, including as follows: five bunkhouses (with complete washroom and bathing facilities), administrative staff quarters, an administration office, a large cookhouse (with a dining room to accommodate the entire camp), a commissary store, a garage, a blacksmith shop, a power plant, a machine shop, barns for horses, and a small hospital. The Winnipeg Free Press (1943) described the completed project as “the largest work camp yet constructed in Canada to accommodate prisoners and [to] use prisoners in fuelwood production.”
The area designated for cutting cordwood occurred on both sides of Central Trail and extended two miles beyond the camp. It was comprised largely of poplar, but it also contained a small quantity of spruce and pine. Most of the area was clearcut, with isolated green poplar being taken along with the fire-killed trees. Spruce was the only species left standing, in hope that seed generation might occur within the area.
All trees were of sufficient size and quantity to meet the requirements for fuelwood adequately. The regulations governing the extraction of timber were the same as those which applied during the logging days of the early 1930s. To ensure the enforcement of these regulations, a park warden was assigned to the camp to supervise the cutting and scaling of cordwood, as well as to record the dues owing to prisoners for their work.
For the most part, these duties fell to Warden David Binkley, who was stationed at Lake Audy during the operation of the camp. Binkley was also in charge of taking the prisoners to the cutting area, assigning work duties, and returning them to camp. Civilian guards (from the Canadian Armed Forces) present at the camp were responsible for standing guard while the prisoners cut cordwood. They also accompanied the prisoners to Dauphin to pick up daily rations. Each prisoner was paid fifty cents a day for cutting the required amount of wood.
Although bonus rates were offered as an incentive to the prisoners cutting cordwood, the best production achieved by the men was a half a cord per day per individual. The first winter of wood cutting was a dismal failure, largely because of discipline problems. After approximately seven months of cutting, the total fuelwood production only amounted to 33,000 cords. The cut wood left the park by two routes – via the Lake Audy road south to Elphinstone, and north along the Strathclair Trail to Dauphin. From these destinations, the wood was shipped to Winnipeg and to other communities.
Riding Mountain was a “minimum security” camp, and the prisoners took advantage of the situation. They fraternized with guards and often slipped away to the outlying communities. Rumor has it that some prisoners attended dances at Crawford Park, a small community south of Lake Audy. They also organized themselves and exerted a certain amount of control over camp operations. The prisoners entertained themselves with a choir and an orchestra, and played numerous sports. Others occupied themselves with the care, feeding, and raising of pigs, which were eaten to vary their meat diet.
One popular hobby at the camp was wood carving, especially the handicraft of making replicas of battleships to scale. Most captivating of pastimes was the building of dug-out canoes, some of which can still be found on the banks of Whitewater Creek or in the Fort Dauphin Museum. The idea for construction came from a Canadian magazine that circulated in the camp. It featured a picture of a birch bark canoe and inspired the men to become actively involved in duplicating the vessel. Instead of frame and birch materials, however, a spruce or poplar log was chiseled out by hand, the feat requiring many hours of labour. One-man canoes measured approximately ten feet in length, whereas two-man vessels were fourteen to sixteen feet long. They were launched in the creek to the south of camp (which was narrower and deeper at the time) and Whitewater Lake, which provided the scenic views and adventure for the paddlers.
These pastimes, however, were not always enough to ease the monotony of camp life; and when work opportunities arose, some volunteered for duty. The use of German prisoners in fire-fighting had been approved by the Department of Labour in view of manpower shortages throughout the province; and on at least one occasion, prisoners were used to fight fire in the park. On another occasion, they were employed to fix the telephone line between Clear Lake and Gunn Lake after a bad storm. Some were also billeted with nearby farmers and made lasting friendships with the families for whom they chored.
The P.O.W.s were treated well while at the camp and were considered to be a “good bunch.” It is believed, however, that a few prisoners tried to escape once. The only unfortunate incident that occurred at the camp was the death of 33-year old Max Neugebaureer, who died when a tree fell on him.
Closing the Camp
By March of 1944, the urgency for dry wood was over. Although cutting continued until the summer of 1945, the need for fuelwood in the province had been satiated and further cutting by German P.O.W.s was to cease. For a time, the prisoners were put to work on the Central Trail, and their use in other park work was contemplated.
However, three factors prevented an extension of their stay. First, there were no projects in the vicinity of the camp to warrant the expenditure in wages, which would have to have been absorbed by the Parks Branch. The second factor was the general lack of money to finance their employment. Thirdly, there was a lack of park equipment for any additional programs. Existing equipment was needed in ordinary park maintenance; and, since it was not in the best state of repair, it could not be spared or over-used.
Consequently, in November of 1945, the camp was vacated. The prisoners were sent to do other work projects in Canada, with most going to places in northern Ontario. The equipment and buildings were removed from the site by a Winnipeg contractor. By December, clean-up and restoration of the land were completed. In 1946, after the war ended the prisoners were sent back to their homeland.
At this time, the Park reestablished its goals. Resource extraction was curtailed, and the development of recreational facilities continued. The P.O.W. is now a primitive campsite and can be visited by hiking, cycling or horseback riding out to Whitewater Lake along Central Trail. Some concrete foundations and part of the incinerator still remain at the site. Several dugout canoes still rest in the quiet waters of the creek. The former campsite is being reclaimed by nature, and the area is important habitat for elk during May and June.
- Further information about labour camps in Canada’s national parks can be obtained from the following sources:
- Bella, Leslie. Parks for Profit. Montreal: Harvest House, 1987.
- Waiser, Bill. Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada, 1995.
- National Parks, 1915-1946. Fifth House Publishers Ltd., pp. 294.
This information has been provided by Ken Kingdon, Communications Officer, Riding Mountain National Park.
Return to Riding Mountain National Park, in the Parks section of this website.