by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The immigrant walked from The Forks down Main Street to Bannatyne Avenue with the goal of scavenging boards at the Brown & Rutherford Co. Ltd. planing mill and lumberyard. During his northward journey down Main Street, he passed such landmarks as the three-storey Canada Pacific Hotel, the Custom House and Dominion Lands Office, McMicken’s Bank, A.G. Bannatyne’s grocery, liquor and general store, and the Post Office building. The immigrant had already picked out a site for his new home, but he needed materials to build it. And lacking funds, his only option was to rely upon the goodwill of the lumberyard pioneers of Winnipeg.
The newly-arrived immigrant from Iceland had heard through the grapevine that partners Alexander Brown and Thomas Rutherford allowed people to salvage boards embedded in the ground. After being trampled by lumberyard workers, horse-drawn delivery wagons and numerous customers, brute force was required to dig up the broken pieces of lumber that had no real monetary value to the company. Actually, Rutherford and Brown gladly accepted the presence of the “free” labourers as they rid their lumberyard of an inconvenient and potentially dangerous obstruction to daily operations.
But the odd-lengthed pieces of lumber were just as precious to the immigrant as a diamond in the rough, since the fragments could be cut into the facets needed to construct a passable abode. In talking to other newcomers, he realized shelter was an absolute necessity to survive an unforgiving Winnipeg winter.
Three years after its incorporation as a city in 1873, Winnipeg claimed a population of only 5,400 people, more fitting for a town than a major urban centre. Its streets were unpaved and after heavy rainfalls or a spring melt, a thick prairie gumbo clogged wagon wheels and sent pedestrians scurrying across intersections into a minefield of muck. The only escape from the ever-present mud was wood-plank sidewalks along major routes such as Main Street.
From Brown & Rutherford’s lumberyard, the immigrant carried his collection of boards in a borrowed wheel barrel south down Main Street to a site officially known as the Hudson’s Bay Flats. Unofficially, it was referred to as “Shanty Town” by Winnipeggers in recognition of the makeshift hovels, or shanties, that dotted the Flats.
Shanty Town had sprung up in the 1870s in response to the needs of poverty-stricken immigrants and as a place where aboriginals could pitch tepees while in the city trading for goods with the Hudson’s Bay Company and local merchants. Actually, First Nations people have been visiting the area around The Forks for at least 6,000 years.
At times, Shanty Town was home to newly-arrived Jews, Scots, Irish, Italians and Icelanders. Since they were the first European settlers to have a major presence at the Flats, newspapers also referred to Shanty Town as the Icelandic Camping Grounds.
As their lot in life improved, immigrants would abandon Shanty Town for the more residential-friendly West End of Winnipeg.
The collection of squatters’ shacks and tents was strewn along the banks of the Red River as far north as William Stephenson Way (first called Schultz Street and then Water Avenue), which is named after the son of Icelandic immigrants who became a spymaster during the Second World War. Just to the south of Shanty Town were the two immigration sheds, which each housed 500 people, at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers where the people from the Old Country invariably spent their first days in Winnipeg.
Maps from the era show Upper Fort Garry surrounded by land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company east to the Red River and west along the Assiniboine River.
“It is said every emergency provides its own solution,” wrote Jon Bildfell in the Icelandic Canadian article, Early Historical Glimpses of Icelandic People in Winnipeg (Autumn 1947), “only if you could see it. Back from the landing place of the steamboats ... there was vacant land known as Hudson’s Bay Flats. On these flats the Icelanders, who at the time were all single men, squatted. They gathered building materials the best way they could and built themselves shanties, where they remained undisturbed for some years. This cluster of shanties was called Shanty Town and the inhabitants shanty dwellers.”
Shanty Town’s modern-day equivalent would be the Favelas in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, where squatters have established dwellings in suburbs that are grudgingly tolerated but lack official recognition from government authorities. And like in Favelas, shanty dwellers in early Winnipeg used whatever building materials were available to construct “rickety-looking” homes that “for all the world looked as if they had been dropped promiscuously” on the prairie.
Shanty Town’s patchwork hovels in the end cost builders only a few dollars to erect. In keeping with the low-cost nature of Shanty Town, stoves used to heat dwellings during the winter were fuelled by driftwood collected along the banks of the rivers.
Icelanders began arriving in Manitoba during the fall of 1875. While the majority of the 285 original settlers went on to found the community of Gimli and the colony called New Iceland, about 35 decided to stay in Winnipeg. Over the course of the next year, about 1,400 Icelandic immigrants arrived in Winnipeg with the majority carrying on to New Iceland along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, but some did remain behind in the city in the hope of finding gainful employment.
While single young women who stayed could find employment as domestics in city homes and receive a wage as well as room and board, the men who remained in Winnipeg were less fortunate.
A few of the men were employed at $3 a day unloading the steamboat that brought the Icelanders up the Red River from the United States in September 1875, but such work was at best sporadic. Men did occasionally find jobs unloading barges and working on steamboats loading cordwood for the ships’ boilers. In the winter, they also cut and piled wood along the riverbanks to be used by the steamers. The Icelanders received a salary of $40 per month for such work.
Other groups of young men competed for the same scarce jobs. Critically, the Icelanders arrived in Manitoba during a major immigration wave from other destinations. Besides the usual settlers from Ontario, hundreds of French-Canadians, wanting to escape worsening economic conditions in Québec, opted to come to Manitoba to homestead rather than work in the textile mills of New England. A year earlier at the urging of immigration agent William Hespeler, Mennonites from Russia decided to make Manitoba their new home.
In a February 22, 1876, letter, Arngrimur Jonsson, wrote: “There is very little to do in Winnipeg this winter for all the men except sawing wood, and for those who are permanently employed.”
The newly-arrived Icelanders would soon become intergral to the construction of the city’s sewer and water systems, taking the low-paying labourer jobs that others refused — a common theme for immigrants who followed in their footsteps such as Ukrainians and Poles. Demanding better pay and working conditions, Icelandic sewer workers in 1891 and 1892 led sucessful strikes.
In 1876, the influx of so many people meant unoccupied homes in Winnipeg were few and far between and those that were available commanded high rents.
It was because of the restraints placed upon the resources of newly-arrived immigrants that Fridrik Sigurbjornson became the first Icelander to build a home in Hudson’s Bay Flats. Sigurbjornson may or may not have actually scavenged wood from the Rutherford and Brown lumberyard, but sources imply it was a common practice among Iceland-born Shanty Town dwellers.
While there are few records of who resided in Shanty Town in 1876, besides Sigurbjornson, known names — all bachelors — include (from Icelandic Canadian, Autumn 1947): Jakob Eyfjord, S. Rognvaldson, Stefan Stefansson, Sigurdeir Thor-finnsson, Erlender Arneson, Solvi Solvason, Hallgrimur Holm, Pall Gunnlaugsson, Johannes Jonsson, all of whom had presumably first settled in Kinmount, Ontario, before coming to Manitoba.
The location of the shanties did conform to an original urban plan devised by the HBC for the Flats and received lot numbers. For example, Sigurbjornson’s shanty was on lot No. 6, Hudson’s Bay Flats. Further recognition of the squatters came when they were charged a ground rent of $2 per month by the HBC.
The next step in the formalization of the structures in Shanty Town was the construction of “terraces” (multiple-person buildings). By 1879, there was a terrace in the neighbourhood of the Broadway Bridge (at the time, Broadway continued across Main Street to the foot of the Red River), as well as scattering of other terraces in the direction of The Forks.
Besides building the first Icelandic settler’s home in Shanty Town, Sigurbjornson became the first man from the nation in the middle of the North Atlantic to marry in Winnipeg. On September 6, 1876, he wed Sigridur Jonsdottir. In Icelandic tradition, girls were given a surname that included their father’s first name; thus Sigridur's last name became Jonsdottir — in English translated as Jon’s daughter. Surnames for male children also included their fathers’ first name; thus Fridrik’s last name was Sigurbjornson, or Sigurbjorn’s son. Shortly after their arrival in Manitoba, this tradition was abandoned and family surnames in the Canadian tradition became the accepted practice.
Sigridur and Fridrik were the parents of the first Icelandic child born in Winnipeg. Their son Frank was born on September 25, 1877, and was baptized at Grace Church at the southeast corner of William Stephenson Way and Main Street by Rev. Frank Walter. The couple named their child after the minister because of the aid he provided to help ease their poverty as well as the assistance he provided during their times of illness.
A baby girl named Fridrikka was born to the couple on March 27, 1879. She was three months old when her father died.
But married couples were the exception rather than the norm in Shanty Town. The presence of so many young men, and idleness created by few job opportunities contributed to cases of “bad behaviour.”
A letter to the Icelandic-language newspaper Framfari, dated May 23, 1879, criticized the unruly behaviour of Icelandic settlers in Shanty Town. The Winnipeg letter writer said there was “a considerable amount of irregularity going on among the Icelanders here, especially in that building known as ‘The Icelandic House,’ which Saura-Gisli is now renting. There are dancing and drinking parties, often every evening, and the police have begun to keep their eyes on it.”
The letter writer claimed ‘the better people among our countrymen” were disgusted by the behaviour “for it brings disrepute on an entire people.”
He also threatened that the settlers were going to lay charges against Gisli. “By the way,” the letter writer added, “he was recently put in jail, when he lay in the street drunk.”
In fact, Winnipeg newspapers frequently reported on wild drinking parties in Shanty Town and the mayhem created.
The Framfari in an earlier article commented that “such behaviour” casts a disparaging light on the Icelanders, “for many people are inclined to judge foreigners on the basis of only a few examples, and so blame a whole people for the faults of only a few individuals.”
The article, entitled Icelanders In Winnipeg, prompted an equally critical response to Framfari by a group of shanty dwellers. In the original article was the comment: “We hear time and time again that some of our countrymen up there (Winnipeg) lies in idleness between (jobs)... squandering what they have earned, and that not especially in the homes of those who live in shanties near the Red River, but in saloons in the city itself.”
At the time, saloons were widespread along Main Street and hotels were said to be “heavy on booze and light on rooms.” It was said there was a saloon or liquor store for every 200 people living in Winnipeg.
“We hope it is only a few, but it is obvious to everyone how degrading such a life must be for both body and soul and how such men, little by little, lose all ambition and energy to raise themselves above such conditions and engage in some finer and better activity,” reported the Framfari.
In reply (March 7, 1879) to the article Icelanders in Winnipeg, the 10 shanty dwellers who signed the letter said it was a “shameless slur on us for we (all the so-called Icelandic shanty dwellers) work when we can and are free of the habit of patronizing the drinking places of the town.”
The men said, “... it is no credit to Christian men to blacken their neighbours with false propaganda.”
They claimed that “the editor” nor “his rag” could “substantiate this shameless slur ...”
Shanty Town was given renewed vigour during the boom of 1881-82, when fortunes were quickly made and just as quickly lost. Young men from across North America and Europe flocked into Winnipeg, hoping to take advantage of land speculation running rampant. The massive influx of people resulted in a scarcity of accommodations. While many slept on the floors of tent hotels that seemed to spring up overnight, others found refuge in the rooming houses that became a landmark in the city, some of which were found in Shanty Town.
But the bubble burst in the spring of 1882. By this time, land speculation lessened because fewer gullible victims could be found and the land lust had moved further afield to “Edmonton at last!”as advertisements proclaimed. In a Winnipeg real estate auction house, Edmonton lots were eagerly snapped up for thousands of dollars by speculators one day, but received no takers the next day. It was a sign of the collapsing boom, although few would admit that the good times were coming to an end.
A flood in 1882 emphasized a major hazard associated with erecting homes on a flood plain.
The same flood closed the Red River to steamboat and rail (the Pembina branch of the CPR had been completed in 1878 from the U.S. to Winnipeg) traffic, trapping a number of Winnipeg speculators who had been in Minneapolis promoting Western Canadian properties. By the time the speculators were able to return to Winnipeg, the real estate market had crashed.
The flood of 1882 brought disaster to Winnipeg and Shanty Town. It wasn’t until the 1950 flood that an inundation of greater magnitude struck Winnipeg. On April 19, 1882, crushing ice floes caused the Broadway Bridge to plunge into the river, but that happened during the first of two flood crests to hit the city.
“East of Main Street in the lower levels everything is inundated,” reported the May 9, 1882, Winnipeg Daily Sun. “The Icelandic camping grounds have had to be abandoned. These hardy inhabitants held to their free habitations as long as they could, being driven from place to place by the increasing flood until they finally found escape unpleasant and by no means easy.”
By this time, many Icelanders had taken up residence in the city’s West End. In 1883, there were 754 people of Icelandic descent in Winnipeg, 300 of whom were married, while 207 women were unmarried as were 179 men; as well, a total of 58 children had been born in Winnipeg or elsewhere in Canada.
Although Shanty Town was rebuilt in 1882-83, the flood actually marked the end of its heyday when the flats were home to as many as 2,000 people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
In 1883 and 1884, Shanty Town was more in the news as a “nuisance” rather than for providing the homes for newcomers to the city. During this period, shanties had begun to proliferate, spreading from the Flats to other areas of the city, especially near the Canadian Pacific Railway yards in the North End, which prompted city council to take action to remove the “eyesores.”
In addition, Edward Wasell, the city’s board of works engineer, on March 28, 1884, warned council that lumber was piling up in front of shanties blocking streets to traffic and presenting a safety concern. In some instances, shanties were being built directly on city streets, such as — but not limited to — Fonseca (disappeared when Higgins Avenue was
extended) and Common (now Henry Avenue) streets.
When Broadway extended to the Red River at The Forks (the HBC Flats), a number of shanties also projected onto the street. The city engineer told council the shanties had projected into the street for at least five or six years, and the owners announced their intention to remain in their homes, which they believed they were permitted to do by city
(Next week: part 2)