Back
Shanty Town — families began to build one-storey homes on the “wrong side of the tracks” after the CRP arrived
Apr 04, 2011
by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
In 1883 and 1884, Shanty Town was more in the news as a “nuisance” rather than for providing the first homes for newcomers to the city. During this period, shanties had begun to proliferate, spreading from the Hudson’s Bay Company Flats (now The Forks) to other areas of the city, especially near the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in the North End.
According to an October 15, 1883, Winnipeg Sun article, a second Shanty Town outside the Flats had sprung up in the “district lying north of the C.P.R. track and west of Main street ... The whole district is covered with shanties and little one-storey frame dwelling houses. Most have been put up by C.P.R. laborers, Russian Jews (who arrived in 1882), Icelanders, etc.”
The reporter who wrote the article determined that there were 150 shanties in the district, most of which had been erected that year at an average cost of $100 each.
After the first Canadian Pacific Railway train crossed the newly-built Louise Bridge into Winnipeg on July 26, 1881, its destination was an “unassuming” 1-1/2-storey wood-frame depot at the corner of Main Street and Point Douglas Road.
As part of a cash-and-land agreement for the CPR to cross the Red River at Winnipeg rather than Selkirk, the city handed over six lots on the south side of Point Douglas (now Sutherland Avenue) between Main and Maple streets, plus a portion along Austin Avenue. The first CPR station in Winnipeg was built on the southwest corner of the land ceded by the city to the railway. 
Prior to building its first station, the CPR shared the Manitoba and Southwestern Railway’s depot and facilities built in 1879-80 near King Street and Point Douglas Road.
In 1882, CPR general manager Cornelius Van Horne instructed Thomas Scott, the former chief architect for the federal government’s public works department,  to design a new brick passenger station to replace the wooden structure. The staton was completed a year later.
The CPR spent lavishly on a station, freight sheds, a roundhouse and other railway-related buildings in Winnipeg. The car shops which opened in 1883 alone employed 200 mechanics.
The city was transformed into a gigantic supply depot filled with stone, railroad ties and rails, as well as telegraph poles and wire, all destined to be transported westward as construction on the ribbon of track advanced across the prairie toward the Rockies.
Unfortunately, the CPR’s new brick depot burned down on July 28, 1884, but railway officials vowed a new passenger depot would be erected as soon as possible. The third CPR station on the same site was completed in 1888 and stood until the present passenger station at 181 Higgins Ave, which is now the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc., opened on May 22, 1905.
But the bad luck of the CPR could not prevent thousands of immigrants from arriving in Winnipeg from the east, many of whom were intent upon establishing farms within easy access of the rail line, although the lure of the city proved too attractive to a great number of more urban-oriented people. The first problem that confronted those who decided to remain behind was finding affordable accommodations in the city, either to be purchased or rented. The result was that many began to fend for themselves and built ramshackle homes wherever they found a piece of what they belived to be vacant land, which was invariably in the vicinity of the CPR yard and station in the North End of the city.
The Rector of Christ Church, Edwyn S.W. Pentreath, replied to a circular from the Sun asking about the extent of poverty in Winnipeg. He wrote (published on January 26, 1884), that a large portion of the North End was covered by shanties, “and the neighborhood of the railway has caused the better class of houses to be built in the south.” 
In fact, the formerly prestigious neighbourhood of Point Douglas was being overrun by shanties — as well as commercial enterprises and industries served by the railway — so Winnipeg’s more affluent residents began fleeing the district to build homes in the south and west ends of the city, which became the new haven of the elite. The result was a distinct  division of the city, with the “haves” residing in the south end of the city and “have-nots” living on the “wrong side of the tracks.”
Not only did a new Shanty Town arise after 1881, but an estimated 7,000 newcomers lived in tents, which lined the river banks on the prairie or on wherever land was available in the city.
Despite the growing presence of the CPR in Winnipeg, there was still large numbers of unemployed men among the Shanty Town residents, according to the rector. Many families in his  parish, the poorest in the city, contained: “Strong, able-bodied men ... obliged to sit idle in their homes while weak women try and earn food for the family. There appears to be work for women but not men ... It is work these people want, and if work were found the present distress would soon disappear.”
An 1886 promotional book, The City of Winnipeg, which appeared under the names of W.T. Thompson and E.E. Boyer, but was compiled by several local journalists, reported that a two-year depression in the city followed the 1881-82 real estate boom. About 10,000 “transients” had left the city when the bubble burst, resulting in the abandonment of 700 homes in 1884, but by 1885 the number of vacant houses declined to 250. 
“Many of these so-called houses,” according to the book, “were little better than sheds or outbuildings, while the number of really desirable houses at the close of the year didn’t exceed 50.”
Reverend H.T. Leslie replied to the Sun circular: “In most of the shanties where men are not working, the women take in washing or go out scrubbing, thus making sufficient to provide food for the family.”
He and other ministers told the Sun any difficulties encountered by families resulted from idle men spending all money they possessed on “whiskey.”
CPR Special Police Chief J.N. Faulkner and Officer J. Cornett told a Sun reporter about a “gang of men living in a shanty near the Canadian Pacific Railway coal sheds.” Another gang lived in a nearby shanty, they claimed.
Faulkner referred to to the criminal element living in the two shanties as gang one and gang two. He said the first gang broke into warehouses and stores to steal cigars, liquor and other articles, selling their ill-gotten booty to unscrupulous saloon keepers.
The railway police apprehended one gang member who was found in the possession of 40 keys used to open warehouses in order to plunder their contents.
According to the May 10, 1884, Sun article, Faulkner said the “cutest” of the lot was “Coal-Oil Johnny’s Gang,” whose three members “got away with a pile of stuff.” Coil-oil Johnny was a term used at the time to describe any young men who made a quick fortune. The nickname was first attached to John Steele, who at age 20 made a fortune in the Pennsylvania oil fields. The actual name of Winnipeg’s Coal-Oil Johnny was not given in the newspaper account. The real coal-oil Johnny died penniless in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, on February 14, 1908. He lost his fortune futilely fighting the oil monopoly created by John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil.
“Johnny himself used to retail coal oil, and was a well-known character in Winnipeg,” Faulkner told the Sun. Realizing the law was on his trail, Coal-Oil Johnny fled the city a day before the railway police made their arrests.
“Since his departure, Cornett and I have visited his shanty, and from what we saw there, we feel convinced he must have been making big profits.”
Part of the gang’s profits came from stealing coal oil from the warehouse of Woods & Company. Remarkably, the gang had a key to the warehouse and came and went as they pleased. The railway police found 15 eight-gallon cans on the floor of the shanty and another 15 cans in the cellar that were allegedly used for storing coal-oil. They also found a still for the illicit manufacture of whiskey. 
When the reporter joined the two railway policemen in Coal-Oil Johnny’s shanty, he saw a 12-foot-square room “wretchedly dirty. A mattress lay in one corner, and a rough bedstead covered with a piece of carpet occupied the opposite one. In the left-hand corner on entering was a stove, covered with a number of cooking utensils, many of which were almost new. Between the stove and the bedstead stood a large metal vat.”
Faulkner told the reporter it was the cooling vat. “Attached to the stove pipe was an ingenious arrangement for carrying off the fumes of the liquor. Those large cans with adjustable screw tops are the receivers. Here, in this zinc-lined box, is the cooler. The liquor passes through those pipes and gets cooled off. Down that hole below the bedstead is the cellar. It is now full of water, but if it were thoroughly searched I have no doubt some very interesting discoveries might be made.”
The railway policemen found a receipt for 32 sacks of corn, which was used to make the mash for 
distilling liquor. Faulkner said the distilled whiskey was sold to “low saloons.” 
The distillery used by Coal-Oil Johnny was put on display in the CPR police office, as were samples of the spirits he produced. Faulkner said any one could visit the temporary museum, “and we charge nothing for admission.”
But the presence of gangs did not distract from the fact that the majority of CPR Shanty Town residents were law-abiding citizens, who saw their present lot in life as a temporary arrangement until such time as they could improve their financial circumstances. 
In a January 31, 1883, Sun article, under the headline, Among the Shanties, a reporter wrote about his journey to the CPR Shanty Town to interview residents and find out how they survived the “late cold spell.” He said the shanties numbered about 300 and varied in size “from that of a large dog-house to a good-sized ash-house,” costing between an average of $50 and $115. Without exception, the shanties visited to compile the article were one-room dwellings. 
Over 2,000 people lived in the shanties north of the CPR tracks, who didn’t possess “sufficient funds to build good houses, and being unable to pay high rents ...” The reporter said the residents had primarily arrived a year earlier and represented all nationalities, although Scots predominated.
“In many cases  families containing six or eight members are huddled together in these little boxes, which, with a good fire burning in a stove which occupies almost a fourth of the apartment, are kept comparatively warm.”
But in other shanties, the occupants were unable to buy enough fuel, “so they “suffered intensely from the cold,” which was “unequalled for many years.”
“A great many could not get sufficient work and so were compelled to stint themselves with their supply of fuel.”
He knocked on a door which was answered by “a woman with her face bathed in perspiration and hands covered in soap suds.” The reporter was invited inside by the woman who agreed to answer his questions.
“How much rent do you pay here?
“Don’t pay no rent. You see, after the burnin,’ when we lost everything, we just built this shanty on the street. Of course it ain’t opened up, and I’m thinkin’ them councillor fellows will have a job to move me when they do open it up.”
The woman who built on an “unopened” street had good reason to be wary about the intentions of city council. In fact, the council announced it was going to take action to remove the “eyesores.” 
At the time, city council was passing regulations to remove shanties built directly on city streets that obstructed traffic. Most of the shanties were erected on “unopened streets (not surveyed) on the Government reserve,” according to the account, and stretched along the CPR limits for a kilometre. Some of the shanties were on private land, where residents were each charged about $2 a month for the privilege of occupying a property.
In comparison, the average hotel room cost between $3 and $10 a week in 1882, while the price for a bed in a boarding house averaged $6 to $7 a week, but that charge also included meals.
The woman who was interviewed for the 1883 article told the Sun reporter that her dwelling cost about $100 to build, money that she had borrowed. She claimed it would require the washing of plenty of shirts before the loan was paid off. 
Her shanty was made of single board with paper applied on both sides of each wall.
When she was asked if she lived alone, the woman replied: “Bless ye, no. Got my old mother to keep, and what with wood, which is $10 a cord, and coal oil, and grub, I find it pretty hard to keep the wolf from the door.”
At another shanty, the reporter encountered a “fat, jolly looking woman with a couple of little children, clinging to her ragged shirt. The woman was married and had six children, with two of the older children attending school. 
When asked how she managed, the woman replied in a Scottish accent, as demonstrated by the written account by the reporter: “Weel, ye see, the guid mon and myself saved a pickle o’ siller in the flush times. But it’s a’ gaun the noo, and I tel’t Jock that he would hae ae speer for some wark (her husband was unemployed at the time but had been working), as we man’ua stairve.”
According to the reporter, the cheerful woman was content with her circumstances and dwelled happy in her little 10-by-12-foot home “as if they lived in a palace.” The home contained a “rickety old bed” in one corner, another corner had a “rude pallet, resembling a heap of rags, where the children were obliged to sleep.” The remainder of the shanty contained a little table, a stove and a wood box.”
Later in the afternoon, the reporter interviewed Mrs. Barney O’Flynn, “a typical Irishwoman.” Her shanty resembled the others he had visited with the exception that it was a bit cleaner and a smoke-coloured curtain hid a bed located in one corner.
Mrs. O’Flynn was suspicious of the reporter’s motives, initially believing he came to surreptitiously obtain information on how to build his own shanty using the insights of others gained by the sweat of their labour and through hard-won experience. Her suspicion also revealed that the woman felt the CPR Shanty Town was a highly-prized location that had to be protected from unwanted intruders. 
But eventually her fears were 
allayed by the questions directed at her. Mrs. O’Flynn was evidently given the impression that the reporter would soon become her neighbour. Of course, the reporter had no intention of building a shanty and was only interested in gaining information in order to compose his article. 
She said it cost about $100 to build a shanty, and advised the reporter to put up a “hut” that was “double boarded and stuffed between with saw dust,” as well as covered by thin paper inside and out. Once completed in the manner she described, Mrs. O’Flynn said the reporter would be “as snug as a bug in a rug.”
In other shanties, the reporter discovered young bachelors who “club together and keep bachelors’ halls.” By pooling together, the men could feed themselves for between $2.50 and $3 a week.
The reporter encountered Rev. C.B. Pitblado, who was making a tour of the shanties to uncover cases of want in order to provide relief. During his tour, the priest found little sickness or poverty, although some residents were embarrassed by his visits — not due to their circumstances, but because he urged them to attend church on Sundays, a practice many apparently neglected.
Groceries were supplied to Shanty Town by one man, who made his rounds “twice a week with his sleigh well stocked.”
When questioned, the man said the shanty residents paid him more regularly than his more affluent customers in other areas of the city. He explicitly trusted the North End residents, who were as a rule “very faithful and honest.” 

(Next week: part 3)