by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
James “Jim” Sarsfield Coolican, arguably the most colourful and controversial personality in the early history of Winnipeg, was considered an angel of mercy by the shanty dwellers north of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. This was a dramatic turnaround in public sentiment toward Coolican, who two years earlier became the man invariably singled out for criticism when the great land boom of 1881-82 abruptly ended in a recession and financial ruin for the many involved in what was in reality an artificially-inflated real estate market.
The ersatz boom was based upon the manipulations of Winnipeg’s silver-tongued auctioneers, including Coolican, who convinced gullible investors that the path to untold wealth lay in town lots they placed on the auction block. The belief fostered by the auctioneers was that these lots could be flipped over and over again for ever-increasing profits.
As the leading promoter of the “boom,” Coolican was after the fact noted disparagingly as being an “unscrupulous” land speculator. Coolican made a fortune by selling Winnipeg, Manitoba and Western Canadian lots — often in fictional towns created by his fertile imagination — at unsustainable prices.
Dr. George Bryce in his history of Manitoba (1882) described Coolican as “eloquent, aggressive, unscrupulous, and by advertising his sales without commonplace things called facts, undertook to ‘stampede’ — to use the language of the plains — the Winnipeg community.”
To be fair to Coolican, he, similar to many others, was simply caught up in the euphoric hedonism of the land boom, although more than anyone else, he was responsible for promoting the boom until its bitter and ruinous collapse.
On winter mornings when Coolican, who was known as the “Real Estate King,” walked to his real estate auction house — The Exchange, which stood at the corner of Portage and Main — he wore a $5,000 seal-skin coat and matching hat. His fingers were said to have sparkled with diamond rings of even greater value. Following a day of lot sales valued in the thousands of dollars, it was claimed that Coolican bathed in a tub filled with champagne.
Cooligan’s obituary announcing his death in Chicago, which appeared in the Free Press on April 12, 1902, noted that in The Exchange auction house, “his cheery voice could be heard, sometimes in jest, at most times in earnest, disposing of hundreds of lots in exchange for coin of the realm.”
When the bubble burst, Coolican’s paper fortune disappeared, so he was forced to settle down to the more mundane task of auctioning off pianos and everyday furniture, as well as properties at prices more reflective of their actual value. But the collapse of the boom and the subsequent recession in Winnipeg meant there were few property auctions to promote.
The Free Press obituary claimed that Coolican left the city in the summer of 1882 for the United States (an assertion repeated to this day in biographies of Coolican), but his real departure for Minneapolis was in the summer of 1884.
The same newspaper on June 15, 1884, reported that: “Winnipeg said a regretful good-bye to J.S. (Jim) Coolican, real estate auctioneer, who had been the central figure of the recent boom (1881-82), and had in the lean years following the boom organized the city’s first soup kitchen ...”
A lavish dinner was held for Coolican on August 14, 1884, at the Queen’s Hotel, where he was presented with a purse containing $800, “not for its value, for we feel that it is doing very little for one who has spent so much of his time and money, as you have, for the benefit of your adopted city” (Winnipeg Sun, August 14, 1884).
Those who attended the send-off for the real estate auctioneer also praised Coolican for his “many acts of charity during the past very severe winter ...”
Coolican said his reason for leaving for Minneapolis was that there wasn’t much happening “in the real estate line in Winnipeg at present ...”
After Minneapolis, Coolican, who carried the title colonel from his days in the Canadian militia, eventually made his way to Port Angeles, Washington, where he sold real estate and was the president of the Port Angeles Improvement Co. (equivalent to today’s chamber of commerce). In the summer of 1901, Coolican organized the Angeles Brewing & Malting Co. with local investors, and was its president until his death on April 8, 1902, in Chicago.
It was reported that Coolican was primarily responsible in 1883 for uniting the Winnipeg’s Irish residents into the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society. Through the auspices of the society — and perhaps to atone for his earlier unbridled excesses — Coolican became a leading figure in its mission to alleviate the plight of the poor.
Under Coolican’s direction, the society established a soup kitchen “on McDermot Street, in the store next to the Western Hotel ... The interior of the store has been fitted up with a long lunch counter, in the rear of which are the store room for supplies and clothing, and the kitchen” (Manitoba Free Press, January 16, 1884).
According to the newspaper, the soup kitchen was supported by a number of local businessmen, who donated the materials to furnish the facility, and provided clothing and food as well as money.
“Before sampling the viands placed before them he addressed those present (the city’s leading businessmen), laying the whole scheme of the enterprise before them, and calling upon them to support it.”
In 1884, a Manitoba Free Press reporter toured the shanties north of the CPR tracks with Coolican, who was then the vice-president of the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society.
The reporter, who wrote the article about Winnipeg’s needy residents under the headline, The City Poor (January 22, 1884), said Coolican devoted a portion of each day visiting the shanty dwellers, “and has come to be regarded as a ministering angel among his humble charges.”
The reporter wrote that they first visited a shanty occupied by a stout Irish woman, “covered with soot,” who “sat disconsolately on the edge of the bed, while an asthmatic old cooking stove, filled with soft coal, was in a state of violent eruption, and sent out clouds of smoke from every point except the chimney.”
The woman and her two “little boys with very dirty faces” endured a home plagued by noxious smoke that was so intense it threatened to suffocate them or otherwise compromise their health.
With help from neighbours, Coolican had the offending appliance removed from the shanty. The woman then produced a $10 bill to acquire a new stove. “This woman’s husband was earning $60 a month, and when she handed over the money for the stove she took the bill from a respectably sized wad which she had concealed about her person.”
With such a wealth of bills, the reporter claimed, “There was no excuse for her squalid wretchedness.” But his judgement was made without knowing or understanding the family’s true circumstances.
The squalid conditions under which the woman’s family lived was the exception rather than the rule, according to the reporter. He found most of the shanties consisted of a single room that was very neat and clean, although most of the furniture was of a “homely description.”
In other shanties, they “found children, pinched and hungry, to whom the soup kitchen had already proved a Godsend.”
In yet others, they met men who hadn’t taken a meal for two days as well as women slowly sinking into starvation.
“To all of them, Mr. Coolican gave orders on the soup kitchen, and promised to look up a supply of clothing for the women and children, of which many were in need.”
The reporter said nearly all the men they encountered expressed a desire to find work, but had been unsuccessful in their job quests.
“In one shanty was a man with a broken and bandaged foot. He had neither fire nor food, and was not able to work for either. He was dependent on the good offices of his neighbours, who were in all conscience poor enough themselves.”
One woman didn’t “possess a vessel in which her little girl could carry soup from the kitchen.” The woman had been a music teacher, but her health had deteriorated and she was compelled to perform odd jobs until her strength returned.
Coolican made arrangements for the woman and her daughter to have meals delivered to them from the society’s soup kitchen.
The Free Press reporter commented on the need to provide greater assistance to Coolican and the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society whose relief efforts were hampered by a scarcity of resources.
“Contributions of clothes and food and fuel are urgently needed, and it would be a great help if our charitable disposed ladies and gentlemen would visit these unfortunates ...
“If some of the city fathers would visit these destitute homes, it is not likely that much argument would be required to secure the necessary aid. Whatever is done should be done at once.”
But the “city fathers” were more inclined to consider the shanties as a blight upon the city and their owners a nuisance.
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 built directly on city streets, such as — but not limited to — Fonseca (disappeared when Higgins Avenue was extended) and Common (now Henry Avenue) streets. These were the two streets where Coolican concentrated his relief efforts.
When Broadway extended to the Red River at The Forks (the Hudson’s Bay Company Flats), a number of shanties also projected onto the street. The city engineer told council that the shanties had intruded on the street for at least five or six years. When confronted, the shanty owners announced that their intention was to remain in their homes, which they believed was permitted by the city’s regulations.
The engineer said the squatters were either unable or refused to remove the obstructions. He suggested that city surveyors mark out street lines and clear off any encroaching buildings, which resulted in a motion to that effect being passed, although the bylaw did not apply to the shanties on Broadway. Council permitted these dwellings to remain in place until at least the following spring. When the spring arrived and if the squatters on Broadway still refused to move, the council said it would take legal action against the shanty owners.
It should also be noted that some Winnipeg businessmen were guilty of building directly on city streets, which was mentioned in Wasell's report. The engineer said that the CPR’s dining room and check office projected into the street, as did old building material from the depot and cordwood. The CPR ignored notifications to remove all projections into city streets, and the lumber firm of Rutherford & Co. ignored a similar notification to remove cordwood from the street.
Alderman William McCreary objected to ordering the businesses to remove buildings projecting into city streets as well as other obstructions, claiming exceptions should be made.
Alderman George Wilson thought the council should not discriminate when enforcing the bylaw. He pointed out that the poor were prepared to comply, but all businessmen refused. The subsequent motion passed by the council on May 26, 1884, did not discriminate by class when ordering the removal of any obstructions from city streets.
The first shanty removals occurred in the summer of 1884 following an order issued by the city engineer. The Sun reported on July 29, 1884, that 10 shanties had been removed from HBC property, but others with “large families” refused to leave.
At the time, the HBC was by far the largest ratepayer in the city, paying property taxes of $10,210.10 (Sun, October 1, 1884). Next on the list was John Christian Schultz, whose property holdings added $5,173.69 to the city’s coffers.
It became clear that the city had little real power to force people to vacate, and those who left had done so voluntarily. In fact, the city solicitor suggested that bylaws should be revised to give the city engineers greater powers to deal with “the shanty nuisance.” In the absence of more powers, the solicitor said all the owners of shanties be proceeded against under the city’s fire bylaw.
At a September 29, 1884, council meeting, a letter from A. McDougall, of the Winnipeg Lumber Company, complained about the shanties on the HBC reserve south of Water Street (now William Stephenson Way). He said sparks from the flues of the shanties endangered “an immense quantity of lumber” piled in the vicinity. McDougall said that if a fire occurred, he would hold the city responsible.
On October 2, the city engineer was instructed by council to immediately remove all shanties and obstructions on the streets at the HBC Flats or in any other part of the city where squatter shanties were located.
The article headlined War on Shanties (Sun, October 21, 1884) reported that HBC authorities, with city council’s backing, proceeded to the Flats “and ordered the inmates of the shanties to vacate them or they would pull them down over their heads.” Since they had been threatened with violence by shanty residents — one person claimed they would be shot — the HBC authorities marched on Shanty Town under the protection of two city police officers.
“The police officers, to show them they meant business, pulled down one cook house attached to a shanty, and threatened to pull more down if the inmates did not leave.”
Another deadline was then imposed on the shanty dwellers at the Flats, but it was also ignored.
In December 1884, Winnipeg Fire Chief W.O. McRobie, reported to city council that he failed to enforce the city bylaw compelling occupants of shanties to build brick chimneys. He said “if it is a hardship to evict them, it was equally a hardship to compel them to build chimneys, which in most cases would cost more than the shanties are worth; also that the danger of a fire spreading during the winter was much less.”
In turn, the fire chief suggested that the city solicitor prepare a different bylaw to deal with the shanties, “as I consider there is a great danger from a conflagration in certain quarters of the city on account of the near proximity of the shanties to large buildings, lumber yards, etc., and the careless manner in which fire is kept in and around them.”
(Next week: part 4)