by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
When the ballots were counted on January 5, 1874, Francis Evans Cornish was elected the first mayor of Winnipeg. Despite the irregularities surrounding the election of Cornish, the vote was considered a momentous event in the relatively youthful community, which was only incorporated as a city by an act of the Manitoba legislature on November 8, 1873.
With the bold official declaration of the town-sized community as a city, the citizenry began to envision the arrival of unfettered prosperity and sought to promote the future prospects of Winnipeg to the outside world.
Among the writers intent upon proclaiming the good news about Winnipeg’s potential to those beyond the boundaries of Manitoba was George Babington Elliott, a transplanted journalist from Eastern Canada. In September 1874, the Manitoba Free Press published Elliott’s pamphlet entitled, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It was in 1860. His purpose in writing the multi-page report was to “supply a demand” that had not yet been filled, which was the desire by the city’s business and political elite to promote Winnipeg to the rest of North America.
Prominent in his pamphlet was the real estate market and the development of city land in 1874. In fact, the majority of advertisers in the pamphlet were local real estate agents. By discussing the real estate market, Elliott was able to demonstrate the progress that was being made in Winnipeg since Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870.
“It will, of course, be remembered that the vast and wonderful changes which have taken place in the locality known as Winnipeg have been wrought chiefly within the last three or four years,” Elliott wrote.
It was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th centuries for journalists to engage in self-serving promotion of communities and regions. In some cases, business interests and governments even paid the expenses of out-of-town journalists to come and take in the sights of their “burgeoning” communities. After being treated to extravagant feasts and free-flowing liquor, among other perks, the expectation from these “paid ink-slingers” was for them to write glowing reports of what they witnessed. Facts contained in the copy sent by the correspondents to their respective newspapers and magazines were interspersed with claims of alleged potential for the communities under discussion. It mattered little whether or not their reports contained quite fanciful or greatly exaggerated expectations related to them by their generous hosts.
There are numerous examples of such champagne tours being extended to correspondents.
In 1904, city council, the Winnipeg Board of Trade (chamber of commerce) and the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange (now WinnipegREALTORS®) formed a group to spread word about the commercial benefit’s of Winnipeg and its hinterland, as well as promote immigration from the United States. The group organized free trips to the city for American newspaper and magazine writers and used what they wrote in a pamphlet sent to potential immigrants entitled, What Famous Correspondents Say About Western Canada.
Fearful that the English press was promoting Australia over Canada, Governor General Lord Lorne even paid out of his pocket the expense of sending four British journalists to visit Western Canada while the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was under construction. The paid ink-slingers from England were apparently impressed by the generosity of Lord Lorne. The Times of London afterward changed its emphasis from Australia and instead began to promote immigration to Western Canada.
In 1911, Chicago Record Herald travel writer, William Eleroy Curtis, visited Winnipeg and praised it in his hometown newspaper as being “destined to become one of the greatest distribution commercial centres of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”
With such a glowing account of the city’s prospects, Winnipeggers began to consider Chicago as a “sister city” to emulate. With such encouraging words in print as those provided by Curtis, Winnipeg was forecast by local promoters as destined to become the “Chicago of the North.”
The claim to future fame came at a time when Winnipeg was at the crossroads of three transcontinental railroads — the CPR, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway.
But in 1874, there was neither a railway — the Pembina branch of the CPR which tied into a line south of the U.S.-Canadian border and wouldn’t be completed until 1878, although a sod-turning ceremony was held in September 1874, and the transcontinental CPR line didn’t reach Winnipeg until 1881 — nor a steady influx of American, British and Canadian paid ink-slingers to write words of praise about the city. It was left to local journalists, such as Elliott, to write about Winnipeg’s progress to the outside world. When Elliott penned his pamphlet, the only true connection to the rest of the world was via steamboats that plied the Red River and linked Winnipeg with commercial centres in the U.S., such as St. Paul, Minnesota. But the connection was seasonal and limited to the times when the Red wasn’t frozen over.
The Dawson Trail, a corduroy road and portage-riddled route through the wilderness of the Canadian Shield, provided a tenuous link to Eastern Canada. It was the least favoured of the three routes to Winnipeg as it was fraught with peril. The other route from Europe was by ship to Hudson Bay and then by canoe or York boat across major rivers and Lake Winnipeg to the city.
One man was said to have arrived at the office of Winnipeg MP Donald Smith after a trek over the Dawson Road in pitiable condition and proclaimed: “Well, look at me, ain’t I a healthy sight? I’ve come by the Government water route from Thunder Bay and it’s taken me twenty-five days to do it. During that time I’ve been half starved on victuals ... The water used to pour into my bunk of nights, and the boat was so leaky that every bit of baggage I’ve got is water-logged and ruined. But that ain’t all. I’ve broken my arm and sprained my ankle helping to carry half a dozen trunks over a dozen portages, and when I refused to take a paddle in one of the boats, an Ottawa Irishman told me to go to h--l and said that if I gave him any more of my d----d chat he’d let me get out and walk to Winnipeg.”
Three years before Elliott wrote his pamphlet, Winnipeg had a scant population of just 241 people. At the time, the community was a motley collection of homes and businesses centred around the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street. According to Elliott, Main Street, formerly called the Selkirk Trail and the Main Road, was referred to in 1874 as Garry Street.
Elliott also related that not everyone referred to the community as Winnipeg, as many preferred to call it Fort Garry. In fact, the name Winnipeg only came to dominate after the Dominion (Canadian) Post Office dropped its use of Fort Garry in 1876 as the designation for the community at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The reality was that Winnipeg was then in the process of enveloping Fort Garry, which became a suburb of the city.
Elliot said that the population of Winnipeg had reached an estimated 1,500 people when the first proposal was made to incorporate the community as a city in September 1872.
“There is some difference of opinion with regard to the population of the city (in 1874),” wrote Elliot. “Estimates go as high as 4,000 ...”
In his book Manitoba, W.L. Morton gives the population of Winnipeg in 1874 as 3,700 people.
Whatever the estimate, Winnipeg was comparatively small in size when describing the population for any “city” on the edge of the North American frontier. In 1871, for example, Chicago was a bustling frontier city with a population of 300,000 people.
“If there was one characteristic that was shared by nearly all Winnipeggers in this period (after incorporation) it was the firm belief that the future of their community was boundless. A place where there had been no one but fur traders and Indians before, but which today numbered a thousand might be expected to number tens or even hundreds of thousands tomorrow (Alan Artibise, Gateway City: Documents on the City of Winnipeg 1873-1913).
At its time of incorporation, Winnipeg occupied a narrow strip of land radiating outward from Portage Avenue and Main Street, and was limited in extent by the Red River to the east and the Assiniboine River to the south. St, Boniface was not then part of Winnipeg and the future western suburb of St. James had yet to be conceived.
Elliott described in detail the buildings comprising 1874 Winnipeg, such as the Pacific Hotel, “a large three-storey brick building with flat roof” along Main Street, and the “Wesleyan Education Institute on the corner of Schultz and Main streets.”
Today’s Schultz Street does not intersect with Main, but with Jarvis Avenue.
Elliot wrote that A.G. Bannatyne owned a grocery, liquor and general store on the northeast corner of Main and Post Office (now Lombard Avenue). Bannatyne was born in the Orkney Islands and was a former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee who served briefly as postmaster during the time when Riel headed the provisional government of the Red River Settlement (1869-70).
Point Douglas in 1874 was at the northern limit of the city’s boundaries and was growing as a location favoured by “a very industrious well-to-do people,” according to Elliot. Many of the community’s elite, such as E.L. Barber and James Ashdown, built their homes in Point Douglas.
Elliott wrote that new arrivals to Winnipeg from outside Canada were processed at the Dominion Immigration Sheds at The Forks .
The Manitoban complained that little had been done to help prepare the immigration sheds for the accommodation of newcomers. “The kitchens have no stoves,” the newspaper reported on May 3, 1973, “and the chimneys as they are presently arranged are perfectly useless for cooking or anything else, unless something in the way of a useable fireplace is provided. The whole building is dirty, unswept, and unfit for human habitation. Who is responsible for such a state of things, and why is not something done at once to put the place into better order.”
Over the years of its existence, the sheds continued to receive immigrants despite the numerous complaints found in newspapers about the deteriorating conditions within the two buildings.
From May 1 to October 1, 1874, a total of 2,693 immigrants were accommodated at the sheds, including 1,368 Mennonites.
Elliott, who drove a buggy throughout Winnipeg to compile information for his pamphlet, said the city possessed 903 buildings of all sorts, which he broke down to 408 dwellings, 17 hotels, seven saloons, 28 boarding houses, 27 manufacturing plants and 421 miscellaneous structures.
“Brick sidewalks are, of course, unknown, but on Main Street and one or two other streets substantial sidewalks composed of pine planking have been laid down, and it affords an excellent footing in wet or muddy weather. Crossings composed of oak also laid across the streets are important points,” added Elliott.
New arrivals in Winnipeg were quick to comment disparagingly about the prairie gumbo that typified the city’s streets, making them virtually impassable after a spring runoff or downpour.
The dismal conditions of Winnipeg’s streets partially contributed to the movement toward incorporation as a city. Those favouring incorporation felt that becoming a city would allow the implementation of property taxes to improve roads and sidewalks and build sewers. Among the first expenditures approved by the first city council was $8,246 for sidewalks, $3,204 for roads and $641 for bridges.
(Next week: part 2)