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Start of a new era of optimism? City once had lofty aspirations
Nov 19, 2004

by Bruce Cherney

Winnipeg may never realize the lofty growth spurt of over 100 years ago, but in the 2000s it is steadily gaining ground after years of near stagnation in the 1990s.

The Conference Board of Canada projects that Winnipeg will experience an annual population increase of between 4,000 to 6,000 people and surpass 670,000 people sometime in 2010. By 2026, there will be 750,000 people living in Winnipeg.

The opening of the new $133.5-million MTS Centre this week is a symptom of a renewed confidence in Winnipeg which arguably hasn’t been seen since the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“It’s part of the piece for downtown renewal,” said Premier Gary Doer prior to the official opening the MTS Centre. “I’m really excited about the downtown.”

The premier said he looked outside of the new arena and entertainment complex and saw a return to construction cranes in the inner city. Besides the MTS Centre, there’s A&B Sound, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Red River College downtown campus, the Millennium Library, a new Manitoba Hydro office tower in the works and other projects being discussed.

“I’m confident this world-class facility in the heart of our city will be ... a shot in the arm (for downtown development),” said Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz at the opening of the MTS Centre. “We are just getting started.”

Most Winnipeggers would probably be rather surprised that a single announcement that hit the world stage in 1903 is responsible for a sequence of events which dashed the hopes of our city to become the “Chicago of the North.” The real irony is that it took only one 80-kilometre long canal hundreds of kilometres south of Winnipeg in a small Central American country to end the dream.

Until the opening of the Panama Canal, hopes soared high that Winnipeg would rival in prestige and power 

some of North America’s great centres. Instead, Winnipeg would have to be content to settle into a staid existence and watch rival Western Canadian cities surpass it. Essentially, Winnipeg has had to struggle to overcome this one obstacle for most of the 20th century.

Winnipeg at the turn-of-the-20th-century was a city on the move. People from far and wide came to Winnipeg and when they journeyed beyond its borders, they extolled its prospects to anyone who would listen.

“All roads lead to Winnipeg,” declared Chicago journalist William E. Curtis after a visit to Winnipeg in 1911. “It is the focal point of three transcontinental lines of Canada, and nobody ... can pass from one part of Canada to another without going through Winnipeg. It is a gateway through which all the commerce of the east and the west, and the north and the south must flow ... It is destined to become one of the greatest distributing commercial centres of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

“The growth of Winnipeg since 1877 has been phenomenal,” wrote George M. Grant, who published a historical travelogue of Canada in 1882. “Statistics need not be given, for they are paraded in every newspaper, and so far, the growth of one month — no matter how marvellous that may be — is sure to be eclipsed by the next.”

He called Winnipeg “London or New York on a small scale.”

From humble beginnings and a scant population of 3,000 people in 1870, Winnipeg had grown at such a spectacular rate that it boasted 136,035 people in 1911, making it the third largest city in Canada. Buildings seemed to spring up overnight. Financial institutions from the East scrambled to locate branch 

offices in the booming city.

The growing importance of Winnipeg resulted in jealousy arising among officials south of the Canadian border.

In 1904, delegates from Winnipeg city council, the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange (later renamed the Winnipeg Real Estate Board) went to St. Paul, Minnesota to emphasize the benefits of their city to an American audience. They were there to counter the U.S. government and other American groups engaged in a misinformation campaign aimed at denigrating the quickly growing city and Western Canada to prospective immigrants. 

What the group realized was that 

immigrants didn’t have to settle within the confines of Winnipeg. By settling in its  hinterland, the new supply of immigrants provided the city with another economic boost as a service centre for an increased population.

The Canadian groups created the Western Immigration Association, which was frustrated by the American Immigration of the Northwest that had been formed “for the purpose of keeping moving Americans away from Canada.”

The WCIA  organized free trips for American newspaper correspondents and then used their writings to publish a pamphlet sent to potential immigrants called, What Famous Correspondents Say About Western Canada.

The American Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg countered that the WCIA was “nothing less than a big real estate concern, and they are using the public money for the purpose of assisting real estate men to sell their land at a profit.”

There’s no question that real estate promotion was a prime concern — it would have been on either side of the border — but it did not carry the same clout as the speculative days of 1881 and 1882 when “Men made fortunes — mostly on paper — and life was one continuous joyride,” according to George Ham, the author of Reminiscences of a Raconteur. He called this era of real estate speculation following the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 “a fool’s paradise.”

Just as quickly as the real estate boom came, it went bust. Normalcy and an ethical approach eventually returned to the market with the creation of the self-regulatory Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange through an act of the Manitoba Legislature in 1903.

Winnipeg was created by people of vision, who knew that there was one weakness they had overcome in order to make their city rise in prominence. The vital link was the trans-Canada railway being built to link East and West. 

The city’s movers and shakers realized grandeur comes at a cost, so they set out to bribe CPR officials to reroute the main line from Selkirk to Winnipeg. The cost of the bribe was land for a passenger station, a bridge, cash and no taxes in perpetuity. 

Once this bill was paid, the formerly sleepy little town, which had a population of only 8,000 in 1879, awoke in 1881 to discover it had nine charter banks, eight loan companies,39 manufacturing concerns,50 wholesale mercantile concerns, 170 retail stores and 104 miscellaneous trading companies, and a population of 20,000!

In 1879, before the arrival of the railway, there were only about 1,000 houses at an assessed value of nearly $3.5 million, but in 1881 the assessed value had jumped to over $9.2 million.

In 1881-82, immigrants poured in to take advantage of the 2,000 jobs the CPR had just announced at its new shops, and homes were built at a dizzying rate.

In the period 1907-10, the Winnipeg Development and Industrial Bureau had handled 58,000 inquiries for information from firms interested in establishing branches in Winnipeg.

By 1906, Winnipeg-based Great West Life Assurance Company was operating nationally. 

Western demand for manufactured products during this period climbed and so did Winnipeg’s manufacturing sector to meet this demand.

“We have distributed over two million pieces of printed matter including every size from a four-page leaflet up to a hundred-page highly illustrated booklet,” reported the bureau commissioner. “In our press service department we have supplied over one million lines of news matter about Winnipeg to magazines, newspapers, and other publications in the British Isles, Eastern Canada and the United States and with these we have furnished over two thousand photographs for illustrations.”

This was also a time when the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange had expanded to the point that it was one of the world’s principal grain markets. It was the only organization of its type in Canada and second only to Chicago within North America.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Theodore Roosevelt set out to build a canal. His first step was to buy out the rights for the canal’s construction from a French company for $40 million. The French had tried unsuccessfully to construct the first Panama Canal, beginning in 1890.

De Lessups, the builder of the Suez Canal, tried for 20 years to construct a waterway to link the Atlantic and the Pacific, but disease, the jungle and financial problems as well as the enormity of the task overcame his effort. The French gave up and the American president made it his mission to see the project through.

The Columbian government, which controlled the strip of land that would be the site of the canal, refused to ratify the agreement. Roosevelt, who was noted for the expression, “walk softly and carry a big stick,” then decided a revolution was the only way to force the hand of the Columbians. Under its Monroe Doctrine, which justified American intervention when America’s interests were threatened in North and South America, the United States had been a strong presence in the region. In 1850, Americans had built a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama.

Through his encouragement and a little gunboat diplomacy — the Americans moored the USS Nashville battleship in Colon Harbour to stress their intent — the Republic of Panama arose. The new republic signed a treaty that gave the older republic sovereignty rights for control of a Canal Zone 16 kilometres wide into perpetuity. Construction of the Panama Canal could begin unfettered by foreign intervention.

“All roads” would no longer lead to Winnipeg. It was a telling blow to Winnipeg’s aspirations, that once the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the new trade route bypassed the east to west overland rail route through Winnipeg. In the process, Vancouver with its Pacific port would become Western Canada’s largest city and Edmonton and Calgary, fuelled by oil revenues, would also overtake Winnipeg. When once it had been the third largest Canadian centre, Winnipeg now resides at eighth.

Grain from the Prairies could be shipped the shorter rail distance to Vancouver, loaded on tramp steamers and sent via the canal to Europe. Winnipeg’s grain handling monopoly was challenged for the first time in decades, to its determent. Grain handling through Churchill, the Prairie’s only deep sea port, never met initial expectations, primarily as a result of the short shipping season.

Also, manufactured goods could now be sent from the east to Vancouver and then shipped by rail to points as far away as Saskatchewan.

The benefit of the Panama Canal was that it shaved 8,000 kilometres off the ocean journey from the Pacific to Europe, and ocean travel is much cheaper than rail travel.

By 1914 and the opening of the canal, Winnipeg had reached its zenith of growth and then settled into a much slower pace of development.

The Panama Canal may not have been the sole reason for Winnipeg’s shattered dream of becoming the Chicago of the North, but it was unarguably a major blow. If nothing else, the canal brought a new realism to the city — dreams of grandeur and untold resulting wealth had to be envisioned on a more practical scale.