by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Canadian National Railway (CNR) announced on Monday, August 14, 1950, that the company intended to sell a portion of its property in Grand Beach, the resort community that began life four decades earlier under the banner of the former Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR). Offered for sale was the land upon which the hotel, dance pavilion, dining hall, lunch counter, bath house, staff dormitories, carousel and ice house stand occupied. Not placed on the real estate market was the land leased to cottagers, nor the large expanse of sandy beach that made the resort a popular destination for sun worshippers.
“We want to assure you,” wrote D.V. Conder, general manager of the CNR, to Mrs. D. Deally, president of the Grand Beach Campers’ Association (Winnipeg Free Press, August 14, 1950), “it will be our constant endeavour to provide the type of service needed for this community and our many patrons there.”
The railway had not operated the hotel for 23 years. Instead, the hotel was leased to the Railway News Company. Winnipegger C.C. Phelan was the president of the company that controlled the hotel.
Phelan told the Free Press that the hotel lease had expired in 1949, at which time he was given another lease for just one year.
The resort had witnessed a drop in visitors, which was described by one railway official as “an indication of the grief still being suffered by Winnipeggers from the spring flood.
“People just haven’t got the heart nor the money to vacation at resorts while their muddy furniture still sits on the front lawn.”
The April-May 1950 flood in the Red River Valley had inundated a significant portion of the city and rural areas, causing the evacuation of nearly 100,000 Manitobans. On May 5 — referred to as “Black Friday” — dikes were breached, sending water surging across the formerly protected zones of the city and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents from their flooded homes. After the flood damage was tallied up by authorities, it was estimated that 10,500 Winnipeg homes had been affected by the flood.
Given the magnitude of the flood, it is understandable that people were not in the mood to celebrate the arrival of summer with a trip to Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg resort communities.
Just three weeks after the CNR announcement that it would be selling land at Grand Beach, one of the resort’s most famous attractions was destroyed. On Labour Day, September 4, 1950, the Grand Beach Dance Pavilion was reduced to a mass of charred rubble.
The fire began at 11:15 a.m. and by 3 p.m. only embers remained.
“A railway volunteer fire-fighter brigade, assisted by vacationers, many of whom had been dancing in the building nine hours before, prevented spread of the blaze,” reported the September 5, 1950, Free Press. It was estimated that 2,000 visitors were on hand to watch the destruction of the dance pavilion, adjoining boardwalk restaurant and soft drink stand concession. The damage was said by CNR officials to amount to $135,000. Fortunately, no one was injured by the fire.
“Had the blaze broken out a few hours previously, danger of injury or death to (the) holiday-crowd, would have been vastly increased. Loss, too, would have been heavy.”
The last dance of the season, which ended shortly after 2 a.m. on Monday, had been attended by 1,500 people.
“Axes, shovels, sticks, pick-axes, all were used by the firemen, sweltering in a near 100-degree (F) temperature (37.7°C), to contain the fire to the pavilion and restaurant.”
While the dance hall was consumed by the fire, its contents were mostly saved. Philip Jones, the beach superintendent, said equipment and furniture had been loaded into trucks and carted away before the fire got well underway.
“However, some employees, living on the second floor, reported losing their possession — some even their total wages earned during the summer months.”
Eyewitnesses said a miracle had saved the other buildings at the resort when the wind shifted from the east to the south.
“When the wind was blowing from the east sparks were spreading to nearby buildings,” an eyewitness told the Free Press. “It looked as if we were going to lose everything. Then the wind shifted and the fire-fighters toppled the milk bar (to create a firebreak). From there on, things looked much brighter.”
Sections of the wood boardwalk were also torn up to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings.
At the peak of the fire, flames were said to have leaped six metres into the air above the dance pavilion.
“Young Winnipeggers, and their parents before them, regarded the dance pavilion as one of their favourite summer amusement spots,” according to the newspaper. “Since about 1918, when it was built, the dance hall has been the mecca for thousands of citizens on holidays and those down on the ‘Moonlight’ special train for the Saturday night dance.”
Ray Frost, 85, and today a cottage owner who started going to Grand Beach in 1934 with a church group from St. Jude’s in Winnipeg, said, “It was a beautiful dance hall, facing the beach.”
Frost, who after 1936 began taking daily return trains to Grand Beach — his father worked for the CNR and was given a family pass — remembered the devastation left behind by the fire. “The dance hall burned right to the ground,” he commented. “There was nothing left.”
Railway officials were unable to say whether the high-beamed, quonset-style building, stretching 190 feet (57.91 metres) along the boardwalk and facing the lake shore, would be replaced.
“If the remainder of the buildings and property is purchased as an amusement park,” one CNR official said, “then a dance hall would have to be constructed as a centre spot.”
In the meantime, the company insisted that the loss of the dance hall would not affect the sale of the railway property.
G.G. Braid, the regional real estate manager for the CNR, said: “So far as the loss of the pavilion and other buildings is concerned, those persons tendering will simply deduct what they consider the value of the properties destroyed by the fire from the amount of their tenders” (Free Press, September 7, 1950).
“I doubt very much if (the) loss of the dance hall will affect popularity of the resort to the degree at first considered by some following the fire.”
He believed that people came to Grand Beach because of the hotel rather the dance pavilion.
In 1950, the hotel and concessions along the boardwalk were purchased from the CNR by Winnipeg accountant Harvey J. Emke. Following Emke’s accidental death in a car crash, Grand Beach Investment Ltd., headed by W.J. Postolu, who had bought the Grand Beach Hotel from Emke, negotiated a deal for all the Emke estate holdings. According to the August 17, 1959, Free Press, the new owner failed to live up to his obligations and the railway again took over complete control of the resort. The final sale of the entire resort would not take place until a decade later. Furthermore, the dance pavilion was never rebuilt.
When the CNR put the Grand Beach land on the market in 1950, the railway officials stressed that there would be no reduction in services to the Lake Winnipeg area, but by then the resort was already declining in popularity. John Selwood and Matthew Tonts wrote in the Prairie Perspectives article, A Home Away from Home at Grand Beach, Manitoba, 2003, that “highway improvements in other parts of the province had opened up many new resort areas, leaving the beaches of Lake Winnipeg to wallow in declining popularity as the railways allowed their facilities to deteriorate and car owners used their new found mobility to motor further afield.”
Still, before the decline in the 1950s, there was a lengthy period when the railways sponsored the most popular resorts in Manitoba, especially along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. While the CNR had created Grand Beach, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had developed Winnipeg Beach as a recreational area in the early 1900s.
William Whyte, the western representative of the CPR, had selected the site of a new resort at Winnipeg Beach in 1901.
During a stopover in Montreal on April 20, 1901, Whyte said in an interview with a Gazette reporter, that “the toilers of the (Manitoba) capital (Winnipeg)” were “badly in need of a place within easy reach, where they can take a day’s outing and enjoy the health-giving breeze from Lake Winnipeg.”
It was a few minutes before 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, June 6, 1903, that the first express train, hauling 11 passenger coaches rolled into the CPR station “for Winnipeg’s new summer week-end resort” (Winnipeg Telegram). The new 13-hectare resort was fronted by a sandy crescent-shaped beach, 2.9 kilometres in length.
In 1914, the CNoR decided to establish its own summer resort at Grand Marais (Big Marsh), the name given to the area by La Verendrye in 1783.
The CNoR also planned to develop Victoria Beach, but it was to be an exclusive resort, so the CNoR had looked to Grand Beach as a resort for the everyday worker in the same manner as Whyte’s vision for Winnipeg Beach.
Railway entrepreneurs William Mackenzie and Donald Mann took over the bankrupt Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company in January 1896, and pushed lines into Manitoba’s Interlake region as well as east and west of Winnipeg. The Canadian Northern Railway was created in 1899, and all the railways owned by Mann and Mckenzie were incorporated into the new entity, which was to become a trans-continental railway in competition with the CPR.
The CNoR needed to acquire land from various sources for the new resort. The southern portion of the site was the 1901 homestead of Gilbert Dennett. In 1911, Charles Henry Powell obtained a patent for the northern portion (Selwood and Tonts).
Selwood and Tonts wrote that the Canadian government surveyors in 1909 had targeted the sandy beach enclosing the lagoon in Section 19 to the east of the headlands as a potential vacation spot, but a plan of subdivision was never registered at the Provincial Land Titles Office. The government withdrew its plan for the beach in 1912, when the CNoR proposed its own summer resort development. The land along the shoreline was leased to the railway through its company, Mackenzie, Mann & Co., which had also obtained control of all the other property in the area by buying out the homesteaders.
Even before the official opening of the resort, the CNoR had been holding picnics for its workers at Grand Beach.
The March 24, 1915, Free Press, announced that the first passenger train over the Lake Winnipeg branch of the CNoR left St. Boniface at 7:15 a.m. with engineer Alexander Black at the controls.
“The new line extends to Grand Marais, 58 miles (93 kilometres) from St. Boniface, and opens up a country of great promise, and one that must inevitably attract many settlers, now that transportation has been provided. All that has kept this region back has been its inaccessibility.”
The train passed through the parishes of Kildonan, St. Paul, St. Andrews, St. Clements, St. Peters and Canterbury.
“The stations existing to be added to as the necessity arises are — Goner, 18 miles (29 kilometres) out; East Selkirk, 25 miles (40 kilometres); Semple, 31 miles (50 kilometres); Libau, 35 miles (56 kilometres); Thalberg, 43 miles (69 kilometres); Balsam Bay, 53 miles (85 kilometres); and Grand Marais, 59 miles (95 kilometres). From Balsam Bay the line runs in sight of Lake Winnipeg and as Grand Marais is approached, it gradually climbs to a moderate elevation, yet one which permits an appreciation of the scenic beauties of the shore.”
The newspaper predicted that Grand Marais was destined to become “Winnipeg’s choicest summer resort on account of the great extent of almost perfectly sheltered water for boating, bathing and fishing.”
At the time, the passenger train ran only on Tuesdays each week from St. Boniface to Grand Marais, leaving the city at 7:15 a.m. and returning at 5:45 p.m. that day.
Under the heading, New Summer Resort on Lake Winnipeg, the April 24, 1915, Free Press, described the location: “The water occupies a depression along a fault line which separates the granites from the limestones, and each rock gives its character to the scenery. Hard, weather resisting igneous and metamorphic formations are favourably accompanied by a rugged, disturbed surface, and much more easily disintegrated limestone disclose their presence to the eye by a slightly accentuated relief, and a monotonous skyline. This is why the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg has such a tremendous advantage as regards scenery over the western side ...”
“The spit of land separating the bay from the lake is of the purest sand, carrying a stunted growth of oak, and destined by nature as the only Manitoba rival, at least in the neighbourhood of Winnipeg, of the classic links of St. Andrews.”
The newspaper further predicted that Winnipeg Beach and Grand Marais (Grand Beach) would develop on “quite different lines, and that while Winnipeg Beach and the other delightful resorts on the west shore will continue to attract the crowd, Grand Marais and Victoria Beach will be resorted to more by the class which patronize Kenora and Lake of the Woods.
“In any case this city is fortunate in having another summer resort or two added to its already long list.”
The first excursions to Grand Beach were announced for June 28, 1915, with three trains leaving Winnipeg at 9 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
“The regular ‘year round’ trains daily except Saturday and Sunday will continue as usual stopping at Transcona and going on to Victoria Beach, 16 miles (26 kilometres) beyond Grand Beach.”
The CNoR announced that it was still in the process of building a dining hall and lunch counter, so picnickers were to govern themselves accordingly, by taking their own provisions for the trip.
“No provision has been made so far this season for week-end visitors, but it is expected that they will shortly be able to find accommodations in sleeping cars as they did last year.”
A few brave soles did camp out overnight on the sand dunes.
(Next week: part 2)