by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The first Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) summer excursions to the new resort at 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. But at this time, the resort was not officially opened, as the facilities were either being planned or in development.
The regular “year-round” trains left Winnipeg daily, except on Saturday and Sunday, and continued as usual by stopping at Transcona and going on to Victoria Beach, 26 kilometres beyond Grand Beach.
The CNoR announced that it was still in the process of building a dining hall and lunch counter at Grand Beach, 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” (Manitoba Free Press, April 24, 1915).
A few brave soles did camp out overnight on the sand dunes.
Shortly afterward, the railway company provided a couple of sleeping cars for those wanting to stay overnight at Grand Beach, with a single berth costing $1 per night. A dining car provided meals at 50-cents each.
The official opening of the new CNoR resorts at Grand Marais (Grand Beach) and Victoria Beach were on June 17, 1916. In a newspaper advertisement, announcing “the two new lake resorts,” the CNoR promised that “everything is in readiness ... A dancing pavilion, refreshments booths in abundance. Bathing houses newly erected and fully equipped; in fact, this recently discovered Western Coney Island (Grand Beach) is expecting a big season and preparing for it.”
Between 400 and 500 visitors took the train for the formal opening. The Free Press of June 19 that year noted that “quite a number made the (Saturday) trip for the purposes of inspecting the localities with a view of selecting sites for cottages.
In the days before a wooden boardwalk was constructed, the long, wide beach was used as a promenade where bare-footed walkers could have the fine, white sand slip between their toes as they strolled up and down the 1.6-kilometre stretch of beach.
“Behind the beach, and sheltered by a ridge of sand dunes, there is a large landlocked bay, in which boating can be indulged in safety, no matter how the stormy winds blow. The lands reserved for campers and cottagers rise fifteen to twenty-five above the lake and have a splendid forest growth of oak, elm, birch, maple and poplar, and a water frontage of five or six miles.”
Facilities were still under development and tent sites were in the process of being surveyed.
“Pending the completion of plotting the land, campers will be allowed to pitch their tents free of charge on site of their own choosing, and beginning about July 1, a series of moonlight excursions will be inaugurated,” the Free Press reported.
By July 1916, the CNoR was advertising moonlight excursions to Grand Beach at a cost of 50-cents, which departed Winnipeg at 5:15 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 5:05 p.m. on Saturdays. The excursions allowed “two hours for dancing and bathing.”
“These temporary arrangements provided the railway company’s executives with time to clarify the landownership situation and to prepare development plans for the property,” wrote John Selwood and Matthew Tonts in the 2003 article, A Home Away from Home at Grand Beach, Manitoba, Prairie Perspectives. “The company had been involved in a complex series of dealings in gaining control of their landholdings. Their interests in the land had been accumulated over a period of years and, by 1918, extended as far south as Balsam Bay, some four miles to the south of Grand Beach.”
The convenience of the trains to Grand Beach allowed groups to descend upon the resort in ever increasing numbers. On July 21, 1917, 3,000 members of the Machinists Union “and their friends” from Winnipeg and Transcona held a picnic at Grand Beach.
“Races and sports were the chief drawing cards for the majority, and the beach itself was well patronized, there being thousands of bathers in the lake from the arrival of the first train until well late in the evening” (Free Press, July 23, 1917).
At the time, many swimmers actually rented bathing suits from the two CNoR controlled bathhouses.
The Odd Fellows also held a picnic at Grand Beach on the same day as the machinists, with about 2,000 people taking part in the events organized by the fraternal society at the resort.
The most famous of the special excursions to Grand Beach was the annual Caterers’ Jubilee Picnic, which was frequently held on the first Wednesday following the July 1, then known as Dominion Day (now Canada Day), although some were held in mid-July. The annual beach party was sponsored by the association comprised of “food processors, manufacturers, wholesales, retailers, caterers, salesmen and travellers in the Winnipeg region” (Archives of Manitoba).
Even during the Second World War, the picnic was a popular diversion from thoughts of loved ones serving overseas. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on July 16, 1942, that 10,000 people had boarded six trains the previous day to participate in the 56th annual event that featured sports — everything from pillow-fighting to rolling-pin tossing to sack and foot races — in the afternoon and dancing in the evening.
Not only were bathing beauties judged, but so were babies. “Judges were faced with 93 of the healthiest babies ever entered in the caterers’ baby show.”
A $15 hamper was awarded to Mr. and Mrs. J. De Cruyennere of St. Boniface for having the biggest family in attendance. Ten of their 12 children made the trek to Grand Beach.
It was in July 1916 that R.G. Mackenzie, the general manager of the CNoR and the son of William Mackenzie, journeyed to the site with company architect Charles W. Leavitt of New York. Mackenzie wanted land sales to be restricted to a subdivision in the neighbourhood of Balsam Bay, where a fine sand beach existed. Rocky sections of Grand Beach (Grand Marais) were to be cleared for cottage development. The headland at Grand Beach was not to be sold.
According to Leavitt, Mackenzie envisioned a picnic area with a hotel on the northernmost point, “as well as boardwalk, fakir shows, bathing pavilions, baseball, boating, etc., etc., on the sand beach running out to the east from the lake which is now owned by the railway and he is endeavoring to make a lease of this land from the Government.”
Selwood and Tonts wrote that Leavitt was instructed by Mackenzie to draft a plan for the proposed layout of the area, produce a concept plan for the hotel and associated cottages, and provide detailed plans for a boardwalk.
The plans were completed by December 1916, and by mid-1917, the CNoR secured the government lease and thus had control of all the land at Grand Beach, although ownership issues were still pending. The southern portion of the land was secured partially in the name of R.J. Mackenzie, the CNoR and the Grand Marais Development Company, which was controlled by J.S. Vasser, a real estate agent with ties to the railway company.
The southern portion of the land, identified as Grand Marais, was subdivided and developed by the Grand Beach and Balsam Summer Resort Limited, and marketed as Vasser Properties (Selwood and Tonts). Vasser was the principal agent. These subdivisions were laid out in conventional suburban form and contained larger freehold lots. Smaller adjacent leasehold lots were laid out on the Grand Beach promontory by the CNoR, and became commonly known as the “campsite,” after its original purpose to contain only tents.
In 1918, the August civic holiday necessitated running 13 trains to Grand Beach in order to carry 15,000 visitors to the resort.
“A year ago the travel to this resort,” Osborne Scott, the assistant general manager of the CNoR, told the Free Press on August 6, 1918, “was considered a record breaker, but this one caps it by 2,000 more persons taking the trip, which alone speaks of the popularity of the resort with Winnipeggers ...
“A feature of the large turnout to Grand Beach this holiday was the large number of children and scores of women were seen with little babes in arms.”
(Next week: part 3)