by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)
Canadian National Railway (CNR) officials said they had made an offer that would have allowed Grand Beach cottagers to purchase the lots they were leasing from the railway in 1958 (Free Press, August 18, 1959). According to the CNR, the railway had done its utmost to protect cottage owners leasing the railway’s lots. “We advised the residents about a year ago to band together to buy the property, but nothing came of it,” a representative of the railway told the newspaper.
While the leases for 540 cottage lots brought in an annual revenue of $27,000, railway officials said the CNR wanted to get out of the resort-hotel business at Grand Beach as “a matter of policy.” And when the cottage owners rejected the railway’s offer, the decision was reached to sell all the CNR’s property and buildings at the resort in a single block.
One of the offers came from the Grand Beach Development Corporation, a consortium of Winnipeg businessmen. Before the CNR gave its approval for the bid, the corporation made an offer to the existing cottagers, which would have allowed them to purchase their lots at a one-time cost of $500, or $10 a month over a period of five years.
At an August 24, 1959, meeting in the Skyway Lounge at Winnipeg International Airport, the cottage owners met with company officials and rejected the Grand Beach Development Corporation’s offer.
John T. Moyles, the spokesman for the corporation, said it was apparent that cottage owners were not interested in becoming company shareholders, which was part of the corporation’s original proposal, but they could still become lot owners.
He also felt that many of the cottagers were old-age pensioners who rejected the offer because they could not afford the $500 cost, even when it was spread over five years at $10 a month.
The company then made an offer of $275 per lot with an option of paying $10 per month for three years. Old-age pensioners were given the option to pay $6 per month over five years.
As is the case today, some of the cottages were owned by the sons and daughters or grandchildren of the first generation of cottagers at Grand Beach. Over the years, a cottage at the resort became a family heirloom and was taken over by generation after generation of the same family.
Since the tender had to be submitted by September 25, Moyles said everything had to be done quickly so that the corporation could begin contacting individual cottage owners for their support for the company’s bid.
“He added that many of the CNR’s retired employees were among the cottage owners and for this and public relations reasons the CNR would probably accept the tender from the concern which has the backing of the cottage owners even if the offer was not as large as others. It is believed that some large Canadian and American concerns are interested in the beach,” reported the Free Press article about the cottagers rejecting the corporation’s offer.
It was later reported that at least five syndicates had attempted to purchase the CNR holdings at Grand Beach for as high a bid as $350,000, although none were successful, as the railway was becoming activitely involved in protecting the interests of the cottagers by entering into negotiations with the public sector.
Even at the time that Moyle was making his pitch to cottage owners, there were rumours circulating that the Manitoba government was interested in acquiring the CNR property, which was the preferred option of the majority of cottage owners. In fact, cottagers were lobbying the province to become involved in the land sale.
“Premier Duff Roblin said the government had been approached by the Grand Beach Campers’ Association for protection against unsatisfactory development, should the CNR dispose of the property,” reported the Free Press on February 4, 1960.
W.J. Cessford, the president of the campers’ association, had several meetings with the premier and government officials over a six-month period. At the meetings, he called upon the provincial government to take over the resort. Cessford also talked to the syndicates expressing an interest in the resort with the CNR, but the association regarded any private sector takeover as detrimental to their own interests.
“A CNR spokesman confirmed that the railway and the government were discussing the proposal but would not say that the railway had withdrawn its call for (private) tenders.”
In his autobiography, Speaking for Myself, Roblin wrote that he noted “the real estate manoeuvrings of the Canadian National Railway. They owned a splendid piece of property on Lake Winnipeg called Grand Beach that was gifted with a magnificent sandy shore. The CNR originally had operated Grand Beach as a resort as it was not far from Winnipeg and found it good for business on their railway. Now, however, they were backing away from resort management and wanted to abandon the railway that served that facility. When I found out the property might be available, they agreed to part with it for a bargain price.”
The government’s purchase of the resort was officially confirmed in 1960, when MLA Gurney Evans, the minister of industry and commerce, on March 14 issued a press release to media outlets. The release announced that the government had bought all the resort land and buildings from the CNR for $225,000 (much lower than the highest private-sector bid of $350,000), and would take over the 150-acre railway-owned site at Grand Beach in 1961.
“High type accommodations and restaurant facilities will be constructed in the area,” with the help of private investments, said Evans.
The minister said the provincial government decided to purchase Grand Beach because “areas suitable for recreational development within easy reach of Winnipeg or northwestern Manitoba are at a premium.
“It was our opinion that public control of the Grand Beach area would tend to ensure the development of land use of this area of sufficient scope to satisfy the needs of the general public.”
Evans said the government would guarantee that the tenure of the cottage owners would continue for at least two or three years while the resort was being developed. As it turned out, the government continued CNR’s policy of leasing lots, although leases were signed for longer terms rather than being renewed each year, as had been the case under the railway.
When Roblin visited Grand Beach in July 1960, during a tour sponsored by the Eastern Manitoba Development Association, he expressed enthusiasm in the tourism potential for the resort, and predicted the government purchase would be a boost to the tourism industry throughout eastern Manitoba.
At the time, the provincial government began extending Hwy. 59 as a paved road from Hwy. 44 to Grand Beach, which was part of the Roblin government’s overall plan to assist tourism and economic development in the province. Until the Roblin era, rural roads had been neglected to the point of being hazardous to drivers seeking fun in the sun at resorts such as Grand Beach. The highways were filled with so many potholes that these had to be marked with a profusion of small red flags in order to warn motorists of their presence so that the potholes could be avoided.
“The quality of highways was raised everywhere because we saw good highways as an essential public investment,” wrote Roblin in his autobiography
Until the province took over possession of Grand Beach on January 1, 1961, CNR officials said the railway would make no new deals with cottage owners, but bids would be entertained for the rental of concessions for the 1960 summer season.
Once the resort was in the hands of the provincial government, Grand Beach Provincial Park with an area of 24.9 square kilometres, or a 2,500-hectare area, was created.
A reminder of Grand Beach’s history as a railway resort accessible only by moonlight and excursion trains ended when the last ever train departed for Winnipeg in September 1961. And with the train’s final departure, all the CNR’s supporting infrastructure in the resort community became expendable.
The 64-room Grand Beach Hotel, built in 1922 by the CNR, was torn down and then replaced in 1963 by a “motor hotel” (motel), which was another acknowledgement that automobiles had supplanted trains as the preferred mode of mass public transportation.
“Still to be dismantled is the railroad station,” reported the June 5, 1962, Springfield Leader, which became possible when the federal Board of Transportation declared the rail line abandoned. The railway was then given permission to have its station dismantled and the rail tracks leading to Grand Beach removed. In 1963, the last vestiges of the railway’s presence in the summer resort community were demolished without even a whisper of protest, although the event marked the passage of an important era in Grand Beach’s history, since it was the Canadian Northern Railway (later merged in the CNR) that first envisioned and then built Grand Beach, which remains to this day one of Manitoba’s most popular summer retreats for cottagers and visitors alike.