by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
A year after the first Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) train crossed the newly-built Louise Bridge on July 26,1881, members of the Canadian Press Association travelled on the company’s rail lines to view the progress of track construction as it was laid from Winnipeg east to Rat Portage (now Kenora) and westward toward the Rockies. It was typical of the railway promotions of the era, both in Canada and the United States. While reporters, editors and publishers jumped at the chance to be wined and dined at the expense of the railways and communities along the route they journeyed, the expectation in return from the companies, cities and towns was that their newspapers would spread the word of the marvels they saw, whether it was the track work in progress, newly-established townsites awaiting people to build homes, the natural wonders along the way, or the fertility of the land through which the tracks passed with the goal in mind of attracting farmland settlers. It was a symbiotic relationship that benefitted the purposes of all parties involved.
According to a speech given by John Cameron, of the London (Ontario) Advertiser, on the press association’s first day in Winnipeg: “They had come ... to spy out the land, but they had come with friendly intentions, and with a desire to be pleased, and if anything could be shown them which they could praise they would gladly give an impartial account of it.”
Winnipeg and Manitoba were in dire need of some “praise” from the ink-stained fingers of scribes. In April of 1882, a several-months-long speculative real estate bubble had burst, and the
previously bountiful source of eager investors and their money had dried up.
Until the bubble burst, the land boom was accompanied by widespread — and often widely exaggerated — examples of pro-Winnipeg boosterism. “The growth of Winnipeg since 1877 has been phenomenal,” said George M. Grant, who wrote 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 marvelous that may be — is sure to be eclipsed by the next ...
The speculative boom was brought on by the presence of the CPR, which spent millions on a passenger station, freight sheds, a roundhouse and other railway-related buildings on land that was a gift to the railway from the city. Winnipeg became the main supply depot for construction on the westward expansion of the CPR to the British Columbia coast. The railway brought workers and settlers to open up the New West and they all passed through Winnipeg.
“Winnipeg is London or New York on a small scale. You meet people from almost every part of the world. Ask a man on the street for direction, and the chances are ten to one that he answers, ‘I have just arrived, sir’,” added Grant, who first saw Winnipeg in 1872, when it was “a few rickety-looking shanties.”
“Thousands of dollars were made by operators in a few minutes,” wrote J. Macoun in his book, Manitoba and the Great Northwest, published in 1882.
“Most of the large transactions were in Main Street property,” said Col. William Nassau Kennedy, the city’s registrar of deeds, in December 1882. “The Hub corner changed hands several times. A few years ago a portion of that was purchased for $15,000, and the purchaser was considered to be crazy ... now it has sold for $115,000.
Eventually, Main Street lots would sell for $2,000 per foot of frontage, which was more than what property sold for in Chicago, the city that Winnipeg had
aspirations to emulate.
Speculation wasn’t limited to Winnipeg lots. Jim Coolican, Winnipeg’s “Real Estate King,” in bold-type advertisements proclaimed: “Cartwright Leads Them All. Unquestionably the Best
Situated Rising Town in the Province.” In his Winnipeg auction house, Coolican managed to move Cartwright lots to the tune of $20,000 each. Cartwright, named after Canadian finance minister Sir Robert Cartwright (1835-1912), which today remains a tiny village near the North Dakota border.
A year after the spectacular collapse of the real estate boom of 1881-82,
optimism still reigned, although the wild year of speculation was never to be again duplicated in Winnipeg.
The following year, local newspapers wrote of “Winnipeg’s march forward,” and that “each year (was) an advance on its predecessor.” The Winnipeg Sun on March 31, 1883, wrote of the “Boom of 1883.”
Of course, when taking into account what had happened, any subsequent
so-called “boom” was muted by the consequences of the earlier collapse.
(Next week: part 2)