by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
A few months after the spectacular collapse of the real estate boom in April 1882, over 100 members of the Canadian Press Association descended on Winnipeg for a tour of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) completed sections of tracks linking the Manitoba capital to the outside world. While the land boom bubble had fatally burst, optimism still reigned, although the wild year of real estate 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 suspicions fostered by the consequences of the earlier collapse.
“Real estate values have been rather quiet since then (after the bubble burst),” said A.W. Ross, an MP called the “King of Land” as he was one of the more prominent speculators of 1881-82, “but there have been some heavy sales. I think the future of real estate is all right. We shall have another boom in central Winnipeg property. It will not be speculative, but a genuine boom. The city will continue to grow, and the demand will overtake the boom.”
It is estimated that only about five per cent of those who speculated in property made money. Too often, the collapse left people destitute. They had bought property with small down payments and were left with large debts that they couldn’t repay.
Robert Hill, in his book Manitoba (1890), wrote that men who had been “deemed honest and good for any amount, were turned out of house and home, their goods and chattels liened on and sold by the sheriff, in many cases not bringing the latter’s fee.”
“Banks and other financial institutions which had encouraged and fostered the reckless inflation of boom days,” wrote the Winnipeg Board of Trade in its 1884 report, “were now mercilessly exacting in their demands, and many a man, who in a more confident state of trade could have weathered the pressure with honour was forced to insolvency.”
Merchants who received goods on credit couldn’t meet their obligations to wholesalers and bankers, so they were forced to declare bankruptcy.
Wholesale and retail trade remained in the doldrums for several years in Winnipeg. Still, once the speculators were weeded out, the normal business of building a city could continue. The physical volume of construction in 1883 was higher than during the boom, but lower in value simply because material, labour and lot costs had substantially declined.
It was during this more subdued atmosphere of financial uncertainty that civic and CPR authorities, wanting to inject another round of boosterism, invited the press association members from Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes to Winnipeg. They arrived in the city on Saturday morning, August 26, 1882, aboard the “express” from St. Paul, Minnesota.
“The principal object of the trip was that the editors of the older Provinces might see for themselves the new land of promise which was then attracting attention, and through which rails were being laid over the prairie at a rate which set a pace in railroad building for the world,” wrote David Creighton, a member of the tour from the Owen Sound Times, and a MPP in the Ontario Legislature (A history of Canadian Journalism, edited by members of the Canadian Press Association, 1908).
“The run from Chicago over the Rock Island route (of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad), the St. Paul (Minneapolis) and Manitoba (Railway to the Canadian border), and the (Pembina Branch of) the CPR was a pleasant one, the party arriving in good health and spirits,” reported the August 28 Manitoba Free Press.
To ensure the numerous newspaper staff members, which included men and women (apparently, the women were all wives or female companions of the newspapermen as they were only referred to as “lady” in the published accounts; e.g., “John King and lady”), rode in comfort, two Pullman coaches were made available from the U.S. to Winnipeg, which were afterward to be used on their rail journey on the Canadian side of the international border.
But it was more than a railway excursion, as the party was also to undertake a journey to Lake Winnipeg aboard a steamer, courtesy of the Northwest Navigation Company.
Prior to boarding the steamboat Marquette at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard), the group was the guests of the Winnipeg press corps at the Tecumseh Hotel along Main Street near Higgins Avenue, where they were served breakfast. At the time, Winnipeg English-language daily newspapers included the Daily Sun, the Daily Times and the Free Press, although it seems that only the Times and Free Press were involved in hosting the associated press members.
The trip down the Red River was described as “uneventful,” although the 150 newspapermen, women and guests enjoyed the “fresh air and the quiet beauty of many points of interest passed,” which included Lower Fort Garry, Selkirk and the “Indian settlement” at St. Peter’s. Lunch was held in the “marshes” of the Red River Delta. “The shore of Lake Winnipeg was reached before two o’clock, and a long enough stay made to allow the excursionists to gain some conception of the mighty lake.
“Shortly after five o’clock the steamer showed up at the wharf at Selkirk. The citizens of that borough (it was incorporated as a town in 1882) had prepared to receive the association in the most hospitable manner possible, and a number of them soon assembled on shore to welcome their visitors.”
As with the CPR, it was to the advantage of any community to ensure that the newspaper corps was well feted. Gaining the attention of reporters was a sure-fire way of gaining a few words of praise in articles published after such junkets. And mentions in newspapers were equated with possible future investments by outsiders in their community or with the prospect of attracting new citizens.
For example, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, who toured the province in August 1882 aboard a CPR train in the company of “Uncle” Rufus Hatch, a prominent Chicago and New York businessman, wrote in glowing terms about Winnipeg.
“We drove about the town under the guidance of Mr. W.C. (William Cornelius) Van Horne, the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and Gen. (John Henry) Hammond, President of the Manitoba and Southwestern Railroad. In this young town, where real growth does not extend back more than half a decade, we visited business houses which would do credit to any city twice the size of Winnipeg ... Two or three large banks were visited, and their managers talked as cooly of millions as could any capitalist ... We saw people thronging the streets, carts rumbling along filled with merchandise, and all the hum and bustle of a great city. The life and the movement were marvelous.”
The correspondent further enthused: “The whirl of excitement was catching. We had at last been introduced to a ‘town’ before which the petty attempts of the frontier town on our side of the line pale into disgraceful insignificance.”
For the CPR and Winnipeg, wining and dining the Chicago correspondent had paid off in a big way, as shown by his aggrandizement of the city of just 20,000 people.
But the CPR and Western Canada had not always been the beneficiary of favourable press. The Times, along with several other newspapers in Britain, were promoting Australia as the preferred location for would-be British immigrants. In other instances, overseas newspapers riled against the CPR, which was soliciting investment dollars in London, claiming the railway through a barren and frost-bound country would never pay a dividend.
It was to counter this bad press that the CPR hired what were termed “paid ink-slingers” to preach the gospel of the company, and arranged junkets for scribes from British and North American newspapers, such as the 1882 press tour. One tour organized by Lord Lorne, Canada’s governor general, was so successful that the Times of London changed its opinion and began to promote Canada as the go-to country for immigrants.
(Next week: part 3)