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Winnipeg’s first post offices — Winnipeggers petitioned Ottawa to keep post office in their city
Jan 20, 2017

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Manitoba’s first Lieutenant-governor, Adams Archibald, also had concerns about mail service. He suspected the U.S. postmaster at Pembina continually tampered with the mail from

Manitoba.

He said the frontier post at Pembina was “the haunt of a number of disorderly persons, including some of those that were in arms here last winter (1869-70). On the arrival of the mails coming either way, the office is crowded with these people and the letters are open to their inspection.”

Archibald said the postmaster took an active part in the plot to have the mail opened by former — though unnamed — participants in the Red River Resistance.

Archibald reported another incident to Ottawa, involving the election writs dispatched to Manitoba for the province’s first federal election. It was alleged the writs were in a mail bag found by a “St. Paul gentleman” lying in the snow on the American side of the border. The “gentleman” left the abandoned mail in the snow, told Archibald its location and the lieutenant-governor sent a special messenger to retrieve the missing bag.

Negotiations between the postmasters general of Canada and the U.S. resulted in “secured” and “closed” mail delivery between Pembina and Winnipeg.

But the main concern of Winnipeg residents was that the federal government would move its post office to a site near Upper Fort Garry. At the time, Winnipeggers — mostly newcomers originally from Ontario — believed they were in a battle with the Hudson’s Bay Company to decide the fate of their community. By 1872, Winnipeggers were holding mass meetings calling for the incorporation of their sparsely-populated community as a city. They reasoned that incorporation could be used as a tool to thwart the alleged plans of the HBC to make its fort and 500 acres of land it owned the commercial centre of the city.

Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey wrote in their book, Ten years in Winnipeg, that rumours had spread of an alleged collusion between the Dominion government to relocate the post office. The rumours were so rampant that an “indignation meeting” was called in 1872 which resulted in a petition being sent to Ottawa protesting the alleged move.

The Liberal on May 4, 1872, reported that it was Bannatyne who had received a letter informing him that the “site decided upon last fall (in Winnipeg) had been rejected, and that it was the intention of the government to have the post office moved to a site near the Fort. The removal, he understood, was suggested by a resident of the province, whose name he was not at liberty to give.”

Magnus Brown, a major landowner in Winnipeg, was not afraid to name names and claimed Thomas Howard, the Manitoba minister of public works, had told him the intention of the government was to move the post office closer to the fort.

The post office under threat of relocation had been housed since 1871 in a log building at the corner of Post Office Street and Rorie Street, a block east of Main Street, a location indicated in an 1874 map of Winnipeg drawn by John D. Parr for the Manitoba government. Post Office Street became an important commercial district in Winnipeg, since a steamboat landing for unloading goods destined for local merchants was at the foot of the street where it met the Red River.

One of the innovations reported by postmaster Bannatyne was “boxes arranged ... for the use of merchants and others.” Despite his desire to improve postal service, Bannatyne was becoming increasingly interested in local politics and decided to resign his post office position in 1874 to pursue a career in politics. He was succeeded as postmaster by John McDougall.

Many believed in the rumoured new site for the post office because HBC land had been reserved by the federal government “sufficient for their own use, on which to erect public buildings,” according to a report in the Manitoban on May 4, 1872. “It was natural to suppose the government would put up buildings on their own land; and that being the case no influence of the Company or anyone else outside the government was required to bring the public buildings to the reserve.”

The petition told the Canadian government the relocation would seriously injure and inconvenience the inhabitants of Winnipeg, Point Douglas and St. John. The Liberal said the move would cause businessmen in Winnipeg to travel a mile or more on cold winter days and on the muddy streets of the spring and fall for the mail.

The government’s reply to the petition was a call for tenders for the construction of a custom house, land office and post office in Winnipeg, which “caused much rejoicing amongst the towns-people, only they didn’t want them on the H.B.Co.’s reserve.” Yet, the joy was short lived as it would be four more years before the matter was finally resolved.

Another mass “indignation” meeting was held on May 14, 1874, and five days later the Winnipeg Board of Trade passed a resolution regretting that Ottawa had not chosen a more central site for the post office. The board of trade was reacting to information provided by government sources in Winnipeg when it issued its “regrets” to Ottawa. One such source was the government architect, who allegedly told city council of Ottawa’s post office plans for the HBC reserve.

A special meeting of city council resulted in a resolution being passed requesting the proposed post office be “not further south than the present one, which is as near as may be in the centre of the city, both geographically and as regards to population; and this Council having information through the government architect that he has been instructed to proceed with the erection of the said building on a lot still further south than the formerly proposed, do empathetically protest against its being erected thereon, being far south of the centre of the city.”

City council and the board of trade sent a May 19 telegram to Alexander Mackenzie, the federal minister of public works, protesting the rumoured move of the post office to the HBC reserve. Apparently, the deciding factor in Ottawa’s decision to build in the centre of Winnipeg only came when Bannatyne donated land as a “free gift to the Crown.” The only provision was that the land would revert to the Bannatyne estate if it wasn’t used for a post office.

“Wednesday, after many vexatious days, the city post office was established in the fine new white brick building on Main Street,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on August 5, 1876. “The dimensions of the building are large, the different rooms spacious and the accommodation ample.”

The new building at Main and Owen (now McDermot) Street also housed the Dominion Government Savings Bank.

Meanwhile, the old post office at Main and Post Office was purchased by hotelier Louis Payment and converted into the Commercial Hotel.

The one item the federal government had not resolved to the satisfaction of local residents was the official name of the new post office. Even though Winnipeg had been incorporated as a city for three years, the federal government persisted in calling the community Fort Garry.

When it was finally officially acknowledged as Winnipeg by the postal department in 1876, there was some confusion regarding the community’s spelling among people sending letters. Begg and Nursey wrote that some letters received at the post office in 1876 included the diverse spellings: Winipeg, Winnepeg, Winne-Peg, Winnapeg, Winipegg, Windipeg, Winnopeg, Winpegg, Winnipig and Pennywick.

The building at Main and Owen served as the headquarters for the Canadian postal service in Winnipeg until 1883 when it was decided to build a new and larger building on the same site.

Until 1886 when the new Post Office and Customs Building was completed, the post office was temporarily relocated to York and Main.