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Port of Winnipeg
May 05, 2006

Leading up to the City Summit held this week in Winnipeg, a number of interesting proposals have been articulated to revitalize Winnipeg’s downtown area. One of the proposals harkens back to an earlier era, when Winnipeg’s first connection to the outside world was north-south, before the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881, which linked Winnipeg to the east and west coasts.

Michael Dudley, of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, in a recent Winnipeg Free Press article — one of a series on urban renewal in the downtown — proposed that inner-city revitalization can come in the form of a return to cargo transportation on the Red River.

Dudley said the potential for this shift arises because of the skyrocketing cost of fuel for air and truck transportation — moving freight via waterways is significantly more fuel efficient than other forms of transportation. “As author James Howard Kunstler pointed out at the U of W event, downtown waterfronts will therefore need to be made into working docks again  — something we may still have the potential to do along Waterfront Drive,” he told the Free Press.

The Anson Northrup was the first steamship to reach the Red River Settlement, as the Winnipeg area was then called, arriving on Thursday, June 10, 1859. As the steamboat whistle sounded to herald its arrival, residents rushed out to meet the steamboat at the landing at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Garry post. It was reported that children screamed and dogs barked, the bells at St. Boniface Cathedral rang. The commander of the British force ordered the firing of the cannon to honour the event and the Union Jack was hoisted.

By the 1870s, steamboats ruled the Red River during the shipping season. Each spring, the arrival of the first boat was a cause for celebration. The Manitoba Free Press of May 10, 1873, reported that the “unearthly shriek from the whistle of the Selkirk brought hundreds of the inhabitants of Winnipeg out” to greet its arrival. “The boat was fairly captured and in a short time she was swarming with excited humanity.”

On May 8, 1875, the Free Press reported that 11 steamers and tugs would “stir up the mud in front of Winnipeg this year.” This didn’t take into account the numerous flatboats that drifted down the Red with freight and passengers. 

But, what Dudley perhaps foresees is what the newspaper also reported — that the levee at the foot of what is now Lombard Avenue was the busiest place  in Winnipeg all that summer.

“One evening this week we strolled along the bank of the noble Red River and were astonished to find the levee transformed into one long business street,” reported the Manitoba Free Press in 1873. “The responsibility for this scale of affairs rests with the proprietors of the flatboats which, from the steamboat landing up to near the immigrant sheds (near The Forks) present an unbroken string of floating merchandise, in some instances two or three tiers deep. These swimming shops are replete with all sorts of articles — groceries, hardware, crockery, provisions, lumber and building materials. Here, in one, you will find conglomerated barrels of green apples and building paper, sugar and cut nails, sacks of oats and packages of confectionary, dried fruit and tobacco. In another you may supply yourself with the materials for building a house, from rough boards to dressed siding and flooring, also window sashes.”

Dudley believes this could recur in the modern era. “There will be a sharply reduced need for the vast parking lots that have made much of our downtown a pedestrian wasteland ... As well, the many residential neighbourhoods surrounding Winnipeg’s downtown will once again  represent a natural market for needs that can be met closer to home, so we may see a return of concentrated retail and service amenities downtown ...”

In 1874, imports to the port of Winnipeg reached over $1.7 million compared to just over $918,000 a year earlier. The use of the term “port city” is odd to us today, but that’s exactly what Winnipeg was in the 1870s, in the same manner as St. Paul-Minneapolis, St. Louis or New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River. In those days, the Red and Assiniboine Rivers were the community’s lifeblood — a source of contact with the outside world and generator of wealth. 

“The business of the custom house commences in its full glory on the arrival of the first boat in spring and continues through the season of navigation with scarcely abated vigor,” reported the Free Press in 1872. “Then it is that the officials, the clerks and the landing waiters attached to the custom house staff ... spend day after day and night after night ... calling off, entering and checking and putting through their particular red-tapish and circumlatory process ... the interminable conglomeration on the levee, which never seems to diminish.” 

Of course, this “interminable conglomerate” was only possible in the warmer months, since the Red and Assiniboine rivers freeze over each winter. Another problem was the years of flood or the times when water levels dropped, which caused steamboats to bottom-out, miring them in  the river.

Navigation north and south on the Red and east and west on the Assiniboine, even with the advent of shallower draft boats, was always touch-and-go, and that’s why residents of Winnipeg and other communities along the banks of the two rivers enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of more reliable railway transportation, which also had the advantage of operating year-round.

Still, that doesn’t mean that modern technology could not reinvent riverboat transportation so that more than just tourists could be shipped through each rivers’ length in the summer.

Having grown up in the “port” town of Gimli, at a time when commercial fishing and freight boats were a common sight — pleasure craft  and recreational sail boats were then rare — I know of the excitement that can be generated when a vessel arrives and how busy a dock can appear. There’s something enchanting about docks and boats and that’s perhaps why they have been mentioned as a possible method for revitalization of the downtown. But, whether a working waterfront is practical remains a matter of speculation for the time being.