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Selkirk special supplement
Jun 12, 2008

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

Long before the all-encompassing term “perimeteritis” was first heard, Selkirk residents had every right to believe their community had been shafted by politicians giving undue weight to Winnipeg concerns at their expense. 

Seemingly in anticipation of “perimeteritis” (a reference to the border surrounding the city created by the Perimeter Highway), Winnipeg began a lobbying campaign designed to change the federal government’s decision to have the Canadian Pacific Railway line cross the Red River at Selkirk. Winnipeg  city council held a mass meeting in February 1877 during which citizens passed a resolution approving a cash subsidy to any company willing to build a railway bridge in the city. Winnipeg businessman James Ashdown urged that the subsidy be increased to $300,000, which was accepted by city council in 1879.

Once a subsidy resolution was passed, a delegation was sent to Ottawa for discussions with Sir Charles Tupper, the federal railways and canals minister. Following the discussions, the delegation received a promise that once the bridge was built the federal government would build a branch line in a northwesterly direction to intercept the proposed Selkirk rail line.

It wasn’t exactly what the Winnipeg delegates wanted, but city council did pass a bylaw for construction of the bridge, taking into consideration the terms offered by Ottawa.

Meanwhile, C.J. Brydges, the land commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company, sent to Ottawa testimony from five former HBC employees and long-standing residents of the city, who assured Tupper that the Red River at Winnipeg had behaved well in recent years and had not flooded.

Flooding had been the concern of Sir Sanford Fleming, the government surveyor who had plotted the route the CPR would take in Western Canada. On September 24, 1879, he told Tupper it would be folly to have the railway cross the Red at Winnipeg, drawing the minister’s attention to massive flooding which had occurred in the community in 1826 and 1852. While Winnipeg flooded, the proposed crossing at Selkirk  remained high and dry, he told Tupper.

The HBC’s position was far from altruistic, as it owned approximately 1,750 acres of land in Winnipeg and would benefit monetarily from a railway bridge crossing the Red in the city. With the fur trade declining, Brydges had instituted a new policy of selling HBC lots in the city at great profit to the Company.

The crossing was debated during several sessions of the House of Commons. During one debate in 1880, Liberal Leader and former Prime Minister Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1873-78) earlier rejected the Winnipeg railway bridge after determining it was folly to expend the money raised in the east from “the great mass of people ... simply to secure a foolish engagement with a few people in the west.”

On the other hand, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who had rekindled his political career after the disastrous Pacific Scandal and defeated the Mackenzie Liberals in 

 the 1878 federal election, looked upon the Winnipeg location more favourably and began to undermine Fleming for continuing to support the Selkirk crossing. By February 1880, Fleming realized he was being eased out of his position and resigned as chief engineer on May 22, 1880, which was the signal for a change in the direction the CPR would take in Western Canada.

While Fleming had favoured a more northerly route for the railway as it crossed the prairies, CPR director James J. Hill, an ex-pat Canadian living in St. Paul, Minnesota, argued for a more southerly route. Hill decided it wasn’t in the CPR’s best interests  to follow the old Carleton Trail to Edmonton, but instead adopt a route that would take advantage of agricultural potential along the proposed southern route. 

Under the terms of its contract with Ottawa, the CPR was granted millions of acres of land which it could then sell to settlers, as such prime agricultural land which would be extremely valuable to the railway company. The new route was also part of Hill’s philosophy that a railway through virgin territory creates its own business — the Carlton Trail already had established communities along its length. It was this philosophy that created the new prairie communities of Brandon, Calgary and Regina.

CPR executives successfully convinced the Macdonald government to share their “new” vision, resulting in the passage of legislation favouring the new route. This change in philosophy was a boon to Winnipeg and a bane to Selkirk.

In June 1881, the CPR formally offered to build its workshops in Winnipeg, as long as the railway bridge was built, a $200,000 bonus was provided, land for a station was handed over and the CPR be exempt from city taxation into perpetuity. The conditions were accepted 130-1 during a hastily called meeting of Winnipeg ratepayers. City council then passed a bylaw containing the CPR’s conditions.

The benefits nature had bestowed upon Selkirk fell before the economic clout of Winnipeg and the 

politics of the day, resulting in the abandonment of 10 years of survey work done by Fleming. The end result was that Selkirk received the branch line, while Winnipeg became part of the CPR’s main line, linking east to west.

“For many years Selkirk has been struggling against fate,” wrote the editor of the Selkirk Herald on January 18, 1884. “From the very first the town met with the determined opposition of those who, being interested in Winnipeg property, and who knowing well the many advantages in situation etc. that Selkirk possessed over the metropolis, felt that their only hope was in crushing the growing town to the north. They were the stronger in financial and political influence ...”

Selkirk got its beginning in 1875 when the CPR built an office in a log house. Once it was known the CPR intended to build the rail crossing at the location, stores, hotels and churches were erected. But once the dream of future prosperity had been shattered due to Winnipeg lobbying of the federal government, the community began to focus upon other goals such as becoming the great port of the Northwest. 

“Off to Selkirk!” proclaimed a special supplement in the Saturday, July 14, 1894, Daily Nor’Wester. “Not a very great distance, indeed, to travel from our own vainglorious Winnipeg, big with its own importance, and proud of its mushroom growth, its array of buildings, and vaunted railway system. Very modest indeed does Selkirk put forth its claims upon publicity, else you and I, and all of us, would know more of the pretty town than we do.”

The stated purpose of the special supplement was to report on the charming views, points of interest and the progress made in Selkirk since the great disappointment of 1881. The other motives were typical for a newspaper: boost circulation — it was listed as  2,840 daily — and earn more advertising revenue by creating a forum for ads from Selkirk businesses. 

Keeping up circulation was essential, as Winnipeg gained a reputation as the “graveyard of daily papers.” Over the years, numerous daily newspapers appeared and quickly disappeared. The only survivor from this era was the Winnipeg Free Press, established in 1872 as the Manitoba Free Press. The Daily Nor’Wester was published from 1894 to 1898, and then became the Morning Telegram, which lasted until 1907, when it became the Winnipeg Telegram. The latter newspaper survived until 1920.

The author of the July 14, 1894, special supplement was not named in the newspaper, although it is possible the writer was W.F. Luxton, the founding publisher and editor of the Daily Nor’Wester. 

In 1894, Selkirk had a population of 2,000 people, while Winnipeg’s population had increased many times over as a result of being on the CPR’s main line. In 1881, Winnipeg had just 7,985 residents. By 1896, its population swelled to 31,649 people. In the five-year period from 1881 to 1886, Winnipeg’s population had increased by a staggering 153.3 per cent.

“But let us take a trip to Selkirk and view the scenic beauty, and the industries which lie clustered under the name of that sturdy Scot (Lord Selkirk), who peopled this section with his hardy followers  ... Selkirk is only 22 miles (35.2 kilometres) from the city and if you, dear reader, will step on board the train at 6:20 o’clock, in the evening, we will pay a flying visit to that interesting town.”

Taking the train was only one way of reaching Selkirk from Winnipeg; a “hard, smooth” road also linked the two communities as did the Red River using boat travel, although at the time, the rapids at St. Andrew’s prevented large vessels from making the voyage.

At 7 o’clock, “the trainman calls out in lusty tones, East Selkirk!” where there was “a very good” rail station, a few houses, a couple of churches, some freight sheds and an abandoned roundhouse built by the CPR in 1880 at a cost of $40,000, a remnant of the time when the rail line was to cross the Red at Selkirk. The track leading to the roundhouse had been torn up.

“It (East Selkirk) was once incorporated and had before it (on paper) the glowing future which most boom towns are promised when first tapped by a railway line. But alas! Its glory vanished, and five years ago East Selkirk forfeited its right to incorporation and is now part of the parish of St. Clements.” On the other hand, Selkirk was incorporated as a town in 1882.

East Selkirk, also commonly called the Indian Settlement, was just a few kilometres from the town of Selkirk, which was originally called Sugar Point due to its plentiful maple sugar trees. Before 1883, Selkirk residents reached the railway station in East Selkirk by ferry and stage. When the roads were bad, they travelled by boat to Colville Landing at the East Slough, where the HBC had a pier for steamboats and other craft. After arriving at the landing, the town residents walked up the track to the station to catch the train.

The first rail line linking Manitoba to the United States — the Pembina branch of the  St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway completed in 1878 — ran from Pembina to St. Boniface and on to East Selkirk. In fact, the first section of the line built in Manitoba was between St. Boniface and East Selkirk during the winter of 1877-78. The Countess of Dufferin, the first locomotive in the West, was imported from the U.S. by Joseph Whitehead, who had a contract to build a section of the CPR main line east of Winnipeg as well as the Pembina branch. The Countess pulled the first excursion train in  Western Canada, making the run between the two Manitoba communities on December 17, 1877. 

A CPR branch line connected Selkirk directly to Winnipeg by 1883, so it is surprising that the reporter chose to take the train to East Selkirk. Perhaps it was felt to be an adventure that would add some spice to the article? 

When the special feature was written in 1894, conditions had improved from the “days of evil roads and railroad inconvenience, and now we find two very comfortable-looking stages waiting to convey us to town.”

Who actually supplied the stages was not mentioned in the article, but an accompanying advertisement mentioned Braden’s Livery and Bus Line, located on Manitoba Avenue in Selkirk. Manager J.H. Braden boasted that his stage offered “livery first-class in every respect ...at reasonable prices,” and that the “bus meets east and west trains.”

The stage took East Selkirk rail passengers to the ferry — “a scow made fast to a platform” — which apparently had accommodations for two vehicles and its horses. It was approximately 100 metres to the opposite bank and the town of Selkirk.

“At the ferry we get our first view of Selkirk, with its twinkling lights mirrored in the stream. Looking down on us from steep banks, it flashes a welcome into the night from its electric street lamps, and about 8 o’clock we reach the town, drive up Vaughan Street, then sharply turning to the right down Evelyn, the principal business thoroughfare, we are confronted with a choice of three excellent hotels.”

The Daily Nor’Wester reporter opted for an unnamed hotel overlooking the river, where men “sitting in comfortable arm chairs on the broad piazza,” among “curling wreaths of choice Havana” cigars, discussed the future of the town.

“Had the railway crossed the river at Selkirk, as originally proposed by the government, instead of Winnipeg, it might have made a great deal  of difference in the relative size of the two places. But Selkirkites have long since recovered from the rude shock which the most unwelcome change of mind must have caused. She is prosperous today, despite the disadvantages, and no visitor to the town can fail to appreciate the fact that if Selkirk never ranks with Winnipeg in point of importance, it is destined to be at least the natural outing point, and summer home, of thousands of city residents.”

The reporter predicted that the arrival of an anticipated electric streetcar system would substantially increase the summertime population of the community. He said the country around Selkirk adapted itself well to the location of a “summer colony.”

“The river here loses its swift current and loiters by as though to leave the shadowed coolness of the elms, and the caresses of wind-swept foliage, which runs down to the very banks in natural terraces.”

Yet, this was another dream never fully realized, as the CPR in 1903 opened the resort community of Winnipeg Beach, which became the summer playground of Winnipeggers. As the CPR’s Winnipeg Beach branch line progressed northward, other summer resorts were added along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg at Matlock, Whytewold and Ponemah.

It wasn’t until 1903 that work commenced on the Winnipeg, Selkirk & Lake Winnipeg Railway line running from Inkster and Main to Selkirk. Originally, it was a steam railway, using two to four cars to carry passengers, baggage and express freight. The line was finally electrified in 1908.

The reporter said he was awoken in the morning by “the shrill whistles of mills and the buzzing sound of the saws,” indicating the bustle of industry in Selkirk.

It was around the breakfast table that the reporter met “Brown,” apparently a truly unique character, who was a trader on Lake Winnipeg residing at Fisher River and a frequent visitor to Selkirk. Brown, a “hardy Scot,” told tales of “husky dog trains, and such husky tales of breezy cruises on the stormy bosom of the lake, and mingles these wild narratives with such a pleasant, well deserved and sociable thirst, that it is everyone’s picnic when the people’s Brown comes to Selkirk.”

Breakfast consisted of fresh fish, as Selkirk was considered the “fish headquarters” of Manitoba. Commercial catches from Lake Winnipeg were off-loaded at Selkirk for transportation to Winnipeg and eastern markets in Canada and the United States. Two brothers, Adam and Hugh Black from Selkirk, were fishing on the lake in 1879-80 and freighting their catch south. Eventually, the community would become the main headquarters of many fish companies supplying the eastern markets, such as Robinson Fish Co. of Selkirk and Booth Fisheries of Chicago.

In 1894, according to the Daily Nor’Wester reporter, there were five large fishing companies, “with their vast refrigerators, capable of storing thousands of tons of frozen fish. Add to this the fishing fleet, consisting of sailing craft, tugs, barges, and many lake steamers, some of which are over 200 tons.”

The reporter wrote that the Selkirk fishing industry in 1893 represented a capital investment of about $800,000, including refrigerators, tugs, steamers and nets. In 1893, 145 rail carloads of fish — 30,000 pounds per car — were shipped, representing a value of five cents per pound or $217,500.

According to the Daily Nor’ Wester, the Manitoba Fish Co. caught 700 tons of fish, Robinson Fishing Co. caught 600 tons, the Selkirk Fish Co. caught 300 tons and Reid & Tait landed 200 tons of fish. The Winnipeg Fish Co. had only begun operations in 1894, so its total was not included in the final tally for the previous year.

To serve the commercial fishery, 9,600 barrels of salt at $1.67 each were imported to preserve the fish caught. The greatest salt user was the Manitoba Fish Co., which imported 4,000 barrels.

“Looking at the number of craft which ply along the river and lie moored to the docks, one cannot help thinking that someday, when the great resources of Lake Winnipeg are developed, and Selkirk gets the advantage of reasonable freight rates to Winnipeg, that here will be a fleet of steamers which may rival that at the docks in Toronto.”

(Next week: part 2)