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90th anniversary of Shoal Lake aqueduct — first phase was construction of GWWD Railway
Oct 16, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

The benefit of Shoal Lake was that its water would not require treatment for human consumption, according to professor C.S. Schlichter of Wisconsin, who had been hired to undertake yet another investigation into the city’s water supply, and the lake constituted “an enormous resource of clear, pure, and soft water.”

Despite Schlichter’s recommendation, city council was still not convinced and redrafted the defeated bylaw excluding the professor’s option of Shoal Lake.

Winnipeg voters would be given the opportunity to vote on the redrafted bylaw in the subsequent civic election. Prior to the election, Thomas Deacon was pursued to run for mayor just 10 days prior to the election and was endorsed by powerful Winnipeggers. Those endorsing Deacon said the city’s water supply was the main issue in the campaign.

During the campaign, Deacon promised if elected to immediately begin survey work on the Shoal Lake route. Deacon said he had been advocating this option for seven years, while city council had ignored a report favouring Shoal Lake for five years.

Deacon’s critics claimed he lacked civic government experience, but the president and general manager of Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works said he had been a member of the city water commission and an engineer for the town of Kenora for several years.

“We must realize sooner or later that Winnipeg is no longer a country town ...,” said an editorial endorsing Deacon’s candidacy in the December 7, 1912, Winnipeg Saturday Post. “This is now a great city and has pressing problems that demand to be treated in an able manner by competent men.”

The newspaper urged Winnipeggers to “turn out on election day and signify their determination to have a competent administration in city affairs by rolling up a big majority for Mr. T.R. Deacon as Mayor for 1913.”

During his election campaign, Deacon printed cards which pledged his pursuit of “at once for the people of Winnipeg an ample and permanent supply of pure, soft water which will forever remove the menace now hanging over Winnipeg of a water famine and the consequent danger of conflagration and sickness.”

Deacon’s pledge was well received by voters and he obtained a 1,127 majority  at the polls over J.G. Harvey, the city controller for 16 years, which he took as a mandate to bring Shoal Lake water to the city.

Even the Free Press agreed that Deacon's election, “Clearly (showed) the citizens expect city council to get busy and do something in this matter with the least possible delay.”

The Greater Winnipeg Water District was created by an act of the provincial legislature on February 15, 1913, giving the new body the authority to establish and maintain the water supply for Winnipeg and several municipalities, including St. Boniface, Transcona, the Rural Municipality of St. Vital, and portions of the RMs of Assiniboia, Fort Garry and Kildonan. Winnipeg had five members on the GWWD board, St. Boniface two and each of the other municipalities one apiece.

Since approval of participation in the GWWD was required from each municipal council, it wasn’t until June 10 that the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba officially proclaimed the act into law.

Even before the GWWD received official status, a “special committee appointed for the purpose” commissioned Dr. Rudolph Hering of New York, Frederick P. Sterns of Boston and James H. Fuertes of New York, who were considered North America’s most eminent civil engineers, to prepare a report to resolve the water supply question once and for all.

“The special duty of the experts will be to prepare a scheme in broad outline; not to figure it out in close detail,” reported the Free Press on April 3, 1913. “They will, for instance, decide such broad questions as to whether a pumping or a gravity system is advisable; what kind of pipe — whether of wood, concrete or steel — should be used and so forth.”

The consulting engineers and city councillors were at Shoal Lake in May 1913. 

Following the tour, the May 17, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune  told its readers about the remoteness of the area. “Even to the captains of Lake of the Woods steamers, Shoal Lake is not well known and many of them have never been upon its waters ... the only condition upon which the mayor could charter a steamer ... was that he should pilot the steamer himself from the moment it left the well known reaches of the Lake of the Woods and entered the treacherous and uncharted waters of Shoal Lake. He proved equal to the occasion.”

The newspaper said the experts on the tour agreed “the water is almost perfectly pure. That it is soft and a pleasant drinking water, and that there is an abundant supply ... for a city ten times the size of present greater Winnipeg ...”

The engineers in their report fully endorsed Shoal Lake as a source of excellent soft water for domestic and industrial use. “Shoal Lake, without help from the main Lake of the Woods, can be depended upon to furnish, even in the driest years, a large part, if not all, of the water needed for Winnipeg until the population shall have reached 850,000 ...” (by the end of 2009, the City of Winnipeg is projecting a population of  674,800, excluding the municipalities surrounding the city).

The August 20, 1913, report said the construction cost of the concrete gravity-system aqueduct would be $13, 045,000.

“We are ready to start and get a lot of this work done the minute the bylaw has passed,” commented Mayor Deacon after receiving the report, “but I would not favor making any start until then, although the experts recommend a start at once. The whole scheme must be ratified by the people first, but I have not the slightest doubt that they will vote overwhelmingly in favor of it.”

At a meeting of the GWWD’s administration board, Mayor Deacon urged early action on the presentation of a debenture bylaw to voters: “Pointing out that the contractors should be summoned at once ... This work could best be done in the fall, and if a start was made at once, they would have three months of the best time of year for it,” reported the Free Press  on August 30, 1919.

A money bylaw asking for $13.5 million for the Shoal Lake project was scheduled to be presented to Winnipeg ratepayers on October 1, 1919. 

The Winnipeg Board of Trade (forerunner of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce), the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau, the Winnipeg Builders’ Exchange and the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council threw their support behind the bylaw. With such widespread support,  the GWWD bylaw was nearly unanimously carried — 2,951 vs. 90, “setting an absolutely new record in the way of proportional majority on a city bylaw.”

The Free Press said the successful referendum in favour of Shoal lake was not unexpected, but even Mayor Deacon was surprised “to see it so warmly endorsed.”

In an editorial following the vote, the Free Press said: ‘The desirability of a better and ampler water supply is so obvious to everybody that discussion on that point is precluded ... There is no Winnipegger — certainly no Winnipeg housewife — who is not well aware of the defects of our present supply.”

The newspaper offered “hearty congratulations” to Deacon for achieving another step toward realizing his dream.

Almost immediately, commissioner Sam H. Reynolds and chief engineer W.G. Chace were told by the GWWD board to commence surveying the route for the aqueduct and the preparation of plans and specifications. New Yorker James Fuertes was appointed as consulting engineer.

“I presume as consulting engineer I will have to visit Winnipeg a good many times in the next four or five years (the engineers’ report projected a four-year completion date).”

Commenting on the report used as the basis for the approval of the aqueduct, Fuertes said: “There was a lot of work on the report, but it is easy to explain why we were able to report so favorably on the whole scheme and recommend so definitely how the work should be carried out. In all my experience I have found few projects that pointed so clearly to one best way of carrying them out. We found it quite unnecessary to suggest any alternatives. We were very absolutely convinced in the first place that Shoal Lake offered the best and most available supply of water. Then we found that the lay of the country pointed clearly to the aqueduct system which we have recommended. The water district is indeed lucky that the water can be brought to Winnipeg by gravity, we were delighted ourselves when we found this was entirely practicable.”

Although the project was given the green light in Manitoba, there were still jurisdictional matters to be negotiated, which surprisingly only took several months despite the international ramifications of the project. 

As the Manitoba-Ontario boundary line passes through Indian Bay, a tributary of Indian Lake, meetings had to be held to obtain Ontario’s approval in order to use Shoal Lake water. The discussions between Ontario and Manitoba officials ended successfully. 

Since Shoal Lake was connected to Lake of the Woods, it fell under the jurisdiction of the International Joint Commission, an organization established in 1909 to regulate bodies of water along the Canada-U.S border. The GWWD required IJC approval before it could build the aqueduct. 

The GWWD sent its applications to Washington and Ottawa on September 13, 1919. In the meantime, Kenora sent in its objections, saying diversion of Shoal Lake water would by extension affect water levels in Lake of the Woods with adverse consequences to navigation, the lumber industry and tourism on the lake. Kenora also claimed there were other sources of water available to Winnipeg.

Representatives from Manitoba and Kenora met with the IJC in Washington's South Building on January 14, 1914.  Canadian engineers supported Manitoba, swaying the IJC to grant permission for the GWWD to divert Shoal Lake water to Winnipeg. An IJC caveat cautioned that only up to 100-million gallons of water a day could be diverted from the lake for Winnipeg domestic and sanity purposes.

But even before the IJC ruling, surveying had begun on the route of the aqueduct and the 160-kilometre long GWWD railway through the wilderness needed to supply the men and materials for the construction.

In addition, Deacon and members of the GWWD began touring various water projects in Eastern Canada and the U.S. One such visit was by Deacon, Reynolds and Chace to the “famous” Catskill aqueduct in New York State, which supplied drinking and industrial water to New York City. 

Prior to the trip to the Catskills, Mayor Deacon boasted to the Chicago Association of Commerce, during the annual Chicago Municipal banquet, that Winnipeg had only been a city for 30 years, rising from a population of 2,000 to over 200,000, while in the past 10 years surpassing in economic growth Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

“On October 1 the electors of the city ratified a by-law for the raising of thirteen and a half million dollars to bring in water from a mountain lake about ninety-five miles distant from the city, a sufficient supply of pure water to supply a city of one million inhabitants, which we hope to have there within the next twenty years.”

Deacon was merely expressing the commonly-held belief that Winnipeg would rise to prominence as the “Chicago of the North.” History shows his population projections were wildly extravagant, but he was voicing the opinion accepted across North America that Winnipeg’s favorable location at the railway crossroads for Canada marked it for a rapid expansion similar to what had begun earlier in Chicago. The U.S. city’s population in 1910 was nearly 2.2-million people, excluding suburbs.

After a visit to Winnipeg in September 1911, Chicago journalist William E. Curtiss wrote that “all roads led to Winnipeg  ... It is a gateway through which all the commerce of east and west, and the north and south must flow ... It is destined to become one of the greatest distributing commercial centres of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

The decision to build the Shoal Lake aqueduct was seen by the vast majority of Winnipeg residents as confirmation of the city’s impending prosperity and growth. The city’s inhabitants recognized that a source of clean and plentiful water was absolutely essential in order to fulfill their aspirations of civic grandeur. 

A Free Press article on July 3, 1915, praised the landscape surrounding Shoal Lake, claiming if its water was needed for Winnipeg, “it might easily become a favorite summer resort.”

The same article said: “Its beauties have remained practically unknown because until the construction of the railroad incidental to the building of the aqueduct, the only way in which Shoal Lake could be reached was by water from Kenora. Now the railway runs right to the shores of the lake, or rather right to the shores of Indian Bay, an  arm of the lake from which the water will be drawn that will supply the city.”

The 160-kilometre railway to Indian Bay was a necessary first step for the aqueduct project, as it would become the conduit of construction supplies and workers. In the beginning, three trains a week carried men and material to work sites along the route. It is estimated that 1,000 men worked on the railway. Among the materials the trains carried for the construction of the railroad and aqueduct was 1-million cubic yards of sand and gravel and 600,000 barrels of cement.

“However, there is every indication now that the railway line has a value all its own and that apart from its necessity in the aqueduct building,” claimed the Free Press article. “It will prove a very real and valuable asset to the city and having served its original purpose, will still be worth more than the money spent in its construction.”

Its added value was to carry paying customers to Shoal Lake. Two days before the article was printed, members of the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange (forerunner of WinnipegREALTORS®), travelled by the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway (GWWDR) to Shoal Lake.

“For the majority of those on the trip it was not only a revelation as to the magnitude of the task in which the district is engaged, but was also a revelation as to the quality of land through which its passes.”

In 1913, the railway right-of-way was surveyed and construction begun on September 19, 1914, and was completed on May 15, 1915. The Northern Construction Company Ltd. held the contract to build the railway. The company was run by Sandy Mann and “Big Archie” McKenzie, both of whom had long-time experience in railway construction. Their relatives, Donald Mann and William McKenzie, were renowned figures in Canadian railroad history and established the Canadian Northern Railway which later became part of the Canadian National Railway system.

Land along the railway was granted to the Greater Winnipeg Water District as an encouragement for colonization, with 40 acres of land allotted to each settler. During its construction, the first station was named Deacon in honour of the mayor who had fought hard to get the project underway. Prior to each station receiving a name, they had been simply designated as Mile such-and-such, but as settlement progressed so did the need to give communities along the route proper names.

The Millbrook station was named after the settlement of Millbrook, while Monominto and St. Genevieve were named by local residents. Spruce was named after the dense growth of trees; station Reynolds at Mile 64 was named in honour of engineer and GWWD commissioner S.H. Reynolds; McKinley at Mile 69 honoured W. McKinley, the superintendent in charge of wood and fuel cutting; and McMunn was named after settler James A. McMunn, the community’s first postmaster  and the first justice of peace in the area. 

Victor Watson, who came from Braintree, decided to name the new community he founded after his hometown in Massachussets, but postal authorities decided that to prevent confusion the community was to be designated East Braintree. 

Glenn was named for its location at a low open space among heavy tree growth, and Haute, which means “height” in French, was named by a woodsman.

Hadashville was named after Charles Hadash, who was originally a businessman from Illinois. In 1914, he moved with his family to found the new community. He realized the potential offered by catering to the needs of the railway and aqueduct workers. During the building of the railway, a portion of his home was a general store and another portion was a poolroom and dance hall.

The last station was named Waugh in honour of R.D. Waugh, the Winnipeg mayor during whose term in office (1915-16) the construction of the aqueduct began. In 1918, Waugh became the chairman of the GWWD board of commissioners.

A pamphlet released by the commissioners promoted settlement, saying many were “attracted to this locality, partly because of the prominence given to the scheme and partly because (of) the drainage done by the District in reclaiming large areas of land. The land along the rivers is exceptionally rich and is being settled rapidly. In most cases the value of the wood cut, more than pays for the clearing of the land.”

An experimental station was established at Reynolds by the Manitoba department of agriculture “with a view in helping the settlers already located and to demonstrate the possibilities of the district.”

The provincial government also established a prison farm, known as the Provincial Gaol Farm, four kilometres west of East Braintree.

Building the railway was not an easy task as the route passed over pre-Cambrian rock, gravel, stone ridges, rivers as well as muskegs and swamps (The Building of the Winnipeg Aqueduct, by C.S. Prodan, Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1979). In the vicinity of Mile 84-90, the railway crossed about 10 kilometres of muskeg, which necessitated the construct a system of corduroy logs that acted like floats, which were then filled with gravel, muck and sand in order to sink them until a road bed was firm enough to withstand engines and freight cars to carry gravel to the site, wrote Prodan.

“The line is standard gauge and is well ballasted and laid with 90-pound steel rails,” reported the Free Press on July 3, 1915. “The equipment, in addition to modern freight cars, both box and gondolas, also boasts of four locomotives, a dinky (small locomotive) and a crane. The district own(s) a combination passenger and baggage coach, but this has already proved inadequate to meet the demands of passenger traffic and another passenger car has been purchased.”

During the construction of the aqueduct, round-trip excursions to Shoal Lake originating at the Union Depot were advertised in Winnipeg newspapers for $1 each.  “Going to Shoal Lake frequent stops will be made along the line to permit excursionists to inspect the work of aqueduct construction at several points,” according to one advertisement. “Train will stop at St. Boniface CNR Depot, both going and returning.”

The board of the GWWD, the city board of control, prominent Winnipeg businessmen and Mayor Deacon took an excursion as guests of the Northern Construction Company to inspect the work on the railway in November 1914.

“The greatest surprise was expressed by the entire party at the excellent condition of the well-balanced track, which, although it was only laid this summer, allowed a heavy locomotive pulling a baggage car and two standard sleepers to travel over the road at a good rate of speed,” reported the November 9, 1914, Free Press.

The newspaper said the work had progresses to the Birch River, which was over 100 kilometres from Winnipeg and a short distance from Shoal Lake.

The construction had proceeded so rapidly due the use a new machinery such as a “huge track-laying machine. “This machine has an attachment on one side by which ties are carried an endless belt and deposited on the right of way while on the other side of the machine another endless chain conveys lengths of steel rails. Spikes and bolts are dropped as well and the machine moves continuously forward, all that accompanying gang having to do being to feed it with ties and rails and spike the rails to the ties.”

At Gravel Pit No. 2, a huge steam shovel “was tearing great scopes of gravel and filling gravel trains for ballasting the track.”

The shovel was capable of scooping up four loads of gravel every 65 seconds, “or nearly eight cubic yards a minute.”

At the time of the excursion, a rail bridge was being built over the Birch River, one of four rivers and streams that were eventually crossed by the railway tracks.

The article said the railway was costing over $1.2 million to complete.

Even before the railway was fully completed, construction of the aqueduct was slated to begin.

“The aqueduct will be constructed in the north of the railway paralleling it 110 feet from the centre of the tracks and the clearing of the entire distance is already an accomplished fact.. The trees which were cut down have been cut into cordwood lengths and are stacked along the right of way. Much of this wood will be sold at cost to Winnipeg and used by the Associated Charities.”

(Next week: part 3)