by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The railway that owned and ran Grand Beach was in financial difficulty by 1918, just four years after the Canadian Northern Railway’s (CNoR) majority shareholders, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, came up with a plan to create a new summer resort along the east shore of Lake Winnipeg.
As a result of the economic uncertainty confronting the railway, the government of Canada assumed majority ownership of the near bankrupt CNoR on September 6, 1918. It was a case of Ottawa acknowledging that the railway was “too big to fail,” and that it was essentially to the political health of Canada to ensure competition still existed at the national level. Without the CNR, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) would have a monopoly and could dictate trans-continental freight and passenger fees, which had been a potent political liability that had worked against federal and provincial governments in the past.
On December 20, 1918, the federal government created the Canadian National Railways (CNR) through an Order in Council as a method of simplifying the funding and operation of the various railway companies that Ottawa had been acquiring. The CNR was formerly organized as a corporation in October 1922 by another Order in Council. Despite the railway’s changeover from private to public ownership, Grand Beach’s development continued.
The CNR announced on April 16, 1919, that the railway would be making improvements to the resort. Its plans included a 200-seat dining room.
“The lunch counter building which was burned last year is to be replaced by one much larger and two smaller buildings to provide accommodation for the help are planned” (Manitoba Free Press, April 16, 1919).
The newspaper reported that a hotel was not in the railway’s plans, but sleeping cars would be taken to the beach for the use of weekend visitors.
A March 16, 1918, promotion for the CNoR (just before it became the CNR) in the Free Press described the sleeping cars: “The interiors are finished in highly polished mahogany, and the upholstery, in soft and harmonious coloring, is of the fleet weave. Softly shaded electric lights form the general illumination, while every berth is supplied with special reading lamps and wardrobe hangers. The drawing-rooms have the usual upper and lower berths and sofa berth, with a connecting private toilet and lavatory. The dressing room facilities of the car as a whole are commodious, especially those provided for women patrons.”
“Officials stated that the catering problem was a much more difficult one to cope with than the sleeping accommodations,” according to the 1919 Free Press article, “as so many people go to the Beach for the day only, and do not wish to go to the bother of packing lunch baskets before they leave home.”
A hotel wasn’t built by the railway at Grand Beach until 1922. By that time, the popularity of the resort had by far outstripped the availability of sleeping cars for overnight accommodations.
Most of the approximately 500 camper lots had been leased and marked out with white pegs, and signposts and lights were added to the avenues. According to a CNR advertisement in the May 31, 1919, Winnipeg Tribune, the railway company was offering “beautifully treed, high and dry camp sites” at $5 per month or $10 per season. “They are electric lighted. Water supply. Groceries supplied at standard prices. Ice free. Fruit at reasonable prices.”
The lots were small at the Grand Beach subdivision, often just 35 feet wide by 75 feet long (10.686 by 22.872 metres). The lot size was dictated by the intended original purpose, which was a campsite for tenters, and that is why cottage lots at Grand Beach to this day remain quite small in size. The small lots mean that the overall square footage of interior floor space in cottages is regulated. Other restrictions on cottage construction also exist.
Ray Frost, now 85 years old, who acquired his Grand Beach cottage in 1957, but has been coming to the resort since 1934, said even in the 1930s there were still plenty of tents erected on the lots.
“But then people began to add wood sections to the tents,” he added. “Next thing you know, there were cottages being built.”
In their Prairie Perspectives article, A Home Away from Home at Grand Beach, Manitoba, John Selwood and Matthew Tonts wrote that one emerging semi-permanent structure was called a “Donaldo,” which was basically a tent on a wooden platform with a timber frame and partial cladding on the sides.
“Because leases became renewable annually, the temporary structures were soon replaced with more substantial, but still modest timber framed structures, a few of which survive, although they are now fast disappearing.”
Under the headline, Grand Beach Proves Magnate to Thousands, the Free Press of August 2, 1918, reported that once people disembarked from trains on Dominion Day (Canada Day), they rushed to the beach, while others ventured to the campsite “placed quite away back from the station.”
Despite the alleged inconvenience of the location for the campsite, the newspaper reported the existence of a regular “camp colony” at Grand Beach.
“The camp and picnic sections have been fitted with electric light and this improvement tends greatly to increase the comfort of the campers, as well as adding beauty to the scene.
“As soon as the moonlights (trains) began coming in, feet began to itch, and once the large pavilion was crowded and (with) the strains of the orchestra, many began to trip the light fantastic.”
The popularity and expansion of Grand Beach continued through to the 1940s, but the 1950s witnessed a reversal in the resort’s fortunes — first there was the Labour Day 1950 fire that destroyed the dance pavilion, then a road (PTH 59) was laid that allowed automobiles to usurp the role of the trains, and rowdyism cast Grand Beach in a bad light.
“Gangs of rowdy punks” kept people away from the beach, reported the Free Press on June 9, 1951.
“We have been experiencing trouble for a considerable time,” Sam Godwin, the secretary of the Grand Beach Campers’ Association, told the newspaper. “Our association has asked for better police protection ...”
Newspapers from the period were filled with accounts of foul language, public drunkeness, brawling, vandalism and break-ins occurring at Grand Beach.
It was at this time that the CNR decided to put their holdings in the resort on the real estate market.
Winnipeg accountant Harvey J. Emke was able to buy some land and buildings from the CNR, but just a short time afterward he tragically died in a car crash near Beausejour. A consortium led by W.J. Postolu under the title, Grand Beach Investments Ltd., gained control of the hotel and concession alongside the boardwalk from Emke’s estate, but the campsite and picnic area, the most substantial portions of resort land, remained under the control of the CNR.
According to the August 17, 1959, Free Press: “The new owner (Postolu), apparently did not go through with the financial requirements of the deal and the CNR resumed ownership. The properties have been leased by the CNR since that time.”
Subsequently, the CNR only offered one-year leases on the hotel.
In August 1959, the railway announced it was putting its “Grand Beach summer resort hotel and area up for sale” (Free Press, August 17).
On August 18, an advertisement appeared in the newspaper under the heading, Canadian National Railways: For Sale Grand Beach.
“The desirable beach property, one of the finest in Western Canada ... has a frontage on Lake Winnipeg of 3,000 feet more or less,” according to the ad. “It comprises approximately 150 acres, together with all the facilities and Railway-owned buildings, situated thereon, which includes the hotel and certain concession buildings ...”
Excluded in the offer were the railway right-of-way and station.
“In offering the sale of the property this time, the CNR has included the beach frontage,” reported the Free Press. “This was not part of the earlier offering (in 1950).”
The newspaper stated that a portion of the land was acquired in 1914 and the remainder in 1930, although other reports claimed that the resort land was acquired by the CNoR and later the CNR between 1914 and 1922.
By this time, the daily runs to Grand Beach by the CNR had come to an end. Trains were only going to the resort from Winnipeg on weekends and on Wednesdays during the summer season.
CNR officials said they had made an offer that would have allowed cottagers to purchase the lots they were leasing from the railway in 1958 (Free Press, August 18, 1959).
According to the CNR, the railway had done its utmost to protect cottage owners.
“We advised the residents about a year ago to band together to buy the property, but nothing came of it,” a representative of the railway told the newspaper.
While the leases for 540 cottage lots brought in an annual revenue of $27,000, railway officials said the CNR wanted to get out of the resort-hotel business at Grand Beach as “a matter of policy.” And when the cottage owners rejected the offer, the decision was reached to sell all the property and buildings in a single block.
One of the offers came from the Grand Beach Development Corporation, a consortium of Winnipeg businessmen. Before the CNR gave its approval for the bid, the corporation made an offer to the existing cottagers, which would have allowed them to purchase their lots at a one-time cost of $500, or $10 a month for a period of five years.
(Next week: part 4)