When homes were scarce and pricey — estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people forced to live in tents

by Bruce Cherney

“Going, Gone.” so began an article in the Winnipeg Daily Sun, November 3, 1881. The article related the tale of “an hour in an auction room” at the height of the most spectacular land boom in Manitoba’s history. As one writer enthused about the boom, “life was one continuous joy-ride.”

Although the article was written tongue-in-cheek “for the benefit of people outside Winnipeg,” it aptly captured the speculative fever that pulled in people from around the world to the city, all of whom wanted to make a quick buck by bidding upon and buying “a village that will grow into the magnitude of 

another Winnipeg.”

It was a wild and tumultuous era, summed up by one man from Eastern Canada in a letter home, who wrote, “Women, who a few years ago were cooking and washing in a dirty little back kitchen, now ride about in carriages and pairs, with eccentric looking individuals for coachmen sitting in the back seat driving, the mistress looking as if the world were barely extensive enough for her to spread herself in.”

Jim Coolican, the “Real Estate King,” wore a $5,000 sealskin coat and sported a silk tie that glistened with diamonds as he paraded down Winnipeg’s streets. With his silver-tongued oratory, Coolican auctioned off lots in the “city” of Cartwright to the tune of $20,000 a night, although the so-called town consisted of nothing more than a single building and a general store. 

In the wake of the great land boom, hundreds of people flooded into Winnipeg. Many were speculators, but a good portion were simply settlers wanting to farm 160-acre plots of land offered by the Dominion government for just $10. Others were skilled and non-skilled workers from Eastern Canada, the United States and the Old World, wanting to take advantage of the highest wages in Canada.

What the latter didn’t count on was that the boom also created inflationary prices for housing. In fact, the influx of people into Winnipeg was so great that housing was one of scarcest commodities in the city — hard to find and dear at any price.

Another Sun article (September 12, 1882) told the story of a carpenter who came to Winnipeg from Ottawa a year earlier and outlined the difficulty of finding affordable housing.

When asked by the reporter if it cost a lot more to live in Winnipeg than 

Ottawa, the unnamed man replied: “The great expense for a mechanic (term the man used for carpenter) in Winnipeg are home rents, which are simply exorbitant. I have nine in my family, myself, my wife and seven children. Here I am paying $35 a month for rent, and in Ottawa I had just as good a house and only paid $7 a month rent.”

The man said he was only able to afford his rented home because carpenters received a wage of between $3 and $3.50 a day, compared to just $2 to $2.25 a day in Ottawa. Actually, by the time he was interviewed, carpenters could earn up to $4 a day at some Winnipeg job sites.

But even with a higher wage, the man also needed to take in boarders to make ends meet. He said the rent he earned from boarders paid just enough to feed his family.

Despite the difficulties of living in Winnipeg, the man said he had made up his mind to succeed, which required his family to pitch in also as wage earners.

He told the reporter, his drive to succeed had translated into saving $50 every month, winter and summer.

“Last winter we kept a very strict account of all we spent,” said the man. “I was only paying $12 a month then. It was a very small house, and we found that it cost us just $26 a month to live. Fourteen dollars a month for food and fuel and $12 for rent. Of course there were only my wife and myself then, the children being in Ottawa.”

What the man suggested to the reporter was that  “some builder” should consider erecting  “a lot of houses containing about four or five rooms each and rent them ... from $15 to $18 a month, he would never have them empty. In a month from now every one of them would be occupied and plenty (of people) anxious to get them. In a month from now living in tents will be at an end, though ... I know a family here have lived out in a tent on the prairie all the time. I don’t know how they managed it, but they did.”

The reality is that the carpenter and his family were lucky to have found accommodations behind four walls. Many were not as fortunate which resulted in tents dotting Winnipeg wherever a piece of  unoccupied prairie land could be found. 

In August 1882, when the Oddfellows held their annual train excursion (they left from the CPR station then located just two blocks west of Main Street along Sutherland Avenue) and picnic in Headingley, it was reported that they saw from the rail cars “rows of brown tents with unwashed women standing at the door of each” just beyond the rail yards in the city’s North End.

In 1881, it was claimed that there were 7,000 people living in tents in Winnipeg, although D. Hope of Hope & Bromley, tent-makers, disputed this figure. Still, he was quoted in a December 29, 1882, Sun article as claiming his company and other firms such as the North-West Tent Factory  in Winnipeg sold about 2,700 tents since January 1 that year. 

Hope said a family of four could purchase a tent ranging in cost from $10 to $25 sufficient for their needs. With a complete outfit of mattresses, blankets, chairs, etc., the cost was about $50.

If there wasn’t a dire need for accommodation, Winnipeg tent sellers would not have provided the option of outfitting tents with household furniture.

“Quite a number of families are tenting out all winter — from fifty to one hundred,” Hope added.

To keep up with demand during the height of the summer season, Hope said he employed 76 people to make tents — 22 men and 54 “girls.” As demand diminished in the early winter, 11 women and 14 men were employed. The salary for the girls was $5 to $7.50 per week.

Hope said his company would begin production of 2,000 tents in January to meet the projected demand. The Manitoba Free Press said Hope & Bromley employed 20 heavy-duty sewing machines powered by a steam engine to stitch together tents.

Most of the canvas was imported from American mills, but a new factory opened that year in Hamilton, which Hope said “turns out an excellent article and will probably hereafter be able to supply the Dominion with canvas ...

“Certainly, I think there will be great demand next summer for tents. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people will tent out who never did so before,” Hope told a Sun reporter. “No labouring man would be such a lunatic as to pay $35 a month for a house when he can buy a furnished canvas house out-and-out for $50. A great many young men will ‘bach’ out in tents, who now pay from $10 to $15 a month for rooms. All the men employed in our establishment tented out last summer.”

Hope said tenting during the summer allowed a family to save enough to build a “comfortable” shanty for the winter months. Winnipeg possessed its own shanty town on the Hudson’s Bay Flats, so named because the shanties were built by squatters on low-lying land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company at The Forks. Hope said “scores, if not hundreds of these new shanties” were springing up along the unoccupied lots near the Broadway Bridge (opened in April 1882 and damaged four days later and reopened after it was rebuilt — at that time Broadway ran through The Forks right to the foot of the Red River) and near the CPR’s works and freight sheds in the city’s North End. The shanties were said to vary in size from a “large doghouse to a good-sized ... house.”

“When cheap and comfortable dwellings are erected, we may say good-bye to tents and shanties in Winnipeg. But there will be a big business in this line in the new towns springing up out west.”

Hope’s prediction of new prospects outside Winnipeg became a reality with the 1881 founding of Brandon, the first of the CPR towns on the prairie, where tents and shacks sprang up virtually overnight along the bank of the Assiniboine River. The first post office was a soapbox with a slit placed outside the tent erected by L.M. Fortier. A Mrs. Douglas, described as “a motherly lady of no mean proportions,” operated two tent hotels. 

J.H.E. Secretan, who had pitched the first tent in Brandon, said three months after his arrival in April, hundreds of tents were lined geometrically along what would become the community’s streets and avenues. 

As the CPR crews laid more tracks across the prairie, similar tent communities arose along the route.

But it was in Winnipeg that the first experiments in tent living were undertaken  through necessity. While Hope forecast property holders would build “comfortable dwellings” for the “working classes” and let “them at reasonable rents,” this would not immediately occur. 

It its early days, Winnipeg’s population expanded at a break-neck pace. In 1871, only 241 people called Winnipeg home, but by 1881, the population had jumped to 7,985. A year later, it was estimated the number of people living in the city had more than doubled to about 16,000.

By April 1881, each train from St. Paul, Minnesota was loaded with hundreds of immigrants. Many were en route to homesteads outside the city, but hundreds decided to call the city home and they needed accommodations.

Following a visit to Winnipeg in the fall of 1881, a reporter for the St. Louis Republican, wrote that between 900 and 1,000 new homes were in the process of being erected,” but many people were still living in tents.

Houses were sometimes erected in the space of 24 hours, but there still weren’t enough accommodations to meet demand.

The St. Louis reporter described the houses quickly banged together as “plain, ordinary-looking frame buildings.”

The Sun on September 4, 1882, ran a special report on the city’s hotels that indicated 3,000 people “find homes in the different hotels ... In the great majority of cases it was learned that one bed is occupied by two persons; many had rooms containing two or three beds, and some as many as four or five.”

Beecham Trotter, who lived in Winnipeg during the boom, paid $2 a night to  sleep in a chair in a “miserable” Main Street hotel.

In the Sun report, 64 hotels were listed with only one not offering accommodations.

It was during this time that a phenomenon unique to Winnipeg evolved — the boardinghouse. One man who lived in a boardinghouse that year said it was “a style to be found nowhere else in the Dominion.” The first boardinghouses were hastily put together by using canvas over wood frames with the resulting non-partitioned structures possessing a combination of sleeping quarters and dining rooms.

Hope & Brownley offered their own version of large-scale accommodations. They sold a 125-by-33-foot tent advertised as housing 120 people, “both with sleeping and board,” for $575.

Boardinghouse patrons were described as: “Men who were at one time high up in society, depraved lawyers, and decayed clergymen brought down by misconduct and debauchery, but still bearing about them an air of refinement ... carpenters smelling strongly of shavings, mill hands smelling of sawdust and oil, teamsters smelling of horse, plasterers fragrant with lime, roofers odorous with tar, railway laborers smelling of whiskey, in short all sorts and conditions of men.”

But the boardinghouses were the domain of men unencumbered by families. For those men who chose to bring their families west, the housing options were limited — rent a small house, if one could be found, or erect a shanty or a tent.

Immigrants from Eastern Canada even found it prudent to “travel Arab fashion carrying their tents with them,” according to a March 27, 1882, Sun article, “due to the extravagant lodging rents charged now in Manitoba towns.”

The Sun on October 28, 1882, reported after the boom had ended people were still briefly unable to find adequate accommodations. In an interview with Hope, the reporter asked if the end of the boom signalled the end of demand for tents.

“‘Oh, no,’ replied that gentlemen, ‘we are selling tents yet.’”

Hope said he knew of one family which tented out in Winnipeg the past season. “They liked it and preferred it to going into a shanty,” he added. “I think there will be at least fifty families who live in tents this winter. They have put down flooring, banked them around with earth, and will be quite comfortable with a fire. They intend to run that restaurant on Main Street, in the tent all winter.”

Restaurants were not the only businesses operated from tents. Under the headline A Disreputable Tent, the Sun on June 21, 1883, reported “Matilda Ellis, alias French Tilly, was charged with keeping a tent of ill fame on the Flats between Main Street South and the Red River.”

Several residents living in tents nearby testified in court that the brothel owner’s tent was “disorderly ... that the girls who lived in it drank liquor and caroused all night, much to the annoyance of the people living in the neighbourhood.”

French Tilly was fined $15 and court costs.

A smallpox outbreak in May 1882 forced the Winnipeg General Hospital —a temporary facility housed in the former Canadian government immigration “sheds” in Point Douglas that had been sold to the city — to evacuate diseased patients and place them in tents which cost $500 to erect. 

By the winter of 1883, cold weather forced the “hundreds of people (who) lived in tents last summer ... not being possessed of sufficient funds to build good houses, and being unable to pay high rents” to be “compelled to erect ... little shanties which cost on an average from $50 to $115, according to size and elaborateness of structure.”

As a depression in land values struck after the great boom of 1881-82 and business failures increased, there was no longer talk of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the North-West as the new El Dorado. It would take another generation before immigration would  match the numbers brought on by the boom. And many of those who did arrive merely used Winnipeg as a way-station in preparation for a new life on 160-acre homesteads. 

Winnipeg’s civic leaders learned a lesson and became wiser, accepting that sudden riches based on speculation and the emergence of avarice on a massive scale ultimately were a bane to the city’s future prospects. The lesson was to have realistic expectations, retrench and concentrate on providing municipal services for the people who remained behind.

Writer George Ham, who experienced the boom and looked upon it as a time when the city had a “tang to it,” later admitted Winnipeg was a better city as a result of the emergence of the new attitude. 

After the boom went bust, rents returned to more reasonable levels and accommodations were no longer unavailable to newcomers. In effect, the era of people living in tents scattered throughout the city abruptly came to an end.