by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
In December 1884, Winnipeg Fire Chief William O. McRobie reported to city council that he abstained from enforcing the city bylaw compelling occupants of shanties to build brick chimneys. He said “if it is a hardship to evict them, it was equally a hardship to compel them to build chimneys, which in most cases would cost more than the shanties are worth; also that the danger of a fire spreading during the winter was much less.”
In turn, the fire chief suggested that the city solicitor prepare a different bylaw to deal with the shanties, “as I consider there is a great danger from a conflagration in certain quarters of the city on account of the near proximity of the shanties to large buildings, lumber yards, etc., and the careless manner in which fire is kept in and around them.”
There seems to have been a measure of public sympathy for the poverty-stricken occupants of shanties. James Wilkinson of Fort Rouge wrote a letter asking city council to deal leniently “with these poor people and to take into consideration the scarcity of work, the poor wages and the difficulty men have in obtaining their money from the contractors” (July 29, 1884, Winnipeg Sun).
C.J. Bridges, the land commissioner of the HBC, appeared before city council in September 1884 demanding the removal of the shanties from the Hudson's Bay Company Flats (now The Forks).
Another letter from the law firm of Bain, Blanchard & Mulock threatened legal action if the city didn’t take steps to remove the shanties. The lawyers wrote that millions of board feet of lumber was endangered by the presence of nearby shanties.
On October 10, 1884, city council passed a regulation giving those who occupied shanties “located on streets, or other places where it was considered a nuisance” until May 1, 1885, to vacate. Council delayed the implementation of the bylaw as it didn’t want to evict the squatters during the depth of a harsh Manitoba winter. Council also felt the delay would allow shanty occupants sufficient time to find alternative accommodations.
The Winnipeg Sun reported on May 2, 1885, that the shanties covering “large portions of the Hudson’s Bay and Canadian Pacific Railway property, as well as Portage avenue, Notre Dame, Fonseca (in Point Douglas), and other streets” had yet to be removed.
“Yesterday was the day set for evicting the squatters, and the Hudson’s Bay Company had prepared to take prompt action. It was, however, delayed, because the city solicitor was not ready to take steps for the removal of the shanties as instructed by the council, and the squatters will have another week or so to get ready to leave, by which time the city and Hudson’s Bay Company will take concerted action.”
The shanties were to be torn down, “as they are regarded as a disgrace and disfigurement to the city,” according to the Sun.
In late May 1885, the city street inspector notified all squatters that their shanties had to be removed. He told city aldermen that there was some grumbling, but most were prepared to comply, while those who refused were to have their premises torn down.
Several of the shanties belonged to volunteers serving with the Canadian Militia in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion led by Louis Riel. The aldermen informed the inspector no action was to be taken against these shanty dwellers until they returned to Winnipeg following their military service.
By the end of 1885, the odd shanty still remained in the area of the HBC Flats, but their extinction was imminent. Starting in 1886, the rail yards of the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad, the Canadian Northern, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad and the Canadian National Railway took over the Flats and largely eliminated the traces of the structures that had previously dotted the site. The Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad first built a temporary station on 20 acres of land the company owned at the Flats. In 1888, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway (NP & MR) created a permanent station, offices, freight sheds, repair shops and an engine roundhouse, which formed the basis of the future Canadian National East Yards.
It took time for this redevelopment to overwhelm the location, so the HBC in April 1894 announced it was using a large portion of the Flats formerly occupied by squatters to build a regulation sports track and a “spacious” grandstand. The short-lived facility was the last presence of the HBC on the land east of Main Street called the Flats.
On the other hand, the CPR Shanty Town had a much longer life span. Shanties were still being built well into the 20th century in the area that was then variously referred to as the “Foreign Quarter,” “CPR Town” or “New Jerusalem.” Thousands of working poor lived in the North End, who were primarily immigrants labouring in the massive CPR yards and shops and at other industries that sprung up in the shadow of the railway tracks such as the Ogilvie Flour Mills and Vulcan Iron and Engineering Works.
James Shaver Woodsworth, the minister at the All People’s Mission on Maple Street and a future Labour and CCF MP, included in his book, Strangers Within Our Gates, or, Coming Canadians (1909), a report by an unnamed city worker. The report contained information about the living conditions of immigrants in Winnipeg’s North End.
“Jacob Lalucki is employed in the Canadian Pacific Railway shops. He is Ruthenian (Ukrainian), his wife Polish ... They have two children. They live in one room, and have nine boarders, and his wife goes out washing.”
The report also contained stories of enterprising families, who managed to succeed under the most trying circumstances. What becomes evident through the report is that these individuals were willing to make sacrifices in order to eventually better their lot in life.
“Stanislau Yablonski is a teamster. He owns his own team, and his wife goes out cleaning. They own several lots. They lived in two rooms, and have five roomers. Their furniture consists of three beds, a table, two chairs, a stove and some boxes. The attic is full of pigeons.”
Yet other stories involved personal tragedies, such as: “Michael Franchicinski is a laborer, but has at present no work. He and his wife and five children live in two small rooms for which they pay $4.50 a month; this must come out of the summer earnings. They have great trouble and expense with one of the children. Little Pieter took sick when they were coming out here, and was sent back to Austria. The father hopes to save enough money to go for this little boy.”
Canadian immigration officials were uncompromising in their enforcement of government regulations that called for the deportation of any immigrant showing signs of illness. That a small boy should be separated from his family and sent thousands of kilometres away was apparently none of their concern.
Although the city worker’s report deals specifically with Eastern European immigrants, the majority of those living in the city’s North End were actually British. While working-class Anglo-Saxons remained the prominent ethnic group, the North End by 1913 was an enclave for 87 per cent of the city’s Jews, 83 per cent of the Slavs, 67 per cent of the Scandinavians and 22 per cent of the Germans.
The Grain Growers’ Guide of May 13, 1914, contains an article written by Allan B. Hobbs entitled, Actual Conditions in Winnipeg, dealing with the “appalling story of destitution and undeserved poverty ...” The author told of a mother and seven children living in a room 12-by-14 feet that was rented for $15 a month. The father was forced to go out-of-town seeking work (as a severe recession gripped the city), leaving his family behind.
Despite their poverty, the mother took in a “poor young girl who had been turned out of her boarding house and had had nothing to eat for over two days.”
While visiting a home on Pritchard Avenue, Hobbs found “a family of eight young children, sick mother and out-of-work father ...without food or money. Four children were suffering from mumps, two had just had them, and one little boy had a complication of three diseases. Milk was all these sick children could take, but the parents had not a cent a cent to buy it with. The last three months’ rent ($15 a month) had been paid by friends.”
In the North End, property developers bought up tracts of land and laid down a grid of narrow streets and lots in order to erect as much cheap housing as possible, either to be rented or sold on the market at a profit. As a result, the North End quickly became one of the most densely populated urban areas in Western Canada.
“By 1912, all over the North End, a building boom was underway: small wood-frame houses on twenty-five-foot or thirty-three-foot lots, fifty per cent of them not even connected to the city sewer and water system, were quickly thrown up to meet the demand for housing,” wrote Jim Blanchard in Winnipeg 1912 (University of Manitoba Press, 2005). “Often, several families were crowded into a single small dwelling. Lots frequently had a house on the street and one, two, or three more small shacks in the backyard ... People put up with these conditions because they had no choice and because their misery was tempered by their high hopes for the future.”
Blanchard wrote about Jacob Freedman, who arrived in Winnipeg in 1904 and recalled living on Stella Avenue. “All the houses were small,” said Freedman. “Sometimes the walls were black with cockroaches and bedbugs but at that time we didn't mind very much. We were all young. It was a new country.”
Hobbs reported that in every shanty he visited, the workers agreed the rents were “outrageous ... cruelly unjust,” and consumed more than half an individual’s salary. A typical salary was $30 per month and the average rent for a tiny one-room home was $20 a month.
The occupants were also plagued by bailiffs hired by landlords demanding that rents be paid or the tenants would immediately be evicted regardless of their circumstances. Hobbs related an instance when a bailiff burst into a home on Pacific Avenue, insisting: “‘Pay up the two months rent due or out you go’ ... In vain did the parents plead the cruelty of casting four little children out on the street when the thermometer was down to 30 below zero (fahrenheit). The agent was granite.”
The father sent word to Rev. Dr. McLean, “whose timely intervention with some money prevented the brutal threats of the bailiff being carried out.”
Hobbs also reported the case of a widow, supporting six children, being threatened with eviction, although she was not in arrears on her rent. The landlord hired a bailiff to demand rent in advance for March. “The fact she had no money and no work made no difference. Luckily the Associated Charities got in between the bailiff and the helpless victim.”
City charity workers told Hobbs many of the needy cases thrust upon them resulted from misleading government literature promoting immigration to Canada. In Britain, the literature promised a “land, if not of gold, at least where lots of work could be found at high wages.”
What the Canadian government failed to mention was that the wheat crop collapsed in 1914, wheat prices dramatically dropped and foreign investment in the Western Canada dried up as the world went into recession. It wasn't until 1915-16, when Canada’s First World War allies needed wheat to feed their armies and citizens, that the Western Canadian economy rebounded.
Believing the government’s propaganda, an Englishman and his family came to Winnipeg in 1914, but he was only able to earn $15 over a period of a few months. “The wife and children were destitute, the wife having been careful of food to the point of starving herself into serious illness.”
Today, there are still a handful of shanties in existence. Although now few in number, the shanties can be found scattered about the city’s North End. These dwellings have been upgraded and changed over the years, but they may retain one identifier, although not the sole characteristic, of their past life — a flat roof that begins high at the front and gradually slopes down toward the rear.
While some homes of the city’s first affluent entrepreneurs have been preserved, the other architectural feature of Winnipeg’s early growth has few champions, and as such, the remaining shanties face certain extinction. Based upon what has happened in the past, once vacated, a shanty is invariably torn down and a new home is built in its place.
The last shanty town in Winnipeg was established during the Great Depression when a First Nations and Métis settlement sprang up on the southern fringes of the city and became known as Rooster Town. While many of its first inhabitants were aboriginal and Métis, the mix in Rooster Town evolved to include other ethnic groups.
In his book, The Greater Glory: Thirty-seven Years with the Jesuits (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), Stephen Casey wrote about a poverty-stricken 13-year-old Métis classmate at Saint Ignatius School named Joe who lived in Rooster Town, “beyond Waugh’s grocery store on which was then open prairie, rough grass punctuated by a few willows and scrub oaks.”
According to John Dafoe, who wrote an April 11, 1959, Free Press article under the headline, Rooster Town is Dying — But It had Its Wild Days: “It wasn’t a very stable town. It used to be just south of Corydon Avenue. As the city moved south the Rooster Towners loaded up their scrapwood shacks and moved on, farther into the prairie.
“And as they moved, their place was taken by some of Winnipeg’s most elegant homes. The worthless prairie on which the Rooster Towners squatted became the city’s most expensive residential land.”
Another Free Press article, published December 20, 1951, reported that the city described Rooster Town as occupying either 1148 and 1150 Weatherdon Avenue. Actually, the last site of Rooster Town is where the Grant Park Shopping Centre now stands.
Despite its city street designation: “The nearest thing to an avenue in sight was a rutted trail meandering through the brush and across the bald prairie.
“The dilapidated shacks are scattered through the brush and in sharp contrast, just across the Canadian National Railways main line, is the bright paint of the newly built-up area south of Corydon Avenue.”
The nearby CN tracks were one of the attractions for Rooster Town residents. “The company’s Harte subdivision was used for storing boxcars during off-peak periods” (Free Press, November 22, 1959), and boxcar wooden partitions provided ideal home-building material.
In the article, Rooster Town: Hidden Winnipeg History (ReidReidReid wordpress.com, January 18, 2011), Reid Dickie wrote: “The significance of the branch line of the Grand Trunk Pacific (later merged into CN) to Rooster Town was twofold. It provided transportation in and out of Rooster Town during its 30-year existence. Steam trains needed water so they stopped at a water tower at present-day Grant and Guelph to fill up, making it an easy jumping off point for transients, hoboes and drifters with all manner of alibis. Rooster Town usually had a few shadowy nameless figures ‘just passing through.’”
The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) tracks were to the north of the present-day CN tracks and followed the route of a portion of today’s Grant Avenue, meeting the CN and CPR tracks near the south end of Lindsay Street. The GTPR tracks were the now abandoned CN Harte Subdivision to Headingley (a 6.5 kilometre section north of Wilkes Avenue from the Assiniboine Forest through Charleswood is now part of the Trans Canada Trail system). The GTPR had a railway station at “Pacific Junction” near Elmhurst Road.
Rooster Town was immediately south of the Grand Trunk Pacific tracks — the proverbial “wrong side” of the tracks.
Although no one was sure how Rooster Town got its name, one suggestion was that most of its residents kept chickens. Another explanation was that Rooster Town got its name from the many illegal cockfights held in the area.
According to Gerald V. O’Brien, the assistant director of the city’s welfare department, he always remembered it being called Rooster Town due to the presence of chickens. “Even now (in 1959), there are chickens running wild through the bush. You turn them up everywhere you step.”
Rooster Town reached its height in the 1930s when it was home to several hundred residents and stretched from Stafford in the east to Lindsay in the west, according to Dafoe.
The Free Press reported in 1951 that Rooster Town residents obtained water from almost two kilometres away at a single pump where Wilton meets Grant. The residents rode horses out to the pump, “and carry barrels of water back on a travois.” It was also reported that children were given the job of trekking to the pump and each trudging back with a bucket of water in hand.
Nan Murphy, a local school trustee told the Free Press on December 20, 1951: “They have no plumbing, no sewers and they’re crowded into those little shacks and sleeping in some cases, four to a bed.”
She referred to the living conditions as “a picture of filth and squalor.”
According to the same Free Press article, due to the lack of water and sewer lines, “cleanliness and sanitation in the ‘town’ aren’t all they should be — especially when 12 or 14 people are crowded into a one- or two-room frame shack.”
Under such conditions, impetigo, scabies and other skin diseases, as well as whooping cough and chicken pox, proliferated. One city health nurse made 21 visits to a single home from September to December 1951. In October that year, the city put 23 children from the town in hospital for treatment of whooping cough and chicken pox.
“Rooster Town children go to Rockwood School ... Other parents forbid their children to play or mix with the Rooster Town pupils for fear of infection” (Free Press, December 20, 1951).
According to a December 20, 1951, Winnipeg Tribune article, the warning was issued: “Whatever you do ... don’t touch the Rooster Town children. You might get skin disease. So the teacher calls for a group game and tells the children to join hands. Nobody would dare join hands with the Rooster Town children.”
W. Palmer, the superintendent of the city’s public welfare department, told the Free Press in 1951 that residents of Rooster Town did a “bit of seasonal work,” picking berries in the summer.
In other instances, O’Brien said the men held jobs as landscape gardeners. “We didn’t see them all summer but with the first frost they would all be back with us.”
“They (Rooster Town residents) don’t want for necessities,” he added. “We see that they get food and fuel and care when they are sick.”
O’Brien said the residents caused little trouble in the rest of Winnipeg, and juvenile delinquency in the community was no worse than in other areas of the city.
“One reason, I think, is that the families were very close-knit. There may be 10 people living in the space of two rooms, but gramma always had her corner ...
“I know of one family that’s had four generations living there,” added O’Brien.
According to all the newspaper accounts, Rooster Town was noted for its wild parties fuelled by locally made homebrew. O’Brien said the police were continually called out to the area due to the bush parties that erupted.
Surprisingly, Rooster Town had its own suburb. Tin Town to the south near today’s McGillivray Boulevard was named for the metal used by the squatters to build their shanties. It was reported that baseball games were held between the residents of two shanty towns.
Casey also mentioned a Turkey Town “a little further east” of Rooster Town, although there is little further information that can be found about this “town” other than quite brief references.
Rooster Town’s end came as the city began its relentless encroachment into the area. “There was no place for modern Winnipeg for such non-conformists as the Rooster Town residents and they were ousted,” wrote Bill Leader in a one-page account of Rooster Town’s history in the November 22, 1969, Free Press.
In the spring of 1959, Rooster Town was razed after the last 14 families were forced out by the city and given $75 to move. Many of them were relocated to social housing on Dufferin Avenue in the city’s North End, while others gravitated to the central core.
Leader said it was impossible in 1969 to find anyone who had lived in Rooster Town or even someone who knew somebody who resided in one of its shanties.
But in the book, Reflections, Yesterday and Today (Manitoba Métis Federation Press 1979),
Jay Day of St. Laurent said: “I was born and raised on the outskirts of
Winnipeg in a place known as Rooster Town. This place was
situated where Grant Avenue is
“Rooster Town is a chapter in Winnipeg’s history that has been largely unwritten. Where did all the people go?” asked Leader.
“But if you’re interested why not take a second late one night, when the shoppers have all gone, across the deserted car park ... Maybe in the prairie wind you’ll hear the far away call of a rooster and the echo of some wild party; maybe the secret is with the prairie winds.”