Among the city-issued press release this week was one with the headline Happy Birthday Portage and Main!
The gist of the release was that Winnipeg’s most famous corner of Portage and Main had turned 150 years old on June 2, 2012. It’s a corner with a checkered historical past, including armed Mounties on horseback charging from the corner onto Main Street to break up a crowd during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, and the unsuccessful Save Our Jets Rally in May 1995. In terms of Canada’s national winter sport, the corner also witnessed the return of the Jets to the city in May last year, and the signing of Bobby “the Golden Jet” Hull on June 27, 1972, by Ben Hatskin, which marked the true beginning of modern-day professional hockey in the city. Hull returned to the corner 40 years later to commemorate the signing.
Shrouded in the murk of the past is that the corner was the creation of one man with a vision — Henry McKenney, who came to Winnipeg in 1859. Although born in what is now Ontario, McKenney had honed his entrepreneurial skills on the American frontier in Minnesota, where he operated a small trading store with his brother Augustus.
When McKenney arrived in the future Manitoba capital he first bought a store from Andrew McDermott, a pioneer resident, which was quickly converted into the Red River Settlement’s first hotel. As a popular drinking establishment, the Royal Hotel provided McKenney with the inkling of an idea. He noticed that the bar’s regulars didn’t follow the Portage Trail to Fort Garry, but cut across the prairie directly to his hotel.
McKenney in partnership with his half-brother John Christian Schultz, approached McDermot with an offer to purchase a piece of land on the west side of Main Street near the boundary of McDermot’s lot 248. They paid McDermot £110 for the land plus an easement to the river, with the land changing hands on June 2, 1862.
Part of the deal was that they paid £60 in cash to guarantee the right to purchase another piece of property that they could immediately occupy in five years. Interest on the remaining £50 was at six per cent per year.
“The site was low and swampy, covered with scrub oak and popular,” wrote George F. Reynolds in the MHS Transactions article, The Man Who Created the Corner of Portage and Main, “... In the eyes of the old settlers, the worst feature was the distance from the Red River. ‘Nobody in their right mind,’ they said, would even think of building over a quarter of a mile from the river, at that time the only source of water.”
But McKenney was undeterred by the laughing arising from skeptical residents and built a wooden structure that Reynolds called a “ghastly example of Red River Primitive.” The hip roof of the structure earned it the nickname “Noah’s Ark.”
“The house (structure) was a long two storey building,” wrote Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River, which was published in 1871, “80 feet long by 24 feet wide by 22 feet high, the ground flat of which was lighted by two large windows which, with the door, occupied one end, while the sides were windowed only in the top storey, which was used a dwelling house ...
“The house was erected in a particularly isolated spot and the hurricanes which sometimes blow across the plains, it was then imagined, would beat against the broad sides of the slightly-built edifice with such force as would reduce it to native timbers.”
Even then, what would become Portage and Main was noted as being the windiest corner in the settlement.
“But although the house had sometimes to be supported by huge beams propped in considerable numbers from the outside,” continued Hargrave, “and was believed to be by its inmates to be by no means a safe abode on a stormy night, the winds proved as powerless to overwhelm, as the waters to sap, the experimental venture.”
At the time, McKenney said he wanted the store’s corner jutting out into the Main Trail to become the central hub of settlement from which roads would branch out like the spokes of a wheel.
McKenney became embroiled in a land dispute with William Drever, who built a store across the way from his store in 1863. The Assiniboia Council intervened, and appointed a committee to investigate the right-of-way. The committee sided with McKenney and the council then passed a series of resolutions which lopped off a chunk of Drever’s property for a public road, though the building was permitted to remain.
Much to the chagrin of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the council gave their approval to McKenney’s vision by surveying a right-of-way for a street measuring 66 feet from the south end of McKenney’s property to serve as a central point for the 132-foot wide future Portage Avenue.
By 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner in the community that the Nor’Wester newspaper had given the designation Winnipeg in its masthead. In 1883, there still stood at the corner of Portage and Main, some buildings described as dilapidated that encroached right into the middle of the intersection, creating a bottleneck, according to William Douglas, who in 1962 published the book, The Corner of Portage and Main. The store McKenney established stood for 25 years and was finally demolished in 1887. Meanwhile, McKinney had moved away from Manitoba, dying in the Oregon Territory in 1886.
Despite his significance to Winnipeg as the creator of the corner of Portage and Main, Reynolds pointed out in 1970: “There are 2,300 streets and avenues in Metro Winnipeg, none of them bears the name McKenney or, for that matter, the name of Drever or (George “Dutch”) Emmerling, the two men who were the first to follow Henry McKenney to the corner of Portage and Main.”
The lack of recognition can be attributed to the bad feelings McKenney provoked, especially after he had a falling out with his half-brother Schultz, who became a prominent citizen of Manitoba, serving as an MP, senator and the lieutenant-governor of the province. Schultz never forgave McKenney who, in his capacity as sheriff of the settlement, arrested him for non-payment of a debt and threw him into jail.
The historical writings and newspapers from the time McKenney lived in Manitoba portray in far from glowing terms. It can be argued that McKenney was the victim of a healthy dose of “bad press.” Still, apparently McKenney alienated enough important people that he was conveniently forgotten in latter years as the creator of Winnipeg’s most famous corner.