“Cottage Country” in Manitoba was the creation of farsighted entrepreneurs during the golden age of the railways in the province. For the many who now enjoy a trip to the”lake,” it was railroaders such as William Whyte, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann who, at the turn of the 20th century, first conceived of establishing summer resorts along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
In the era before the automobile became the preferred form of mass transportation, William Whyte was the first of the three to envision a resort for “the toilers” in Winnipeg, who were “badly in need of a place within easy reach, where they can take a day’s outing and enjoy the health-giving breeze from Lake Winnipeg” (Montreal Gazette, April 20, 1901).
Whyte personally selected the site just south of Boundary Creek, where there was a sandy crescent-shaped beach stretching for 2.9 kilometres. After purchasing 13 hectares of land from farmer Donald Arquet for $1,000 on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Whyte named the location Winnipeg Beach to emphasize his vision for the new resort to serve the recreational urges of Winnipeggers. All that remained was the construction of a branch line from Selkirk to link Winnipeg Beach with Winnipeg.
Of course, Whyte and those who followed his lead, also had additional profits in mind for their respective railways when they created new resorts.
It was a few minutes before 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, June 6, 1903, that the first express train hauling 11 passenger coaches rolled into the CPR station “for Winnipeg’s new summer week-end resort.”
Prior to the train’s departure, newspapers reported that the Winnipeg CPR station platform was crowded with a throng of people representing every walk of life in the city. It was said from 400 to 500 people (the Winnipeg Telegram reported 400 while the Manitoba Free Press reported 500) were aboard the first regularly scheduled train departing Winnipeg for Winnipeg Beach. It took the first train two hours and 35 minutes to reach its destination 74 kilometres north of the city.
The May 23, 1903, Telegram, announcing “Winnipeg’s new resort,” reported, “The schedule (for train service) has been adopted with a view to the convenience of clerks, office workers and business men of Winnipeg.”
When the people disembarked and headed for the beach, they saw along the way, a fine (dance) pavilion, a newly-built sidewalk “and streets planned out from the sandy beach one and one half miles long running round a small bay to a point where the creek (Boundary Creek) enters the lake.”
Before the Second World War, summer cottages extended north across Boundary Creek as far south as 11th Avenue and slightly more than a kilometre to the west. By the 1950s, over 1,500 cottages and permanent residents were found within the Winnipeg Beach area.
Whyte was also responsible for establishing another cottage area a few kilometres to the south at Whytewold, which was obviously named after him. Whytewold is now incorporated in the Village of Dunnotar, which also includes the cottage country communities of Ponemah and Matlock.
In the 1920s, at least 13 trains arrived daily at the “Beach” during the summer, carrying 40,000 people to “Manitoba’s Fun Playground.” So many people arrived on Dominion Day (now Canada Day) 1924 that the boardwalk crowd was so dense at times that it was a matter of difficulty making any headway,” reported the Free Press. With the establishment of Moonlight Specials, fun-seekers could enjoy a few hours of concerts, dancing, promenades on the CPR and boardwalk, rides, such as the famous roller coaster, and beach parties. It was said many a love story began or ended Saturday night at Winnipeg Beach.
People to the north in Gimli became envious of Winnipeg Beach’s success and began to lobby the CPR to extend its line to their community.
But in Gimli’s case, Whyte was less than enthused about its future prospects. He regarded it as an agricultural backwater, which “had surprisingly little to show for 30 years of farm living.”
“It looked like Gimli would do without a railway,” wrote Gisli Magnus Thompson (my great-grandfather) in an August 16, 1905, Logberg article.
But Whyte eventually succumbed to political pressure rallied in Ottawa by Sigtryggur Jonasson, who is called the “Father of New Iceland,” and local MP Samuel Jackson, the founder of the town of Stonewall.
On November 26, 1906, 300 men, women and children from Winnipeg, joined the people of Gimli in a special ceremony making the arrival of the first train to the community.
After the extension of the railway line to Gimli, a building boom ensued. The Free Press on May 25, 1912, drew attention to the emergence of Gimli as a resort community. During the summer, two trains ran daily between Winnipeg and Gimli, bringing cottagers and visitors to the community.
“In time the Lake Winnipeg Beaches became popular with the Winnipeg residents and they began to build cottages at Winnipeg Beach, Boundary Park, Sandy Hook and Loni Beach (part of the RM of Gimli) in ever increasing numbers ... and the railway line helped to improve the economic level of the residents of the ‘new’ Gimli municipality” (formed in 1908), wrote Michael Ewanchuk in Spruce, Swamp and Stone: A History of the Pioneer Ukrainian Settlements in the Gimli Area.
Mackenzie and Mann, who were the principals of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), looked to the success of Whyte and the CPR and decided to create their own resorts along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Through numerous deals from 1914 to 1922, they acquired the land that would become the popular resort of Grand Beach, noted for its expanse of fine, white sand along the beach facing the boardwalk. Twenty-six kilometres to the north, they also established the more exclusive resort at Victoria Beach.
The official opening of the new CNoR resorts at Grand Beach and Victoria Beach were on June 17, 1916. Over 400 people took the train from Winnipeg to witness the formal opening. In 1916, the CNoR had completed its famous Grand Beach Dance Pavilion (burned down on September 4, 1950). Similar to Winnipeg Beach, Moonlight Specials ran to Grand Beach, which was initially nicknamed by the railway as the “Western Coney Island.”
The heyday of Winnipeg, Gimli, Grand Beach, and other location along Lake Winnipeg as railway resorts, has long since passed, but the communities continue to attract tens of thousands of Winnipeggers throughout the summer months. While Cottage Country has expanded well beyond the shores of Lake Winnipeg to so many other locations throughout the province, today’s annual trek to the “lake” was first conceptualized by the railway tycoons of another era.