by Bruce Cherney (part 6 of 6)
After lunch, the Canadian Press Association excursionists departed for the next stop of their journey at Portage la Prairie, a community with a significantly longer history than Brandon, although its accelerated growth was also tied to the arrival of the CPR. And it was when the first trains pulled into the community in 1881 that Portage was incorporated as a town.
“Now it is a town large enough to impress the visitor with surprise and delight (Free Press, September 2, 1882). One evidence of its enterprise is the establishment of several industries which either are already thriving well or have excellent prospects for the future.”
In fact, although incorporated as a town, residents continually referred to their community as a “city” during the press tour in the expectation that such a status was only a few years away. It was eventually incorporated as a city in 1907.
The newspaper acknowledged that the community’s future was linked to the surrounding agricultural hinterland. “As far as the eye could reach on every side extended the richest of prairie land, so that the prosperity of the city is not so much a matter of wonder.”
From Portage, the excursionists reached Winnipeg at about three o’clock in the morning. But they were not scheduled to take another tour of the city. When daylight shone, “the travellers were being rapidly whirled over the elaborate piece of road between Cross Lake and Rat Portage (now Kenora), where Nature has stamped upon the face of the country features which contrast as strongly with those of the prairie land of the West. Great rocky hills and tangled swamps, interspersed with lakes shining like beautiful gems in the morning sun, replaced the rolling uplands and the fertile fields of the day before.”
While the landscape east of Winnipeg may have appeared as a natural wonder to the press association members, the CPR’s vision of the landscape was significantly different. It actually took six years from the awarding of the first contract to complete the Winnipeg to Rat Portage rail connection. Section 15 from Cross Lake near the Manitoba-Ontario border to Rat Portage was a 64-kilometre morass of muskeg, rocky outcrops, and numerous small lakes and streams that had to be crossed. In fact, while the press tour passed this section, rail work was ongoing to keep the tracks from sinking into the muskeg.
One contractor, Joseph Whitehead poured in 222,000 yards of gravel, costing $80,000, into the Cross Lake section, and the line still continued to sink. Whitehead was pouring even more of his money into this section when the federal government took away his contract in March 1880. The feeling in Ottawa was that Whitehead, who’s contract funds had run out, was not the man to complete the job.
East of Rat Portage, the going was even tougher as rail workers had to traverse bogs, rivers and lakes seemingly without end. Extremely unstable nitroglycerine also had to be used to blast through kilometres of Canadian Shield granite on the northern route above Lake Superior.
The railroad to Rat Portage from Winnipeg was first opened in the same year that the excursionists went on their press junket. In a quirk of local history, Rat Portage was incorporated as a Manitoba town in 1882, a year after the borders of the province were extended by the federal government, although the eastern limit of the province had yet to be decided in favour of Rat Portage’s inclusion.
At the apparent urging of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, Manitoba moved quickly to assert its authority in the disputed region, appointing Rat Portage residents Charles McCabe as coroner and issuer of marriage licences and Patrick O’Keefe and Daniel R. Cameron as Manitoba Provincial Police constables. On September 7, 1881, the county court and electoral district of Varennes of Manitoba was established and a registrar appointed.
The town became a matter of contention between Ontario and Manitoba, with each province declaring its authority over the community and surrounding region. The ensuing fight over jurisdiction became known to history as the “Rat Portage War.”
The matter of jurisdiction was finally resolved in 1884 by the Privy Council in London, England, which was then the final judicial arbitrator for Canada. To Manitoba’s chagrin, Rat Portage was declared to be within Ontario’s borders.
As the centre of Section B railway construction in the region, Rat Portage became notorious as “Sodom on the Lake.” An illegal whiskey trade sprang up and thrived in the presence of hundreds of workers seeking relief from the gruelling task of pushing tracks through the wilderness. When the 1882 tour passed through the community, no mention was made of Rat Portage’s less-than-stellar reputation.
The press association tour passed the “great works” at Cross Lake in the dark of evening, arriving at the Rat Portage station where “a goodly crowd of citizens, who vied with their brethren in the far west in extending a hearty welcome to the guests,” reported the September 3 Free Press.
“Prominent on the platform” was Mayor W. Oliver, who was elected under the Municipal Act of Manitoba. Also among the official delegation was W.R. Lyon, the Ontario appointee as stipendiary magistrate in Rat Portage. By this time, Oliver had apparently switched sides and threw his support behind the local faction favouring Ontario’s claim.
Lyon presented a petition signed by local residents to Edward J.B. Pense, the president of the Canadian Press Association. The petition’s chief paragraph stated: “The unsettled state of the boundary question very seriously retards the progress of this district, and we hope a body of gentlemen who are possessed of so much influence in forming public opinion, will, on their return home, give us all the aid in their power towards obtaining a definite settlement — so that our mining, lumbering and agricultural interests may have speedy and effectual development.”
Again, Pense didn’t get involved in local politics. Instead, he tactfully “replied ... in his customary graceful way, referring to the feelings of pleasure with which the party had viewed the grand scene of the rock-bound country after their ride over the level prairie.”
After the speech-making, the party went to Rideout House, “a hostelry which is worthy of the fame it bears,” for breakfast. Once breakfast was over, the party boarded a barge for an excursion on the eastern side of Lake of the Woods, courtesy of Manning, McDonald & Co., the contractors undertaking the construction of Section B of the CPR tracks to Fort William (now Thunder Bay).
“The sail was so delightful a change from the heat and dust of railway travelling that the general feeling was one of regret for its short duration,” reported the September 2 Free Press. “But time was hastening on, and the sylvan loveliness and rocky grandeur of the lake had to be abandoned for a run out on Section B where the contractors proposed to show the visitors some more of the obstacles which railway builders in the debateable land have had to encounter.”
On the train ride east, the party passed over “high, spider-like tressle work,” which filled them with apprehension, as did the “rocky curves” that were “sometimes shaded completely by the overhanging rocks. The enormous expense of pushing a railway through this wild region is patent to any person who travels over it.”
It was also expense in lives. Pierre Berton in his book, The Impossible Railway, wrote that on one 80-kilometre stretch of Section B, Sanford Fleming had counted 30 graves, “all the result of the careless handling of nitroglycerine” to blast through the rock of the Canadian Shield.
The work was so arduous and treacherous that the railroad in the eastern section was not completed until 1885. When the press association party arrived in 1882, there was still great gaps in the tracks to be filled.
The excursionists travelled to Hawk Lake, which was about 40 kilometres east of Rat Portage, after which they were taken to Viaduct Lake to see “the loftiest piece of bridging on the road.” The Free Press reporter noted that the bridge was constructed 30-feet above the lake which was 150-feet deep.
After returning to Hawk Lake and eating lunch, the last stage of the 1882 tour was commenced. “Rat Portage was soon reached and passed, and the train was stopped to allow the pilgrims a view of the Winnipeg River falls by moonlight, a sight which none of the company will soon forget.
“On the homeward journey the train passed the city about five o’clock in the morning. Some few of the excursionists stopped, but the great majority went on to Emerson.”
At the Emerson depot, the party was greeted by an enthusiastic throng of people and were then spirited away by carriage to the “palatial” residence of W.N. Fairbanks, originally from the U.S., for breakfast. Today, the mansion still stands in the town that Fairbanks named after his favourite writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The visitors were then conveyed by carriage through West Lynne, Manitoba, and Pembina, North Dakota, “and thence across the Red River to St. Vincent (Minnesota), where their Pullman coaches were to be attached to the south-bound express.”
The CPR-sponsored trip on the Canadian side of the border had come to an end.
“The excursion of 1882,” said David Creighton (A History of Canadian Journalism, 1908), “is remembered by old-timers as one of the most interesting ever enjoyed by the Association ... The party returned through the States, as it had gone, and after discussions about our marvelous West, many an Ontario and Québec editor was able to take a more intelligent part of having gone on that trip.”
How successful was the tour in terms of what the “ink-slingers” later wrote? Well, there were reports in various eastern newspapers following the excursion. An article in the Lindsay Post referred to Winnipeg as “a never-ending course of amazement,” and that it had “the making of a great city.”
At the time when the press association visited, Winnipeg’s population was 25,000, but the Post writer predicted that number would jump to 100,000, “before its people will be able to fully realize the rate of its progress.”
Actually, the increase wasn’t quite as sudden as the writer forecast, as the Canadian Census of 1906 indicated that Winnipeg’s population was 90,153, and the next census five years later showed that the city had topped 100,000 and boasted 136,035 people.
“It is far ahead of any possible rival, and will be the great entrepot of the Northwest. It will soon catch up to St. Paul and Minneapolis (Minnesota).”
The rapid expansion of the city had overtaken its available accommodations, so the writer noted, “A thousand tents line the streets or dot the fields.” There were also “splendid blocks and petty frame shanties alongside each other.” In addition, stores, many under canvass, were plentiful and well stocked with products.
“The main streets in certain quarters are putting on a metropolitan appearance, in an almost unbroken row of fine buildings, and in another year or two the tents will be relegated to the back street altogther ... Private and public enterprise will soon make Main Street one of the finest thoroughfares in the Dominion.”
According to the Whitby Chronicle, “Winnipeg is all alive with business. Only in Chicago can the same evidences of rush and push and energy and overpowering activity be seen ... Winnipeg to-day boasts more lawyers, doctors and university men; more banks, moneyed institutions and wholesale houses that can be found in any Ontarian city outside Toronto.”
The account noted that Winnipeg was “the only exit to the whole northwest and must continue to be the main distributing centre for all the country up to the Rocky Mountains ... One must see the place to realize its importance and the immensity of the country and its resources. In the city on every hand there is an appearance of solid wealth, and confident energy and settled industry that would be expected by the man who has simply read about the place, and who has smiled incredulously at the accounts of booms in corner lots and land speculations ...
According to the Chronicle writer, “no intelligent observer can visit the place and come away with any other conclusion than that the foundation of a great city has been laid.”
The Galt Reformer provided praise for the CPR and its officials, especially for the hospitality provided during the first Canadian Press Association tour of Winnipeg and Western Canada to the End of Track.
While the members of the tour gave long and flattering accounts of what they saw of “this wonderful land of promise” (editorial, Free Press, September 20, 1882), their accounts of Pile Bones (Regina) were far less complementary. In writing about the selection of the now capital for the North West Territories, a writer for the Toronto Globe, said, “intentional or unintentional, it is evident that a mistake has been made.”
An article in the London Advertiser claimed the site was utterly unsuitable, and that the “universal verdict” was that the townsite was a “large swindle, and will never sell worth a cent — Regina is as dead as a door nail.”
Despite the disparaging commentaries, the Canadian government stuck with Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney’s decision and Regina remained the capital of the North West Territories and later of the new province of Saskatchewan (1905).
Bad press aside for Regina, overall the commentary was extremely favourable for the future prospects of Western Canada and its towns and cities. Ultimately, the good press garnered was a boon to Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk, Rat Portage and the CPR, which was the entire point of the 1882 press tour.