Augustus Nanton, who was recently inducted into the WinnipegREALTORS® Citizens Hall of Fame, came to Winnipeg from Toronto in 1883, a year after the most spectacular period of real estate speculation in the city’s history.
Following the collapse of the real estate boom of 1881-82, optimism still reigned, although the wild year of speculation was never to be again duplicated in the city.
Newspapers a year later wrote of “Winnipeg’s march forward,” and that “each year (was) an advance on its predecessor.” The Winnipeg Sun on March 31, 1883, wrote of the “Boom of 1883.” Of course, when taking into account what had happened, any subsequent so-called “boom” was muted by the consequences of the earlier collapse.
During the real estate boom from June 1881 to mid-April 1882, newspapers across North America and in Europe proclaimed that Winnipeg was the place to be, a real-estate bonanza for quick-buck artists. “I doubt if to-day any other city on the continent, according to its population, can boast of so many wealthy young and middle-aged men,” said a reporter for the Toronto Globe in March 1882.
“Thousands of dollars were made by operators in a few minutes,” wrote J. Macoun in his book, Manitoba and the Great Northwest, published in 1882.
“The excitement spread like wildfire all over the country. Cool-headed professors and businessmen (clerical as well as lay) left their callings in other parts of the country for the scene of the modern Canadian El Dorado.”
“Winnipeg is London or New York on a small scale,” Wrote W.J. Healey in his 1927 book, Winnipeg’s Early Days. “You meet people from almost every part of the world. Ask a man on the street for direction, and the chances are ten to one that he answers, ‘I have just arrived, sir’.”
Col. Kennedy, the city’s registrar of deeds, estimated in December 1882 that the year’s real estate transactions would total between $10 million and $12 million. “Most of the large transactions were in Main Street property,” he said. “The Hub corner changed hands several times. A few years ago a portion of that was purchased for $15,000, and the purchaser was considered to be crazy ... now it has sold for $ 115,000.
Member of Parliament A.W. Ross, called the “king of land,” was a prominent speculator. In April 1881, he purchased some Main Street lots at $75 a foot and sold them in June for $100. “People thought it a good spec., and I thought so too. Within six months the same property went for $400 a foot.”
But as with every precipitous climb to wealth and fame, there would be just as dramatic a fall. “If ever there was a Fool’s paradise, wrote George Ham in Reminiscences of a Recointeur, “it sure was located in Winnipeg. Men made fortunes — mostly on paper — and life was one continuous joy-ride.”
What prompted the real estate boom was the railway — specifically, the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881. With the train came the inevitable opportunists. Ontarians came first, followed by Americans and Europeans.
And when the CPR came, it spent thousands on a passenger station (the land was a gift from the city), freight sheds, a roundhouse and other railway-related buildings. Winnipeg became the main supply depot for construction on the westward expansion of the CPR to the British Columbia coast. The railway brought workers and settlers to open up the New West and they all passed through Winnipeg.
It is estimated that only about five per cent of those who speculated in property made money. Too often, the collapse left people destitute. They had bought property with small down payments and were left with large debts that they couldn’t repay.
Robert Hill, in his book Manitoba, wrote that men who had been “deemed honest and good for any amount, were turned out of house and home, their goods and chattels liened on and sold by the sheriff, in many cases not bringing the latter’s fee.”
“Banks and other financial institutions which had encouraged and fostered the reckless inflation of boom days,” wrote the Winnipeg Board of Trade in its 1884 report, “were now mercilessly exacting in their demands, and many a man, who in a more confident state of trade could have weathered the pressure with honour was forced to insolvency.”
But once the speculators were weeded out, the normal business of building a city could continue. The physical volume of construction in 1883 was higher than during the boom, but lowered in value simply because costs had substantially declined.
“The best quarantee of the future prosperity of Winnipeg is to be found in the confidence and faith in the future possessed by those who are willing on the strength of their opinion to largely invest their means here,” said the Sun in a special feature which reported on the construction “boom” of 1883 that had an aggregate value of $3,955,990.
The Sun reported that construction volume in 1883 would surpass the previous year because of the building of “the Wright, Ryan, Higgins, Post Office, English syndicate, Donaldson’s corner and other magnificent blocks ... These blocks are all going up on Main, Princess and intermediate cross streets ... This year will also be noted for the erection of many palatial private residences, principal among which will be Hon. (MP) A.G.B. Bannatyne’s $60,000 dwelling, a $25,000 residence for David Young, besides others ranging in cost from $10,000 down.”
Prominence of place in the article was given to the new city hall. Construction had started the previous fall and when completed the reported cost was to be $50,000. “It is one of the most handsome structures on Main street, and is visible both from the (CPR) depot and from the Hudson’s Bay store (on Main Street).” The new city hall, completed in 1886, was affectionately called the “gingerbread house” and was a fixture of Main Street until it was torn down to make way for the existing city hall.
Nanton was one of the new investors — not a fly-by-night speculator — who believed in the future of Winnipeg and the West, and had such faith in the progress of the city that he made Winnipeg his home. By 1896, his firm of Osler, Hammond and Nanton became “the largest and best mortgage business in the West.”
“When writing about the early history of Winnipeg,” said Ted Ransby, who nominated Nanton for inclusion in the Citizens Hall of Fame, “it struck me how many times his name was mentioned ... His achivements were legendary.”
While the year before his arival may have been “a fool’s paradise,” it was during the followed years that individuals such as Nanton laid the real foundations of the city and would help instill more optimism into the establishment of a thriving community that would benefit its citizens. He and others brought reason to the city’s development after a year when reason fell by the wayside.