Winnipeg’s new summer resort — Whyte selected site with crescent-shaped beach

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

A reporter’s trip to and from Manitoba’s newest resort was leisurely in the extreme, as it took 54 hours to go  just 160 kilometres. Two years later, a one-way trip to the new resort, 80 kilometres north of Winnipeg, could be made in well under two hours.

The morning after Victoria Day  1901, the reporter (the article has only the initials F.M. to designate its author) accompanied Canadian Pacific Railway officials on their northward journey to a site selected by William Whyte, the western representative of the company, as the location of a new summer playground for Winnipeggers. Earlier Whyte, accompanied by Selkirk merchant Captain William Robinson and Charles Roland, another CPR official, purposely set out on a boat excursion to find a suitable location for the new resort along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. 

Whyte witnessed the success of River Park in Winnipeg and reasoned that what had been done with streetcar service could be equally successful using a railway. Whyte also had the examples to follow of the Delta Beach, served by a branch of the Northern Pacific Railway established in 1900, and Lake of the Woods, served by the main line of the CPR established in the 1880s, which became a summertime haven  for Winnipeg’s elite.

Furthermore, Whyte believed Delta Beach at the southern tip of Lake Manitoba and Rat Portage (now Kenora) along Lake of the Woods were too far from Winnipeg and rail tickets were too costly. Whyte envisioned creating a resort a short jaunt from Winnipeg catering to the masses able to afford an inexpensive 50-cent return ticket. In 1901, a daily return ticket to Delta Beach was $1.25, while a return ticket to Rat Portage cost $2. 

Stopping over in Montreal on April 20, 1901, Whyte was interviewed by the Gazette, which reported the CPR representative felt “the toilers of the (Manitoba) capital (Winnipeg)” 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.”

Whyte found his desired location just south of Boundary Creek. In the area was a sandy crescent-shaped beach 2.9 kilometres (1 1/8 miles) in length which he felt was ideal for the CPR’s purpose of creating a resort to add revenue to the railway’s coffers. After purchasing 32 acres (13 hectares) of land from farmer Donald Arquet for $1,000 on behalf of the CPR, Whyte named the new resort Winnipeg Beach to emphasize his vision. All that remained was the construction of a branch rail line from Selkirk to link Winnipeg Beach with Winnipeg.

When the Morning Telegram reporter travelled to Winnipeg Beach in May 1901, the site lacked a connecting rail line and workmen were in the process of building the facilities for the resort.

In 1901, there were primarily three ways to reach Winnipeg Beach from Winnipeg: a water route via the Red River and Lake Winnipeg,  or by train to Selkirk and then taking a horse and wagon overland, or by a route that was entirely overland that commenced on Main Street in Winnipeg. In the case of the reporter, who was accompanied by CPR land agent J. Lonsdale Doupe and experienced north country traveller W.N. Kennedy, the latter route using horse and wagon was selected.

The first part of the journey north, starting at 3:45 in the morning on Main Street, was on “excellent” roads “and the wheel tracks smooth as compressed sand.” After St. Paul’s, the road followed the Red River to Selkirk, where the party had a meal at Montgomery’s Hotel and then departed Selkirk at 9 a.m. to continue their journey.

“Our course was away from the river, and it was not until we had driven some miles and crossing the grading for the new railway that the road began to get somewhat rougher ... Towards noon the well defined road we were following became less distinct. The luxuriant verdure of the prairie choked up all wheel marks, and it became necessary for Mr. Kennedy to dismount often to find the road for us afresh ... Finally the road forked away into the marsh and we lost track of it altogether.”

They had been proceeding in an easterly direction until the party sighted the lake “in the dim horizon” and then swerved northward along the roadway in which the horses sank to their girth and the vehicle to its axles. Often they were forced to unload the vehicle and unfasten the horses to dislodge beasts and wagon from the mud. Compounding their difficulty was heat that rose to “at least 100°F (37.7°C) in the shade.”

Their trek was eased somewhat when they encountered a stretch of sandy beach. The party travelled along the beach, “turning alternately into the bush to avoid obstructions ... At 7 o'clock we reached the crescent-like and beautiful indentation extending about a mile and a half from point to point, known as Boundary Creek, and henceforth to be known as Winnipeg Beach ...

“I have stood by the shores of Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario, but not at a point that imbued me with the vastness of the shore of water stretch as it did in the case of first coming into sight with the great northern lake, which is really only the beginning of a chain that extends northward through a territory much of which has not yet been surveyed. The scene has a charm peculiar to itself and different somewhat to the shore of the Great Lakes.”

The party arrived at “Mr. Harrison’s” where 40 CPR employees, including 20 carpenters, were  boarding. The labourers were employed clearing trees, bush and undergrowth for a two-storey 36.6-by-24.3-metre (120-by-80-foot) pavilion approximately 30 metres from the lake, with a dance floor able to accommodate 2,500 people, as well as a rail station. The work was supervised by CPR land commissioner F.T. Griffin. 

The reporter wrote that work would begin on a yacht basin at the north end of the site capable of accommodating sloops, skiffs and small craft with a draft of up to 1.2 metres (four feet). In addition, a pier was planned for bigger lake craft.

The CPR also laid out five avenues in the north end of the resort and six cottages had already been built along the streets.

“Walks are being constructed and in the case of the avenues leading to the shore the poplars have been cut down by the score ... At the little station which will be erected a few yards from the pavilion the visitor will be deposited close to the beach.”

It was also reported that the CPR intended to construct a boardwalk “for promenading purposes” in the “near future.”

“‘Of course,’ said a CPR official, ‘this is an experimental work so far as the Canadian Pacific Railway is concerned, and the course of events must tell the precise nature of what will be done in the future. While we will be ready here with the pavilion, the cottages, and probably the grading (for the rail line), all depends on when the railroad comes in. At the present rate of working there is no reason to doubt that an effective train service will be put into operation very soon after July 1.”

In fact, it would be another two years before the first regular passenger train arrived at Winnipeg Beach.

By April 1902, the rail line had reached within 16 miles of Winnipeg Beach, and work was reported to be progressing rapidly. In May, the CPR announced regular train service would commence on Dominion Day (now Canada Day) July 1. 

“While nothing yet has been definitely arranged by the railroad company to a regular train service to Winnipeg to the summer resort it is understood that the railroad will make strong effort to provide excellent accommodation for citizens of Winnipeg who are desirous of living with their families at the beach, either in cottages or in more convenient manner for the summer, in tents,” reported the Telegram on May 15, 1902.

The Telegram on September 3, 1902, contained an interview with E.F. Stephenson, who had returned the previous Saturday from Winnipeg Beach, where he and a few families from Winnipeg had spent some of the summer. 

“We went across from Selkirk by tugs,” said Stephenson. “The CPR is evidently going to make an effort to make this resort a popular one. They have built a very pretty station, a long covered platform, and an immense pavilion. They are talking of building either a breakwater to protect the beach from the north, or a long boom to completely enclose the horseshoe shaped shore. The beach is an ideal one, free from snags and rocks and shelving out a long distance without any holes. I believe it is going to be very popular.”

This was a sentiment echoed by CPR general manager David McNicoll who, along with Whyte, other CPR executives and Winnipeg banker A.M. Nanton, made a trip on a “special” train to Winnipeg Beach on August 13, 1902, although the rail line was not fully completed.

Following the brief daytime excursion, McNicoll told a Telegram reporter: “Winnipeg Beach is a beautiful place; I have no doubt Winnipeggers will be delighted with it, and that many will make it their summer resort.”

McNicoll projected that the line would be completed “some time this year.”

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 out of the CPR station “for Winnipeg’s new summer week-end resort.”

Prior to the train’s departure, newspapers reported that the station platform was crowded with a throng of people representing every walk of life in Winnipeg. The great number of people lined up at the Winnipeg station platform ensured the train failed to meet its advertised 1 p.m. departure time. It was said from 400 to 500 people (the Telegram reported 400 while the Manitoba Free Press reported 500) were aboard the first regularly scheduled train from Winnipeg to the new resort.

The journey north ended up being quite the adventure. Travelling at only six mph, the engine broke down at about 1:45 from the strain of pulling the 11 coaches, and it took about 15 minutes for the hot box to be oiled up and cooled down. At 2:30, the train reached Lower Fort Garry and at 2:40, it pulled into the Selkirk station to take on a few more passengers. The first glimpse of Lake Winnipeg came at 3:35.

“A few minutes later the train stopped for about the seventh time and a party of adventurous spirits got off and walked through the woods to the beach (the train was too slow for their liking?); while just after 4 o’clock the train drew up at the Winnipeg Beach station after a remarkable run of about 46 miles (74 kilometres) in 2 hours and 35 minutes,” reported the Telegram. Subsequent trains would take an hour and a half to make the same trip.

The passengers marvelled at what they at first believed was a “regular royal salute” signaling their arrival. The “salvo of artillery” turned out to be a greeting from Mother Nature rather than a salute from the military. As the passengers disembarked, a thunderstorm raged out on the lake, although no rain was reported at Winnipeg Beach and a rainbow soon appeared on the horizon, which everyone took as an auspicious beginning for the new resort.

Val Werier, a summer resident of Winnipeg Beach for the past 75 years, said that in the early days, the arrival of trains from the city at the Beach was a major event with crowds of people turning out to greet the train and passengers.

By 1912, so many people were coming to the Beach and the community had grown so quickly that the CPR moved its station and tracks further to the west, alongside where Provincial Trunk Highway 9 now runs by Winnipeg Beach.

“Nothing equalled it,” said Werier, a former editor of the defunct Winnipeg Tribune, now a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. “The big wheels of the train engine — five feet tall. The smoking and belching of the engine. The clanging of bell and the blast of the whistle as the train came into town.”

He said young boys would rush out to the station with their little wagons, hoping to earn a dime or 20 cents by carrying luggage for passengers.

(Next week: Part 2)