Winnipeg’s new summer resort — at the pavilion “expectations of an excellent dance floor were fully realized”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

At Winnipeg Beach, the first passengers to arrive at the depot on the inaugural train run to the resort community created by the Canadian Pacific Railway disembarked and walked towards a sandy beach. Along the way, they saw a fine 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 enters the lake.”

The CPR had built a half dozen cottages that were quickly rented out to visitors to Winnipeg Beach. It was reported that “pioneers” C.W.N. Kennedy, D.E. Adams, S. Spink, Ross Sutherland, Rev. Charles Gordon (alias Ralph Connor, a prolific and popular novelist) and A.H. Pulford occupied cottages they had built at the “Beach,” a shortening of the name for the resort that already was in common usage. 

Many of the visitors took a temporary bridge over Boundary Creek to land under development by the Winnipeg firm of Oldfield & Gardner. At the time, W.H. Gardner of Oldfield & Gardner said building on the site would commence within a few days. But a portion of the land owned by the company — a curved open expanse of green facing the lake — was slated to be undeveloped and at the disposal of future lot owners.

“It is the natural place for tennis courts and pleasure gardens,” said Gardner. “In fact, as you see, it only requires cutting to make a magnificent natural park.”

Gardner envisioned the government constructing a harbour in the vicinity which would add to the value of the lots the Winnipeg-based company was developing.

“It would be possible then to have a service of boats to Selkirk to connect with the train, or even, as soon as St. Andrews locks are completed to run up to Winnipeg on the Red River,” Gardner added. “We are hoping to run a boat from Selkirk to the creek one day very shortly.”

In 1910, the federal government built a nearly 183-metre (600-foot) long breakwater on the north side of Boundary Creek at Rocky Point to form one of the safest harbours along the lake.

After the passengers arrived on June 6, 1903, most made their way to the sandy beach. “The children of the party took a very short time to get their boots and stockings off,” reported the Free Press,  “and soon the little tots, holding their parents’ hands, were wading in the refreshing water.”

The Telegram reporter sighted what would later become a common occurrence on the lake:  “two parties out boating, one in a canoe, and another in a wherry (rowboat).”

Days later, enterprising boat owners from Selkirk taking advantage of the opportunity presented and brought vessels to Winnipeg Beach which “reaped a goodly number of shekels from excursionists desiring a water journey in connection with the day’s trip.”

Regattas and yacht races soon became annual events at the Beach, while sailing boats, canoes and rowboats were rented by less-affluent visitors.  

The only “serious defect” reported by the Telegram was that no one had made  provision for the arrival of so many people.

“The only store (built by Captain William Robinson and managed by John Eaton) was soon cleared of everything eatable and drinkable. Biscuits, milk, hot water, bananas, oranges, mineral waters, etc., all steadily rose in value for the first fifteen minutes and then the stock ran out, and the hungry crowd fell back on peanuts and plums. A caterer with a supply of sandwiches and soft drinks would have made a fortune on Saturday ...”

Gardner said the lack of provisions was “an unfortunate oversight” that would be remedied when Winnipeg caterers began to realize the potential of the new resort. 

When the dance pavilion was opened for the first time a few days later, visitors were able to purchase food and drink at its many refreshment stands.

On June 14, 1903, when 600 people arrived at the Beach for a concert hosted by the 90th Winnipeg Regimental Band, people were better prepared and brought their own picnic lunches to be enjoyed while lazing on the beach. 

By the end of 1903, according to W.J. Wood’s Brief History of Winnipeg Beach, the community boasted three small stores, snack bars and a restaurant.

Over the years, food vendors flocked to the Beach. “The main street running parallel with the Boardwalk,” reported the Evening Tribune on July 20, 1940, “is packed with nightly lit snack shops, potato chips and hot dog stands, and grade ‘A’ cafes and restaurants.”

When the pavilion was opened for the first time, with the 90th providing the music, “expectations of an excellent dance floor were fully realized.”

Newspapers reported the only shortcoming in 1903 was the lack of overnight accommodation. It would seem that after an evening of dancing some people were tired and expressed a desire to rest overnight at the Beach before returning to the city.

Wood, who was Winnipeg Beach’s first mayor when it was incorporated as a village in 1910, said the King Edward Hotel (destroyed by fire, but rebuilt as the Beach Hotel which still stands) built by a “Mr. Barnes” and a rooming house run by Robert Stacey were built in 1903 as the community’s first accommodations other than cottages. 

In subsequent years, the CPR built the Empress Hotel, while other accommodations included the Waldorf owned by Baldy Anderson and a “temperance” hostelry run by a “Mr. Brown” called the Lake Park Hotel at the corner of Prospect and Park Avenue. The hotels along Winnipeg Beach’s main street were comparable to accommodations found in a major city. 

The holiday weekend rate for a cottage was $10, while the nightly rate at the Empress was $2 to $4.50 in 1935, according to the Free Press. The Sunday evening concert at the Empress was the social occasion of the week, which was followed by a huge bonfire on the shore where campers had a sing-song. As the campers sang, young people in canoes strummed along with their mandolins and banjoes, the music they produced intensified by the acoustics of the lake. 

Winnipeg contractor S.B. Ritchie is noted as the architect of “residential” Winnipeg Beach. He purchased his first two lots in 1903 (the CPR actually leased the lots for 20-year periods) and erected two identical cottages. Prior to the First World War, he leased about 20 lots a year, laid out streets and built roads and sidewalks. In the end, Ritchie constructed and sold almost 300 cottages, as well as being contracted to erect other cottages for summer residents. Between 1906 and 1908, he also created Ritchie Park complete with a tennis court.

Before the Second World War, summer cottages extended north across Boundary Creek as far as 11th Avenue and slightly more than a kilometre to the west. By the 1950s, over 1,500 cottages and permanent residences were found within the Winnipeg Beach area.

The success of the new resort was immediate and it grew in popularity with the passage of every year after its opening in 1903. In fact, the Beach rail line became the most profitable section of track for the CPR in Canada.

The Manitoba Free Press on July 2, 1910, reported 6,000 people arrived at the Beach to celebrate Dominion Day (now Canada Day). “Hundreds of people go to the Beach for weekend sojourns; summer cottages have been renovated and bowling greens are alive with players, and nearly all the world appears to be fishing or boating ...”

“The antics of the weather man were largely responsible for the mad rush to the Beach this week-end and over the holidays,” according to Town Topics, reporting on events at the resort on July 1, 1912; “like the cave-dwellers of old the flat-dwellers of the city rose up and went down to the seas, the only refuge from the heat laden atmosphere of town homes and offices. On the morning of the holiday train after train of heated but happy humanity arrived at the Beach, and by noon the popular little resort presented an animated scene ... cottagers entertained, hotels strove to please, and even tent dwellers made merry with their guests beneath the home canvas.”

In later years, at least 13 trains arrived daily at the Beach during the summer, carrying up to 40,000 people to “Manitoba’s Fun Playground.” So many people arrived on Dominion 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.

The trains were divided into two categories: “Daddys” and the “Moonlight.” The Daddys were daily evening runs that carried family men who commuted to and from the city. A “Daddy” owned a cottage where his family stayed throughout the summer. At the end of a day’s work, the father would catch the 5:20 p.m. train and arrive at the Beach at 6:30, just in time for a brief dip in the lake followed by dinner with the family. The next morning, he caught the  train shortly after 7 a.m.,  returning to Winnipeg to start a new work day.

The “Moonlight” specials left Winnipeg at 5:20 p.m. sharp every Saturday over the summer, carrying lovers, families, young and old, and fun-seekers to enjoy a few hours of concerts, dancing, promenades on the CPR pier and Boardwalk, rides and beach parties. It is said many a love story began or ended Saturday night at Winnipeg Beach. 

Stan Cherney, who rode the Moonlight on summer evenings in the 1940s as a youth aged 15 and 16, said the trains were so packed “it was a scramble for seats.”

Along with his companions from the North End, Cherney boarded the train at the CPR station, but it travelled so slowly to the junction where the line to the Beach began that he frequently saw many people hop onto the train as it chugged through the city.

The ride to the Beach in anticipation of its delights was often a part of the magic of the experience, according to Cherney, and provided many amusing incidents. “The first thing young couples would do (when on the train) was turn out the lights, and then the conductor would come and turn them on again, but the lights were turned off as soon as he left,” he added with a chuckle.

Werier related that Winnipeggers intending to stay over at the Beach would purchase an inexpensive Moonlight ticket and sell the return stub, often for the original cost of the ticket of 50 cents. The demand for Moonlight stubs was always high since regular train fare back to the city cost significantly more. The practice was illegal, but hard to police, so CPR conductors usually turned a blind eye to people selling stubs, Werier added.

After a night of pleasure, exhausted Winnipeg-bound passengers reboarded the Moonlight special at midnight. Despite the lateness of the hour, invariably a sing-song broke out and  laughter erupted throughout the train as they journeyed back to the city.

Many visitors equated “fun” at the Beach with its many rides. The first major ride at Winnipeg Beach was a carousel (called a merry-go-round by locals) run by a gasoline engine and installed in 1906. (It wasn’t until 1930 that Winnipeg Beach was connected to the province’s electric power grid.) The Herschell-Spillman carousel was a three-row unit with 36 jumping horses and four chariots. 

According to a Web-based Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada article on Winnipeg Beach, the first roller coaster — the “Dips” — was opened in 1910 only to be replaced by the famous “Giant” wooden roller coaster erected in 1919.

On July 24, 1919, the Free Press reported on the opening of the new Millar and Jarvis roller coaster, which the newspaper described as having been built using approximately 363,000 feet of yellow pine lumber from the U.S. and some 12,000 bolts. The roller coaster would have opened earlier, but its construction was delayed by the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

The new roller coaster had a “climb of 50 feet (15.24 metres — the climb to the summit was actually 91.4 metres, or 300 feet, according to most reports) with a (45-degree) drop on the other side (of 53.34 metres or 175 feet) that is guaranteed to knock out the wind of the crack divers of the beach ... three times round they go, with sudden curves and minor bumps (12 in total) to keep things interesting.” 

“We went to the Beach for the rides,” said Cherney, “and we always made sure we went on the roller coaster. It was a lot of fun and very popular.”

The only recorded roller coaster fatality was reported in the Manitoba Free Press on August 3, 1925. The newspaper said Corporal D.F. Kavanaugh, a patient at the soldiers’ home at Winnipeg Beach, fell from the top of the roller coaster in the evening of August 2, and died from his injuries after being rushed to St. Boniface Hospital.

The soldiers’ home mentioned was the original pavilion at the Beach, which had been found too small to hold the hundreds wanting to dance the night away. The new domed pavilion built in 1924 boasted 14,000-square-feet of “first-class” dance floor and a 20-foot (approximately six-metre) promenade surrounding the floor in a “complete square.” At 42.67-by-57.92 metres (140-by-190 feet), it was noted at the time as the largest dance hall in Western Canada.

One visitor in the 1920s said the new dance pavilion made him “think of an English Amusement Palace. I don’t know how many hearts were entwined as a result of meeting and having fun there.”

During it’s heyday, dancers swayed to music of “big bands,” including one formed by cottage owner C.B. Plant, a chief clerk for the CPR. For more than 20 years, Plant, a violinist, led the orchestra playing dance music at the pavilion.

Besides the pavilion and roller coaster, the amenities at the Beach included boating, swimming, a nine-hole golf course, bowling, a riding school, two parks laid out for tennis courts and lawn bowling greens, bathhouses, a merry-go-round (carousel), swings and pony rides. By the early 1960s, dodg’em (bumper) cars, a tilt-a-whirl, as well as arcade games along the Boardwalk were added. But a sign of things to come was the conversion of the dance floor at the pavilion into a roller skating rink.

Actually, one innocuous event in 1913, was the real harbinger of the demise of Winnipeg Beach as “Manitoba’s Fun Playground.” The Free Press on August 6, 1913, reported that A. Maw had successfully made the first automobile trip from Winnipeg to the Beach in his Reo roadster. “He reports that with the exception of the last eight miles it is possible to make the trip without any trouble, and that it is possible to fix this stretch without much trouble.”

The newspaper did not report that Maw’s car struck and killed the dog belonging to police magistrate Kernested, who gave chase but the car “had gone beyond his reach.” The incident recorded by Wood was not considered overly tragic since Kernested’s mutt was a “public nuisance.”

Wood related that in 1915 he was asked by MLA George W. Prout what was desperately needed to help Winnipeg Beach. His reply was a highway connection with Winnipeg, which resulted in the construction of Provincial Trunk Highway 8. Another more direct connection was later made via PTH 9.

The highway connection was bound to occur, but it paved the way for Winnipeggers arriving at the Beach at their own convenience. As early as the summer of 1924, there were so many cars at the Beach that no parking spaces were available for additional parking. In subsequent years as car travel increased, more parking space was added in the community near the downtown.

But more cars on the road also meant fewer people were taking the train. As a result, the last Moonlight special ran in September 1953 and the final passenger train to the Beach pulled into the community on Labour Day 1960.

In addition, increased automobile use allowed Manitobans more freedom of choice and many opted to spend the summer or a weekend in resort areas other than Winnipeg Beach such as the Whiteshell, Falcon Lake, Grand Beach and Victoria Beach. Even Gimli to the north of the Beach was attracting its share of summer visitors.

Shortly after, the CPR sold its holdings to the private company Beach Enterprises Ltd. — 33 acres of land from Stephen’s Point to the CPR station, including the shoreline along Lake Winnipeg. What the CPR already knew and Beach Enterprises president Harry Silverberg soon discovered was that public interest in the Beach resort was waning. 

Silverberg blamed the “lack of interest on all three levels of government” for the difficulties facing the amusement park.

In a prepared statement in October 1964 announcing the closure of the amusement rides and concessions owned by Beach Enterprises, Silverberg said, “because of the unco-operative and neglectful attitude and actions of the federal, provincial and municipal governments it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the facilities at Winnipeg Beach.

“Competition created by subsidies granted to other beaches and parks have deteriorated our position to the point where the Beach’s attractions and park no longer warrant operation.”

Silverberg said his hand was forced by government subsidies for the development of Falcon Beach, Grand Beach and Clear Lake, as well as the province’s  use of public funds to create a new park at Birds Hill.

After Silverberg closed the rides and park, lots on the beachfront were advertised for sale, the boardwalk vanished, the roller coaster ceased operation in 1964 and the pavilion was abandoned in 1966.

“In the twenties and thirties Winnipeg seemed a permanent part of Winnipeg life,” commented Tom Saunders in the August 26, 1967, Free Press. “No summer was complete if one didn’t go there for at least a day’s outing. But, as with other things in life that seem permanent, the Beach had in it the seeds of its own decay. With the development of the Whiteshell, other holiday areas beckoned. The Beach became more honky-tonk and less attractive to many, and it gradually fell into a sad state of disrepair. For some years now it has been only a ghost of its former self and all efforts to breathe new life into it failed.”

The provincial government had its own plans for the former resort. The province purchased the site from Beach Enterprises in 1966. A year later, a salvage company began dismantling its buildings and rides, including the famous pavilion and roller coaster — the salvaged material was sold as scrap and the roller coaster was not given a new life in another location despite rumours that persist to this day — in order to begin redevelopment of the land as a provincial park at a cost of $800,000.

“When the dust clears, nothing in the area across the Main Street in Winnipeg Beach on the lake side will be left except the old (CPR) water tower (the only reminder of the old days) ... And so it passes — and with its passing go memories of white flannels, two-toned shoes, white flannel pleated skirts and straw skimmers and those nightly strolls along the boardwalk to the sound of the moaning saxophone,” reported the Free Press.

“The Beach was a bustling place,” said cottage-owner Werier, who began coming to the resort area as a child during the Great Depression. “It was another world, and a great adventure for a kid. They were quieter times —  there was no TV, no cellphones. The beaches were full and there were family picnics on the beaches. People held get-togethers and people got to know their neighbours.

“I may be getting nostalgic, but I’d like to see the train come back,” he added. 

Unfortunately for Werier, a return to the glory days of Winnipeg Beach and the clanging bells and blaring whistles signalling the arrival of passenger trains will undoubtedly continue to reside in the realm of nostalgia. The gaudy delights of the boardwalk are long gone and what remains are the cherished memories as well as the shared stories of the olden days when the Beach was Manitoba’s summer playground.