Opening famous corner easier said than done

When the famous corner of Portage and Main was being barricaded off to prevent pedestrian traffic in the spring of 1979, Councillor Joe Zuken was among those protesting the city’s agreement with businesses that sent people underground to cross the intersection.

With the last barrier still not completely in place, people in wheelchairs crossed the corner to protest the change, claiming the underground passage was not accessible to them. Meanwhile, Zuken crossed the corner above ground numerous times to make his point that it should remain open to pedestrian traffic. The long-time North End councillor, noted for being a champion of the downtrodden and having never voted for a city budget, saying the budgets didn’t help the poor or unemployed, was completely against the closure of the corner to pedestrians. Zuken faced a slightly over $12 for his actions, but his protest was ignored by police as well as the mayor and city councillors who had voted for the change. As a result, the corner of Portage and Main became great for vehicles, but certainly not people-friendly. Cars, trucks and buses now rush through the corner unimpeded by the presence of pesky pedestrians.

Still, there are some, chief among them being Mayor Brian  Bowman, who believe the corner should be reopened to above-ground people traffic. It’s a vow he made during his election campaign and repeated during his recent state of the city address.

But there are also those who are still not convinced it’s a good idea. Councillor Jeff Browaty recently staged his own protest at the famous corner, although without physically stepping on the intersection’s street pavement. The North Kildonan councillor is against reopening the corner to people traffic. His protest was a call for city administrators to release a $116,000 study to investigate options available for the return of above-ground pedestrians. He demanded the results be released by April 19, a date that has since passed without fulfilling his demand.

The absence of one essential ingredient is rather strange given the corner’s history. There was a time when the corner was a people place. Historically, the intersection has hosted its share of memorable events, including armed Mounties on horseback charging from the corner onto Main Street to break up a crowd during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, and the signing of Bobby “the Golden Jet” Hull on June 27, 1972, by Ben Hatskin. Hull returned to the corner 40 years later to commemorate the signing.

The over150-year-old corner was the vision of one man — Henry McKenney, who came to Winnipeg in 1859. When McKenney arrived in the future Manitoba capital, he first bought a store from Andrew McDermott, a pioneer resident, which was quickly converted into the Red River Settlement’s first hotel. As a popular drinking establishment, the Royal Hotel provided McKenney with the inkling of an idea. He noticed that the bar’s regulars didn’t follow the Portage Trail to Upper Fort Garry, which the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted to become the commercial centre of the settlement, but cut across the prairie directly to his hotel. He decided he would “cash-in” on this quirk of settlement travel.

In partnership with his half-brother John Christian Schultz, McKenney approached McDermot and purchased a piece of land on the west side of Main Street on June 2, 1862.

“The site was low and swampy, covered with scrub oak and poplar,” wrote George F. Reynolds in the MHS Transactions article, The Man Who Created the Corner of Portage and Main, “... In the eyes of the old settlers, the worst feature was the distance from the Red River. ‘Nobody in their right mind,’ they said, would even think of building over a quarter of a mile from the river, at that time the only source of water.”

But McKenney was undeterred and built a wooden structure that Reynolds called a “ghastly example of Red River Primitive.” The hip roof of the structure earned it the nickname, “Noah’s Ark.”

At the time, McKenney said he wanted the store’s corner jutting out into the Main Trail (Main Street) to become the central hub of the settlement from which all roads would branch out like the spokes of a wheel.

“The house (structure) was a long two storey building,” wrote Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River, which was published in 1871, “80 feet long by 24 feet wide by 22 feet high, the ground flat of which was lighted by two large windows which, with the door, occupied one end, while the sides were windowed only in the top storey, which was used as a dwelling house ... The house was erected in a particularly isolated spot and the hurricanes which sometimes blow across the plains, it was then imagined, would beat against the broad sides of the slightly-built edifice with such force as would reduce it to native timbers.”

Even then, what would become Portage and Main was noted as being the windiest corner in the settlement.

“But although the house had sometimes to be supported by huge beams propped in considerable numbers from the outside,” continued Hargrave, “and was believed to be by its inmates to be by no means a safe abode on a stormy night, the winds proved as powerless to overwhelm, as the waters to sap, the experimental venture.”

McKenney became embroiled in a land dispute with William Drever, who built a store across the way from his store in 1863. The Assiniboia Council sided with McKenney and passed a series of resolutions which lopped off a chunk of Drever’s property for a public road, though the building was permitted to remain. The council gave their approval to McKenney’s vision by surveying a right-of-way for a street measuring 66 feet from the south end of McKenney’s property to serve as a central point for the 132-foot wide future Portage Avenue.

By 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner. In 1883, there still stood at the corner of Portage and Main, some buildings described as dilapidated that encroached right into the middle of the intersection, creating a bottleneck, according to William Douglas, who in 1962 published the book, The Corner of Portage and Main. The store McKenney established stood for 25 years and was finally demolished in 1887.

As more and more businesses and the city’s skyscrapers rose to surround the corner, people continued crossing above ground — that is, until the 1970s.

It can be argued that it was a case of “bad” planning in 1979, when the city signed an agreement with private developers to open an underground concourse linking shopping malls under the four corner properties and closure of the pedestrian crossings at the intersection. Without the Portage and Main being pedestrian-friendly, it’s hard to imagine it as an “iconic” corner, as claimed by many, including the mayor — it may of once held that rank in an historical context, but not now.

Calls for re-opening the corner to people have been ongoing since Zuken’s protest in1979. By extension, making it again people-friendly is obviously more easier said than actually done.