Great land boom — auctioneers used their imagination to create “paper towns” across the province

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

Speculation wasn’t limited to Winnipeg lots during the great land boom of 1881-82. In bold-type advertisements, James “Jim” Coolican proclaimed: “Cartwright Leads Them All. Unquestionably the Best Situated Rising Town in the Province.”

At the time, Cartwright consisted only of a single building and a general store that also served as a post office. All the other amenities advertised, such as a school, shops and churches, only existed on paper.

Coolican managed to move Cartwright lots to the tune of $20,000 a night. Today, the community, named after Canadian finance minister Sir Robert Cartwright (1835-1912), is just a village near the North Dakota border with a population of about 345 people.

The Hamilton Spectator reported in March 1882: “There is a ‘town’ somewhere in Manitoba called Garfield. It is quite possible that the traveller might pass over the site of the town without being aware of the fact; but it looks pretty on paper, and Garfield lots are being boomed to no end in Winnipeg. The newspapers and dead walls are ornamented with portraits of the martyred (U.S.) president, and Garfield is being made a household  word. The peculiar taste which permits land sharks to make money out of a murdered man is worthy of them  — or of Guitean.”

President James Garfield was shot in Washington on July 2, 1881, by Charles Guitean, and died from his wounds on September 19. Despite possibly being mentally ill, Guitean was executed for the assassination.

While the Hamilton newspaper said Garfield was “somewhere” in Manitoba, it was advertised by Winnipeg’s real estate auctioneers as “midway between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie” in the “County of Marquette, east of Oak Point on Lake Manitoba.”

Today, the community is not found on any map, but during the boom W. Dufour & Co. advertised that “a great many lots have been sold ... and before this time next year there will no doubt be over 200 buildings erected.” The auctioneers promised that investors would double their money on the purchase of a Garfield lot within three months’ time.

On November 17, 1881, Winnipeg auctioneer Joseph “Joe” Wolf advertised in the Manitoba Free Press 109 Nelsonville lots for sale in “the oldest, largest and most favoured town in the far famed Pembina Mountain country.”

Nelsonville (later just Nelson) was predicted to become a prime town site along the branch line of the South Western Railway.  Unfortunately for the “favoured town,” all the railway acts of the period passed by the Manitoba government would be disallowed by Ottawa due to conflicts with the CPR’s monopoly clause. Under the terms of the Canadian government’s agreement with the CPR, the railway had a monopoly on railway construction in Western Canada for a 20-year period.

As a result of the CPR’s objections and Ottawa ruling in favour of the railway, as well as the community being unable to raise enough capital to build a 10-kilometre branch line to Morden, Nelsonville didn’t get its railway connection. By 1885, the vast majority of residents and businesses had moved lock, stock and barrel to Morden, which was served by a CPR branch line. Nelsonville became a ghost town.

Mountain City was another nearby community that lost out in the battle for branch lines, and its buildings and people also moved to Morden, relegating it to the status of a Manitoba ghost town.

Paper cities sprang to life and lots were sold quickly for high prices. The names of these “cities” reflected the silver-tongued oratory of the auctioneers: Crystal City, “the featured great city of Manitoba;” Mountain City, “the embryo city;” Dobbyn City, “the future great manufacturing city of the Souris District,” Rapid City, “the Minneapolis of the North West;” Malta, “situated in the garden of the North West;” and the never-to-be-forgotten High Bluff, “the best chance of the season.”

To distance themselves from their competition, some auctioneers placed advertisements in newspapers that specifically mentioned that such and such a community was not “a paper town.” Obviously, the auctioneers knew that they were frequently playing fast and loose with the reality of what they were offering for sale. Still, those said not to be “paper towns” were often just that.

“The Brandon (a real town) lots sold last night at Skynner’s Auction Rooms (in Winnipeg), opposite the ‘Queens,’ by T.P. Murray, auctioneer, averaged one hundred and seventy-nine dollars per lot. The whole sale amounted to between eleven and twelve thousand dollars,” reported the Sun. “Certainly, as our contemporary puts it, Brandon lots are booming.”

In an April 23, 1887, Sun article, Charles Bell related that at one auction of CPR land by Wolf, during which buyers had to fight their way through a mass of people to get inside, hundreds were turned away for lack of space.

In ads, Coolican offered for auction sale 600 lots in West Emerson, 500 in Rapid City and 600 lots in Gladstone, among a myriad of other locations.

Coolican sold 225 lots in High Bluff at an average of $19 each and a large portion of the Minnedosa townsite at an average of $32 per lot.

In a two-week period, he was said to have sold $1 million worth of property.

Terms for payment by purchasers were said by Coolican to be “liberal.” For example, at an 1882 auction, the terms were: “10 per cent at time of sale, enough to make one-half of purchase money in three days, balance in 6 and 9 days at 8 per cent interest.”

Col. William Nassau 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 for the Manitoba riding of Lisgar, Alexander Wellington “A.W.” Ross, called the “king of land,” was another prominent speculator. In April 1881, he purchased some Main Street lots at $75 a foot of frontage and sold them in June for $100.

“People thought it a good spec., and I thought so too,” said Ross. “Within six months the same property went for $400 a foot.”

At the height of the boom, Main Street properties would sell for $1,000 a foot of frontage, while some prime properties even commanded as much as $2,000 a foot.

Real estate auctioneer Joseph “Joe” Wolf, who was known as the “Golden Auctioneer” because he operated out of the Golden Hotel and Real Estate Exchange (he also periodically set up shop in the Queen’s Hotel and at the Eureka Sales Room, as well he conducted auctions at the location of some properties being sold), was said to have sold a half million dollars worth of real estate in the first six months of the boom, much of it out-of-town real estate. For example, three nights in a row he heard bids and sold $133,000 worth of North Brandon lots. His personal worth was said to have been in the neighbourhood of $200,000.

Wolf, who set up his real estate business in Winnipeg in March 1881, also became known as the “Father of Brandon,” since the CPR selected him to sell a portion of the townsite it owned.

James Scott, who wrote the paper about the early history of real estate in the city, including the period of the great land boom, which was published in the October 11, 1906, Winnipeg Tribune, said that in August 1881 he took a position with Wolf. “His office was a circular counter in the barroom of the Queen’s Hotel, the barroom proper being his auction room at night, no day sales were held ...”

“Col. Coolican made it his boast that he could sell anything from a hairpin to a city for ten times its value if he could get the ear of people with money enough to buy; his experience in the jewelry sales episodes of Winnipeg and Victoria (after the boom) and his success in realty handling at Winnipeg, Gladstone, Minnedosa, Edmonton, High Bluff, Poplar Point, Darlingford and Grassmere (during the boom) went a long way toward proving that he was not wildly egotistical of his own powers of persuasion,” according to his obituary that appeared in the Vancouver Daily World on April 16, 1902.

(Next week: part 4)