by Christian Cassidy
If you get off the highways and travel the back roads to your destination, you will sometimes be rewarded with the discovery of a historic gem. That was the case this summer when I came across the Robinson Spur Cemetery and adjacent Mustard Seed Chapel east of Highway 9 on Cochrane Road in the Rural Municipality of St. Andrews.
The site helps to tell the story of the region and of one of Manitoba’s most successful businessmen of the early 1900s.
Robinson’s Spur (1903)
The name Robinson Spur seems odd until you realize that the area was once the site of a spur line off the CPR’s Winnipeg Beach subdivision built to service a wood lot owned by William Robinson.
Born in Quebec and raised in Ontario, Robinson came west in the late 1870s as part of a construction team working on the CPR line from Northwestern Ontario into Manitoba. He decided to stay in Winnipeg when he saw opportunity in another form of transportation: river boats.
Robinson created the Northwest Navigation Company in 1880. He constructed his own cargo ships and transported resources such as fish and timber up and down Lake Winnipeg and the Red River. He gained such a good reputation that in 1884, when the British were colonizing North Africa and needed captains with riverboat experience, Robinson got a note from Governor General Minto asking for his service. Robinson spent a year transporting goods and personnel along the Nile River and its tributaries.
Upon his return, Robinson picked up where he left off. Not satisfied moving other people’s goods, in 1887 he established the Dominion Fish Company to catch and process his own fish. He also built a large warehouse, department store and lumber yard in Selkirk that operated under the name William Robinson & Co.
Timber was an important part of Robinson’s enterprises, whether he was selling it to customers or using it to build his growing fleet of ships. This required him to have several wood lots and sawmills in operation at any one time.
One of the areas he owned the cutting rights for was located just south of Matlock. When the CPR built its Winnipeg Beach subdivision in 1903, it added a short spur line into the camp. At the end of the line was a small siding where cut wood could be loaded onto flat cars. This area became known as Robinson Spur.
Not much is written about camp life at Robinson Spur or how long it was in service before the wood ran out. It was likely little more than a small cluster of timber buildings around the siding that served the basic needs of the dozens of men who would come out each year to cut and stack wood.
Robinson continued to enjoy business success. By 1910, he was one of the Interlake’s largest employers, president of the Northern Bank of Canada and on the list of Winnipeg’s nineteen millionaire businessmen.
In 1926, Robinson retired and sold off his business interests. He died at his home on Roslyn Road in Winnipeg on August 20, 1936 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Besides Robinson Spur, Robinson Avenue in Selkirk is also named for him.
The Mustard Seed Chapel (1901)
The tiny Mustard Seed Chapel found at Robinson Spur Cemetery is not original to this location.
Robinson Spur had a log chapel of its own as early as 1905 that served as a worship and meeting space for the wood cutters and surrounding residents. That chapel burned down in early 1940.
The Mustard Seed Chapel was built in 1901 further to the east on the shore of Lake Winnipeg at the mouth of the Red River. It was part of the Parish of St. Peters Dynevor Church and served a mix of Metis, Indigenous and settler populations. It was also used for a time as the area’s school.
In the 1920s, the chapel fell under the auspices of the All Saints Anglican Church at Whytewold and they saw its congregation dwindle though the 1930s until it was abandoned. With no one to tend to it, the building was repeatedly damaged by storms.
Instead of allowing the building to be destroyed, the congregation of All Saints had it moved to the Robinson Spur Cemetery site in the fall of 1940 to replace the one that had burned down.
The chapel was renovated in 1979 and the tradition of an annual summer service began, the most recent one taking place in August 2019. In 2013 –’14, the chapel was restored by craftsman Dully Moore to celebrate the cemetery’s centenary, and it should continue to serve the area for many decades to come.
Robinson Spur Cemetery (1914)
The Robinson Spur Cemetery, which is still in use, was established in 1914. Its history is fragmented due to the loss of its records and many of the original wooden grave markers in the 1940 fire that destroyed the chapel.
In 2007, a group of volunteers from All Saints Anglican Church began a research project to piece together information about those buried there. They estimate that it contains around 140 graves, many of them from Metis families in the area, and by 2009 had records for 116 of them.
The early date of the cemetery’s creation shows that Robinson Spur, though started as a wood camp, had soon become a focal point for its surrounding community.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.