Totogan called the “New Chicago” of Manitoba — little remains to show it even existed

by Bruce Cherney

The shattering of the “big dream” was all too common during the early years of settlement in Manitoba. Many communities were founded with great expectations for their future, flourished for a time but succumbed to the whims of economic reality or the vagaries of geography. Sometimes it was just through sheer luck that one community thrived while another faded into obscurity.

In 1881 during a speculative land boom in Manitoba, the “big dream” included Dobbyn City, “the future great manufacturing city of the Souris district,” and St. Vincent “one of the leading cities of the Great North West ... booming beyond imagination.”

Actually, it was “imagination,” coupled with anticipation that the trans-continental railway would pass through that created these paper cities. Even communities such as Cartwright, “unquestionably the best situated and rising town in the province,” according to the newspaper advertisements of the day, never fulfilled their early expectations. Despite the prediction, the “rising town” of Cartwright soon settled down to a more mundane existence as a sedate prairie village that today only has a population under 400 people.  

Like Dobbyn City, one of the communities that is now a footnote in Manitoba history was Totogan. In the 1870s, the community at the junction of the Whitemud River and Willow Bend Creek (formerly Rat Creek and before that Musk Rat Creek), approximately 25 kilometres northwest of Portage la Prairie, was heralded with gushings of ardor as the future “New Chicago,” a title that was later pinned upon Winnipeg by equally enthusiastic civic boosters.

A November 22, 1873 Manitoba Free Press article reported that “the location of Totogan is such that it cannot fail to become ere long a place of importance ... we can safely say that the new town will not lag behind in the march of progress ...”

Yet, the march of progress left 

Totogan so far behind that few today are even aware of its previous existence some six kilometres west of Lake Manitoba. And it was its location — cited in glowing terms within the article — which played a direct role in its 


An appreciation of one of the drawbacks of the community comes from the translation of its name. First nations people originally called the place near where the Whitemud enters Lake Manitoba at the extreme west side of Delta Marsh, Totoganung, which in English means “low, swampy land.” The original native name was later 

anglicized as Totogan, according to 

Helen Mulligan and Wanda Ryder, the 

co-authors of Ghost Towns of Manitoba (1985).

The site was first frequented by 

native people and Metis hunters and their families. Records in the National Archives of Canada contain many references to Metis children born during the first half of the 19th century in 


According to local lore, the Metis once occupied a small village with a church and  burial ground on the banks of Rat Creek near Totogan. 

By the late 1860s, European settlers were occupying farmland in the area. Tom Wallace, a hotelkeeper from Portage la Prairie who aspired to be a large-scale rancher, first set up a tent and then built a log cabin on land still under aboriginal title. Several times, local aboriginals unsuccessfully ordered the squatter to get off their land. Wallace only got the message that he was unwanted when they tore down the half-finished walls of his cabin, piled his belongings into his pony cart and then told him to take hold of the reins and leave. Finally recognizing there was no welcome mat out for him, Wallace complied.

Wallace’s departure was not the end of white intrusion, although other settlers were more sympathetic to aboriginal title and paid for land with food and goods, enabling them to develop farms in the vicinity.

By August 1871, Treaty One, the terms of which included the area around Totogan, was signed. The purpose of the treaty was to “extinguish Indian title in order to open up to settlement and immigration the area ceded with the consent thereto of her (Queen Victoria’s) Indian subjects.”

The treaty that encompassed most of south-central Manitoba ended any impediment to white settlement at 


In late 1872, H.B. Chisholm paid $1,000 for 160 acres (64.75 hectares) of land on the Whitemud River to build “a mill.” He and his new partner 

G. Bubar would build a sawmill, gristmill, the Lake Hotel and a general store in the new community.

The Free Press in the November 1873 article entitled, Totogan: The Coming Town on Lake Manitoba, said that “Chisholm & Bubar, the pioneers of the place, have lately had it surveyed into town lots, 150 by 50 feet (45.72 by 15.24 metres), with streets 80 feet (24.38 metres) wide alternated with lanes of 40 feet (12.19 metres). The number of lots already surveyed is about 400, of which a number have been bought up by intending residents.”

The same article reported that the saw and grist mill owned by Chisholm and Bubar was 30 by 67 feet (9.144 by 20.42 metres), a 24-by-40-foot (7.32-by-12.19-metre) store was owned by C.P. Brown and stores were being built by Chisholm & Bubar and a “Mr. Kneeshaw.” 

The article said that the village occupied the first high ground on the Whitemud River from Lake Manitoba and the river was about 200 feet (60.96 metres) wide at Totogan with a depth of about 15 feet (4.57 metres), “(the) depth increases as the lake is approached.”

An April 11, 1874 article in the same newspaper announced that lots were to be sold in Winnipeg by auctioneer Lyster Hayward of Garry Street. In the subsequent auction, lots sold for between $95 and $105.

What attracted businessmen such as Chisholm & Bubar was the potential to exploit Lake Manitoba’s national resources such as lumber and fish. Other settlers came because they felt the area offered fertile land for farming.

“In those early years the town of 

Totogan was boomed for all it was worth,” wrote Robert Hill in Manitoba: History of its Early Settlement, Development and Resources (1890), “and, so far as prospects were concerned, seemed to bid fair to become what it was represented to be.”

In 1874, Donald Stewart built a nearly 61-metre bridge across the Whitemud, an indication of his firm belief in the future prosperity of Totogan. For three years, this bridge was used as a major crossing along the 1,300-kilometre western route from Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton (today’s Yellowhead Route). The bridge was  used until it was swept away by a spring flood in 1877.

Besides the buildings already mentioned, the community also boasted a blacksmith shop and a salt works. In 1876, the Totogan Post Office opened under postmaster John C. Ball. 

The village gained such popularity that the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to move its trading post from nearby Westbourne to Totogan in 1878.

“Boats and barges negotiated the winding channel of the Whitemud to Totogan, bringing logs, minerals, and fish from Lake Manitoba and further north,” wrote Mulligan and Ryder. “They took back lumber, merchandize and passengers.”

An April 24, 1875, Free Press article reported on a “large public meeting” in John C. Ball’s store to organize a company to build a steamboat to “ply on lakes Manitoba, Winnipeg, Winnipegosis., &c.” 

A motion was passed “that immediate steps be taken to secure the construction of a light draught steamer on Lake Manitoba, for the purpose of supplying the south shore of the lake with timber, rails, wood, &c, and also for the purpose of carrying the productions of that locality to the head of navigation on its way to Saskatchewan.”

The meeting outlined that the Hudson’s Bay Company held a monopoly on the Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis fishery — primarily whitefish — with their “little fishing boats,” which could not be purchased “for love or money.” 

Residents believed the best fishing grounds had yet to be exploited because of the inefficiency of existing lake transportation and the need for the establishment of a suitable depot on the southern shore of the lake to process the fall fishery in bulk by either drying, smoking or salting. 

Other opportunities cited included the shipment of salt from the salt springs on Lake Winnipegosis to Totogan and onward to Winnipeg, as well as the movement of limestone building material from the north shore to the south shore of Lake Manitoba.

Chisholm and Bubar didn’t wait for a new steamboat company to be established as cited in the motion. They started building their own steamboat they named  the Saskatchewan. Apparently, the steam engine ordered for the vessel had not arrived in time, so the boat was launched under sail and was propelled in this manner for its two — and only two — trips on the lake. 

Another vessel built in Totogan, which was actually the first steamboat, was the Lady Blanche, commissioned by Reginald and Walter J.M. Pratt in 1879. The steamer was built to tow rafts of logs from Dog Creek (70 kilometres  north on the east shore of lake Manitoba) to the sawmill in Totogan.  This steamer successfully plied Lake Manitoba’s waters for years. After a 

reconstruction in 1893 by Peter McArthur, the vessel was renamed the Isabelle. 

The Saskatchewan did not have as fortunate a career on the lake as the Lady Blanche. During the last trip in its first year of operation, it ended up mired in a “reedy marsh,” according to Hill. 

“On her last return trip a storm blew her out of her course and beached her ... Her owners, after unvailing efforts to get her afloat, were compelled to abandon her,” wrote Hill. “On the 

occasion of a prairie fire sweeping through this section of the country, she caught fire, and was completely destroyed.”

An article in the first issue of the Delta History News (2002), places the vessel’s graveyard as a “few miles east of the Whitemud mouth ... squarely in Delta Marsh, likely in the lands owned by the Lakewood Country Club and the Portage Country Club.”

Abraham Moor, another local resident, purchased the schooner Hope in 1876 for “service on the lakes, and that she will make regular trips between the various trading points for the shipment of goods and merchandize or other freight.”

The Free Press said Moor and others were systematically opening up Lake Manitoba to navigation. 

These were heady days for Totogan and there were numerous reports of people coming to the community on prospecting tours.

The Totogan correspondent for the Free Press advised people to leave “the old homestead fireside, and sacrifice its creature comforts of the moment, for the prosperity of the future and the welfare of their children (in Totogan).”

The same correspondent claimed farmers were raising wheat, barley and oats as well as hay in abundance. 

Glowing reports aside, throughout the village’s early years, it was in direct competition with nearby and better situated Westbourne. The rivalry evoked strong passions as shown by letters written by Westbourne residents to the Free Press in response to the numerous articles written by the unnamed correspondent from Totogan.

“People at a distance, inflamed by this spurious species of advertisement ... come only to the place so puffed to find the whole not only untrue, but a thorough sell,” wrote one writer, who signed a letter dated October 3, 1876, as “An Observer.”

“Although the (Totogan) author of these nonsensical effusions is as harmless as need be and a perfect nobody in almost any sense of the word, yet he has contributed through the courtesy and medium of your columns to render ridiculous the little locality in which he has lived, and in  which he has wandered ...”

The same letter writer called the Lake Hotel “a kind of barn hardly fit for either man or beast,” abandoned by Harry Burnell as a losing concern and only opened on a temporary 


The writer went on to agree with the correspondent from Portage la Prairie that “the town of Totogan” was a “thing of the imagination.”

Another writer, who signed as “X.Y.Z.” in an August 16, 1876 letter, said Totogan lies in a marsh and thus had dim prospects for the future.

“We would simply state that the people of this section are getting somewhat tired, and certainly amused, at the long irrelevant communications from the ‘New Chicago’ which ad nauseam, like a dose of pills, the novitiate author of them would fain force down our  throats new every week.”

Another letter writer from Westbourne on March 20, 1874, said his community had a superior location and greater agricultural advantages. He wrote that “its (Westbourne’s) central position and its proximity to the main leading roads — via Palestine (now Gladstone) and the Riding Mountains to the Saskatachewan (River) — guarantee for it a rapid growth and prosperity far indeed in advance of the ‘New Chicago.’”

It should be noted that Totogan merchants heavily advertised in the Free Press — Westbourne merchants did not — which undoubtedly encouraged the newspaper to publish glowing reports by the correspondent from the community. Other enthusiasitic 

reports about Totogan appeared in the Nor’Wester. Of course, Chisholm 

& Bubar also advertised in the Nor’Wester.

Although the Westbourne letter writers had their own vested interest in being highly critical of Totogan’s prospects, their complaints were well-founded. Just a few years after it had been established with so much fanfare, there were signs that Totogan would never become the “New Chicago” — Chisholm & Bubar were in court-ordered liquidation and when Chisholm refused to hand over his books to the court, he was held in contempt and thrown into jail.

The only reprieve at this time came when the Chisholm & Bubar mill was purchased first by W.M. Smith in 1878 who then entered into a partnership in 1879 with Walter J.M. Pratt and finally sold all his Totogan business interests to Pratt a year later.

Still there was widespread faith in the community which was best exemplified by Robert Campbell, an Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor, who purchased the townsite. A $40,000 offer for the townsite was made in Winnipeg to his agent Duncan McArthur, but Campbell was away in the Old Country and had earlier told McArthur he placed a higher value on the land, so it went unsold — a grave mistake as it turned out.

In 1881, 1882 and 1883, flood-

waters rose on Lake Manitoba and northerly winds drove water over the banks of the Whitemud at Totogan. The flooding inundated some buildings and caused others to float away. It 

was at this time that Pratt abandoned his mill and many settlers decided to pull up stakes and leave while they could.

MacDougall’s Illustrated Guide (1882), a gazette for immigrants, reported that Totogan’s population was just 30, though it still possessed a saw mill, a church, a store, a hotel and a post office.

According to Hill, further blows to Totogan came when a bridge was built over the Whitemud River at Westbourne in 1878, followed by the arrival of the Westbourne and Northwestern Railway in Westbourne (now CPR) in the early 1880s.

But an even bigger blow to Totogan was when the steamboat builder Peter McArthur established a landing on the Whitemud upstream from the village near Westbourne for his vessels. The new steamboat port gained a further advantage when the Manitoba and North Western Railway built a spur to McArthur’s Landing. Steamers such as the 125-foot (38.1-metre) Saskatchewan — not to be confused by the Pratt vessel of the same name — built by McArthur in 1883, made their home at McArthur’s Landing and in travelling down the Whitemud to Lake Manitoba bypassed Totogan.

McArthur established a new planing mill and a freezer for fish at his landing. The fact that the new site was growing at the expense of Totogan was shown by an 1891 newspaper photo of a “raft of lumber and railway ties ... 900 feet long. The 500,000 feet of lumber and 25,000 railway ties were cut at Fairford and sailed through (the Lake Manitoba Narrows) to the (McArthur’s) landing.”

In 1887, Hill wrote that the small church built by Campbell was destroyed in a fire, “precursing the general doom of the place (which was by then) dwindling into nothing.”

To prevent the total collapse of Totogan, a new townsite was established on the south side of Whitemud River where the Manitoba Gypsum Company built a wharf and other facilities. It was a futile effort, since the construction of a rail line by the Canadian Northern Railway up the east side of Lake Manitoba to Gypsumville, the source of the gypsum, ended Totogan’s reason for existence.

While Westbourne may have benefitted from Totogan’s demise, it never significantly increased in size and remains just a small hamlet along  the Yellowhead Route.

Mulligan and Ryder said in their book that the remains of wooden piles just below the waterline at the edge of the Whitemud River where Totogan once stood are “silent reminders of a vanished dream.”