Special Selkirk supplement

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

When the Daily Nor’Wester reporter visited the docks, he saw 14 steamers and tugs, as well as smaller craft which brought to Selkirk, “so much wood, timber, fish, minerals, and farm products ... the lake country is capable of producing.”

Selkirk was still being slighted by the CPR in 1894, since the railway company was not overly concerned about providing transportation for the commodities flowing through the inland port town. Fish was the principle Selkirk export via the CPR. In 1888, the CPR carried 961 tons of fish, which generated $12,586.46 in CPR revenue. In 1893, the total tonnage had risen to 2,175. 

It was estimated that the CPR was earning over $200,000 per year from Selkirk in freight and passenger traffic, yet train service was only three times a week and not daily as originally promised by CPR.

Residents complained of freight rates far in excess of what other communities linked by rail lines paid. The example used to demonstrate this point was the cost of shipping the “only carload of wheat” from the community to Winnipeg, which cost $36, and when ground into flour and shipped back to Selkirk cost another $24. Apparently using a wagon pulled by horses, the same wheat shipment could be taken to Winnipeg for only $24.

“But the crowning insult of the CPR to Selkirk is the miserable parody of a station, which stands, a living disgrace beside the track. It is a mere hovel, a grotesque expression of the soulless policy which a railway without competition can adopt, toward a town which pays it annually so many thousands of dollars.”

While local residents felt insulted by the CPR’s actions, the pride of Selkirk was the steamer named after the town that embodied their future aspirations. When the steamer pulled into the harbour after a round trip on Lake Winnipeg, the cry arose of “City of Selkirk!” and people rushed down to the dock to look over the steamer. The vessel was owned by the Manitoba Fish Company, managed by Captain William Overton, and was built primarily to convey the catch from the company’s various fishing stations along Lake Winnipeg. Captain Black, “the oldest mariner on the lake,” was the chief officer of the vessel.

Below deck, the  City of Selkirk was equipped with the latest refrigeration system, where fish initially frozen at the stations was stowed for transportation to Selkirk. 

The vessel was 105 feet (32 metres) long and had a beam of 24 feet (7.31 metres). The upper deck was fitted with 20 cabins, “nicely carpeted, and furnished with snowy linen spotlessly clean.”

The City of Selkirk was capable of reaching speeds of up 15 mph (24.14 km/h).

The reporter also noted that four Icelanders manned the schooner Siggurós (owned by Kristjón Finnsson — the vessel was named after his daughter), which left Selkirk once a week for Gimli and the Icelandic River (Riverton), carrying 16 tons of freight and a number of passengers.

From the dock, the reporter saw a York boat nearing manned by six aboriginals, among whom stood the well-known figure of Indian Agent Angus McKay. His jurisdiction extended over the area covered by Treaty Five, which included all the reserves on both sides of Lake Winnipeg, from the Black River south to Cross Lake. McKay’s trip to make treaty payments to the numerous bands along the lake and its tributaries started in July and ended in the fall.

“McKay is one of the best known men on Lake Winnipeg, and has many cordial friends in this city (Winnipeg) and Selkirk, who appreciate the amiable and thorough-going qualities which have made him so popular.”

One of the steamers docked nearby was “large and handsome” but forlorn, Princess, built as a passenger ship but then laying idle. In later years many of its cabins were removed and the vessel was converted to carry a cargo of fish and lumber as well as  passengers to remote northern communities. On August 26, 1906, the Princess sank in a storm off Berens Island. Six people perished, including Captain John Hawes. The sinking was called by newspapers of the day the “worst maritime disaster recorded in the inland waters of Western Canada.”

With concern that the valuable fishery of Lake Winnipeg was being depleted by overfishing, the federal government established a hatchery at Selkirk, called one of the largest in Canada. Under the supervision of LaTouche Tupper, the Dominion fish hatchery supplied whitefish to replenish Lake Winnipeg as well as other waterways in Western Canada. For example, over two-million whitefish eggs were shipped to the Okanagan Lakes in British Columbia and whitefish eggs from the Selkirk hatchery restocked the depleted Qu’Appelle Lakes in Saskatchewan (not a province in 1894 but part of the North West Territories).

“The building is beautifully situated in a bend of the river and in the centre of the town. The 100-by-40-foot (30.48-by-12.19-metre) building contained a large hatching room, a wood room, store room, workroom and office. Upstairs was a large room for hanging nets and a tank holding 22,000 gallons (100,013.98 litres) of water which was pumped to the floor below. In the hatching room, 60-by-40 feet (18.28-by-12.19 metres), is a steel boiler of 30 horse power and a Blake pump capable of pumping 1,400 gallons (6,364.53 litres) per minute.” Water came from the river in the winter, but due to its muddy nature in the summer, a 300-foot (91.44-metre) well was dug alongside the hatchery allowing workers to switch the water supply when required.

“There are 600 jars in place in the hatchery for whitefish hatching, which hold 50,000,000 eggs. There are also salmon trout troughs to accommodate 10,000,000 salmon trout eggs. Another jar-stand, holding 600 jars more, will be placed in the building when needed.”

The salmon mentioned was the Kokanee (the reporter spelled it Kokinee), a West Coast landlocked freshwater variety of sockeye salmon that never migrates to the ocean. Fortunately, attempts to introduce the foreign species of salmon into Lake Winnipeg ended in failure, preventing the creation of a potential disaster for the local commercial fishery, which heavily relied upon native whitefish, sturgeon and pickerel.

In front of the hatchery on dry land stood the “hull of a smart-looking sailing craft with clipper bow and cutter rig.” It was the remains of the “ill-fated” Keewatin, built for the federal government by James Watts and named after the district it served. The Keewatin — actually the second boat of that name in Manitoba — carried supplies on Lake Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan River, Grand Rapids and Norway House. It was on the way to Grand Rapids that disaster occurred. Three years earlier on its third day out, the little craft ran into a squall which whipped up a “mountains high” sea. A “treacherous gust struck the sails, and laid her decks under in the angry waves.” The vessel uprighted, but was finally capsized. 

A Mountie (unnamed) instantly drowned, while another named Simpson swam around the boat in the heavy seas to save boat-builder Watts. The policeman lashed Watts to the upright keel and then clung desperately to the slippery sides of the overturned vessel, but he lost his grip and slipped under the angry sea and drowned. For three days and two nights, the elderly Watts floated “at the mercy of wind and wave” until he was rescued by a passing vessel. But Watts never recovered from his ordeal and 10 days later died in hospital. 

“Such is the gruesome tale that coils its funeral association around the luckless Keewatin, and few Selkirk people who knew the victims look at her without thinking of the fate of the unfortunate builder (Watts) who sailed her to his death.” 

After fishing, the reporter listed the other major industries of Selkirk as lumber and cordwood. Lumber interests represented a $200,000 investment and employed 300 men at an average wage of $1.50 a day. Within Selkirk, there was one large sawmill with a capacity of a half million feet per day, as well as two lumber and planing mills. 

Another sawmill was being erected by H.B. Mitchell, formerly of Millwood, Manitoba. The new mill was slated to be the largest in the west, using a 90-horse-power machinery. Logs for the new mill were to be rafted from Hole River on Lake Winnipeg to Selkirk, where the wood would be “sawn into lumber and shipped to different points.” Mitchell had purchased the steamer Aurora to tow the logs, chained into rafts, across Lake Winnipeg to Selkirk.

According to the Manitoba Historical Resources Branch report, The Lumber Industry in Manitoba (February 2000), Selkirk businessmen James Colcleugh  convinced a group of Winnipeg and Selkirk investors headed by T.A. Burrows not to build their sawmill at Colville Landing (East Selkirk), but within the town boundaries on the west side of the Red River. 

“To accomplish this, he had to obtain property known as the West Slough, at the eastern end of Main Street, from (Winnipeg businessman) A.G.B. Bannatyne. The completion of the deal made Selkirk the chief lumber port for the entire Northwest ...

“Once or twice a season a huge raft of logs, hundreds of feet long and wide enough that it could support small shacks on its back, and with sails, would float upstream to be dismantled in the slough in Selkirk.”

Hundreds of local men found employment in the bush camps cutting down trees and within the Selkirk mills.

As a result of the readily available supply of lumber, Selkirk also became a major boatbuilding centre. Some 7,490 tons of cordwood for heating was also shipped out of Selkirk in 1893. 

Unfortunately, the lumber industry based along Lake Winnipeg was destined to have a short life. After the 1890s, it steadily declined as prime timber areas in Eastern Manitoba were opened up by the railways to provide lumber at a cheaper price.

In 1894, there were 25 stores in Selkirk, including butcher shops, bakeries, drug stores and general stores. The reporter said stock in the latter stores ran as high as $25,000. Besides general merchandise the stores sold camping supplies, fishing supplies and goods adapted to “the lumbering trade, government dredges, etc.”

Chemist and druggist J. Max Peplow from his store at the corner of Evelyn Street and Clandeboye Avenue offered the finest assortment of sundries, perfumes, pure drugs and fine chemicals. His drug store was “open at all times for dispensing physician’s prescriptions.”

In addition to the stores, there was a newly-opened bank, as well as three livery and “sale” stables, a grist mill of 50 barrels capacity and a tannery.   

The Daily Nor’Wester reporter followed Evelyn Street southward until it blended with a road running through shady groves on the outskirts of Selkirk. After passing through a rustic gate and taking a path through thickets, the reporter sighted the Selkirk greenhouse, managed by a “Mr. Eddridge.”

“A veritable field of glass extends away to the right from the entrance ... and shows what ... cultivation can do, even in this northern climate.”

The greenhouse was called a social rendez-vous for cultured Selkirk, although people from every social strata made a point of visiting the hothouse when it “donned its rosy tints about the 19th of April.”

The greenhouse produced all kinds of vegetables and also possessed a mushroom bed.

The reporter said he passed several “Icelandic cottages and crossed the Selkirk branch of the CPR at the station (the hovel he earlier referred to), before reaching the “Provincial Asylum,” a “magnificent structure of most imposing appearance.”

The Manitoba Asylum — it still exists, but is now called the Selkirk Mental Health Centre — was opened by the provincial government on May 25, 1886, and initially accommodated 59 patients.

“Prior to this the unfortunates had been confined in one of the buildings at Lower Fort Garry, which must have seemed a veritable prison to them.”

The asylum was described as bright, cheerful, comfortably furnished and under the genial management of Dr. David Young, the medical superintendent since its opening. The first matron was Euphemia McBride.

“It is indeed a relief to find that such places as this need not be the home of despair which many of the American asylums are said to be. Throughout its grounds and buildings peace reigns ...”

Still, the reporter felt it  was necessary to inform readers about the amusing incidents he experienced, such as the “old lady” in the women’s ward who asked him to take her picture and send “one of the photographs ... as soon as possible to King William, Prince of Wales.”

After witnessing the inmates and a party of young men from Selkirk playing a skillful game of cricket, the reporter commented that for the casual observer it was not known they were at an asylum, but could easily mistake the scene for a holiday in a public park.

“Most of the poor fellows who are here seem to be contented and happy, and to converse with some of them, the degree of intelligence shown is such as to make one look twice, and ask himself if it can be true that a man who talks like this is really mad?”

The evidence to dispel the idyllic scene were the patients lying beneath trees and staring vacantly into space. 

The building could accommodate 155 patients — in 1894, there were 43 women and 86 men — who paid a nominal daily fee of 35 cents, which was the cost of meals, although the government did not discriminate between those who paid and those who could not.

The majority of men worked in the garden (60 acres of land were under cultivation and some was in pasture), while women worked in the laundry, kitchen or at dress-making.

The only reminder that it was an asylum was the presence of bars and bolts on the many doors, iron shields on the windows and a high fence with a locked gate separating the 175-acre grounds from the community.

“Within these walls are the sad sequels to many a story of as thrilling interest as ever was written; and thoughtless indeed is he who visits an asylum without being moved more by the sorrows that are past and invisible, than by the tangible evidences of present insanity.”

Later while sitting on the hotel “piazza,” the reporter witnessed the passing of a “modern Aquarius,” or waterbearer, driving “his odd-looking outfit,” consisting of a “queer old cart drawn by a pair of oxen, to which he applied in fluent ... (swearing) ... the persuasive and oft-repeated speech, ‘Get oop there, blast yer eyes! Get oop, or I’ll break your bloody bones!’”

It was common in early communities for horse and cart drivers to deliver water to residences not connected to a local water supply.

The water bearer was apparently a local character, short and stout, known to every “commercial traveller to Selkirk.” 

“If he has not a licence to swear he certainly has a passport to the good graces of the people, for, despite his abusive tongue and bluff manner, he is a general favourite, and Selkirk would not be Selkirk without its street character.”

The best homes in Selkirk were said to rival some of the best found in Winnipeg, with the reporter particularly singling out the residences of Captain West, Messrs. Eaton, Tupper and Colcleugh.

Smaller homes were cozy and cheerful looking with broad verandas and trees everywhere. 

Selkirk was noted for its many elm and maple trees. To ensure trees continued to play a role as a symbol of the town, the council paid $1.50 to any citizen who planted a tree that survived for at least two years. In 1894, the town had planted 250 trees with a great many more planted by local residents. The reporter said the result of the local  tree-planting was an arcade of young healthy saplings waiting to turn into large trees and cast shade across sidewalks and streets. 

Such displays of civic pride impressed the Daily Nor’Wester reporter, who wrote, “every citizen of Selkirk” was “imbued with a firm belief in its great possibilities,” despite the past disappointments caused by CPR and federal government decisions.

“Selkirkites are satisfied to know that their town is going forward steadily, surely, safely, without boom or bustle, but on a sustained basis ... Healthy progress is better for the nerves and the pockets, if not so exciting, and history shows that it is better ... These facts seem to be appreciated in Selkirk ...

“As we bid adieu to Selkirk, we cannot help feeling, that, despite the treatment it has received at the hands of the railway monopoly, it has before it a future, greater than any place of similar size in the province; for its prosperity is not built on wind but on great natural resources which its citizens evidently know how to develop.”