CPR’s new railway station — Van Horne instructed architect to design a brick passenger depot

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

After the first Canadian Pacific Railway train crossed the newly-built Louise Bridge into Winnipeg on July 26, 1881, its destination was an “unassuming” 1-1/2-storey wood-frame depot at the corner of Main Street and Point Douglas Road.

As part of a cash-and-land agreement for the CPR to cross the Red River at Winnipeg rather than Selkirk, the city handed over six lots on the south side of Point Douglas (now Sutherland Avenue) between Main and Maple streets, plus a portion along Austin Avenue. The first CPR station in Winnipeg was built on the southwest corner of the land ceded by the city to the railway. 

Prior to building its first station, the CPR shared the Manitoba and Southwestern Railway’s depot and facilities built in 1879-80 near King Street and Point Douglas Road.

In 1882, CPR general manager Cornelius Van Horne instructed Thomas Scott, the former chief architect for the federal government’s public works department,  to design a new brick passenger station to replace the wooden structure. Van Horne, the American hired by the CPR syndicate — Norman Kittson, James J. Hill, George Stephen, Duncan McIntyre, Richard B. Angus and Donald Smith were among the principal shareholders — to ensure the quick progress of the company’s tracks westward, arrived in the city on October 7, 1881, accompanied by Hill. The syndicate member’s goal was to convince Van Horne to oversee the push to the Rockies. Van Horne was impressed by the CPR’s plans and his appointment was confirmed on November 1. He began work on January 2, 1882, in the CPR’s offices in the new Bank of Montreal building near the southwest corner of Portage and Main. 

Van Horne was regarded as the most capable railway man in North America, and was lured away from the United States for the princely sum of $15,000 a year. Once employed by the CPR, he vowed to lay 500 miles (804.7 kilometres) of track across the virgin prairie in 1882, a distance never before accomplished in railway history. Van Horne fell short of his target, but the aggregate of track laid by rail gangs surpassed his original boast. By the fall, 671 kilometres (417 miles) of track was laid across the prairie toward the Pacific Ocean, along with another 160 kilometres (100 miles) of a southwestern branch of the CPR in Manitoba.

When Van Horne arrived in Winnipeg, the city was the centre for a celebrated “land boom” created by the belief that prosperity and the railway went hand-in-hand. During the boom, paper fortunes were quickly made and just as suddenly lost. But while the good times lasted, “life was one continuous joy-ride,” noted George Ham who witnessed the boom that lasted from June 1881 to April 1882.

One of Van Horne’s first official acts was to place ads in local newspapers cautioning the public against purchasing lots based on speculative guess-work about where the CPR would set up stations along the route. He said townsites would be chosen by the railway and the railway alone, “without regard to any private interests whatever.”

The best example of what Van Horne meant was the townsite of Brandon. Initially, the CPR had wanted to cross the Assiniboine River at Grand Valley. People flocked to the alleged new town to snap up lots in anticipation of a new station and crossing being built. But the McVicar brothers, who owned the land envisioned as the heart of the  townsite, got greedy. When their selling price steeply rose at the instigation of speculators, the CPR decided on a new site a few kilometres to the west which cost the railway a pittance. Grand Valley went bust while Brandon boomed to the satisfaction of the CPR.

Whenever possible, the CPR would follow the model established at Brandon. It selected Pile o’ Bones (soon renamed Regina), a treeless site where land was owned by the railway — the Canadian government owned the adjoining property to the west, while another portion to the west was controlled by a syndicate headed by Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories — for its next major station after Brandon. The CPR intentionally moved the crossing over Pile o’ Bones (Wascana) Creek away from a better location a few kilometres away where speculators had hired squatters to claim land. By opting for the forlorn location on the bald prairie,  the CPR again got the better of speculators.

But Van Horne’s warning was mostly ignored, especially by a gullible public willing to believe the outrageous claims of Winnipeg-based auctioneers such as Jim “The Real Estate King” Coolican, who turned out to be selling lots in mostly mythical paper cities and towns across the prairies. When the railway failed to come, the so-called cities settled into an existence as sleepy hamlets or simply vanished like a wisp of smoke in a slight prairie breeze.

It is estimated that of those who speculated in Manitoba land, only five per cent made any money. Instead, most ended up destitute or decidedly poorer financially after their encounter with “land fever.”

While land fever may have abruptly ended, the CPR spent lavishly on a station, freight sheds, a roundhouse and other railway-related buildings in Winnipeg, which became the main supply depot — the anchor — for construction on the westward expansion of the CPR across the prairies. 

Since the eastern section of the line had not been entirely completed from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, steel rails from Britain and Germany were unloaded at U.S. seaports such as New York and New Orleans and sent forward by rail or Mississippi barge to St. Paul, Minnesota. Eventually, the material was transported to the “Bull’s-eye of the Dominion” over the CPR’s Pembina Branch. The branch line was completed in 1878 to Emerson and connected to the St. Paul and Pacific Railway line, creating a continuous span to St. Paul and a link to the rest of the U.S. and the world. Until the Louise Bridge opened, the Pembina Branch line only went as near to Winnipeg as St. Boniface, which meant freight and passengers had to be ferried across the Red to Winnipeg. 

Since the CPR main line was originally slated to cross the Red at East Selkirk, the hamlet was connected by rail to St. Boniface. But the fate of the town of Selkirk on the opposite side of the river from East Selkirk was sealed when the CPR accepted the bribe of $200,000 in cash, use of the new city-built bridge, land for its facilities and municipal tax-exemption into perpetuity to cross the river at Winnipeg.

Railway ties for the push westward were cut in the Lake of the Woods region and then transported directly to Winnipeg over a completed section of the CPR main line.

With the CPR came hundreds of railway workers as well as thousands of settlers intent on plowing land in the New West, who had to pass through Winnipeg. Within months of the CPR’s arrival, Winnipeg’s population had nearly tripled from 8,000 to 20,000 people. 

In 1879, before the arrival of the railway, there were only about 1,000 homes in the city at an assessed value of nearly $3.5 million, but in 1881  the assessed value jumped to over $9.2 million.

With the swelling of the city’s population and the expectation of even greater prospects for the railway company, Van Horne realized the CPR’s wooden station was insufficient to handle any sudden influx of people, resulting in his decision to build a new station. 

Scott’s design called for a more substantial 211-by-55-foot (64.3-by-16.76-metre) 2-1/2-storey brick structure resting on a heavy stone foundation set in concrete.

Construction began on the new $100,000 station in the fall of 1882 after the boom went bust and the speculators had left the city in droves, although there still remained a high level of optimism in the city. While many lost all they had by speculating in real estate, there was still enough money on-hand to ensure the 1883 construction season would be one of the best in the history of the young city.

A March 31 Winnipeg Sun report on the construction “boom of 1883” said volume would surpass 1882 because of the building of “the Wright, Ryan, Higgins, Post Office, English syndicate, Donaldson’s corner and other magnificent blocks ... This year will also be noted for the erection of many palatial private residences ...” 

As well, a new city hall, provincial legislature, college and hospital were to be built in 1883 with the total value of all construction for the year approached  $4 million. 

“Those who were astonished at the growth of the city in 1882 will be much more astonished at its growth in 1883,” claimed the Sun.

When interviewed by the Sun, John M. Egan, the general superintendent of the CPR’s Western Division who hailed from the U.S., and William Harder, the assistant traffic manager for the division, expressed confidence that railway travel would improve in 1883. 

Egan said business in Winnipeg would be equal to former years, although done “on a much sounder basis.” 

The CPR would be taxed to its utmost capacity to handle the influx of immigrants expected that spring and summer, he added.

Harder noted people arriving at the depot were not the speculators of 1881-82, but “good solid settlers.”

The prospect of an influx of “good solid settlers” made the new station a viable undertaking for the CPR, although the boom had actually put a damper on the continuation of massive settlement waves. After the highly-charged days of the land boom, Winnipeg, Manitoba and the West could only expect slower but steady growth — the “sounder basis” emphasized by Egan.

“The Canadian Pacific Railway Company, seeing the marvelous strides made in the growth of the city, determined about a year ago to build a new passenger depot more commensurate with the requirement of a metropolitan city,” editorialized the Manitoba Daily Free Press on February 23, 1883, in a lengthy feature article about the new station. 

The newspaper explained that the architectural design was “plain and of a modern style of architecture adapted entirely to this climate.”

Besides being a passenger station, the depot was also designed to accommodate offices for the headquarters staff for the Western Division of the CPR.

All the brick and stone used in the construction of the city’s second CPR station were from Selkirk, the community which was condemned to secondary status following the bribe to the CPR made by Winnipeg’s city fathers.

“The words ‘Canadian Pacific Railway — A.D. 1882’ are artistically sunk in a heavy cut stone arch at the west end of the new depot facing Main Street. A verandah roof will surround the entire building, affording a shelter to the public on the sidewalks underneath which will pass around four sides of the edifice.”

Thirteen gas lamps provided the exterior illumination, although electric street lights were making their appearance along Main Street. On October 16, 1882, the first electric arc street lamps were installed for the city by the Manitoba Electric Light and Power Company — four at the corner of Broadway and Main, one in front of the Imperial Bank, one in front of city hall, and one at the CPR depot. 

Street lights of the era were arc lamps in which an electric arc passed between  carbon rod conductors opposite each other and set at a specific distance to optimize the arc. Street arc lamps employed two pairs of carbon rods which burned quickly, lasting just 14 hours — seven hours each — but produced 3,000 candle power of lighting, which was far in excess of the illumination from gas lights. Light came from the heated ends of the conductors as well as from the arc itself. 

Power for the lights was produced from coal-fired steam generators at the Manitoba Electric Light and Power Company station adjoining the Hudson’s Bay Company’s grist mill near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

The Winnipeg Gas Company had provided street lighting since 1873 using coal-gas. 

The first successful demonstration of electric arc street lamps was on June 14 and 15, 1882, under the direction of P.V. Carroll of New York, at the CPR crossing on Main Street.

While the new CPR station at first used only gas lighting — the interior lighting was exclusively gas — eventually exterior electric arc lamps were added and the two systems operated side-by-side. 

Interior lighting for the station was entirely provided through gas fittings.

Passengers had at their disposal a waiting room occupying the entire eastern portion of the ground floor at the new depot. “The walls are wainscotted six-feet high, against which are permanent seats for the accommodation of the public,” according to the Free Press article. “The seats are made after a model suggested by the General Manager (Van Horne), and are exceedingly comfortable.”

The seating capacity of the waiting room was 100 persons. In emergencies, tickets could be sold at the west end of the waiting room by three clerks in the general agents’ office behind a “large bow window.”

“The main entrance to the waiting rooms is ten feet wide, and the doors are so arranged that in Summer they can be slid up out of the way, but let down again for use in Winter. On entering is a vestibule 10X14 feet (3.048-by-4.27 metres), with two doors upon either side, leading respectively in the general and ladies’ waiting rooms. The doors are hung on reversible hinges, so as to permit ... their swinging both ways.”

The ladies’ waiting room was 30-by-32 feet (9.14-by-9.75 metres) and “luxuriously-fitted up.” Off this room was a private apartment containing marble-topped wash basins, bureaus, mirrors and “other toilet conveniences.

A parcel and inquiry room was also off the ladies’ waiting room. “This room is to be under the special charge of Mr. R.B. Harstone, News Agent of the road, who, at the suggestion of General Superintendent Egan, has concluded to extend the usefulness of this office by making it a general intelligence office and thus obviate the pressure that has hitherto been levied on the main dispatcher’s office.”

The dispatcher’s office was connected to the inquiry room by a speaking tube, and a telephone connected it with a clerk who was to be in “charge of valuables and other small parcels and issue checks for them.”

The main ticket office was in a central position between the general and ladies’ waiting rooms. The ticket agent for the CPR was G.H. Campbell, who was assisted by two clerks.

The 30-by-52-foot (9.75-by-15.85-metre) express office was immediately west of the ladies’ waiting room. This office held a large vault with “burglar-proof doors” for the storage of valuables. At the front of the office was an entrance for the receiving of goods from trains and another at the rear for delivery vans to distribute the items throughout Winnipeg.

The 52-by-61-foot (15.85-by-18.59-metre) central baggage room occupied nearly the entire west end of the ground floor. The room was fitted with counters for receiving and delivering baggage, which was under the supervision of D. Parker. Entry to the baggage room was through a door at the rear.

“There is a neat little office for the luggage master at the north-west angle of the building, with a street entrance thereto; and there is a fire-proof vault off it in which to store away any valuables for safety.”

Another small room was off the southwest corner of the baggage room which housed “Paymaster Graham and his assistant.”

The main entrance to the general offices in the depot was off Main Street and when people entered they passed through a portico with triple entrances. The inner entrance had a double spring door which led to a “magnificent main stairway” from the ground floor to the second floor offices. The stairway was made of oak steps and risers and a hand rail of solid black walnut. A 208-by-12-foot (63.4-by-3.66-metre) corridor extended the entire length of the floor. 

An important feature of this floor was the CPR’s land bureau and survey  offices. Under the terms of its agreement with the Canadian government, the CPR received a vast land grant of 25-million acres in Western Canada. The purpose of the land grant was to help subsidize the construction of the CPR — the government also provided a $25-million cash subsidy. For every 32 kilometres the railway progressed across the prairie, a portion of the 25-million acres was handed over to the company.

The cash-strapped company was constantly asking the government for more land, but it was difficult for Ottawa to deliver on its promise as there was only so much land available. By the end of 1882, the CPR was projected to earn 10 million acres, but there were only three-million acres along the completed right-of-way. It would be another 22 years before the CPR received its full land grant, and much of it was beyond the right-of-way due to the land base granted to the HBC following the 1870 purchase by Ottawa of its holdings in Western Canada and the 160-acre government plots earmarked for settlers.

CPR president Stephen wrote Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald virtually begging for more land. “We shall need every acre of the grant to enable us to find the money (to build the railway) ...,” he told the prime minister, “delay will be fatal to us — we cannot wait.”

Without land, the CPR was hindered in its efforts to raise cash, and what land it did receive didn’t produce the hoped-for revenue. The failure to gain a fair return on the land had a lot to do with the boom of 1881-82. With the bust, international investors lost confidence in the value of any land in Western Canada, including the bast tracts owned by the CPR. 

In order to derive income from land sales, the CPR in 1882 agreed to sell five million acres to the Canada North-West Land Company for $13.5 million. The syndicate was to manage townsite sales with the railway receiving half the net profits.

To raise further cash, substantial discounts were offered for the purchase of CPR stock in the U.S., Britain and the Netherlands. It was a successful stock offering, but at the bargain-basement price  of 50 cents on the dollar. 

Until the last spike was driven on 

November 7, 1885, money for the completion of the railway was always a pressing concern for the CPR’s board of directors. CPR executives such as Stephen and Smith even pledged their personal fortunes as security for loans to ensure the railway would be finished.

The CPR’s land commissioner at the offices in the new depot was John McTavish. Other offices were for the treasury department, auditor, conductors, chief engineer and trainmasters.

Van Horne had a private office and suite of rooms set aside for his use. Nearby was an office for Van Horne’s assistant, W.R. Baker, and another office for Egan, his chief clerk, accountant and other clerks connected to the manager’s department.

The upper full-storey floor was reached by a private staircase. At the head of the stairway was a room occupied by the chief of the stationery department and his staff. The car accountant and his staff occupied another room. The train dispatcher’s office was on this half-storey, while another room was set apart for the resident engineer and draftsmen overseeing the construction of buildings and bridges for the CPR’s Western Division.

Heating for the entire building was provided by a 50-hp boiler built by the Rochester Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which was placed in a specifically-designed building at the east end of the old wood passenger station. The steam generated was carried under the old station through a five-inch main pipe to the new depot and returned to the boiler through a three-inch pipe. The steam system could keep the new station at an average temperature of 21°C.

Water was obtained  from an 28-metre-deep artesian well and fed into the station using a Smith, Vail & Co. of Chicago steam pump. The artesian well was just under five metres east of the boiler house and provided “good water.”

The old station was slated to be converted into temporary offices, a laundry, as well as a “Mammoth Dining Saloon, with lunch counters, etc., under the management of R.B. Harstone, who will also have charge of all the refreshment saloons, which are to be erected along the east and west (of the station) at convenient points.”

The Free Press said the workmanship on the new depot was “credibly performed and is of a superior character, being in every sense of the term substantial. The masonry and brick work was done by Mr. James G. McDonald, the well-known contractor, and reflects credibility upon that gentleman, particularly when it is known that building operations were carried on with the mercury ranging from 15° to 40° (F) below zero (at 40 degrees below, the temperature in fahrenheit and celsius is the same).”

The galvanized iron work, cornices and spouts were installed by Cooley & McNeil of Winnipeg, while the heating, plumbing and gas fittings were installed by the American Plumbing Company, which was also a local company. The only outside contract was for the manufacture  of the metallic slate for the roof.

The Sun called the new depot “one of the finest structures in Winnipeg.”

(Next week: part 2)