Historic corner needs makeover


Certainly the corner of Portage and Main is great for vehicles, but it’s also certainly not people-friendly, since it hasn’t been open to above-ground walkers for decades. On the other hand, cars, trucks and buses can rush through the corner unimpeded by the presence of pesty pedestrians. 
Being absent of one essential ingrediaent makes it rather strange that the corner would be nominated for the Great Places in Canada competition under the category, Canada’s Great Street (on-line voting ends on September 2). The competition, now in its third year, is sponsored by the Canadian Insitute of Planners (CIP). Winnipeg has had successful entries in past competitions. In 2011, The Forks won in the Canada’s Great Public Space category. The Forks is certainly a great space and it is also pedestrian-friendly. In 2012, Osborne Village won in the Canada’s Great Neighbourhood category. Osborne Village is certainly a great neighbourhood and it is also pedestrian-friendly.
There was a time when the corner of Portage and Main was a people place. Historically, the corner has hosted its share of memorable events, including armed Mounties on horseback charging from the corner onto Main Street to break up a crowd during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and the signing of Bobby “the Golden Jet” Hull on June 27, 1972, by Ben Hatskin. Hull returned to the corner 40 years later to commemorate the signing.
Shrouded in the murky recollection of the past is that the over150-year-old corner was the creation of one man with a vision — Henry McKenney, who came to Winnipeg in 1859. When McKenney arrived in the future Manitoba capital, he first bought a store from Andrew McDermott, a pioneer resident, which was quickly converted into the Red River Settlement’s first hotel. As a popular drinking establishment, the Royal Hotel provided McKenney with the inkling of an idea. He noticed that the bar’s regulars didn’t follow the Portage Trail to Upper Fort Garry, which the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted to become the commercial centre of the settlement, but cut across the prairie directly to his hotel. He decided he would “cash-in” on this quirk of settlement travel.
In partnership with his half-brother John Christian Schultz, McKenney approached McDermot with an offer to purchase a piece of land on the west side of Main Street near the boundary of McDermot’s lot 248. They paid McDermot £110 for the land plus an easement to the river, with the land changing hands on June 2, 1862. Part of the deal was that they paid £60 in cash to guarantee the right to purchase another piece of property that they could immediately occupy in five years. Interest on the remaining £50 was at six per cent per year.
“The site was low and swampy, covered with scrub oak and poplar,” wrote George F. Reynolds in the MHS Transactions article, The Man Who Created the Corner of Portage and Main, “... In the eyes of the old settlers, the worst feature was the distance from the Red River. ‘Nobody in their right mind,’ they said, would even think of building over a quarter of a mile from the river, at that time the only source of water.”
But McKenney was undeterred by the laughter arising from skeptical residents, and built a wooden structure that Reynolds called a “ghastly example of Red River Primitive.” The hip roof of the structure earned it the nickname “Noah’s Ark.”
At the time, McKenney said he wanted the store’s corner jutting out into the Main Trail (Main Street) to become the central hub of settlement from which all roads would branch out like the spokes of a wheel.
“The house (structure) was a long two storey building,” wrote Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River, which was published in 1871, “80 feet long by 24 feet wide by 22 feet high, the ground flat of which was lighted by two large windows which, with the door, occupied one end, while the sides were windowed only in the top storey, which was used as a dwelling house ... The house was erected in a particularly isolated spot and the hurricanes which sometimes blow across the plains, it was then imagined, would beat against the broad sides of the slightly-built edifice with such force as would reduce it to native timbers.”
Even then, what would become Portage and Main was noted as being the windiest corner in the settlement.
“But although the house had sometimes to be supported by huge beams propped in considerable numbers from the outside,” continued Hargrave, “and was believed to be by its inmates to be by no means a safe abode on a stormy night, the winds proved as powerless to overwhelm, as the waters to sap, the experimental venture.”
McKenney became embroiled in a land dispute with William Drever, who built a store across the way from his store in 1863. The Assiniboia Council intervened, and appointed a committee to investigate the right-of-way. The committee sided with McKenney and the council then passed a series of resolutions which lopped off a chunk of Drever’s property for a public road, though the building was permitted to remain.
The council gave their approval to McKenney’s vision by surveying a right-of-way for a street measuring 66 feet from the south end of McKenney’s property to serve as a central point for the 132-foot wide future Portage Avenue.
By 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner. In 1883, there still stood at the corner of Portage and Main, some buildings described as dilapidated that encroached right into the middle of the intersection, creating a bottleneck, according to William Douglas, who in 1962 published the book, The Corner of Portage and Main. The store McKenney established stood for 25 years and was finally demolished in 1887. 
Reynolds pointed out in 1970: “There are 2,300 streets and avenues in Metro Winnipeg, none of them bears the name McKenney or, for that matter, the name of Drever or (George “Dutch”) Emmerling, the two men who were the first to follow Henry McKenney to the corner of Portage and Main.” Apparently, McKenney alienated enough important people, including his politician half-brother, that he was conveniently forgotten in latter years as the creator of Winnipeg’s most famous corner.
“Canada’s Great Places are selected on the basis of both popularity and planning excellence as judged by a panel of experts,” according to CIP. In terms of the planning excellence, it can be easily argued that it was a case of “bad” planning in 1976, when the city signed an agreement with private developers to open an underground concourse linking shopping malls under the four corner properties. This included a 50-year deal, which expires in 2016, to permanently close the pedestrian crossings at the intersection. Without the corner being pedestrian-friendly, it’s hard to imagine it as “Canada’s Great Street.” But it could be named as “Canada’s Historic Corner.”