Happyland — Winnipeg’s “mammoth amusement park” first opened on May 23, 1906

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

In the confusion at Happyland amusement park, the chief trainer of the Sells-Floto Circus received a blow to the right temple from someone blindly wielding a weapon to corral the elephants which had broken free of their bonds.

“The second party of elephants ran through the side of the menagerie tent, and one of the party crashed through the pillar of the dome,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on July 30, 1913. “Turning back, probably at the sound of the crash, they broke their way through the side of the main circus tent, smashing to kindling the reserve seats on the side and continued across the rings tearing down in their progress the maze of ropes always to be found in a circus tent. Encountering the reserved seats on the other side they smashed them also and breaking through the side of the tent continued out into the open.”

The loud splintering of wood, ripping canvas, and trumpeting from the frightened elephants as they fled violently aroused people from their slumber in the vicinity of Happyland.

At one o’clock in the morning, those who had been awoken from their sleep ventured outside to observe the strange spectacle of elephants wandering up and down Aubrey Street and show horses with rain-dripping backs turned toward the storm. All along the street, circus employees were frantically attempting to round up the wayward animals and return them to the Happyland grounds.

In the calm of the morning after the storm, the damage was tallied. The storm’s aftermath revealed torn tent canvas, thousands of chairs crushed to matchwood, a large animal wagon overturned and destroyed, as well as a domed-shaped building standing in the middle of the grounds suffering the effects of a panicked elephant passing right through one of its corners. 

Happyland opened in 1906 with great expectations that were never fully realized.

On March 1, 1906, it was announced that the Ingersoll Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which already owned and operated a number of large amusement parks in North America, had acquired a 10-year lease on a 32-acre tract in Winnipeg’s West End for $150,000. To the delight of Winnipeggers, W.O. Edmunds, the vice-president and general manager of the company, announced the new amusement park between Portage Avenue and the Assiniboine River would be called Happyland. 

The Ingersoll Company already had opened amusement parks in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington which attracted a combined three-million visitors. The company’s newest park in Scranton, Pennsylvania, approximately the same size as Winnipeg, proved to be highly profitable.

When the amusement park was first proposed, Edmunds admitted to being skeptical. He recalled visiting the city years earlier when Portage Avenue was little more than a wide mud-filled trail. But after revisiting  Winnipeg in 1906, he was convinced of the city’s potential as the site of a new amusement park.

“While Winnipeg at present is an infant in comparison to the drawing population of Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” Edmunds told reporters, “we are planning Happyland so that we may expand as the city grows. Our acreage is sufficient to permit this, as well as to permit enclosing several acres for an athletic field. In fact, Happyland will afford sufficient devices to cater to all lovers of the outdoor sports and pastimes.

“It is our desire that women and children, as in our parks in the United States, make Happyland their headquarters for afternoons and evenings. We cater especially to them, providing lounging rooms and playgrounds in charge of competent attendants, and special officers to guard and attend them. Children will be as safe in the park as if in their own homes.”

Arriving in Winnipeg from Pittsburgh, Edmunds opened an office at 191 Bannatyne where landscape architect Alfred Robinson of New York would complete the design for the new park. 

According to Edmunds, Happyland would be divided into two sections — along Portage Avenue a park was to be established and along the  riverside an athletic field was planned.

“The park proper will be in the form of a square, with the corners rounded,” Edmunds told the Morning Telegram. “The central belt will be occupied with the midway, gay with refreshment and novelty booths which will be flanked by broad shade areas with ample seating, while outside there again will be flower gardens. Pagodas will stud the landscape.”

But, it was an amusement park, and Edmunds explained the grandiose rides and shows designed to fill the grounds with thousands of people would include a frame-eight roller coaster, a miniature railway, a ferris wheel, a temple of mirth, a vaudeville stage, the Chateau Alphonse for auto tours (according to legend, a painter named C.P. Miller became lost when he attempted to solve its mysteries  one day after work and had to spend the night in the maze until rescued the next morning. Miller was said to have then quit his job and left Winnipeg), a ballroom, gypsy campground, a hall of illusions, an aerial swing, Hooligan’s shade, a merry-go-’round, as well as numerous smaller attractions.

While the rides were expected to attract a great number of people, the continued success of Happyland also hinged on regularly-scheduled baseball games and other sporting events. The Morning Telegram reported on April 17, 1906, that the new ball park “will be up-to-date in every particular.” The grandstand could accommodate 3,000 people and another 2,000 spectators could be seated with the addition of bleachers. 

The ball diamond was laid out from to point northwest to southeast. For the players, there were dressing rooms complete with showering facilities.

To bring people to Happyland, a double track of rail lines was built for streetcars.

Winnipeggers eagerly anticipated the opening of Happyland. “Never, probably, in the history of amusement enterprises has one subject absorbed the attention of the public as has Happyland,” claimed the Morning Telegram on May 11, 1906. “Its fame has begun to spread throughout the land, and in every nook and corner of the great north-west it is being discussed with as much interest as a national exhibition.”

A greatly anticipated feature of the grounds was the “thousands upon thousands of electric lights, it will present as a spectacle, the likes of which has never before been seen within the Dominion’s lines.”

The “mammoth amusement resort” in the city was slated to open on May 20. Newspapers reported every attraction was ready. Advertisements said the park would be open every afternoon and evening except Sunday. The big circus attraction was Monsieur Breton, who was scheduled to leap a 30-foot gap with an automobile. Other performers included Davenport, “the king of all high-wire performers,” the Cliffords, the “world’s famous trapeze performers,” while Colonel Gaston Bordeverry, the “champion rifle shot of the world,” was scheduled to marvel audiences with his prowess with a gun.

“Moving pictures,” a novelty for the era, were slated to run from 1 to 6 p.m., while a live Vaudeville program began at 7:30 p.m. and continued every hour until 11 p.m. The Vaudeville acts included the Musical Smiths, King and Johnson, and Brown and Wilmot. 

Admission to Happyland for “50 features” was just a dime.

Newspapers reported the Happyland management “aims at the highest standard of excellence. The various performances will epitomize the perfection of the best type of amusement.”

Happyland was also billed as “the biggest picnic grounds in Western Canada.” J. Alexander Sloan, the publicity manager for the new park, was accepting bookings from churches and lodges within a 200-mile (320-kilometer) radius of Winnipeg. 

The Doric entrance, which extended 300 feet (91.4 metres) along Portage Avenue, held the sign Happyland which stood  out “like a burst of sunlight.”

To the right of the main entrance were the company offices, and on the left the publicity department offices.

“As one passes in,” reported the Telegram, “the scene becomes more bewildering. The long rows of buildings are grouped on both sides of the board plaza. Here at a glance is a lesson in the world’s architecture. The French, Ionic, Doric, Arabic and Gothic styles, are all found.

“The first buildings are the Edisonia (moving picture theatre) and the modern rifle range ... here  is also the myth city. In it are found many things of interest. (Author) Rider Haggard’s She is probably the most important feature. The heroine stands in a column of fire, and is engulfed in raging flames.”

The 80-foot (24.4-metre) high aerial swing towered over the myth city.

The opening was delayed until May 23 because of poor weather. But when visitors were let through  the gates, they beheld “a city of light” resulting from the use of 10,000 electric light bulbs. The illumination of Happyland was called “without doubt the finest electrical display ever seen in the west.” 

The formal opening of the park took place at noon. 

Throughout the day, streetcars arrived at two or three minute intervals to disgorge passengers at a special siding. 

Besides the rides and other amusement attractions, a baseball game was in full swing as noted by “the sound of cheering from the baseball field.” Unfortunately, the Winnipeg Maroons ended up losing the game to a Duluth squad by a 7-5 score. Happyland became the home field for the Maroons of the Northern Copper Country League, which included a number of teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

In the evening, the “Olde Mill” commenced operations, ‘and its dozens of boats freighted with the brave and fair being borne on the current through the apparently subterranean channels walled at intervals by exquisite scenery, while the magnificent open-air ball room, presided over by (S.L.) Barrowclough’s Orchestra (the orchestra leader also owned a local music store), was also constantly in requisition.”

The myth city and theatre remained packed with people until the park closed at 11:30 p.m.

Happyland’s management estimated that from 8,000 to 10,000 people had visited Happyland on its opening day. The management noted that had the weather been warmer, the attendance total would have been higher.

Promised attractions lacking on the first day were the figure-eight roller coaster and the crystal maze (a hall of mirrors). By the end of May, new castings for the roller coaster had been received and it was again in use.

On May 24, a day of the Victoria Day long weekend holiday, 44,000 people passed through Happyland’s gates.

One unexpected consequence of the new park was the street damage caused by the Ringling Brothers circus. The damage occurred after the train cars were unloaded by circus personnel at a rail siding along Portage. “From Maryland Street, where the block pavement begins, to the place where the wagons turned off to drive into the lot (on) which the circus is held, the block pavement of Portage Avenue is almost totally ruined from the traffic of the heavy circus wagons,” reported the Telegram on July 16, 1906. “Deep ruts extend across the street and deep furrows on each side of the street, where the heavy wheels have cut will cause food for thought for the taxpayer and furnish unmistakable evidence of the havoc wrought to the streets by the heavy traffic of the wagons.”

The newspaper said, the curbing for two blocks on Langside Street had separated from the cycle path and the roadway was broken in two separate areas. Between Victor and Toronto streets, the pavement showed the effects of heavy wagons, with heaps of blocks piled one on top of the other. The edges of the pavement from Maryland to Happyland crumbled away and in some  places the entire length of the street had to be repaved. 

Using Duluth as an example, the estimated damage to the Wisconsin city’s streets by Ringling Brothers’ wagons was $12,000, which was “not far removed from the amount of damage inflicted on Portage Avenue.” It turned out the damage was not as costly as first reported.

Ringling Brothers had been coming to Winnipeg since 1902, but 1906 was the first time such extensive street damage had recorded. In 1904, the Ringling Brothers Circus was held at Fort Garry Park, which opened on May 24, 1894, and was located on the old Hudson’s Bay Flats to the north of Upper Fort Garry.

On July 18, it was reported that Alderman J.G. Latimer said the city would be unable to take legal action to recover damages incurred by the wagons’ passage over Portage Avenue, since the Ringling Brothers Circus had crossed the border into the U.S. 

By that time, a city crew had begun to repair the damaged street. The city said the street would “have to be thoroughly  reblocked from opposite Happyland to Maryland. While the circus only left $300 in city coffers, the amount of damage was pegged at close to $1,000.

In  1907, Mayor James Ashdown assured the city would not again be liable for damage to city streets by forcing Ringling Brothers to pay a bond. 

On the day the circus began setting up for its performances, four lawyers representing property owners opposite Happyland appeared prepared to seize Ringling Brothers assets. Apparently, the circus had failed to pay rent on the grounds and was regarded as a trespasser. Eventually, the circus management settled with the landowners “at a rate of $400 to each proprietor for the use the show had made for their properties.”

In its first year of operation, Happyland attracted thousands of patrons, including organizations using the park for their annual picnics. For example, the annual outing of the Dufferin Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 28 attracted “almost the entire population of the North End.” In fact, 4,000 tickets were sold for the very first picnic to be held at Happyland. Other outings were organized by the Methodist Church of Brandon and the Elks of Winnipeg, while  labour organizers held their annual Labour Day outing at Happyland. It was reported that 40 unions took part in the picnic at Happyland where an address was made by Ramsay MacDonald, the famous British Labour MP from Britain.

Besides the attractions, Happyland proved to be a haven for pickpockets.On May 25, three people reported to police “light-fingered artists” had absconded with $59, $13 and $8 from each victim.

For 1907, newspapers related the numerous “wonderful sights” for spectators, including a reproduction of the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, Dante’s Inferno, which “witnesses the various forms of punishment for sinful souls consigned to everlasting torture.” The illusion had first appeared at the Paris Exposition, at the St. Louis World Fair and was being shown in Canada for the first time.

“The big aerial swing will vie with the roller coaster in whirling you rapidly through space,” according to the Telegram. 

A snake pit was added in 1907, featuring several large and small reptiles, “all chained .. with fangs extracted so that no bites or squeezes need be feared.”

The big ball room was converted for roller skating with space enough to accommodate 350 skaters.

The park’s management announced admission to Happyland would remain at 10 cents for the 1907 season.

“In the hippodrome just to the left of the entrance will be found the Dancing Girls of all Nations,” reported the Telegram.

The services of Hume Duval, “the wrestling wonder and holder of the Triple Standard gold medal,” was secured “at great expense.” Duval challenged anyone in the city to wrestle him “in either the Jiu-Jitsu catch-as-can-catch, or Greco-Roman styles.” If he failed to throw an opponent within 15 minutes, the challenger would receive $20. 

Animals escaping their bonds, damage to Winnipeg streets and competition from other parks, such as the popular  River Park, placed the success of Happyland in peril. Just two years after its opening, Happyland was bankrupt and sold for only $6,000 to Winnipegger W.M. Fisher on August 10. Despite the best efforts of the new owner, Happyland failed to attract the crowds needed to make it economically viable.

The opening of Winnipeg Beach as the province’s newest “pleasure beach” further added to the woes of Fisher and Happyland as did the start of the First World War. 

Over the following decade, buildings in Happyland began to deteriorate with fading paint on the front entrance typifying the troubled times facing the park.

A beer garden opened in 1909 failed to attract more patrons to Happyland. A scheme involving the purchase of the land for $500,000 by the Milwaukee Railroad failed to materialize. 

To earn more money, Fisher was forced to sell a portion of Happyland. 

A February 26, 1915, advertisement in the labour newspaper, The Voice, said the “owner of a portion of what is known as the Happyland property (between Westminster and Portage),” was prepared to sell lots direct to builders under favourable loan conditions. “This is an opportunity for builders to commence operations early this season, war or no war,” according to the advertisement placed by landowner F.W. Leistikow.

Knowing that Happyland was in bad financial shape, Fisher petitioned the city to open two new streets and subdivide the property. It was a requested denied due to the distraction of the war. It would not be until 1922 that two new streets — Sherburn and Garfield, parallel to Dominion and Aubrey,  came into existence. From that point, Happyland  became a residential neighbourhood.

Winnipegger George McLachlan disputes the 1922 demise of Happyland. Quoting the neighbourhood history book, Rising to the Occasion,” he placed the end of Happyland in 1909. The evidence, such as the 1913 escape of elephants reported in newspapers, contradicts this claim, as do photos of Happyland dating to 1909 — the so-called year of its demise — as well as 1912.

It is uncertain precisely when Happyland ceased operations, although it is probable it finally came to an end when the area was converted into residential lots in 1922.

The former Happyland along Portage Avenue should not be confused with Happyland Park now in existence at the corner of Dufresne Avenue and Marion Street near the St. Boniface Golf Course.