Mayor Katz wants a return to optimism of “Chicago of the North” era

by Bruce Cherney

“They used to call Winnipeg ‘Chicago of the North’.” Mayor Sam Katz said in his state of the city speech last week. “This city was a leader in North America. I want to bring that momentum back again. We have an opportunity. The foundation is there, but we need to work hard to bring this vision to life.”

At one time, Winnipeg was advertised as the “Chicago of the North,” or the “Bull’s Eye of the Dominion,” in reference to its commercial potential. Journalists, who’s trips to Winnipeg were often financed by the city government or local business interests, came to accept this analogy, and wrote glowing accounts of Winnipeg’s prospects being wined and dined.

“All roads leads to Winnipeg,” declared William E. Curtis of Chicago when he visited the city. “It is the focal point of three transcontinental lines of Canada (the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Grand Truck Pacific, and the Canadian Northern), and nobody ... can pass from one point of Canada to another without going through Winnipeg. It is a gateway through which all the commerce of the east and the west, and the north and the south must flow ... It is destined to become one of the greatest distribution commercial centres of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

Winnipeggers considered Chicago a “sister city” to be emulated whenever possible, because it provided an example of how being a railway centre could lead to explosive growth. 

The prospect of Chicago becoming a railway centre was called by the Chicago Tribune the road to its “future commercial importance ...” and “the brilliant prospect for its future greatness.”

The potential of both cities was written up in similar tones, though at different times in their history. An example that closely echoes what Curtis said of Winnipeg is found in a report by a Chicago newspaper.

“With the use of a map, any person can see that all the (rail)roads and branches that we have noticed, aim at Chicago. From the east and west, north and south, it is the great centre which they all seek,” wrote the Chicago Daily Democrat in a special 1852 issue.

It is actually quite extraordinary how the prosperity of both communities is exemplified by similar commercial endeavours, and all a reflection of the rail link to the capital of the East and the 

resources of the West. Winnipeg and Chicago were noted for their commodity exchanges, stockyards sprung up in both cities, and rail yards became significant employers. When the CPR shops were announced for Winnipeg in 1881, there was an immediate need for 2,000 employees. 

With jobs available,  immigrants also flowed into both cities from the four 

corners of the world.

The growing importance of Winnipeg resulted in jealousy arising with officials in St. Paul-Minneapolis and other American cities. In fact, a propaganda campaign was embarked upon which disparaged Winnipeg and Manitoba as a destination for immigrants.

In 1904, delegates from Winnipeg city council, the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Winnipeg Real Estate 

Exchange (later renamed the Winnipeg Real Estate Board) went to St. Paul, Minnesota to emphasize the benefits of their city and stop the spread of the 

misinformation campaign.

The Winnipeg group organized free trips for American newspaper and magazine correspondents and used what they had written to publish a pamphlet sent to potential immigrants called, What Famous Correspondents Say About Western Canada.

In 1860, Chicago’s population was 109,000, more than three times the population of 1850. By 1870, the population tripled again.

“It is not yet 20 years since the 

city government was first organized (1837),” the merchants of Chicago were told. “Then it contained 4,000 

inhabitants, now it has 100,000 ... The changes that have been wrought in 20 years are truly amazing. The question naturally arises — what will the next 20 years accomplish.”

When Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870, Winnipeg’s population was only 3,000 

people. In 1901, Winnipeg had a 

population of 42,340, and when 

Curtis came in 1911, it had tripled to 136,035.

“The growth of Winnipeg since 1877 has been phenomenal,” said George M. Grant, who wrote a 

historical travelogue of Canada in 1882. “Statistics need not be given, for they are paraded in every newspaper, and so far, the growth of one month — no matter how marvelous that may be — is sure to be eclipsed by the next ...

“Winnipeg is London or New York on a small scale. You meet people from almost every part of the world. Ask a man on the street for direction, and the chances are ten to one that he answers, ‘I have just arrived, sir’,” added Grant, who first saw Winnipeg in 1872, when it was “ a few rickety-looking shanties.”

When the CPR line entered Winnipeg in 1881, it triggered a land speculation boom, similar to the boom that greeted Chicago in the 1850s. A downtown lot bought for $13,000 in Chicago in the summer of 1855 was worth $20,000 in January 1856. But, what differentiated Chicago’s land boom with Winnipeg’s was the level of speculation and the dramatic collapse of the real 

estate market. 

“Thousands of dollars were made by operators in a few minutes,” wrote J. Macoun in his book, Manitoba and the Great Northwest, published in 1882.

“Most of the large transactions were in Main Street property,” said Col. Kennedy, the city’s registrar of deeds, in December 1882. “The Hub corner changed hands several time. A few years ago a portion of that was purchased for $15,000, and the purchaser was considered to be crazy ... now it has sold for $115,000.

“In 1872 the site on which Arnett’s store now stands sold for $300. In 1882 it changed hands at $125,000.”

Eventually, Main Street lots would sell for $2,000 a foot of frontage, which was more than what property sold for in Chicago, the city Winnipeg had aspirations to emulate.

The boom ended almost as quickly as it commenced by the spring of 1882.

“Real estate values have been rather quiet since then” said A.W. Ross, an MP called the “King of Land” as one of the more prominent speculators of 1881-82, “but there have been some heavy sales. I think the future of real estate is all right. We shall have another boom in central Winnipeg property. It will not be speculative, but a genuine boom. The city will continue to grow, and the 

demand will overtake the boom.”

Carl Sandburg wrote in his 1916 poem Chicago:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

“Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

“Player with Railroads and the 


“Freight Handler ...”

In 1864, 320-acres of swamp land in southwest Chicago was transformed for $100,000 into a stockyard. By the start of the 20th century, the Chicago meat-packing industry produced 82 per cent of the meat consumed in the U.S.

Winnipeg could make similar claims in the context of Canada. The CPR and CNR financed the development of a 137-acre site on Marion Street in St. Boniface which became the Union Stock Yards (Chicago’s Swift would be a later arrival on the Winnipeg scene). All three Prairie Provinces sent cattle to the Winnipeg yards that sprang up in the area as demand increased. The cattle were shipped to Eastern Canada, Britain and the United States.

More so that cattle, “Wheat was King” in Winnipeg. Sandburg wrote of Chicago as being the “Stacker of Wheat.” But, it was this grain that truly helped put Winnipeg on the map and led to the accumulation of wealth. The Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange (renamed the Winnipeg Grain Exchange in 1908) was created in 1887. The Exchange soon developed into one of the world’s principal grain merchant organizations.

In 1909, more than 188-million bushels of wheat were marketed on the Exchange floor. In Chicago, the amount was 26.9-million bushels.

The Exchange’s new, seven-storey quarters on Lombard Avenue and Rorie Street, built in 1906-07, were designed in the Sullivanesque-style, a variant of the Chicago School of architecture for tall, steel-framed commercial buildings. 

The wide-spread use of architectural styles from the Chicago School reflected the local belief that it was the “Chicago of the North.”

Perhaps the best example — at least the most imposing — of this adaptation of Chicago architecture is the Union Bank Building, Winnipeg’s first skyscraper, at 504 Main St. The style of the building, though designed by Darling and Pearson of Toronto, conforms to that established by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. The Union Bank Tower was finished in 1904.

“You have no idea of the enthusiasm people have here about the prospects,” wrote J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist preacher and future Labour Member of Parliament, in a 1902 letter to a cousin in Toronto. 

In the period 1907-10, the Winnipeg Development and Industrial Bureau handled 58,000 inquiries for information from firms interested in establishing branches in Winnipeg.

“We have distributed over two million pieces of printed matter including every size from a four-page leaflet up to a hundred-page highly illustrated booklet,” reported the bureau commissioner. “In our press service department we have supplied over one million lines of news matter about Winnipeg to magazines, newspapers, and other publications in the British Isles, Eastern Canada and the United States and with these we have furnished over two thousand photographs for illustrations.”

By 1906, Winnipeg-based Great West Life Assurance Company was operating nationally. Its expansion was part of a trend that had been building for years. As the potential of the community grew, so did the investment.

Winnipeg became one of the financial centres of Canada with banks from Eastern Canada setting up branch 

offices. Trust, insurance, stock and real estate brokers set up shop.

At exactly 7 a.m. on July 27, 1904, the first sod was turned for the Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue. It was founder Timothy Eaton’s first store in Western Canada and an acknowledgement that Winnipeg was becoming a major centre. The store was opened on July 15, 1905 with Timothy Eaton in attendance. At five-storeys, and covering 6 1/2 acres when its stables, powerhouse and other extras were included, it was the biggest retail store in the West. 

“With the population tripling 

between 1895 and 1907, hotel and 

residential construction could not 

keep up with demand,” wrote Ed 

Whitcomb in A Short History of Manitoba. “Suburbs spread out along the street-car lines, the old slums along the CPR were replaced, and the wealthy built their mansions along Wellington Crescent.”

In 1910, the Winnipeg Telegram reported that Winnipeg had 19 millionaires, more per capital than any other Canadian city. Winnipeg millionaires built commercial empires in the grain trade, retail, real estate and finance. Their ranks included names that are even familiar today, such as W.F. 

Alloway (the founder of the Winnipeg Foundation), E.L. Drewery (the beer maker and retailer), and J.H. Ashdown (the hardware retailer).

Describing his Winnipeg of the early 1900s, author James Grey in The Boy from Winnipeg, wrote: “The Winnipeg of my boyhood was a lusty, gutsy, bawdy frontier boom-town roaring through an unequalled economic debauch ... In a single decade more than 500,000 immigrants found their way from the four corners of Europe to Western Canada. All of them passed through Winnipeg, and a good one in ten went no further ... Carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, tinsmiths, plasterers, and painters worked from dawn to dusk putting up new railway shops, new warehouses for wholesalers, and new homes for thousands of trainmen, machinists, retail store clerks, bank clerks and bartenders who were flocking into town on every train from the east ... (Winnipeg was) 

on its way to the grand-daddy of all 

economic hangovers.”

It was also in this period that Winnipeg, with visions of future booming prosperity, established its own electrical power system and started construction of the 160-kilometre Shoal Lake aqueduct to bring potable water to the city. In addition, Manitoba became the first government to run a telephone system in North America.

The “economic hangover” mentioned by Grey got its beginning in 1903 with an announcement of an undertaking thousands of kilometres to the south, though it would take another 11 years before  its true effects would be felt. The eventual opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 signalled  the end of Winnipeg’s place of prominence as a transportation centre. The new trade route bypassed the east to west overland route via 


Winnipeg would still be a centre of rail transportation, but the port of Vancouver usurped Winnipeg’s position as the major centre for the distribution of Eastern goods in Western Canada. 

If nothing else, the canal brought a new realism to Winnipeg — expectations of grandeur and untold wealth had to be scaled back. 

What Katz is proposing is more a 

return to the optimism that prevailed during the period when Winnipeggers referred to their city as the “Chicago 

of the North.” The unique set of circumstances that prevailed before the First World War that were rode to 

economic prosperity can never again be duplicated.