Pioneer days landmark — “Dutch George” Emmerling’s hotel

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

An article appeared in the May 31, 1890, Manitoba Free Press announcing the loss of a Winnipeg landmark dating back to the pioneer days of the city. Of particular interest was that the landmark had been built by one of Manitoba’s more colourful characters at a time when the Red River Settlement’s future was in a state of flux, as a result of an ongoing tug of war between various groups with conflicting agendas. 

“The X-10-U.S closes to-night,” the newspaper announced, in anticipation of its demolition.

“Long before Manitoba was a province — in the good old days when it was known as the Red River Settlement — this place was a widely-known landmark, the resort of the b’hoys of that time, the stopping place for travellers, the rendezvous for agitators and patriots and its hospitable roof has sheltered many a noble English lord of high degree, many a distinguished visitor; while Irish Fenians and rebels have congregated there; loyal citizens and first expedition heroes gathered within it, and many an exciting encounter which might easily have resulted in bloodshed, has occurred within its portals.

“Jovial, congenial spirits, too, held high carnival in the old building and the nights of fun and frolic — followed presumably by the traditional morning’s headache — have been too numerous to mention. Ah! those were the rare old days when the very rafters rang with mirth and laughter were put up on unsuspecting travellers and frequenters.”

X-10-U.S was a rather strange name for a structure that began its life in the settlement as a hotel that was built by one of the many who came seeking his fortune in the frontier community in the early stages of its formation.  

“Dutch George” Emmerling came to Winnipeg in 1860. His story in the community took on near mythic proportions, as accounts relate that the man from the Dakota Territory in the United States and originally from Bavaria, Germany, came with no more than a tent, a barrel of whiskey and two barrels of apples and went on to become one of the more wealthy residents of the Red River Settlement. 

“At first, Emmerling stuck to selling apples and small fruit, but this man that the neighbours called “Dutch George,” wasn’t one to stay in a rut. Besides, he was chummy!” (Winnipeg Tribune, May 17, 1947).

Emmerling came to Winnipeg with his father-in-law Jean Mager and brother-in-law Celestin Thomas.

“Mager, for a time, ran a saloon in St. Boniface, which incurred the wrath of some of the residents. These, in 1866 submitted a petition through the archbishop to have the place closed. They charged that the place was ‘used for the retail of liquors of an intoxicating quality,’ and that persons frequenting the house were allowed to partake freely of ‘villainous whiskey.’ It made it plain, however, that the nature and ingredients of the booze were unknown to the petitioners” (Winnipeg Free Press, May 28, 1949).

Thomas established the first brewery in Manitoba in 1862, which was located  in Middlechurch and remained in existence until 1873. He then purchased a site on Colony Creek and built a second brewery. In later years, this property was the site of the former Shea’s Brewery along the east bank of the Red River and adjacent to the Redwood Bridge. 

There is some confusion about the establishments in the future city of Winnipeg that Emmerling had operated. Many tales of his earlier days in Winnipeg tend to skip from his arrival with a few goods for sale to the building of the Emmerling Hotel. But most historians agree that this is too simplistic, as Emmerling had a progression of steps from fruit seller to hotelier.

From selling fruit, Emmerling opened what became known as  “Dutch George’s Place” in a shack on Post Office Street (now Lombard Avenue), obtaining the building from Andrew McDermot. According to the 1947 Tribune article, Emmerling sold only “taties” (potatoes) with “butter,” but, “It was well worth trampling through the village mud to get there on a wet day.”

Emmerling next purchased the Royal Hotel, the community’s first such establishment, from Henry McKenney (Trials & Tribulations: The Red River Settlement and the Emergence of Manitoba, 1811-1870, by J.M. Bumsted, 2003), another newcomer who went on to build the store that created the famous corner of Portage and Main and the nucleus of the future city. McKenney’s store was on the northwest side of the corner.

In 1859, McKenney had converted a storehouse bought from McDermot, between McDermot and Bannatyne avenues, east of Main Street, into the Royal Hotel, which was noted more for its bar for thirsty travellers than its accommodations.

John H. McTavish, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) at Upper Fort Garry, on December 10, 1867, wrote a letter describing the amenities of Emmerling’s hotel, saying “he keeps a very orderly place now, allows no drinking in the Billiard Saloon & has everything tiptop style, (John) Balsillie (an HBC fur trader) & I often go down & spend an hour there of an evening, Balsillie generally ‘wallops’ me at the game much to my disgust for I have to fork out the shilling (which was the cost of a game).”

Emmerling allowed no gambling between players using his billiard table, which was the first in the city.

Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River, wrote that the billiard table was in constant use and highly profitable for Emmerling, which prompted him to add another table.

The hotelier’s establishment was the scene of the occasional politically motived disruption in the settlement, as residents were torn between various factions, those who wanted the settlement to join Canada (the Canadian Confederation didn’t occur until 1867), U.S. annexationists, those who preferred Crown colony status, supporters of the HBC’s continued governance of the settlement and the Métis who also had their own agenda. 

On December 8, 1866, Thomas Spence — who later attempted to establish the “Republic of Manitobah” in Portage la Prairie — organized a meeting to support the transfer of the Red River Settlement to the Province of Canada, which was then made up only of what would become Ontario and Quebec.

The meeting was set for 10:30 a.m. at the Fort Garry Courthouse, which was situated just outside the gates of the fort on the Main Road, but apparently Spence and four of his supporters arrived an hour early and passed the necessary resolutions and then gave three mighty cheers for Queen Victoria. 

Emmerling intended to attend the meeting, “with the object of advocating the policy of annexation to the United States of America” (Hargrave).

(Next week: part 2)