Winnipeg in 1874 — skyline is very different but “dismal condition” of our streets the same

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Elliott described in detail the buildings comprising 1874 Winnipeg, such as the Pacific Hotel, “a large three-storey brick building with flat roof” along Main Street, and the “Wesleyan Education Institute on the corner of Schultz and Main streets.”

Today’s Schultz Street does not

intersect with Main, but with Jarvis Avenue.

Elliot wrote that A.G. Bannatyne owned a grocery, liquor and general store on the northeast corner of Main and Post Office (now Lombard Avenue). Bannatyne was born in the Orkney Islands and was a former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee who served briefly as postmaster during the time when Riel headed the provisional government of the Red River Settlement (1869-70).

Point Douglas in 1874 was at the northern limit of the city’s boundaries and was growing as a location favoured by “a very industrious well-to-do people,” according to Elliot. Many of the community’s elite, such as E.L. Barber and James Ashdown, built their homes in Point Douglas.

Elliott wrote that new arrivals to Winnipeg from outside Canada were processed at the Dominion Immigration Sheds at The Forks .

The Manitoban complained that little had been done to help prepare the immigration sheds for the accommodation of newcomers. “The kitchens have no stoves,” the newspaper reported on May 3, 1973, “and the chimneys as they are presently arranged are perfectly useless for cooking or anything else, unless something in the way of a useable fireplace is provided. The whole building is dirty, unswept, and unfit for human habitation. Who is responsible for such a state of things, and why is not something done at once to put the place into better order.”

Over the years of its existence, the sheds continued to receive immigrants despite the numerous complaints found in newspapers about the deteriorating conditions within the two buildings.

From May 1 to October 1, 1874, a total of 2,693 immigrants were accommodated at the sheds, including 1,368 Mennonites.

Elliott, who drove a buggy throughout Winnipeg to compile information for his  pamphlet, said the city possessed 903 buildings of all sorts, which he broke down to 408 dwellings, 17 hotels, seven saloons, 28 boarding houses, 27 manufacturing plants and 421 miscellaneous structures.

“Brick sidewalks are, of course, unknown, but on Main Street and one or two other streets substantial sidewalks composed of pine planking have been laid down, and it affords an excellent footing in wet or muddy weather. Crossings composed of oak also laid across the streets are important points,” added Elliott.

New arrivals in Winnipeg were quick to comment disparagingly about the prairie gumbo that typified the city’s streets, making them virtually impassable after a spring runoff or downpour.

The dismal conditions of Winnipeg’s streets partially contributed to the movement toward incorporation as a city. Those favouring incorporation felt that becoming a city would allow the implementation of property taxes to improve roads and sidewalks and build sewers. Among the first expenditures approved by the first city council was $8,246 for sidewalks, $3,204 for roads and $641 for bridges.

George Babington Elliott wrote in his promotional pamphlet, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It was in 1860, that it was amusing to see farms and gardens within the city limits. While it may have “amused” his Eastern Canadian sensibilities, a city on the frontier had a great need for both farms and market gardens to supply the local population with produce, meat and dairy products. Steamboats and barges did bring in pork and beef from Minnesota, among more exotic items such as oysters and oranges, but this was limited to the short navigation season when the Red River was free from ice. As a result, Winnipeg’s downtown  market area was filled with the bounty produced from the land within or just beyond the city’s borders.

The most renowned of the market gardeners was Thomas Longbottom, who cultivated nearly 10 acres of land on the east side of the Red River, opposite the Redwood Brewery (Hermchemer and Batkin brewery, established in 1874, and bought by E.L. Drewry in 1877) at the corner of Main and Redwood.

According to the July 29, 1876, Manitoba Free Press, Longbottom grew “some magnificent specimens of nearly every variety of vegetables ... The gardens are visited by a large number of persons ... and we don’t know of a place where they can see better specimens of what the country can produce than at Mr. L’s.”

On the Road to Market, a photograph of market gardener Longbottom bringing a cartload of vegetables to the city market was prominently displayed in Winnipeg’s majorbuildings and was sent “for immigration purposes” outside the province, “as the profuse display of potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, parsnips, onions, celery, cabbages, parsley, etc., etc., surmounted by a number of mammoth cauliflowers, is only such as could be produced in Manitoba.”

Elliott also commented on the distinct lack of trees in the city, which would surprise visitors to today’s Winnipeg. But photographs from the era primarily show stark, bald prairie stretching from horizon to horizon. A city dominated by a living canopy of tens of thousands of trees was the result of later plantings by individuals and the local government.

Whatever others may have felt about the frontier city, its residents were full of optimism.

According to the January 17, 1874, Free Press, the only thing lacking was “capital to assist in building up our city.” The newspaper called for an influx of “ending money for building purposes” — that is, mortgages — from outside sources.

“There are many here who own lots, but are unable to erect houses on them for want of means and we have no doubt that a ‘Building Society,’ or branch office of such an institution would do a good and satisfactory business in Winnipeg.”

A building society is a financial institution owned by its members as a mutual organization. Building societies of the era offered financial services, especially mortgage lending. Since these institutions were found in the United Kingdom and the city contained numerous immigrants from Britain, many Winnipeggers were quite familiar with the operations of building societies. But the newspaper was deluded into believing building societies could be transplanted to Canada. Although common in Britain, Australia and Ireland, they never caught on in Canada. Credit unions (first founded in Québec on January 23, 1901, by Alphonse Desjardins with a 10-cent deposit) eventually became the preferred co-operative financial institution in Canada.


(Next week: part 3)