Victoria Park — Rupert Street resident complained that few improvements were being made by city to the public gathering place

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

The property that would later contain Victoria Park was willed to William Ross’ wife, Jemima, as long as she remained a widow, but she remarried. Her new husband was William Coldwell, who, along with William Buckingham, founded the Red River Settlement’s first paper, the Nor’Wester.

James Ross, a son of Alexander Ross, who had received the original 100-acre land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company that was called Colony Gardens, came to Red River to take over the Ross family’s affairs. He was a scholar, lawyer, sheriff and postmaster of Assiniboia, and a journalist. For a time, he was a partner with Coldwell and Buckingham in the Nor’Wester.

He died in 1871.

It seems that Jemima had earlier come to an agreement with the Ross children, which more or less left Colony Gardens under her control. Over the years, parts of the original Red River Settlement long lot were parcelled off and either sold or rented by agreement between Jemima Coldwell and the Ross children (140 Meade Street: William Ross House, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee).

The origin of Victoria Park and other public spaces was “the growth of a ‘park movement’ in Winnipeg after 1892,” which “was even then not so much a response to the haphazard development of the city or even its unfinished appearance, as a reaction to the prospect that all the land in the city would soon be occupied” (Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914).

During this period, city planning was an afterthought that was usually sacrificed to the interests of commercial development, the result of Winnipeg’s governance by a business elite. A city planning movement did not materialize in earnest until the 1910s.

A delegation headed by Alderman George Carruthers (he was called by local newspapers of this period, the “father of our public parks”) approached the provincial government with a draft proposal for a public parks act and succeeded in having the Public Parks Act for Manitoba passed in April 1892.

This act provided for “the establishment and maintenance of public parks" and was based on similar bills which existed in other Canadian provinces and in the United States. It stipulated, subject to approval by a majority vote of the ratepayers, that an annual tax levy, not to exceed one-half mill on the dollar upon the assessed value of all rateable real and personal property” could be levied by city council. It also provided for an appointed board to manage and control the parks (Artibise).

Acting on a section in the act that stipulated that council had to submit a bylaw to the voters upon being petitioned to do so by 300 ratepayers, wrote Artibise, a petition with more than the required number of signatures was presented in May 1892. Council then proceeded to draw up a bylaw “providing for the adoption of the Public Parks Act by the city,” and during the municipal elections in December of 1892, the necessary money referendum was passed by a decisive majority of 1,129 to 185.

A parks board was appointed in January 1893. This first board included such prominent Winnipeggers as ex-alderman E. L. Drewry, ex-mayor A. Macdonald, aldermen G. H. West and Thomas Gilroy, and Mayor T. W. Taylor.

The board set about the task of establishing “small urban parks, ornamental squares, or breathing spaces, throughout the city.” During the next few years, no less than eight parks were established at a cost of $74,000.

At the time, some criticism was being levelled at the city, since it had only created two small parks in the downtown area — Victoria and Central parks — and was more concerned with commercial development. If a larger central park was established, critics felt it would more than compensate for its cost in the enjoyment it would provide citizens.

In the annual Report of the City Engineer, it was argued that the city’s 32,000 people needed a civic park system. Drawing upon the example of an article by O.M. Loring, the Minneapolis-based  president of the parks commission, Winnipeg’s engineer, Henry Norlande Ruttan, further claimed that: “The policy in all civilized countries (is) to reserve large areas of land where the citizens of all classes can escape from the noise and smoke of the crowded streets for pure air and recreation ... (Recently) the people of this country began to realize the fact that the cities were becoming solid masses of masonry (sic), and the single houses surrounded by open grounds and gardens were disappearing and were being replaced by solid blocks of brick and stone, and that no provisions were being made for lungs for the cities” (Manitoba Free Press,  March 4, 1892).

Ruttan mentioned Battery Park and Central Park in New York and the Common in Philadelphia as providing a blueprint for future Winnipeg urban parks.

“What strikes a visitor to Winnipeg is its bare and bleak appearance. An impression is often carried away ... that it is impossible to successfully grow trees here. This impression is somewhat erroneous (today, Winnipeg is noted for its thousands of trees) ... our forests abound in oak, elm. birch, maple, mountain ash and other desirable shade trees.”

The Tribune on October 26, 1893, reported that Mr. Ross (no first name was provided, but he was obviously a descendent of Alexander Ross) was willing to sell to the city’s park commission, “the old Victoria Park property which he said contained twelve lots or a little less than two acres.”

Ross first wanted $16,000 for the 72,700-square-foot property, but lowered his asking price to $12,500.

“The commission noted that the property was assessed for $10,000 and thought Mr. Ross should come nearer this figure.”

A year later, there had been little headway realized in creating Victoria Park (the name Colony Gardens was replaced in order to honour Queen Victoria). In the meantime, some local residents were getting anxious for the city to acquire the park and develop it for public use.

A letter to the Manitoba Free Press, published on June 5, 1894, from a “Rupert Street Resident (the park was at the foot of the street),” complained that the city had decided months earlier to purchase the property and it should have already been made ready for public use. “Instead of this being done, Victoria park has so far been entirely neglected, and the public debarred from its use, and as prominent boot and shoe man is in the habit of pasteuring his horse in it nightly, I am forced to the conclusion that our city fathers must have rented it as a pasture with which to raise funds to beautify other parks.”

In light of the complaint, a Free Press reporter inquired at city hall about the fate of the park, and discovered that it had been purchased, but the deeds transferring the property had yet to be passed along by the city solicitors.

“As soon as the park commissioners get possession of the property the work of improvement will be began” the reporter wrote in a June 7, 1894, article.

It was expected that possession of the land would take another two weeks.

On June 22, the Tribune reported that the cheques for the purchase of

Victoria Park had been signed by Mayor Thomas William Taylor, and it was decided to open the new park to the public as soon as possible.

“Victoria park (or gardens) was made merry Friday night with happy groups of young folks rumping on the green, and rejoicing at the removal of the unsightly fence formerly surrounding this pretty spot,” reported the July 2, Manitoba Free Press. “It is to be hoped that plenty of room will be left for the children to play in this park. Too many flower beds will detract from its usefulness as a breathing ground for Young Winnipeg.”

Five days later, the Tribune reported that “the park is already becoming a place of resort on hot afternoons.”

The next year, the Tribune on May 8 was reporting a lack of progression in the conversion of Victoria Park into a public convenience. As one of the city’s oldest parks, the newspaper stated it “should have reached some better stage of development than at present.”

By 1897, improvements to the park had been made. According to the August 18, 1897, Free Press, Victoria Park was popular among little children and their nurses, who spent summer afternoons “on the grass in the shade of the trees, surrounded by flower beds.”

An August 29, 1903, Free Press article entitled, The Beautiful Parks of Winnipeg, stated Victoria Park was just 12⁄3rds acres in size and had an assessed value of $10,000. Improvements involving trees and shrubs cost the parks board a little over $4,000, while fencing, walks and sod cost $2,613.

A bandstand was later added to the park for summertime entertainment.

“Standing room in beautiful Victoria Park was at a premium last evening while bandmaster Johnson and his popular musicians again dispersed sweet music of the music-loving citizens of the city” (Free Press, August 20, 1902).

(Next week: part 3)

Part 1