Crossing the Red — railway bridge battle

by Bruce Cherney

As a prelude to the proposed transcontinental railway making its crossing in Selkirk, a telegraph message was sent in May 1875 from George Black’s store, where the Selkirk Rolling Mills are now located.

“There was a post office called Mapleton two miles south of where we set up our telegraph office,” related Selkirk’s first telegrapher and the community’s first mayor, James Colcleugh,  in a 1911 article. “This was too far away for our convenience and we felt that a new post office was indispensible. Up to that time our quarters had been called ‘The Crossing’ because it was considered to be the logical spot for the CPR to cross the Red River and so, on to the Far West.

“Things went booming along, and although there was great rivalry and jealousy on the part of Winnipeg, we felt that as long as the Mackenzie Government stayed in power, with its Chief Engineer, Sir Sanford Fleming, our position was impregnable,” wrote Colcleugh.

In anticipation of the railway bridge, the new town of Selkirk was laid out. 

Just a year after its incorporation as a city in November 1873, concerned Winnipeggers, fearing their city would languish in obscurity when the railway crossed at Selkirk, began to petition the federal government for a railway crossing. A Citizen’s Railway Committee was established to head the movement for a Winnipeg bridge.

Initially, the Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government seemed to have listened to the cause of Winnipeggers and their powerful MPs in Ottawa, which included John Christian Schultz, a leading Manitoba businessman.

But for seven years, the bridge was virtually in limbo, the crossing becoming a political football as the people of Selkirk and Winnipeg fought to have it built in their respective communities.

“Under the government of Sir John A. Macdonald, $50,000 were voted for the building of a bridge across the Red River,” commented the editor of the Manitoba Gazette on February 22, 1879. “The same item was revoted for about three years — after Sir John resigned Mr. Mackenzie’s government still revoted the item. All at once the item disappeared from the estimates and for years past the subject of the bridge over the Red River has once in a while been whispered aloud by some Winnipeggers who had lost the fear of ridicule and laughter.”

The Gazette claimed that the coming of the Pembina Branch of the St. Paul and Pacific Railway (on November 11, 1878), which linked St. Boniface to St. Paul, Minneapolis, meant that Winnipeg was the logical location of the future CPR crossing.

The problem with the first regular railway service is that the northern terminus of the line was at St. Boniface, and thus the community across the river was effectively isolated without a bridge crossing. No permanent bridge had yet been built to link the eastern and western sides of the Red River. Similarly, there was no permanent crossing over the Assiniboine River.

“... hundreds of thousands of tons of freight and tens of thousands of passengers have to be brought over to the city from St. Boniface,” wrote the Gazette editor. “How? Our local government has given a monopoly of the ferry across Red River to a few of its creatures, and the rates charged by the Ferry Co. Goods would cost — very nearly — as much to cross Red River as they would cost per ton from Toronto to Duluth!”

The Gazette was a Conservative organ and blamed local MP Donald Smith for supposedly placing the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company above those of Winnipeg. According to the newspaper, Smith wanted the railway bridge to cross the Red River at the door of HBC property at Upper Fort Garry. 

The editor claimed Smith was sacrificing “Winnipeg to Fort Garry,” and delaying construction of any bridge over the Red in the process.

Smith, chief commissioner of the HBC, had gained the wrath of the Gazette for contributing to the downfall of the Macdonald government. In reality, Macdonald had caused his own government’s downfall through the Pacific Scandal. The scandal arose as revelations showed that Macdonald and his associates had accepted tens of thousands of dollars from American railway interests during the 1872 election campaign. 

Smith indicated in a House of Commons speech that he would be voting against the government in the wake of the scandal. Macdonald and his associates exploded in rage that a one-time friend should betray them. Macdonald had to resign which led to the 1873 election that brought the Mackenzie Liberals to power.

The Mackenzie government’s railway policy was significantly different than the Macdonald government’s — it favoured a pay-as-you-go system and linking rail and water transportation. Under such a policy, work proceeded slowly on the railway and money for projects such as the Red River crossing easily vanished when the estimates (budget) for the year were announced.

Schultz noted in the House of Commons in 1876 that the $50,000 allocation for a bridge had been reduced to $25,000 by the Mackenzie government and then dropped completely.

Schultz told the government that Winnipeg “had been badly used in the matter” and that the government was “not acting in good faith, nor in courtesy to Winnipeg.”

The Mackenzie government also followed to the letter the recommendations of chief engineer Fleming, which gave Selkirk residents reason for hope. But, this hope began to turn to despair as the McKenzie government continually put off building the bridge.

“Had the Mackenzie Government ever built the bridge before their defeat it would have insured the location and Selkirk would now have been a city of 100,000,” Colcleugh wrote in 1911.

When Macdonald returned to power, Winnipeggers’ expectations once again soared. It was an extraordinary return to power by Macdonald. He campaigned under the banner of the National Policy in 1878, which appealed to eastern businessmen and voters — the vast majority in Canada — because it would impose tariffs on imports and thus protect eastern industrial interests and jobs. It also appealed to voters because it called for building of the transcontinental railway with all due haste.

Yet, the fate of the Red River crossing was far from resolved. 

(Next week: Part 2: Railway politics shift to favour Winnipeg.)