Selkirk loses railway bridge battle

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

On September 24, 1879, Fleming wrote to Sir Charles Tupper, the minister of railways and canals, that a crossing at Winnipeg would be folly since the city was prone to annual flooding. He called to the minister’s attention the major floods at Winnipeg in both 1826 and 1852. During these floods, the location of the proposed crossing at Selkirk remained high and dry, he said.

“... I am not at present prepared to advise that the Government should assume the responsibility of complying with the request of the City Council of Winnipeg (to build the bridge in that city),” wrote Fleming.

Winnipeg’s city council had held a mass meeting in February 1877 during which the citizens passed a resolution approving a cash subsidy of $200,000 to any company willing to build a railway bridge.

This subsidy was upped when local businessman James Ashdown proposed a bonus of $300,000 toward the construction of the bridge. In 1879, city council by resolution accepted this proposal.

Once this resolution was passed, a delegation was sent to Ottawa for discussions with Tupper. They received a promise from Tupper that, if the bridge was built by the city, the government would construct a branch line in a northwesterly direction from Winnipeg to intercept the main line at Selkirk.

It wasn’t exactly what the Winnipeg delegates wanted, but city council did pass a bylaw to finance construction of the bridge, taking into consideration the terms from Ottawa.

Meanwhile, C.J. Brydges, the land commissioner of the HBC, sent to Ottawa testimony from five long-standing residents of the Company knowledgeable about the Red River. These HBC employees assured Tupper that the Red River at Winnipeg had behaved well in recent years and had not flooded.

The HBC’s position was far from altruistic. It owned approximately 1,750 acres of land in the city and would benefit significantly from a railway bridge. This point was made by Fleming to Tupper.

In the House of Commons, the Liberals and Conservatives debated the crossing during a number of sessions. During one debate in 1880, Mackenzie said his administration earlier rejected the Winnipeg railway bridge because it was not determined “to expend the money of the great mass of people in the east simply to secure a foolish engagement with a few people in the west.”

On the other hand, the new Macdonald administration looked upon the Winnipeg location more favourably.

“The terms of the agreement with Winnipeg) to use that bridge for the purpose of the Canadian Pacific Railway will enable us to postpone for some time, not indefinitely, the expenditure that will be involved in building a bridge on the Canadian Pacific at Selkirk, or at whatever point may be considered best,” Tupper said in the House.

“The stone required for the construction of a bridge at Winnipeg is to be found on the land owned by the Government at this point, and therefore a great expense would be saved in finding the material for the construction of the bridge on the spot,” added Tupper, while not actually committing the federal government to the new crossing location. 

By this time, Fleming was rapidly losing favour in the eyes of the Macdonald government — a good sign for Winnipeg.

On the subject of Fleming, Tupper told the House that if they had accepted his advice, “... I am afraid we would not make rapid progress with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.”

By February 1880, Fleming knew he was being eased out and resigned his position as chief engineer on May 22, 1880. 

It was also at this time that the CPR executives George Stephen and Richard Angus of Montreal and James J. Hill of St. Paul met in St. Paul to discuss changing the route from the one laid out by Fleming to one further to the south. They relied upon a report by botanist John Macoun that said the southerly route promised more arable land, which he called the “garden of the whole country.” This was contrary to the earlier findings of John Pallister and Henry Youle Hind, who estimated significantly fewer acres of arable land.

Adopting this route also meant abandoning 10 years of survey under the direction of Fleming. Yet, that was exactly what happened. 

Hill’s philosophy was that a railway through virgin territory creates its own business. As the railway progressed across the prairies and beyond it would create its own communities — which is what happened when the CPR eventually established the communities of Brandon, Regina and Calgary. The more northerly route, following the old Carleton Trail to Edmonton, already had established communities, and this didn’t fit Hill’s philosophy.

In addition, the CPR would be able to claim millions of acres of virgin land through its government grant ($25 million in cash and 25-million acres by the original agreement and a 20-year monopoly) that it could sell for a profit to potential settlers.

The CPR executives convinced the Macdonald government of the wisdom of their decision and the new route was passed in Parliament.

A new route also meant that a precedent had been made for other changes, such as the bridge crossing the Red River at Winnipeg.

In June 1881, the CPR formally offered to build its workshops in Winnipeg and to build its railway through the city, provided a $200,000 bonus, land for a station and an exemption from civic taxation into perpetuity was forthcoming.

During a hastily called meeting of  local ratepayers, the CPR conditions were approved 130 to 1 in July 1881. City council followed this vote with a bylaw containing the conditions.

Another CPR representative told  Selkirk residents that it would build the originally planned line from Selkirk to Stonewall if the town provided a $125,000 bonus for a bridge across the Red River. If this wasn’t done, he said, the CPR would straighten out the line from Whitemouth to Winnipeg, leaving Selkirk off the main line. 

The money could not be raised and the federal government approved the change in direction to Winnipeg. The benefits nature had bestowed upon Selkirk fell before the economic clout of Winnipeg and the politics of the day.

“For many years Selkirk has been struggling against fate,” wrote the editor of the Selkirk Herald on January 18, 1884. “From the very first the town met with the determined opposition of those who, being interested in Winnipeg property, and who knowing well the many advantages in situation etc. that Selkirk possessed over the metropolis, felt that their only hope was in crushing out the growing town to the north. They were the stronger in financial and political influence ...”

Money was indeed a great motivator for the change, especially in the case of the HBC, which sold virtually all the land it owned in Winnipeg during the boom of 1881-82, caused by the coming of the railway, at a reported $2 million profit.

The Marquis of Lorne, the acting governor-general of Canada, and his wife were in town on August 1, 1881 to lay the cornerstone of the new bridge — one side at the northern tip of Higgins Avenue, the other at the southern tip of Stadacona Street. In honour of the Royal visit, the bridge  was to be named after the Marquis’ wife, Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria. 

Reporting on the opening of the Louise Bridge, the Manitoba Free Press said it was an “incarnal orgy ... a great, hilarious, illimitable ... guzzle.”

Small lads were said to have tilted back glass after glass of free beer and champagne provided by the city for the occasion “with the easy nonchalance of veterans.” But, when the supply was cut off, attendees “acted generally more like wild beasts than rational creatures.”

Despite the riot, the bridge ensured Winnipeg would for decades be recognized as the “Chicago of the North.”  Meanwhile, Selkirk had to settle for a more modest existence. 

The first Louise Bridge was completed on May 26, 1881. In 1904, the Louise Bridge was unable to bear the weight of the heavier trains of the day so a new railway bridge was built at a crossing point at the eastern tip of Point Douglas. The old Louise Bridge was replaced in 1909 by a traffic bridge which is still in use today.