Winnipeg’s first post offices — mail service evolved with advancements in transportation

by Bruce Cherney

For decades, residents of the Red River Settlement lived upon the bald prairie in virtual isolation, deprived of regular contact with the outside world. During the initial years of the community established by Lord Selkirk, news from beyond its borders was limited to the infrequent exchange of information with travellers or the twice-yearly mail service provided by the Hudson’s Bay Company “express.” 

It was an isolation which led to “blissful ignorance of all that transpired abroad until about eight months after actual occurrence,” according to the Nor’Wester of January 28, 1860.

The use of the term “express” to describe the HBC mail service is contrary to today’s same-day delivery within cities or overnight parcel post to distant communities. By no stretch of the imagination was the HBC “express” a yesteryear version of today’s Canada Post or any of the private express couriers. As the company’s slogan says, customers now using FedEx expect service that insures “When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight,” but for residents using the HBC “express,” it was more like sending mail via the proverbial  “slow boat to China.”

Outgoing mail left the settlement in August for York Factory and Hudson Bay, while December mail left for Fort William and Eastern Canada. Incoming mail arrived by “Governor’s canoe” from Sault Ste. Marie in June and in October by Company boats from York Factory.

For the first 40 years, “our easy-going and self-satisfied gentry received their yearly files of newspapers about a twelvemonth after the date of the last publication, and read them with avidity, patiently wading through the whole in a manner which did no violence to chronology,” commented the Nor’Wester, the settlement’s first and only newspaper at the time. “Wars were undertaken and completed — protocoling was at an end and peace signed, long before we could hear that a musket had been shouldered or a cannon fired.”

The Red River Settlement’s thirst for letters from abroad and foreign newspapers was gradually being slaked as the United States postal department expanded its service to 49th Parallel border communities. By May 1850, a post office was operating out of Pembina, “thereby relieving us of a great burden, as we had thenceforth only to send our mails to that post,” reported the Nor’Wester. The Nor’Wester mentions that the Pembina Post Office was organized in 1853, but the official list of Minnesota Territory post offices includes Pembina by 1850.

The advent of the post office in Pembina and the promise of more frequent postal service, contributed to the establishment of Red River’s own first post office. On February 28, 1855, the Council of Assiniboia, the HBC governing body for Red River, appointed William Ross to be the settlement’s first postmaster at a salary of £5 a year. Ross set up Northwest British North America’s first post office in his log home along the Red River at the foot of what is today Market Avenue. A back bedroom of Ross’ home was converted into the post office. At the time, the Ross home, built for £252, was called “the prettiest in Red River.”

Mail posted at Ross’ home bore the penned inscription, “Red River B.N.A.” (British North America). Any mail posted at Ross’ home was collected by Roger Goulet, who lived at Scratching River (now Morris), and taken by him to Pembina in Dakota Territory.

During this era, a monthly mail service had been created between Pembina and Red River. Mail sent to Pembina on the U.S. side of the border was carried by horseback or dogsled and marked “Paid 10” and then forwarded to its final destination. A letter from Pembina to Red River or vice versa was posted for one cent, while letters for destinations in the Province of Canada (now Quebec and Ontario) cost 10 cents apiece.

The Nor’Wester said the flow of letters and papers to Red River amounted to just a few dozen in 1853-54. In 1855, the monthly average was 150 papers and 40 letters arriving in Red River and 90 letters going out. In 1856, 280 papers and 120 letters arrived and 200 letters went out. In 1857, the number of letters had increased to 150 and the quantity of papers 360 going out.

“The year 1858 witnessed a new feature in the postal arrangements of the country,” according to the Nor’Wester. “In that year, the Canadian Government (the government of British North America in Eastern Canada) authorised the conveyance of mails to and from the Settlement, via Fort William. Since that time, therefore, and up to the beginning of the present winter we have had two lines of mail communication — one through America and one through British territory. The former has hitherto on the whole given great satisfaction, and we doubt not the latter will also give satisfaction, after some experience of the route and its requirements.”

By June 1859, the two lines brought in 713 papers and 400 letters, “besides a number of magazines and reviews.”

A single delivery on January 19, 1860, brought in the greatest number of pieces of mail, which included 210 letters and 880 newspapers.

The outgoing mail on January 28, 1860, included 350 letters and “a large number of newspapers” — the first instance of Nor’Wester newspapers being sent abroad. The first issue of the community’s first newspaper, established by William Coldwell and William Buckingham, was published on December 28, 1859.

J.C. Burbank of J.C. Burbank & Co., which had the contract to convey mail to Red River from the U.S., wrote on July 17, 1860, that the U.S. postal department had extended its mail route from Fort Abercombie to Georgetown to weekly service, and from Georgetown to Pembina to tri-monthly service during the navigation season on the Red River.

“If the authorities in your settlement will arrange with us for the carriage of mails between Pembina and Fort Garry, you can receive your mail matter from St. Paul (Minnesota), during navigation in seven days, tri-monthly; and in winter, 14 days, semi-monthly. Next season, we expect the service will be increased to weekly.”

In the summer of 1859, Burbank & Co. of St. Paul used Concord post coaches to convey regular mail to forts Abercombie and Breckenridge which were located near the head of steamboat navigation on the Red River of the North in Minnesota.

On June 10, 1859, to the delight of Red River Settlement residents and the fear of a few head of cattle grazing along the bank of the river, the smoke-belching Anson Northup steamed into the community. The American Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack were hoisted and cannons fired to salute the arrival of the very first steamboat to reach Red River.

Burbank & Co. quickly realized the potential  of steam and bought the Anson Northup for $8,000 from the man after whom the steamboat was named; rechristening the vessel the Pioneer. Burbank promised Red River residents the steamer would make the round trip to Georgetown in 10 days, leaving Fort Garry every 10th day.

“Nothing will prevent her running a good part of the distance by night,” Burbank told the Nor’Wester, “and it is believed that she will be able to go up in four days and return in three — leaving three days for shipping and unloading freight.

“He has caused all the rivers between Georgetown and St. Paul to be bridged, and as close connection will be made with the boat by fast four-horse coaches, he calculates upon being able to set down passengers in less than nine days after leaving Fort Garry,” according to the Nor’Wester. “His complement of 100 wagons, in brigades of 25 each, are also running with freight from St. Paul to Georgetown.”

The steamer Pioneer had a short career, sinking in 1861 near Selkirk, but it was the first of many ships to ply the river and increase mail delivery to Fort Garry.

Yet, mail service was occasionally delayed as was the case in August 1860 when the Georgetown, also owned by Burbank & Co., was detained on the south side of the Manitoba-U.S. border. It was reported to be the first failure of the steamer to make its regular run to Fort Garry. The result was no mail for the settlement from the U.S. or Eastern Canada for over a month, “but for the private packet of papers brought by the last boat.” 

The Nor’Wester reported on August 28, 1860, that the courier returned from Pembina bearing a message from the postmaster that no mail had reached the American community. “It is a great disappointment that, at the very time we were promised three mails per month, we can scarcely get one in two months.”

It was reported that the Burbank’s mail team, while camped at Breckenridge on the Red River, “was attacked by Indians,” although no one was actually injured. At the time, the Sioux on the American side of the border were increasing their hostilities against the U.S. government and against settler encroachment onto land they claimed as their own.

Because of the Sioux presence in the area, the previous route along the Crow Wing Trail where the attack had taken place was deemed too dangerous and was discontinued. All future mail was to be brought via stage between St. Cloud and Georgetown and then by mail “gig” to Pembina.

When steamers were not navigating the Red, Burbank arranged for a courier from Fort Garry to pick up the mail at Pembina “every alternate Tuesday.” Goulet was scheduled to arrive at Pembina in time for the mail on Tuesday and delivered the outgoing mail forwarded from Pembina on Sunday.

“Until the snow comes, it will be brought with horse,” the Nor’Wester reported on October 15, 1860. “Afterwards dogs will be employed between Fort Garry and Georgetown, and horses between Georgetown and St. Paul.”

Goulet received a salary of 25 shillings a trip, according to the book Red River, published in 1871 and written by fur trader and historian Joseph James Hargrave (1841-1894).

The fact that the mail bags would not be opened until arriving in Pembina was a cause for great relief among the Red River residents. Apparently, the mail was too great a temptation for postmasters along the route in the U.S. Magazines and newspapers destined for Red River were regularly seized by “literary country postmasters ... Scarcely two-thirds of the mail-matter regularly forwarded to and sent from this Settlement via the United States, has hitherto reached its destination.”

It was reported that by using the new route, a London newspaper reached the settlement in 32 days, while six weeks was the average for postal communication between England and Red River.

The advances in mail delivery came after Winnipeg’s first postmaster, William Ross, died on May 6, 1856, at age 27. 

In 1862, new postmaster James Ross — the brother of William Ross — said the postal service kept him constantly at home. 

“For two or three days before the mail arrives and for two or three after it comes in, I must absolutely be at home to receive and give out mail matter,” he wrote in a letter to the Council of Assiniboia dated May 17, 1862. “I have been obliged to erect a Postoffice Building at an outlay of 30 pounds (his salary was just £10 a year). A  Postoffice is always built at the public expense or a building is rented for the purpose. Here it is done at my own expense.” 

Ross complained that he was constantly forced to keep open accounts because many poor people could not immediately pay for their mail, resulting in additional bookkeeping which was a “necessary evil. The worst feature of this case is that I often lose the postage altogether.”

He asked for a higher salary, citing that William Drever, who owned a general goods store near the corner of Portage and Main, had earlier resigned as postmaster because the HBC would not increase his salary of £6 per year.

Drever succeeded William Ross as postmaster. He was followed by Nathaniel Logan who held the position for a year and was followed by James Stewart. After the resignation of Stewart in July 1859, James Ross became the community’s fifth postmaster.

Being the postmaster for Red River meant constant scrutiny from the HBC to ensure compliance with the Company’s policies. 

For publicly criticizing how the HBC-appointed Council of Assiniboia governed the settlement, James Ross earned the wrath of Assiniboia Governor William McTavish. On November 25, 1862, McTavish told the Council of Assiniboia that Ross, who was also sheriff of Red River, had thwarted “the Council in the measures they had thought proper for the public peace, and common safety, by calling upon the public to look upon their acts with suspicion, and representing to the Home Government that there was no Justice to be obtained between man and man in this Settlement ...” 

At the urging of McTavish, the council removed Ross from all his offices, including sheriff and postmaster. Appointed as postmaster in his place was A.G.B. (Andrew Graham Ballenden) Bannatyne, who with Alexander Begg ran the most successful private retail and wholesale business in Red River. The post office was run out of the Bannatyne and Begg store on the east side of Main Street where it joined with Post Office Road (now Lombard).

The Council of Assiniboia reported on January 4, 1866, that Henry McKenny, the man who built a store which established the corner of Portage and Main as the centre of Winnipeg, had complained that Bannatyne allowed unauthorized people access to the mail.

An investigation showed that this may have occasionally been the case, but the council “saw no ground for imputing to him improper motive in the matter.” Despite the dismissal of the allegations, the council ordered that Bannatyne “be instructed to ... make it a rule, that, in receiving, as well as in the distributing of the Mails, none but himself or some trust-worthy person in his employment, be permitted to handle the letters and papers.”

Bannatyne retained his position as postmaster. On December 17, 1868, he was authorized to make arrangements with the Nor-Wester Express Stage to carry the mail to Portage. Mail service was also expanded to St. Norbert by the Council of Assiniboia, which authorized £3 be paid to the Bishop of St. Boniface to establish a post office in the home of Joseph Amlin. 

Bannatyne must have been performing his duties to the satisfaction of the Council of Assiniboia as his salary had risen from a modest £10 when he was first appointed to £50 by June 1, 1869.

A few months later, the Red River Resistance began and Louis Riel took over the post office in the settlement. He controlled the post office from Christmas Day 1869 to August 24, 1870, the day troops under the command of Col. Garnet Wolseley arrived in Winnipeg from Eastern Canada. As the troops entered the settlement, Riel fled Upper Fort Garry, crossing the Red to St. Boniface. 

This was a time of transition for mail service in the newly-created province. From August 1870 to July 1871, mail service was under the jurisdiction of the Manitoba government until arrangements were made for the Dominion government to take over. Under the Canadian Constitution (British North America Act of 1867), postal service is a federal responsibility. 

Inspector John Dewé of the Dominion  Post Office department in Winnipeg submitted a report to Postmaster General A. Campbell informing the Canadian government minister that long-serving Roger Goulet was still the twice-weekly mail courier from Pembina to Winnipeg. His fee was increased from just over £1 per trip to $15 on October 1, 1870, and then to $20 per trip on December 12, 1870.

Mail was carried from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie at $7.50 per trip and $1.55 per trip to  St. Andrews. 

The Manitoban reported on January 21, 1871, that after February 1, three mail runs were to be made each week between Winnipeg and Pembina. 

A year later, the Liberal complained that mail service was far from satisfactory. The newspaper said there were so many public holidays that people could not send or receive their mail in a timely fashion.

“At other times the stage arrives some days behind time, and as the bags are made up and closed the evening previous, when people call with letters on important business they are told the mail bags are closed, and that they must lie over until next mail. Now this is a great grievance to business men, who wish to send letters or drafts to the lower provinces. At the present time the way mails are conducted no one knows when they can post a letter to catch out-going mail.”

Manitoba’s first Lieutenant-governor, Adams Archibald, also had concerns about mail service. He suspected the U.S. postmaster at Pembina continually tampered with the mail from Manitoba.

He said the frontier post at Pembina was “the haunt of a number of disorderly persons, including some of those that were in arms here last winter (1869-70). On the arrival of the mails coming either way, the office is crowded with these people and the letters are open to their inspection.”

Archibald said the postmaster took an active part in the plot to have the mail opened by former — though unnamed — participants in the Red River Resistance.

Archibald reported another incident to Ottawa, involving the election writs dispatched to Manitoba for the province’s first federal election. It was alleged the writs were in a mail bag found by a “St. Paul gentleman” lying in the snow on the American side of the border. The “gentleman” left the abandoned mail in the snow, told Archibald its location and the lieutenant-governor sent a special messenger to retrieve the missing bag.

Negotiations between the postmasters general of Canada and the U.S. resulted in “secured” and “closed” mail delivery between Pembina and Winnipeg.

But the main concern of Winnipeg residents was that the federal government would move its post office to a site near Upper Fort Garry. At the time, Winnipeggers — mostly newcomers originally from Ontario — believed they were in a battle with the Hudson’s Bay Company to decide the fate of their community. By 1872, Winnipeggers were holding mass meetings calling for the incorporation of their sparsely-populated community as a city. They reasoned that incorporation could be used as a tool to thwart the alleged plans of the HBC to make its fort and 500 acres of land it owned the commercial centre of the city.

Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey wrote in their book, Ten years in Winnipeg, that rumours had spread of an alleged collusion between the Dominion government to relocate the post office. The rumours were so rampant that an “indignation meeting” was called in 1872 which resulted in a petition being sent to Ottawa protesting the alleged move.

The Liberal on May 4, 1872, reported that it was Bannatyne who had received a letter informing him that the “site decided upon last fall (in Winnipeg) had been rejected, and that it was the intention of the government to have the post office moved to a site near the Fort. The removal, he understood, was suggested by a resident of the province, whose name he was not at liberty to give.”

Magnus Brown, a major landowner in Winnipeg, was not afraid to name names and claimed Thomas Howard, the Manitoba minister of public works, had told him the intention of the government was to move the post office closer to the fort.

The post office under threat of relocation had been housed since 1871 in a log building at the corner of Post Office Street and Rorie Street, a block east of Main Street, a location indicated in an 1874 map of Winnipeg drawn by John D. Parr for the Manitoba government. Post Office Street became an important commercial district in Winnipeg, since a steamboat landing for unloading goods destined for local merchants was at the foot of the street where it met the Red River.

One of the innovations reported by postmaster Bannatyne was “boxes arranged ... for the use of merchants and others.” Despite his desire to improve postal service, Bannatyne was becoming increasingly interested in local politics and decided to resign his post office position in 1874 to pursue a career in politics. He was succeeded as postmaster by John McDougall.

Many believed in the rumoured new site for the post office because HBC land had been reserved by the federal government “sufficient for their own use, on which to erect public buildings,” according to a report in the Manitoban on May 4, 1872. “It was natural to suppose the government would put up buildings on their own land; and that being the case no influence of the Company or anyone else outside the government was required to bring the public buildings to the reserve.”

The petition told the Canadian government the relocation would seriously injure and inconvenience the inhabitants of Winnipeg, Point Douglas and St. John. The Liberal said the move would cause businessmen in Winnipeg to travel a mile or more on cold winter days and on the muddy streets of the spring and fall for the mail.

The government’s reply to the petition was a call for tenders for the construction of a custom house, land office and post office in Winnipeg, which “caused much rejoicing amongst the towns-people, only they didn’t want them on the H.B.Co.’s reserve.” Yet, the joy was short lived as it would be four more years before the matter was finally resolved.

Another mass “indignation” meeting was held on May 14, 1874, and five days later the Winnipeg Board of Trade passed a resolution regretting that Ottawa had not chosen a more central site for the post office. The board of trade was reacting to information provided by government sources in Winnipeg when it issued its “regrets” to Ottawa. One such source was the government architect, who allegedly told city council of Ottawa’s post office plans for the HBC reserve.

A special meeting of city council resulted in a resolution being passed requesting the proposed post office be “not further south than the present one, which is as near as may be in the centre of the city, both geographically and as regards to population; and this Council having information through the government architect that he has been instructed to proceed with the erection of the said building on a lot still further south than the formerly proposed, do empathetically protest against its being erected thereon, being far south of the centre of the city.”

City council and the board of trade sent a May 19 telegram to Alexander Mackenzie, the federal minister of public works, protesting the rumoured move of the post office to the HBC reserve. Apparently, the deciding factor in Ottawa’s decision to build in the centre of Winnipeg only came when Bannatyne donated land as a “free gift to the Crown.” The only provision was that the land would revert to the Bannatyne estate if it wasn’t used for a post office.

“Wednesday, after many vexatious days, the city post office was established in the fine new white brick building on Main Street,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on August 5, 1876. “The dimensions of the building are large, the different rooms spacious and the accommodation ample.”

The new building at Main and Owen (now McDermot) Street also housed the Dominion Government Savings Bank.

Meanwhile, the old post office at Main and Post Office was purchased by hotelier Louis Payment and converted into the Commercial Hotel.

The one item the federal government had not resolved to the satisfaction of local residents was the official name of the new post office. Even though Winnipeg had been incorporated as a city for three years, the federal government persisted in calling the community Fort Garry. 

When it was finally officially acknowledged as Winnipeg by the postal department in 1876, there was some confusion regarding the community’s spelling among people sending letters. Begg and Nursey wrote that some letters received at the post office in 1876 included the diverse spellings: Winipeg, Winnepeg, Winne-Peg, Winnapeg, Winipegg, Windipeg, Winnopeg, Winpegg, Winnipig and Pennywick.

The building at Main and Owen served as the headquarters for the Canadian postal service in Winnipeg until 1883 when it was decided to build a new and larger building on the same site. 

Until 1886 when the new Post Office and Customs Building was completed, the post office was temporarily relocated to York and Main.