Point of return

In 1812, Miles Macdonnell settled a site where the Selkirk Settlers would begin a new life in a new land. Thirty-six Scottish and Irish labourers travelled to the site from York Factory to begin preparing the site for the arrival of the settlers.

By the 1870s, Point Douglas was primarily a residential area with a smattering of stores, schools, some light industry and churches. By all accounts, it was an idyllic and virtually unspoiled location where the business elite of the burgeoning city of Winnipeg decided to build their mansions. Today, the same amenities would place Point Douglas in the higher-end of desirable neighbourhoods. In the 1870s and 1880s, real estate agents looked at the amenities offered and felt the neighbourhood’s potential was unlimited. 

Prominent tinsmith and retailer James Ashdown built a substantial brick house in fashionable Point Douglas for his family in 1878. At first, the three-storey home on Euclid Avenue overshadowed the other houses in the neighbourhood. “The chandeliers were famous: myriads of little dancing oil lights were reflected in the heavy cut of glass drops. Flowered carpet covered the floor from baseboard to baseboard,” an Ashdown family friend told Winnipeg Tribune writer Lillian Gibbons in 1939.

The unnamed old-timer said the 1878 home was the first in the city called a mansion, with its “elegant brick veneer, stone foundation, and without a doubt the handsomest private residence west of St. Paul (Minnesota).” What also set the home apart is that it had a bathroom and a furnace.

Ashdown, a former alderman and mayor of Winnipeg, didn’t build the first home in Point Douglas but he did build upon a trend started earlier when a comfortable home was built and then sold to E.L. Barber in 1862. Writing in 1935, Gibbon said the “Thistle Cottage” on Euclid Street, now an historic building — unfortunately it was gutted by fire in 2003 — was the oldest house in Winnipeg then continually occupied by the same family.

Barber, who owned a good portion of Point Douglas, later sold property which contributed to the residential nature of the neighbourhood.

During the 40th anniversary of its construction, one commentator said the first Ashdown home in Winnipeg “commanded a splendid view of the surrounding country.”

It was a pleasing countryside bordered on three sides by the Red River and Main Street to the west, still retaining much of its pastoral setting when Ashdown built his home, which attracted other prominent Winnipeggers to the neighbourhood such as Dr. John Christian Schultz and the Logan family, William Fonseca (an inductee into the WinnipegREALTORS® Citizens Hall of Fame), and Robert and Stewart Mulvey.

The coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 ended Point Douglas’ tenure as Winnipeg’s most prestigious neighbourhood. North Point Douglas became the location for Ogilvie Flour Mills, Vulcan Iron and Engineering Work and several saw mills. Winnipeg historian Alan Artibise wrote, “Although harmful and unsuitable to the residential districts around them, these industries, particularly those in the Point Douglas area, remained in their locations long after it was obvious that more suitable sites were available on the outskirts of the city.”

What the railway had done by thrusting its tracks right through the heart of the neighbourhood was to transform a thriving residential community into an industrial blight the scars of which are still visible today.

Two decades after Winnipeg was incorporated as a city, according to a Manitoba Historical Society article, Walking Tour of North Point Douglas (2008), the neighbourhood “had changed from an attractive residential area where its most important citizens resided, to an area bisected by train yards, with factories belching smoke and dirt, trains rumbling through the area, their smoke darkening the skies.”

With the trains came the immigrants, and Point Douglas was changed into a working-class neighbourhood. As a result, Point Douglas was designated as within the North End, where affordable housing — homes depreciated in value due to the presence of the railway and many were converted into boardinghouses — in proximity to jobs attracted the influx of new Canadians.

But there is a move afoot to again redevelop the neighbourhood and  reintroduce the residential component to Point Douglas. No, it doesn’t involve a new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — David Asper now has his sights on a location at the University of Manitoba.

Point Douglas still has some residential homes on pleasant streets in the northern portion of the neighbourhood — now inhabited by artists and others who remain committed to the neighbourhood — but they are relatively few in number among the industrial properties and vacant lots.

CentreVenture, the arm’s-length city agency overseeing downtown development, wants at minimium for South Point Douglas to be rezoned from an industrial area to a mixed-use neighbourhood. The plan is to locate homes, shops, restaurants and small businesses in the neighbourhood.

Once rezoned, CentreVenture would incorporate Point Douglas into its downtown revitalization plans which include the Exchange District and Waterfront Drive.

What was true over 100 years ago remains true today — there is tremendous potential in waterfront property which Point Douglas has on three of its sides. And Waterfront Drive, with its trendy condo projects, abuts Point Douglas. Adding Point Douglas to the concept of Waterfront Drive  seems like a good fit.

There are critics, who say CentreVenture should focus on and complete existing projects, but the private sector could take over much of the redevelopment once an overall plan is in place.

One can imagine residential developers enthusiastically looking forward to getting their hands on a chunk of Point Douglas land.

Perhaps the residential prestige from more than 100 years ago can be re-established in Point Douglas.