First city hall and civic market — from the outset there were structural problems

by Bruce Cherney

Businesses closed for the day, people gathered by the hundreds and then in a grand display of civic pride proceeded down Main Street to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for Winnipeg’s first city hall and civic market.

Especially pleased was Winnipeg’s commercial elite, who viewed the laying of the cornerstone as a fitting monument to their vision of the city’s future. During the August 17, 1875, ceremony, the Manitoba Free Press reported, “Business men made holiday, each in his own fashion: some shot, some loafed, some drank, some didn’t do either, some did all.” 

Shortly after three o’clock,

parade marshall Capt. Scott, signaled the start of the procession which included the fire brigade with its steam fire engine Assiniboine and one hose, various local lodges such as the Loyalists, Orangemen, Templars, Oddfellows, North Stars, Freemasons and Mayor William Naussau Kennedy and councillors. They all marched to music provided by the city band.

“The procession was the largest ever seen in the North-West, and must have numbered in the neighbourhood of five hundred people,” reported the Free Press.

The procession moved from the south end of the city up Main Street to the newly-built Custom House (Main and York), went to First Street (Fort Street), then to Scott Street (Albert?) and returned to Main Street, ending up at the market site immediately west of the present city hall site where the Public Safety Building parking lot is now located.

The Free Press said there were 3,000 people gathered to witness the ceremony, an astounding number considering that the population of Winnipeg at the time was just 5,000. 

At the market site, a casket was laid in the cornerstone containing a Hudson’s Bay Company pound note issued in 1866; a $5 bill issued by the Merchants Bank of Canada and dated January 2, 1873; $1,000 Merchants Bank drafts from New York, Montreal and St. Paul;  $1 and 25-cent Dominion (Canadian government) notes issued in 1870, as well as Dominion silver coins valued at 50, 25, 10, and five cents; British silver coins; and Russian and Prussian coins brought by Mennonite settlers. 

The casket, which was “laid with Masonic honors,” as the plaque covering the cornerstone proclaimed, also contained photographs of the mayor and council, city officials, the fire brigade, Louis Riel and his cabinet in 1869-70, as well as numerous points of interest such as the courthouse. There were also copies of the city charter of incorporation and various civic and provincial laws.

Numerous newspapers reporting historical events were represented as was an 1874 map of Winnipeg by J.D. Parr.

One of the oddest items placed in the cornerstone was a bottle containing grasshoppers, referred to as “the scourge of Manitoba,” as well as heads of wheat from a field partially destroyed by grasshoppers in 1875. These items may now seem strange, but newspapers were then filled with reports of plagues of grasshoppers descending upon the province, wiping out the efforts of hard-working farmers and dealing a crippling blow to the province’s economy. Just one year later, the grasshopper menace abated for the first time in years, which allowed Manitoba to send its first grain shipment to Eastern Canada. It was the commencement of the reign of “King Wheat” on the prairies.

Winnipeggers considered the building of a new combined city hall, market and police station as a natural progression in the evolution of their city. They were convinced that Winnipeg was destined to become the civic and business capitol of Canada’s West.  

Until the new complex was completed, the city had been forced to rent accommodations. For example, the first council meeting on January 19, 1874, was held on the second floor of L.R. Bentley’s new building (he owned two in the area) near the corner of Portage and Main. The building also served as the mayor’s office and police court. It was rented by the city for $450 per year which was paid in monthly installments.

On October 5, 1874, Winnipeg property owners voted 178-6 in favour of a $250,000 civic spending bylaw (the right to vote was contingent upon a property qualification) which included $20,000 for the new complex — the final construction costs would far exceed this amount.

The original plan for the complex called for an 80-by-50-foot two-storey building with a basement. “The ground floor, with a ceiling 14-feet high, will contain a council chamber, civic offices, market, and police cells, with a sort of front wing, containing besides the entrance hall, two stairways to the upper floor. The second storey is to be a city hall, with groined ceiling, 28 feet to suffit of groin, with ante rooms, over the stairway, and stage ... An outlet is also to be provided here to a balcony over the entrance, which is to be

ornamented with the city arms supported by scroll work,” reported the Free Press on August 21, 1875.

On March 14, 1876, the new city hall, which contained all the features listed a year earlier, was officially opened. To mark the occasion, a concert was held in the new theatre to raise funds for the Winnipeg General Hospital. 

From the beginning, the hall had been planned as a multi-use facility; the very reason it contained a second-floor theatre with a 500-person seating capacity. 

Cool Burgess was the first professional actor to appear in Winnipeg, gracing the new stage on July 24, 1877.

Right from the beginning, there were problems with the new city hall, not the least of which was its location. Brown’s Creek, which crossed Main Street near William Avenue, had been filled in to

accommodate the city hall project but the landfill proved to be incapable of supporting the building. As the building settled, massive cracks began to appear. 

The Daily Free Press on April 22, 1876, said that predictions the new city hall would fall into the abyss were coming true. “The plastering in several offices is cracked, and the ground floor had sunk slightly. The matter, as might naturally be supposed, has created considerable excitement, and is pointed out by some as the premonitory signs of an approaching dissolution ... It is to be hoped that the necessary vigilance will be exercised, and that the city will have something more to show for its forty thousand dollars than a big rubbish heap of bricks, mortar and wood ...”

Part of the problem was blamed on poor construction materials. The Free Press sarcastically said the concrete used in the cellar was “found to have about the same solidity as Red River water in the month of May ...”

The Standard wrote that “city hall is a city shame; unsightly in

appearance, unworkmanlike in construction, unconscionable in cost; it will, while it lasts, remain a monument of the folly and incapacity of its godfathers and grandmothers, its parents and guardians.”

Architect Thomas Inglis wrote to the Free Press on April 17, 1876, blaming the contractor for failing to follow his instructions. He said if his instructions had been followed to fix the “unequal loading of the piers ... the fears of the people would not have been aroused, in fact, they would have known nothing of it, not even when it was satisfactorally put right.”

Whomever or whatever was at fault (the decision to locate over a poorly infilled creek seems to have been the main culprit), the problems the building confronted would contribute to its short life span. When an addition was built onto the structure  during the winter of 1882-83, it was too much for the already stressed city structure to bear. In the spring, “the building showed unmistakable signs of being unsafe,” wrote G.B. Brooks in Plain Facts About the New City Hall (1884). “Huge cracks appeared in the walls, an arch fell down, the woodwork became warped, and so many hasty signs of construction were apparent that the building was propped up for several weeks and ultimately pulled down.” 

A photograph from the time shows workmen erecting stout wooden logs in an attempt to shore up the outward sagging walls of the new city hall. At this time, the city hall stage began to “bulge frightfully” along its sides. It also had to be propped up with wooden shoring. 

The last performance at the city hall theatre was on May 4, 1883, and featured the Hammond and Sheldon Company.

By June 16, 1883, the first ads for tenders to erect a second city hall appeared in local newspapers.

Meanwhile, construction of the market was also not going quite as planned. The first problem was underestimated construction costs. On September 21, 1875, council passed a motion allowing for $15,000 to be diverted from waterworks appropriation to completion of the market, which doubled the initial $15,000 investment.

The redirection of funds drew criticism from some local newspapers which called the action illegal since the loan bylaw voted upon by plebiscite had specified where money was to be spent. They argued that transferring $15,000 from waterworks projects to the market construction was not part of the bylaw and therefore could not legally go ahead. On the other hand, the Daily Nor’Wester said it had sought a legal opinion and concluded that the city was within its rights to redistribute any of the $250,000 loan as it saw fit.

City council ignored its critics and commenced using the additional funds to complete the market. 

The original market plans were prone to last minute modifications which caused delays and complicated its construction schedule. 

A city motion in May 1876 called for legal action to be taken against contractor W.H. Burkholder “for the non-completion of the market building, and for the recovery of amount overpaid on work done under said contract.”

Actually, the difficulties between the contractor and city hall had started a few months earlier. In the fall of 1875, Burkholder had complained that he was not being paid for his work by the city and threatened a work stoppage.

By July, the proposed modifications to the market, especially the butchers’ stalls, were under heavy debate. The inclusion of the stalls became necessary when a city bylaw was passed which made it mandatory for Winnipeg butchers to move their shops to the new market. The councillors knew butchers would be essential to the market’s success. When the market first opened, it was noted that, between May 1 and June 26, 800 to 1,000 herd of cattle were brought to the facility for butchering.

Some councillors preferred that the police cells attached to the market be eliminated and converted into butchers’ stalls, while others favoured an addition containing stalls at a cost of $3,000. 

Mayor Kennedy favoured removing the cells, arguing that they were unfit for their purpose and that it would be better to have a small structure built to house two or three cells, a guard room and a police court outside the market. He said the entire building would cost only $600.

The butchers had their own opinions. In a March 24, 1876, letter, the principle butchers of Winnipeg — Rocan, Bose, McLean & McDonald, N.F. Clark and Code & Keith — wrote that “the City Fathers” had ignored their rights when making it mandatory to locate their businesses at the market and compounded their difficulties by not listening to their proposals for the new stalls.

“The accommodation is totally

inadequate, the stalls being too small to hold anything like even one day’s supply of meat, and to attempt to carry on our business in such a place would, we are convinced, be simply ruinous. We are therefore determined to take a stand ... we decline to occupy them, and hereby pledge ourselves ... to resist to the utmost any action forcing us into such a very unsuitable place.”

The butchers may have considered the facilities unsuitable, but the city councillors were equally determined that the meat vendors would be

accommodated at the new market. In August, the decision was reached to scrap the police cells and build dedicated butchers’ stalls. William Besant received the general contract for the addition, while Thomas Graveley was awarded the paint contract. Both were praised for doing their work “in a

thorough manner.”

The addition, which opened on May 1, 1877, was 70-by-51 feet with 15-foot-high walls. It had “an open roof with lantern ... with swinging lights for ventilation,” and 10 butchers’ stalls, each 12-by-18 feet and fronted with lattice work. The rental of each meat vending stall was fixed at $500 a year. A 10-foot awning provided protection from the elements. 

The butchers’ stalls and those housing “hucksters” were separated by a lumber room containing an

entrance to the cellar under the main building. The cellar was divided into individual storage compartments for those renting a stall.

Hay, wood and straw markets were outside the new facility at the rear of the provincial gaol (William Street Jail) across the street from city hall. A stock market was directly at the rear of city hall.

Although the original construction cost for the addition was to be $3,000, it ended up costing $5,000.

A city bylaw governed the operation of the market and sale of produce in  Winnipeg. The regulations were established to ensure the viability of the city-owned market. According to the bylaw, all horse or oxen teams bringing produce for sale were

required to come to the market, hucksters were not allowed to buy from farmers before 10 o’clock in the morning and farmers were not

allowed to sell around the city before noon. The regulations made sense for the era since early morning was the prime time for conducting commercial transactions. By noon, the majority of farmers would have already sold their produce at the civic market.

The bylaw warned that any breach of its regulations brought a $50 fine or imprisonment for 21 days.

The market opened at 5 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m. The butchers’ stalls gained an exception to the regulations and closed at 2 p.m., except on Saturdays when they closed at 9 p.m.

It was reported that vegetables were supplied to the market on a tri-weekly basis and sold as quickly as they

appeared in the stalls.

The Free Press said the first gardener to take advantage of the new market was a “Mr. Longbottom.” The vegetables he brought to the market included radishes, lettuce and onions “which have attained quite arespectable size.” Longbottom’s vegetables were delivered in the first week of May, a remarkable accomplishment given the time of year.

James Henderson’s winning bid of $1,093 granted him the privilege of collecting tolls (fees charged for bringing produce to market) from May 1 to January 31. He operated out of an office at the northern entrance to the market.

“The sum paid by Mr. Henderson is a pretty large one, and doubtless he will take the necessary precautions to secure all lawful tolls,” noted the Free Press. 

Henderson was also expected to collect fees from farmers buying produce and goods from river boats and barges.

Some of the fees Henderson collected included: double team with produce 25-cents; single team 15-cents; produce in basket five-cents; horned cattle per head 15-cents; sheep, calves or swine five-cents; horse 25-cents; firewood, lumber, shingles and lathes brought by double team 10-cents, single team 5-cents; double team bringing hay or straw 10-cents, single team five-cents; hay, fodder, straw and grain by boat 10-cents per ton; and firewood and rails by boat eight-cents per cord.

There were also a range of fees collected for weighing everything from cattle to wood.

The more solidly built civic market in Winnipeg outlasted the first city hall by over a decade. The second city hall, the famous “gingerbread” building, was under construction by 1884 and completed in 1886. The second city market was opened in 1897. It was closed in 1919 because its role was being overtaken by a profusion of local shops serving the same purpose. In addition, politicians forced its closure because it had become a gathering place for strikers during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Both the second city hall and market were demolished in 1964 to make way for today’s city hall complex.