Railway comes to Gimli — “will totally alter features hitherto of quiet and primitive community”

by Bruce Cherney

On November 26, 1906, 300 men, women and children passed through the three sets of doors at the new Canadian Pacific Railway Station’s carved Tyndall limestone and Wisconsin red brick entranceway. As they proceeded, they stepped onto the sparkling white marble terrazzo floor of the rotunda.

The massive interior of the depot was divided into sections by heavy marble columns, providing a sharp contrast to the soft green walls lining the rotunda. Above their heads, rail passengers were greeted by a barrel vault ceiling and a back-lit arch of amber glass, softened by a second layer of ribbed glass on the outside. On each large section of ceiling, 20 lights cast a glow that accented the magnificence of the new structure.

Some of the men arriving  at the station on that cool November day would have passed the time until their scheduled departure in the gentlemen’s smoking room, while the ladies visited a special section reserved for their leisure time. Those that chose to take a seat on the roomy benches in the rotunda would have seen immigrants milling about wearing clothing reflecting the customs of their recently-departed native lands. If those on the bench paid particular attention, they would have caught glimpses of hucksters trying to part the gullible from their money or church groups selling Bibles to bring salvation to the hundreds of new Canadians arriving that day. 

The CPR station, officially opened on May 22 a year earlier, was the symbol of Winnipeg’s coming of age, and the city’s predominance as the “Gateway to the West,” or as others liked to say, the “Bull’s-eye of the Dominion.”

The 300 Winnipeggers waiting for the train caught their first glimpse of the city years earlier from the railing of a steamboat, not from a railway “colonist car” window. When they came in 1875 from their native Iceland, their foreign attire would have received the same strange looks reserved for the overseas arrivals at the CPR depot in 1906. But through the course of 30 years of tenure in the New World, the Icelanders had taken on most Canadian customs, including local garb and the ability to converse in English. It was only when they spoke amongst themselves that their preferred use of Icelandic betrayed their country of origin.

Their presence at the station was the first stage of a pilgrimage to the first Icelandic settlement in Western Canada at Gimli. Since 1875, hundreds of Icelanders had come to Manitoba, some settling in Winnipeg while others trekked to New Iceland, the reserve set aside for them by the Canadian government along the shores of Lake Winnipeg — Gimli serving as the region’s primary community.

On the November day in 1906, the Winnipeg Icelanders were heading north to join in the celebration of a special occasion for the Lake Winnipeg community — the official opening of Gimli’s railway  link to the rest of the world.

As had been the case when the CPR tracks were laid to Winnipeg in 1881 from Eastern Canada, the people of Gimli believed the arrival of the CPR in their community would also usher in an age of prosperity. Such visions of future growth and boom times derived from a railway connection were held in common by people across the province, although the passage of time would show that the majority of communities realized measured benefits. 

The great cruelty of railway branch lines was that no guarantee of prosperity was attached. Still, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, every hamlet, village and town clamoured to be connected to the railway main lines criss-crossing Manitoba. 

Manitobans were so vociferous in their demands for railway connections that political careers were made or broken based on a politician’s ability to deliver. Premier John Norquay’s inability to break the CPR’s 20-year monopoly clause  and his failure to improve railway connections in the province contributed to the 1888 defeat of his Conservative government and the victory of the Liberals led by Thomas Greenway.

The story of the arrival of the CPR in Gimli is very much the history of the coming of branch lines to any small Manitoba community, although Gimli was a relative latecomer in the railway sweepstakes.

By 1886, CPR rail lines were extended into southwestern Manitoba. In 1896, the Canadian Northern line was pushed beyond Gladstone to Dauphin and then to Winnipegosis. The Northern Pacific advanced its rail lines from Carman junction to Carman, Beaver to Gladstone, Muir to Neepawa, Portage la Prairie to Delta and from Oakland to Beaver.

In the case of Gimli, the coming of the branch line had taken 30 years of political wrangling hindered by strong CPR objections.

The debate intensified with the completion of the CPR line from Selkirk to Winnipeg Beach in 1903, just a tantalizing 16 kilometres from Gimli. “The Beach” line was conceived by CPR vice-president William Whyte as a summer resort destination for Winnipeggers. Whyte considered the resort-dedicated line would be extremely profitable for the railway. 

“The schedule (for train service) has been adopted with a view to the convenience of clerks, office workers and business men of Winnipeg,” according to a May 23, 1903, Morning Telegram article, announcing “Winnipeg’s new resort.” 

“A regular train will leave Winnipeg daily, except Sunday, in the afternoon at 4:15 o’clock, arriving in the Beach at 7 o’clock in the evening. The return will be made each morning at 7, arriving in Winnipeg at 9:45 a.m. In addition various special trains with excursion rates will, in all probability, be run at intervals.”

“Moonlight Specials” were later in place to bring “younger amusement-seeking pilgrims to the Beach.” A “thoroughly modern” pavilion with a 1,000-person capacity was erected by the CPR and surrounded by “great wide board walks,” leading to “a beach of pure, white sand.”

Although the Beach had its rail connection, Gimli residents were hearing disturbing rumours that the CPR intended to bypass their community altogether. News had been filtering into the village that the CPR intended to extend its branch line from Winnipeg Beach to Arborg. However, this line would be built a few kilometres to the west of Gimli, following a natural gravel ridge that would significantly aid in the construction of a rail bed. The CPR made no mention that Gimli would in some way be connected to the line. 

In the meantime, the CPR had also announced its intention to extend its Teulon line to Komarno (completed in 1907).

It seemed ironic to Gimli residents that they were surrounded by rail lines but had no connection to the outside world.

The primary obstacle to Gimli’s aspirations was CPR manager of western  lines, William Whyte (1843-1914), who contemptuously said, “... the agricultural development in the municipality was slow and backward, and had surprisingly little to show for 30 years of farm living.”

At the time, railway officials building lines across the prairies constantly invoked their belief in the might of “king wheat.” Land suitable for grain production was their lure for settlers who would eventually become profitable customers for the railways. On the other hand, the land surrounding Gimli was mostly heavily treed, brush covered and interspersed by swamp. Although the soil was a rich black loam, land was difficult to clear and later plow.

Years after Whyte used the lack agricultural prospects for the community to delay a branch line coming to Gimli, the Winnipeg Free Press on May 25, 1912, commented: “Around the town in little patches reclaimed from the thick forest are farms from which a splendid supply of fresh butter and milk is to be had, as well as garden products. The farms are operated in a rather primitive manner, without large profits ... Little wheat is grown, mixed farming on a small scale being the chief interest.” 

Instead of being populated primarily by farmers, Gimli was emerging as a fishing and lumber centre, as well as a service area for New Iceland. 

On the other hand, Whyte on behalf of the CPR regarded the land west of Gimli from Teulon to Arborg more suitable for farming.

Whyte’s viewpoint caused panic among Gimli’s businessmen who were steadily losing trade to Winnipeg Beach.

The end of the “railroad centre” of Nelsonville, the “banner town of South Western Manitoba” would have provided an object lesson to the Gimli businessmen on what the absence of a rail connection meant to a community. 

On November 17, 1881, Winnipeg auctioneer Joseph Wolfe was advertising in the Manitoba Free Press 109 lots for sale in “the oldest, largest and most favoured town in the far famed Pembina mountain country.”

At the time, Nelsonville had a grist mill, sawmill, shingle mill, five general stores, three furniture stores, three harness shops, three hotels, five agricultural warehouses, a printing office where the Mountaineer was published, three churches, a government land titles office, two livery stables, two blacksmith and carriage shops, a school, two stove and tin shops, two shoe stores, an Orange hall and a Masonic hall, two doctors and a lawyer, as well as over 60 private residences.

Wolfe said that Nelsonville would soon be served by a branch line of the Southwestern Railway.

Unfortunately for Nelsonville, the expected line did not materialize — the Manitoba government-backed railway was disallowed by Ottawa because it conflicted with the CPR’s monopoly clause — and the majority of residents and businesses moved lock, stock and barrel to Morden which was to be served by a branch line. Nelsonville, eight kilometres north and five kilometres west of Morden by road, became a ghost town, a fate it shared with many so-called “favoured” communities.

Chief among those pushing for a line to Gimli and avoid the fate of Nelsonville was Sigtryggur Jonasson (1852-1942), who is known to history as the “Father of New Iceland.” One of the original 1875 Icelandic settlers at Gimli, Jonasson had a varied career as a Canadian homestead inspector, transportation and lumber magnate, ship captain, newspaper editor and publisher, and two-term Member of the Legislative Assembly for St. Andrews.

While Jonasson was the most vocal advocate for the railway, his political allegiance to the Liberal Party was a barrier to obtaining the support of the Manitoba government. In power in Manitoba at the time were the Conservatives led by Premier Rodmond Roblin (1853-1937). Also, the MLA for Gimli in 1905 was Baldwin Larus Baldwinson (1856-1936), a Conservative. Besides being political opponents, Baldwinson and Jonasson ran rival Icelandic language newspapers that reflected their political views — the Logberg was Liberal, while the Heimskringla was Conservative. 

The Telegram reported on March 24, 1905, that a deputation from Gimli had arrived in Winnipeg to call upon Premier Rodmond Roblin to help them obtain a railway connection. On behalf of the residents, Roblin sent a telegram to CPR president Thomas Shaughnessy  asking about the railway’s intentions for Gimli.

“Would like to accommodate your government and meet views of settlers in Gimli district,” replied the CPR president, “but have so very much work in hand this year afraid to make any definite promise.”

Shaughnessy said the premier and Gimli residents should await word from Whyte who “might find he could with safety extend the Teulon branch or the Winnipeg Beach line 15 or 16 miles this year, and if so he will have authority to do it. Presumed you will give usual cash subsidy of $1,750 per mile (of track).”

Roblin told the Gimli delegation to leave the matter in his government’s  hands. He also told the delegation to form a committee to discuss the rail issue and come up with a favoured route for the line, citing differences of opinion over what was the best option. Apparently, the provincial government favoured a branch line west of Gimli and then connecting the community in some way — a Y-branch was mentioned.

The Gimli residents told the premier there was no disagreement over the route and they were urging the construction of a branch line from Winnipeg Beach through their community and beyond to the Icelandic River where Riverton is now located.

The Gimli residents formed a new railway committee, but without a firm commitment from the province decided upon a different course of action. The committee approached Selkirk MP Samuel Jackson, the founder of Stonewall, Manitoba, elected in 1904 to the House of Commons as a Liberal. The committee relied upon Jonasson’s political connections to press Jackson to support their cause.

According to an August 16, 1905, article published in the Logberg (I’m deeply indebted to Manitoba author and Icelandic-Canadian settlement historian Nelson Gerrard for translating this article from its original Icelandic into English), the premier and Gimli MLA were more interested in political advantages than benefits to the community resulting from a railway connection.

“It looked like Gimli would have to do without a railway,” wrote the author of the Logberg article, Gisli Magnus Thompson.

The railway committee believed that the CPR was doing everything in its power to avoid extending the railway to Gimli, despite an apparent agreement dating back to 1901 that had been negotiated by former Selkirk MP William McCreary, another Liberal who had also been an immigration agent and was an ex-mayor of Winnipeg. Under the terms of the agreement, the CPR received financing for construction of the line to Winnipeg Beach. A condition of the agreement was that the CPR would eventually provide a rail link to Gimli. If such a connection was not provided, the CPR would lose its government grant.

When confronted with this information, Whyte still said he wasn’t prepared to change his mind and the closest the rail line would come to Gimli was a few kilometres to the west.

On June 24, Jonasson went to Winnipeg to meet with Whyte where he obtained a promise from the railway official to review the CPR’s position. While this meeting was taking place, a telegram was received from Ottawa in which Jackson said the government’s understanding — as outlined by the federal railway minister in the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government — was that the CPR was obligated to build the line to Gimli or lose its grant. Jonasson showed this telegram to Whyte who then indicated he was prepared to build the line to Gimli as long as the federal government funded its construction at $3,200 per mile of track. This higher than usual grant — double the grant obtained to build other branch lines in Manitoba — reflected the difficulty of building along the lakeshore through swamps and over five creek crossings. Despite the five year existence of a government-backed guarantee for the higher amount, until the CPR was forced by the federal government to take up the challenge, no railway company had been willing to build a line to Gimli. 

Two days later, Jonasson received another telegram from Ottawa approving the funding. Whyte then said he would authorize the commencement of construction on the line.

The Logberg said political connections and Jonasson’s ability to work with government officials had led to “a reliable promise made for the railway to Gimli ... S. Jonasson has shown the leadership in bringing this matter to fruition ... and S. Jackson has also done his part.”

The railway committee held a special meeting in Gimli’s hall on August 11, announcing the CPR’s favourable decision. At the meeting, Jonasson received a standing ovation. 

“Since it was announced that the CPR Winnipeg Beach branch would be extended to Gimli, there has arisen a great demand for real estate in that locality,” reported the Telegram on August 12, 1905. “It looks as if the inhabitants of the Gimli settlement, who have been waiting for a railroad for almost thirty years, are at last going to receive compensation for their patience.”

The newspaper said $1,500 was offered for a corner lot near the Gimli dock, but the owner was holding out for $2,000.

A farmer with a quarter section north of Gimli had his lakefront property surveyed into 150-by-50 lots which were being sold for $150 each and he had sold several of the lots.

Another farmer south of the town sold 25 acres at $50 an acre to the Sons of England Benefit Society for a convalescent hospital.

“The extension of the railroad from the Beach to Gimli will no doubt totally alter the features of that hitherto quiet and primitive community,” predicted the Telegram.

The last spike of the railroad to Gimli was driven on October 20, 1906. 

“The opening up of a line of railroad between Gimli and Winnipeg is being hailed with delight by Gimli residents, who have heretofore been obliged to take an eleven mile (nearly 18 kilometres) drive over rough road (called the Colonization Road and traversed the entire length of the colony following the lakeshore) to reach Winnipeg Beach and the train,” reported the Telegram. 

The railway extension from the Beach was said to be “one of the best bits of railroad construction in Manitoba,” requiring the erection of a “fine pile bridge” over Willow Creek, a couple of kilometres south of Gimli.

 The arrival of the 300 Winnipeg Icelanders and another 75 picked up at Selkirk en route for the special ceremony on November 26 nearly doubled the existing population in Gimli of  800 people.

“On the arrival here the celebration took the form of a public meeting in Gimli hall, where speeches were delivered in the Icelandic tongue by prominent representatives of the race in Canada ... S. Thorvaldson, reeve of the village, welcomed the people to the town and spoke of this occasion as an epoch in the history of the town ...,” said the Telegram.

“The bonds of steel that now linked them with the outside world were bonds of brotherhood as well.”

Sharing the stage with Jonasson and other local and CPR dignitaries was MLA Baldwinson, although he had not been instrumental in convincing the federal government to fund the Gimli extension. In fact, Baldwinson apparently gave one of the longest speeches of the day, “referring to his endeavours in connection with waking the people up to the fact that their right in regard to acquiring railways should be made plain. Credit was also due Hon. R.P. Roblin in furthering the matter.”

It should be noted that the Telegram was a Conservative Party newspaper and gave credit to members of that party in nearly all matters regardless of how tenuous the connection.

“The Winnipeg Beach-Gimli railway extension — though it did not do much to increase farm production initially — became a great boon to the settlers,” wrote Michael Ewanchuk in Spruce, Swamp and Stone: A History of the Pioneer Ukrainian Settlements in the Gimli Area. “In time the Lake Winnipeg Beaches became popular with the Winnipeg residents and they began to build cottages at Winnipeg Beach, Boundary Park, Sandy Hook and Loni Beach in ever increasing numbers ... and the railway line helped to improve the economic level of the residents of the ‘new’ Gimli municipality (formed 1908) ...”

The Gimli Saga said the railway station was a hub of activity in the community with daily trains running to Winnipeg in the morning and returning in the evening. During the summer, two trains ran daily between Gimli and Winnipeg.

The year before the railway’s arrival on May 3, 1905, an article appeared in the Baldur, a periodical published in Gimli, which said the community had five general stores, a fruit store, two meat markets, four cold storage plants and ice-houses (reflecting the fishing industry), two shoemaker shops, four carpentry shops, one blacksmith shop, two restaurants, a hotel, two printing shops, two churches, a community hall, an elementary school, a high school, a post office, a police court, a county court and other buildings.

After the rail line was extended, a building boom occurred, including the construction of a bakery, the Lakeview Hotel along the shore of Lake Winnipeg, the Icelandic (later Como) Hotel opposite the railway station and a large store.

The Winnipeg Free Press on May 25, 1912, reported on the progress of the community, drawing attention to its emergence as a summer resort. The newspaper made specific mention of cottages built by W.J. Osborne of the Winnipeg Electric Railway, A.F. Andrews of Ogilvie Flour Mills, and real estate dealers Henry Downing and J. Vopni, among others.

Today, the railway no longer carries passengers, but unlike many other subdivisions that have been abandoned and the tracks removed in rural Manitoba, the line still operates between Winnipeg and Gimli. The major customer of the 60-kilometre section of the Winnipeg Beach Subdivision is Diageo Canada Ltd., a Gimli-based distiller noted for producing Crown Royal blended whiskey.