Year there wasn’t a white Christmas — unusually balmy winter of 1877-78 in Manitoba

by Bruce Cherney

One of the most unusual ways of celebrating a “Merry Christmas” in Manitoba occurred on the David Adams farm along the Scratching River.

Seven competitors came to the farm on Christmas Day 1877, to take part in a plowing competition. In keeping with the nature of the contest, the first-place prize was a steel plough, second an iron beam plough, while the third-place finisher took home a neck yoke for a team of oxen, the common method of pulling a plow in the days before mechanized farm equipment became widespread in the province.

According to the January 12,1878, Manitoba Free Press, the plowing was hampered by unfavourable weather, “there being a misty rain all day.”

Despite the rain, the competition was close, “so close indeed that the judges, who were Messrs. Charles Turner, William Reeves, and H.J. McTavish, had some difficulty in deciding the winners of the prizes.”

Eventually, it was determined that the first-prize winner was William Micklejohn, David Timlick finished second and James Begg claimed third.

What made the plowing contest along the Scratching River (now Morris River in southern Manitoba — the town of Morris is 52 kilometres south of Winnipeg) possible was unseasonably warm weather. In fact, the winter of 1877-78 remains the warmest winter on record in the history of the province with an average temperature of -7.2°C.  

Weather in Manitoba was officially recorded for the first time in 1873, although Hudson’s Bay Company and private recordings had been taken in prior years.

According to Environment Canada, the normal average temperature in Winnipeg during December, January and February is -15.3°C and the normal amount of snowfall is 111 centimetres.

James Stewart, who recorded the official weather in Winnipeg during the winter of 1877-78 using the Fahrenheit and Imperial measurement scales, reported the highest temperature reached in the city in December was 47.4°F (8.5°C) on the 28th and the lowest was -3.2°F (-10.4°C) on the 6th. 

According to Stewart, the average mean temperature for the month was 25.59°F (-3.56°C), which was 23.41°F  (4.77°C) warmer than the average for December for the previous five years. The winter of 1874-75 is noted as being the coldest on record and had an average temperature of only -23°C.

Stewart reported that rain fell four days and snow two days for a total amount of precipitation of 2.21 inches (5.6 centimetres).

“This month (December) has been unusually mild,” said Stewart, “so that the like has not been seen within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. During the greater part of the month the farmers have been busy ploughing and sowing. A hawk was seen on the 11th, and frogs are said to have been seen on the 23rd — in fact, the whole month had more the appearance of spring than of winter.”

While the contest was being held near Scratching River, Thomas Longbottom plowed an acre in his Winnipeg market garden to a depth of seven inches (17.8 centimetres). Longbottom was reported to have said he had never plowed with such ease.

In Lorette, Manitoba (approximately 10 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg), Camille Henry plowed to a depth of six inches (15.2 centimetres).

Besides someone claiming to have seen a frog, an odd sighting was a mosquito at Point Douglas, according to the Free Press. Another unusual sighting was a large grey goose seen by several people at St. Andrew’s “flying over the Rapids Steam Mill on Monday, December 17, at nine o’clock in the morning,” reported  the Free Press.

“From the appearance of the bird it is judged that it had come from far south, as the feathers were remarkably clean.”

S.L. Bedson, an employee at the provincial penitentiary in Stony Mountain, shot a mallard duck in the swamp to the northeast of the jail.

Stewart McDonald also gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom and as fresh as if this were June instead of December.”

The weather was so warm that Rev. W. Beck held “a capital game” of croquet on the lawn of St. John’s Cathedral.

With the number of unusual happenings around the province, the Free Press wondered whether Manitobans were living in California or Texas.

At Selkirk, residents took advantage of the relatively balmy weather to hold a tea party on the ice. A large tent was erected under which the ice was covered with straw and buffalo robes. A stove was placed in the tent to “take off the chilliness” of the evening.

The greatest skating feat of the season was announced in the Free Press of December 22, 1877, to be the trip made from Winnipeg to Selkirk by Mr. and Mrs. MacLaughlin and Darby Taylor, who accomplished “the journey in seven hours, notwithstanding the rough ice encountered in some places and their having to portage themselves at the (Lockport) rapids.”

The pace set by the MacLaughlins and Taylor was shattered a few days later by Charles Napier Bell — originally from Ontario and said to have introduced family skating to Winnipeg — along with two men, whose names were only given as “Ramsey” and “Graham.” The three men left No. 6 warehouse at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard Avenue) and arrived in Selkirk after the 50-kilometre journey in a time of two hours and 15 minutes. Bell and Ramsey skated the 10 kilometres from the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) to Selkirk in 20 minutes. It should be noted that at the time, Bell was considered one of the most accomplished skaters in Winnipeg. He was also instrumental in promoting the building of Winnipeg’s first covered skating rink — the Amphitheatre Skating Rink — during the winter of 1874. The rink was built on the Red River at the foot of Post Office Street. 

The Christmas of 1877 was far from white in most of Manitoba (between 1870 and 1881, the province’s borders did not extend further north than the southern tips of lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg). In Winnipeg, residents encountered “muddy roads, slippery sidewalks, over-flowing rain barrels, and buffalo coats, discarded for oilskins.”

Across Manitoba, roads were reported to be in deplorable condition due to the warm weather.

“If it is a matter of doubt in his mind whether to believe the almanac or ‘appearances’ as to what period of the year it really is — it will suddenly dawn upon one’s confused brain that this is Christmas, if he should take a turn through the market and see the grand holiday display made by the city butchers,” commented the Free Press on December 29.

It was the first Christmas that the new city market (immediately west of the present city hall site where the Public Safety Building parking lot is located) was opened as it had only been completed a few months earlier that spring.

Longbottom, who was mentioned as having plowed an acre of his land in December, was actually the first local gardener to take advantage of the new market when it opened the first week of May. During the Christmas season, Longbottom’s history-making trip to the market was commemorated in a photograph called On the Market Road to Market. The photograph was exhibited at the market and at the land titles and immigration offices. As well, several prints were sent to Ontario.

“The picture will serve admirably for immigration purposes, as the profuse display of potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, onions, celery, cabbages, parsley, etc., etc., surmounted by a number of mammoth cauliflowers, is only such as could be produced in Manitoba.”

The butchers were a major component of the market and, judging by the amount of ink they received in local newspapers, of great importance to the community. An addition at the new market for the butchers was opened on May, 15, 1877, which was 70-by-51 feet (21.3-by-15.4 metres) with 15-foot (4.57-metre) walls. The addition had “an open roof with lantern ... with swinging lights for ventilation,” and 10 stalls, each 12-by-18 feet (3.66-by-5.49 metres) and fronted by lattice work, while a 10-foot (3.048-metre) awning provided protection from the elements. The rental for each stall was fixed at $500 a year.

While we may today think of retailers decorating storefront windows in anticipation of Christmas, the butchers in 1877 were regarded by local newspapers as the most holiday-spirited of local businesses.

“The butchers have united in decorating their stalls,” reported the Free Press, “and the elaborate ornamentations present a handsome appearance. Flags are shown, streamers of red, white and blue are festooned, the usual mottoes ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ are displayed, while huge joints of meats are decorated with flowers, etc. — the whole having a very fine effect.”

What is surprising today is the range of meats available in the “festooned” stalls.

Johnston, Rocan & Co., which rented stalls 8 and 10, was reported to be “gorgeously decorated.” The company displayed a four-year-old steer weighing 900 pounds (409.1 kilograms), “some fine beef from the feeding of Peter Campbell Boyne; four bears, fattened by the firm; mutton, some of the finest to be seen anywhere — a native sheep, which  kicked the (weight-scale) beam at 113 lbs. (51.4 kilograms — fed by Dilworth, of Poplar Point) and seven sheep averaging 90 lbs. (40.9 kilograms), fed by Bruce of Silver Heights; in pork, a huge hog of 375 lbs. (170.5 kilograms)  is one of a quantity of porkers, while there seems to be no end to the turkeys, geese, ducks, sausages, etc., which are on sale.”

James Lamb, who occupied stall No. 6, besides the typical fare, had on display a “Canada Pacific Hotel fed bear, which almost smothered in its own fat.”

To meet the demand for traditional Christmas poultry, McNee & Co. in stall No. 9 declared “war on turkeys.” The result of the war was that “customers have commenced the siege, and partly captured the stores.”

While the city’s big-box stores today sell beef from cattle primarily raised and slaughtered in Alberta for shipment across Canada, the butchers at the Winnipeg market in 1877 took great pride in advertising that they were selling “Manitoba fed stock.” Another source of pride among the butchers was that they could identify where each animal was raised and by whom.

For example, Harry Bose in stall No. 7 exhibited a steer fed by Beveredge of Stony Mountain that weighed 1,000 pounds (454.5 kilograms) and was “as fine a beef as one wants to see ...”

Across the city, religious denominations joined in the festive occasion by decorating their churches and holding Christmas services.

At St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the interior was “tastefully decorated, and on the gospel sides of the altar was a representation of the ‘manger’ at Bethlehem, with the infant Saviour lying on his pallet of straw.”

For the third anniversary of the Baptist Sunday School, a “bedecked Christmas tree ... was loaded down with handsome gifts for the little ones, (and older ones, too) was stippled and many hearts were gladdened with these forerunners of old Santa Claus’ goodness.”

Gifts to children were also distributed during the annual Christmas tree festival for the Sunday School of Christ Church.

As 1877 came to an end, Winnipeggers proudly acknowledged the progress made in their community since “those who knew the little frontier settlement, the Fort Garry of a few years ago, (and) would hardly recognize it today ...

“The rapid strides in the march of improvement have in no other place on this mundane sphere been more apparent or noticeable than in the metropolis of the North-West; and it is with a feeling of pardonable pride that today (December 22) the Free Press gives to its readers the long list of living monuments of Winnipeg’s unparalleled and rapid progress during the present year.”

The newspaper reported that aided by the unseasonable weather building was ongoing in December. The buildings were claimed to “be creditable to cities in any of the older and more wealthy countries ...”

At the time, Winnipeg had a population estimated at only 6,000 people.

A few of the buildings listed (the list is quite lengthy) were:

• On the Magnus Brown property, a neat two-storey house with stable and other buildings attached valued at nearly $1,500.

• To the south of the Brown property,  a two-storey frame house built by M.E. Moulds at a cost of $2,500.

• A two-storey residence for J.H. Ashdown, “without doubt the finest house in the province.”

• On Main Street, the two-storey frame construction grocery and provision store of Philip Heiminck valued at $1,500.

• On Main Street, a “very fine” two-storey brick building built by Josiah Adams, who occupies the lower storey as a flour and provision store, while the upper storey was used for offices, valued at $4,500.

• Near the market, a “splendid” three-storey brick building put up by Stobart, Eden & Co., built at a cost of $20,000.

• On Post Office Street (Lombard Avenue), the old post-office was rebuilt and converted into the Commercial Hotel by Louis Payment at a cost of $550.

• Joseph Kahler was building a new $5,000 hotel on the site of the Dominion Hotel which had recently burned down. 

• A fire hall was built behind the market for $6,900.

• The two-storey Temperance Hall on McDermot Street, called “the great adornment to this street,” cost $4,000 to build.

• At the northern extremity of the city a Ladies School was built by the Church of England (Anglican) at a cost of $15,000.

While Christmas Day 1877 witnessed some unusual events and a multitude of celebrations, New Year’s Day was apparently more sedate due to the toll the weather took on roads.

“The custom of making complimentary calls was not so generally observed Tuesday as usual on New Year’s Day,” reported the Free Press on January 5, 1878. “The rough state of the roads prevented the use of any kind of vehicle by those who had any consideration for their comfort or for the safety of their horses. A good many gentlemen nevertheless did visit their lady friends, to express seasonable good wishes, and the customary hospitalities were shown to callers.

“The day passed quietly, and there was no appearance of any excess having being indulged in apropos New Year’s calls, the cautions of the clergy having apparently exercised a salutatory influence.”

While the unseasonably warm winter was baffling to Manitobans in 1877-78,  we know today that the exceptionally warm weather was the result of an El Niño event. Translated from Spanish, El Niño means “little boy” and is associated with the “Christ Child” as the warming trend usually first occurs off the coast of Peru and Ecuador at Christmastime. An El Niño event involves a major warming of Pacific Ocean water along the equator, which disrupts normal weather patterns. In Western Canada, El Niño events are marked by the Polar jet being pushed further northward and replaced by warmer air flowing from the Pacific Ocean. 

Climatologists researching past El Niños have ranked the 1877-78 event as one of the strongest in the last 500 years. 

During the El Niño event of 1991, winter temperatures from Western Canada to Lake Superior were 3°C to 7°C warmer than normal.

While the 1877-78 El Niño abated winter’s icy breath across most of North America, the reversal in weather patterns (warm moist winds no longer blow in a westerly direction across the ocean, but reverse to easterly) was responsible for massive droughts and famine in East Asia, especially in India, Indonesia and China. Due to the failure of the annual monsoon rains, the British government estimated that 5.5 million people died on the Indian subcontinent. In total, the drought and famine brought on by the El Niño event killed an estimated 50 million people during 1877-78.