Winnipeg’s earliest ice-skating rinks — first facilities built on frozen river then on firm land

by Bruce Cherney

Charles Napier Bell was an avid skater who is said to have introduced the sport to Winnipeg. 

The Manitoba Free Press on November 13, 1875, noted that Bell “inaugurated the skating season by making a few flourishes on Red River ice Monday.”

Bell, who was born in Lanark, Ontario, first came to Winnipeg as a bugler in August 1870 with the Colonel Wolseley expedition. They were sent by the Canadian government to “bring peace” to the then already-quiet Red River Settlement. He liked what he saw and decided to stay, first becoming involved in trading and freighting and then heavily involved in real estate speculation.

If he were alive today, the former resident of Lanark in the “heart of the Ottawa Valley” would undoubtedly be slightly bemused by the on-going war of words between the nation’s capital and Winnipeg over which community has the world’s longest outdoor skating rink.

Until 2008, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal skateway had been cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest at 7.8 kilometres. Shortly after the entry in the record book was made, Winnipeg surpassed Ottawa’s total by completing an 8.54-kilometre skateway last year.

Writing in a January 10 Globe and Mail article this year, Patrick White mentioned Winnipeg’s world record and that the city is “jabbing its mittened thumb in Ottawa’s eye.”

While every effort is made to make skating on the Red and Assiniboine rivers safe on the world’s longest outdoor rink, the early sporting public in Winnipeg faced numerous perils. Open water was a danger and newspapers in the late 1800s warned skaters to be on the lookout for areas where ice cutters might be plying their trade. Ice was harvested from the rivers and stored in specially-designed facilities that made ice available year-round to keep perishables cool.

The November 13, 1875, Manitoba Free Press reported two boys in the vicinity of the steamer Manitoba which was docked on the Red “skated into an air-hole.” They were rescued by another lad, who used his outstretched coat to pull the boys to safety.

While the frozen Red and Assiniboine rivers allowed the city’s first skaters the opportunity to pursue their winter passion, Winnipeggers urged on by Bell decided they wanted to have their own dedicated and safer skating facility. Presumably, Bell regaled Winnipeggers with tales of indoor skating facilities then becoming all the rage in Eastern Canada.

The militiamen from Eastern Canada stationed at the barracks at the time near the present Manitoba Legislature were the first to form a rink on the Assiniboine River. In a January 11, 1873, article, entitled Life in the Prairie Province, the Free Press related “winter skating is the biggest thing on ice, and the defenders of our country have erected, on the Assiniboine, near Fort Garry, a magnificent skating rink.”

The claim was that the ice rink on the river was of the best quality, “constantly kept clean (scraped) by the defenders, who use for this purpose a number of imported machines of a very uncomplicated construction, being composed of a piece of white ash, about two feet long, and having a steel blade attached at the lower end ...

“The size of the rink is curtailed somewhat by the banks of the river, but is sufficiently large to accommodate all comers ... and the whole affair is covered by a gorgeous blue canopy, the colour of which, however, is changed to suit the weather.”

It would be too much of a stretch to describe the rink as “indoor,” since a “blue canopy” does not fulfill the requirement of a fully-enclosed structure.  

In Eastern Canada, the indoor rinks familiar to Bell could accommodate up to 3,000 skaters and spectators. The facilities were lit by gas lamps and were used for skating competitions and winter carnivals.

The first covered rink in the world had been built in Quebec City in 1851 on a quay on the St. Lawrence River, which became the model for Winnipeg’s Amphitheatre Skating Rink built on the Red River in November 1874.

“Messrs Wilson & Bryden will open their skating rink, foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard), in a few days, so soon as the ice shall have acquired the necessary strength,” announced the Free Press on November 21, 1874.

“The main building of the rink is 45 by 120 feet (13,72 by 36.58 metres) clear. There will be ladies’ and gentlemen’s reception and dressing rooms, 18 by 24 (5.48 by 7.32 metres), which will be lighted and heated.

“The whole arrangement will be well conducted and will inevitably become a popular resort for the long winter evenings. The rink is covered by a self-supporting roof.”

No sooner had the rink come under construction when it tumbled down. Apparently, a spell of mild weather, the architectural design of the rink and the placing of supporting beams on the river’s ice combined to play a role in the rink’s collapse.

The fate of their first attempt could also be attributed to the novelty of constructing the first indoor rink in Winnipeg. Presumably, neither man had any experience in this type of structure, making disaster inevitable.

However, the builders learned from their ill-fated first attempt and vowed to soon reopen a more substantial structure. The Free Press said on December 5 that the opening of the rink would only be slightly delayed and the architecture “will be of a different order and more substantial than that which came to grief.

“It is the intention of the builders to construct props with their ends resting on terra firma (the firm earth). These will support stays or braces on which the roof will depend, thus making the roof independent of the sides. The latter will be kept together by braces running transversely at the top so that the anatomy of the building will not suffer by the ice setting, as the greater portion of the weight of the building will rest on props having their edges on the earth ... One of our staff visited the ruins this morning and found men busily at re-building.”

All that remained intact when the wreckage was surveyed were the waiting rooms and the ice-keeper’s apartment.

“The danger of a recurrence will be avoided by the precautions which experience has taught,” ended the Free Press article.

To mark the occasion of the re-opening, the Free Press published the quotation from what it called the Skater’s Song:

“There is glorious health

“And the heart’s true wealth,

“Out on the ice to-day.”

The newspaper said the skating rink would “certainly be the centre of attraction day as well as night, and the skater’s song will be practically repeated in the first skating rink ever built in Winnipeg or the Red River Settlement.”

By 1875, plans were underway to avoid the dangers imposed by constructing an enclosed rink on such a precarious surface — Winnipeg would have its first indoor natural-ice rink built on land.

The suggestion for a dedicated indoor rink was made by a “Mr. Marshall, late of Toronto, and the enterprise of Messrs. (E. Clementi) Smith backed by a liberal subscription list ...,” reported the Free Press.

The new Victoria Skating Rink was built by contractor Thomas West, and once it was completed Smith rented the facility to J.H. Brundige.

Newspaper accounts from 1875 mention that the new rink was being built on Annie Street (now Patrick, a short street that is intersected by Logan Avenue), but in the 1880s mention was made that another Victoria Skating Rink was slated to be built on Portage Avenue. The “Victoria Skating Rink of Winnipeg” mentioned in a Winnipeg Daily Sun article on November 24, 1882, is called a new facility covered by canvass (sic) and built on “an eligible site ... secured on Portage Avenue at the corner of Donald Street.”

The rink built on the Assiniboine by militiamen was also called the Victoria Skating Rink in a February 15, 1873, Free Press article.

In fact, skating rinks across Canada were commonly named after Queen Victoria, who had become the cherished symbol of the might of the British Empire. During the Victorian Era, Canada’s civic leaders were proud to be associated in any possible way with the Pax Britannica.

A reporter for the Winnipeg Standard was given a thorough tour of the 1875 Victoria Skating Rink by builder West.

“The building is 150 feet (45.72 metres) by 50 (15.24 metres), strongly framed, the roof being supported by jack rafters bolted,” said the reporter in a November 6, 1875, article. “The skating floor which is now being flooded is 44 feet (13.41 metres) by 140 (42.67 metres) surrounded by a promenade 3 feet (0.914 metres) wide except at the entrance where it is 7 feet (2.13 metres). On each side of the entrance hall are commodious dressing rooms with water closets, etc.; off the right side, attached, is an ample refreshment room.”

The Victoria’s flooded ice surface was much smaller than today’s standard North American professional hockey surface — for example, Winnipeg’s MTS Centre — of 85 feet by 200 feet (29.6 metres by 60.96 metres). International hockey is now played on a ice surface of 100 feet by 200 feet (30.48 metres by 60.96 metres).

One feature of the rink that is no longer found in modern facilities was an alcove dedicated to bands  which played music while skaters glided across the ice surface. Today, canned music is the norm during public skating.

The reporter said constructing the Victoria consumed 40,000 feet (12,192 metres) of lumber, 65,000 shingles, 600 iron bolts, 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of spikes and 800 pounds (362.87 kilograms) of nails.

The final construction cost was $2,000. By comparison, the relatively-new MTS Centre cost about $133.5 million.

A committee, struck to manage the new facility, was comprised of prominent Winnipeggers E. Clementi Smith, Hamilton Grant McMicken, Fred Brown, S. J. Jackson, M.B. Wood, William Alloway (the founder of the Winnipeg Foundation), W. Becher, Charles Napier Bell and Jesse Andrews.

Actually, indoor skating at the time was primarily the pursuit of the city’s elite. The price of tickets to the facility ensured this would be the case. For example, a single season pass was $10, a double season pass was $15, a lady’s season ticket was $5, a season ticket for a child under 12 was $5 and a family season pass was $20.

Single admissions for an afternoon or evening of skating was 25-cents. Admission to the gallery was 50-cents. On carnival nights, the charges increased to 50-cents for skaters and $1 in the gallery.

The regulations governing the skating rink were published in the November 20, 1875, Free Press. 

Smoking was not allowed on the ice, on the promenade or in the gallery. There also was a ban on liquor in any part of the facility. Another rule banned “low slang or improper language.” Gentlemanly conduct was enforced and any person guilty of “violation of this rule shall be forthwith ejected from the premises.”

Rule 5 said that there would be no violent skating and that skaters had to travel from right to left.

Rule 8 said that on ice carnival nights no one was allowed on the ice unless they were dressed in a costume.

Rule 10, the last, said, “Any person wilfully violating any of these rules and regulations, unless ample apology be made, shall be expelled from the rink.”

In the January 25, 1875, Daily Nor’Wester, a comical account was given by a newspaper correspondent  who purchased a pair of skates and then took to the Victoria ice. For all its humour, it gives an excellent example of how new the sport was to the community and the difficulty novices experienced when trying to glide across the ice surface.

“When we struck out we intended to spin around three times on the right foot and then twice on the left, then cut the outside edge backwards up one side of the rink and the grape vine down the other side,” said the correspondent.

“We only got as far as the spinning round, however. This we performed in a manner to secure the loud applause of the entire house, but for all that it wasn’t gracefully performed ...

“We were more cautious next time. We would wait till we practiced a little.”

The correspondent’s attention was devoted to the ladies on the ice. When skating towards them, the skater took a spill, “and our head felt like a brass kettle with a hole in the bottom.”

At this stage, the manager of the rink came over and told the correspondent he was entitled to skate as much as he liked because he had paid his 25-cents, “but if you think you can come down here and break the ice all to pieces with your head, I tell you plainly you’re mistaken. It ain’t fair.”

The correspondent contemplated the message, decided it wasn’t fair and took off his skates and departed through the back door.

“When we got to the top of the bank a man shouted after us:

“‘You’ll come again, I suppose?’

“And we shouted back:

“‘Yes, I think so — next summer.’”

Not to be outdone on the comic side of skating, the Free Press reported on January 23, 1875, that there had been a fireworks display at the Victoria. “The young man who told us he saw the pyrotechnics, was trying one of those newfangled double-twisted, spread eagle movements, and it was when he lit on his bump of amativeness (another way to imply arousal in the presence of female skaters) that he saw the fireworks.”

In 1875, two ice carnivals were held at the Victoria. The first in December was called “an extremely successful affair” that was attended by nearly 500 spectators and had over 60 skaters in costume. The music for the skating was provided by the military band.

The Free Press reported that it was “an exhibition of fine and grotesque dressing ...” A lengthy list of costumes was reported, including “two of the Misses Morris representing very handsomely dressed and pretty shepherdesses; Miss E. McKeagney was gorgeous as Britannia, ... Mrs. Austin was tastefully dressed as a lady of the time of George III, ... Misses J. McKeagney and L. Bannatyne were charming as snowflakes ...”

The gentlemen included “Master D. Taylor” dressed as a lady “in an ordinary walking dress, and was an extremely well dressed and well acted character, and the deception, except to intimate friends, was perfect.”

Thomas Peebles was clad in “an extremely rich Romeo suit ... Bill Alloway and C.N. Bell dressed as Highlanders.” Bell was described as skating superbly.

“J. Andrews, who claimed to be ‘a representative of his Satanic Majesty, in charge of city property, into whose hands it has fallen owing to mismanagement ...’”

Other costumes included a sailor, a pick-pocket, an Egyptian, Santa Claus, Henry VII, a Roman wearing a toga, a Spanish bullfighter, a Southern planter and a French swordsman and count.”

The second ice carnival was reported on March 6, 1875, by the Free Press as having more costumed skaters than in December, and the “standing room for spectators was filled to its utmost capacity.” It was reported that 300 people attended the ice carnival during the evening.

Again, the music was provided by the military band.

Alterations were made to the Victoria Skating Rink for the 1876 season: “On entering, one finds himself facing a large sheet of ice; on the right hand side of the entrance is the ladies’ dressing room, a large apartment, neatly fitted up, with closets, mirrors, etc., etc., and on the south side of the entrance are the ticket office and the gents’ dressing room which have been comfortably arranged,” according to a December 2 Free Press article. 

The ticket office held rental skates, “so that the visitor, if he is not a ticket holder, has the opportunity of enjoying a skate on payment of a small sum.”

Above the ticket office and gents' dressing room was a gallery capable of holding 62 people. At the west end was the alcove which housed the band.

“On the south side is a small refreshment stand, well supplied with edibles, cigars, etc, and in the rear is a handsomely furnished restaurant, in which oysters and other delicacies are served up.

“In fact, Mr, Brundige, the proprietor, is leaving nothing undone on his part that may tend towards the comfort and pleasure of his numerous patrons.” 

The opening of the Victoria Skating Rink in December 1877 was hampered by poor ice conditions brought on by unseasonably warm weather, but manager R.H. Cronn promised that the rough spots would be cut out and repaired, allowing patrons “to enjoy the art skatorial on a smooth sheet of ice.”

The Victoria also boasted a four-person orchestra which featured a piano, “a novelty ... possessed by no other rink in Canada.”

By the early 1880s, a number of indoor skating rinks had been built in Winnipeg, including the Welcome Rink owned by Samson & Co., the Alexander Street Rink at Alexander Street East owned by William Murray, the Manitoba Rink on Post Office Street  (now Lombard) owned by Strachan, McManus & Downie, as well as the Victoria Rink on the corner of Portage and Donald, owned by a syndicate of local shareholders. The Welcome Rink actually carried on the tradition of the Amphitheatre Skating Rink of 1874, since it was also built on the Red River at the foot of Post Office Street (Lombard). 

While skating remained a popular pastime, it was the advent of hockey which contributed to an indoor rink building spree.

In the winter of 1886-87 there were reports of “hoky” or “hocky” or “hockey” played on the Red River. In the same winter, hockey was played indoors at the Royal Rink, which was originally built in 1885 as a roller skating rink. In the reported games, the “Bankers” took on “All-Comers.”

Lawyer P.A. Macdonald apparently introduced hockey to Winnipeg. In 1885-86, he had travelled to Montreal and returned to Winnipeg with a few hockey sticks, setting off the momentum that would lead to the Winnipeg Victorias winning the Stanley Cup in 1896 and 1901, the first Western teams to do so since the cup was established in 1893.

When hockey gained momentum in 1890-91 with the formation of the Victoria (adopted from the Montreal team of the same name) and Winnipeg hockey clubs, games were played at Austin’s Rink, an outdoor facility built by W.F. Austin, manager of Winnipeg’s Street Car Company, adjacent to his toboggan slide on the north bank of  the Assiniboine River.

Some early indoor rinks were 

actually roller skating rinks flooded in the winter, including the Grand Roller Rink at the corner of Princess and McWilliam (now Pacific). It was soon after converted into the Thistle Curling Club (the modern Thistle CC on Minto Street burned down on June 10, 2006). In 1891, it was turned into a skating rink only and became commonly known as the Brydon Rink. 

Another prominent facility was the Granite Rink, or McIntyre Rink as it was sometimes called because it was located on Albert Street behind the McIntyre Block. This facility was taken over from the Granite Curling Club in 1892 and was Winnipeg’s best hockey facility until 1898-99.

The craze for skating and later construction of skating rinks was only made possible by the momentum gained through the construction of Winnipeg’s first dedicated facilities — the militiamen-built Victoria of 1873, the Amphitheatre in 1874 and the Victoria in 1875.