Is it right that history should fall victim to perception? In the case of Higgins Avenue, Rhonda McCorriston, economic development officer for the Neeginan Development Corporation, believes history should take a back seat to perception as people now only think about Higgins in the context of “crime, prostitution and homelessness,” as a result she is proposing the street, named after one of Winnipeg’s early
pioneers, be changed to Neeginan Way. Neeginan means “our place” in Cree.
The corporation operates Thunderbird House and provides social service and outreach programs for local residents. In addition, the corporation is opening a new daycare, a housing project and training centre in the Higgins area. McCorriston told the media changes being implemented will help revitalize the neighbourhood.
Higgins Avenue and Point Douglas earned public and media interest after David Asper revealed his $400-million plan for a new stadium, water park, commercial, retail and residential development in South Point Douglas which will be linked to Main Street by Higgins Avenue. Until the proposed stadium announcement, Point Douglas and Higgins were virtually ignored by most Winnipeggers with the exception of aboriginal groups, who to their credit redeveloped the former CPR Station and built Thunderbird House.
Neeginan is proposing one partial concession to history — a stretch of Higgins west of Main Street will retain the name of the Winnipeg pioneering merchant, who was also one of the city’s first councillors. The problem is that the section is not directly related to John Higgins, who actually owned a large slice of land east of Main Street.
On December 16, 1869, Higgins, originally from Sligo, Ireland, announced he had purchased 5 1/4 acres in Point Douglas from Neil McDonald. Higgins and his family later lived in a brick house named Roseville, which stood at the bank of the Red River at the foot of Gomez Street on Lot 13 in South Point Douglas. The land he formerly owned is directly under the proposed new stadium site, and the planned foot and cycle bridge to St. Boniface begins on the west side of the Red River on land he once owned, according to John Parr’s 1874 map of Winnipeg.
According to the 1874 map, Higgins was one of the principal property owners in Point Douglas, along with William Gomez Fonseca, Neil Livingston, E. Bouvette, E.L. Barber, John Sutherland, George Groat, Thomas Spence and J.H. McTavish.
After arriving in Winnipeg in 1865, Higgins peddled odds and ends in the countryside from a one-horse cart. “Through industry, perseverance, and a natural tact for mercantile transactions, Mr. Higgins got up step by step, and
dollar by dollar, until” he saved up enough to open his first general store in partnership with W.H. Lyon on the west side of Main just south of McDermot Avenue.
In a lengthy article, the Manitoba Free Press of July 19, 1873, announced Higgins was erecting “a mercantile palace” to be managed by his new partner David Young on the west side of Main Street across from the store owned by their principal rivals Bannatyne and Begg at the northeast corner of Main and Post Office Street (now Lombard Avenue). The store opened in 1874.
“The new (two-storey) store of John Higgins would be considered an ornament to an old town of ten thousand inhabitants (Winnipeg’s population at the time was 3,700) ... it (is) extremely doubtful if it is
excelled by many metropolitan shops.”
Higgins and Young organized the
history-making first shipment of 875 1/6 bushels of wheat from Manitoba to Eastern Canada in 1876.
Besides being a leading merchant, Higgins was involved in bringing the CPR to Winnipeg. At a meeting in 1875, Higgins seconded the motion “if necessary in order to obtain the railway and station in Winnipeg we will build a bridge.” It took another six years before the Louise Bridge was built for the CPR. The Louise Bridge will be a major vehicle crossing point over the Red River to the proposed new stadium. The Louise Bridge enters Point Douglas at Higgins Avenue. Under the Asper plan, a section of the eastern portion of Higgins will be relocated to accommodate the project.
Higgins died on November 22, 1885 and was buried in St. John’s Cathedral cemetery, the final resting place of many of Winnipeg’s prominent pioneers. The Winnipeg Daily Sun said after his death that Higgins was “a gentleman ... (of) ... whom none was better known in this city ... and the sign John Higgins will long be remembered by the early pioneers here.”
Higgins retired from the firm he helped established in 1881, after which he “devoted much of his time to the improvement of his beautiful residence in Point Douglas.”
A January 1961 Manitoba Pageant article on Higgins said, “He deserves well of Winnipeg,” but it is doubtful Higgins remains among the better known of Winnipeg. Even the plaque erected in 1932 on Lombard Avenue commemorating the first shipment of wheat from Manitoba organized by Higgins and Young disappeared a few years after it was unveiled.
Today, many travelling the street named in Higgins' honour would be hard pressed to come up with an explanation for its designation.
It’s probably due to the importance of the major South Point Douglas landowner being lost in the annals of history that so many have been quoted in the media as favouring the proposed name change to Neeginan Way.
Yet, street name changes are not unknown in Winnipeg’s history. Over the years, the streets in Point Douglas have undergone numerous name changes. Higgins was originally called Fonseca after William Gomez Fonseca, although when it was renamed in 1908, city council undoubtedly took into consideration that Gomez Street would continue to
exist in honour of Fonseca.
It’s not the name per se that has created the perception of an area riddled with crime — a name in itself is not the root of the cause, nor is it a symptom. Fortunately residents, community groups, developers and government now seem to care enough about revitalizing the neighbourhood that they are attempting to change this negative reputation.
With revitalization there is no need to rename a street to the detriment of its historical significance.