Winnipeg’s first council meeting — held on the upper floor of the Bentley Building

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

For years, according to a Manitoba Historical Society 1969 article, it was believed the inaugural meeting of Winnipeg’s first city council was held on January 19, 1874, in a store at the corner of Portage and Main. George F. Reynolds, the article’s author, said “it was thought that the upper floor of the McKenney store was rented for use as a council chamber ...”

 Reports of the meeting in local newspapers at the time referred to the city council meeting taking place in the second floor of Bentley’s building. The later confusion arose as a result of Linus Romulus Bentley being the agent for two buildings on property originally owned by Henry McKenney. The mistake was easily made in the context of the McKenney store being by far the more famous building in Winnipeg’s early history. 

McKenney is known to posterity as “the man who created the corner of Portage and Main” — the title also used for Reynolds' MHS Transactions article — and by building his store on the corner was responsible for the birth of Winnipeg. Until the store emerged on the bald prairie in 1862,  the commercial centre of the village was Upper Fort Garry along the Assiniboine River. McKenney purposefully built his store where he could establish a corner with the existing road running north to south, although local residents and the Hudson’s Bay Company officials at the time felt he was quite mad.

The site he selected at what is now the northwest corner of today’s Portage and Main was low-lying, swampy, subject to flooding and interspersed with scrub bush; essentially, the location was not fit for man nor beast. But, McKenney felt the site, despite being a half kilometre from the Red River which was the nearest source of drinking water, had the merit of being removed from prying eyes in the HBC fort.

When McKenney came to the Red River Settlement in 1859, he bought a store from local merchant Andrew McDermott, which was a short distance south from the present corner of Portage and Main. He converted the store into a hotel, renaming the establishment the Royal Hotel. He also opened a general store on the premises and traded in pemmican and furs. His hotel became a popular watering hole for thirsty travellers, who created a path that branched off from the Portage Trail leading to the HBC’s  Upper Fort Garry. 

Noting the trend, McKenney came to the conclusion that if he built a new store a little further to the north, it would take advantage of the east-west and north-south crossing and create a new commercial centre. As it turned out, McKenney was correct in his assessment, and by 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner, which the Nor’Wester newspaper two years earlier had designated Winnipeg on its masthead. By building his store diagonally at the corner of Portage and Main, McKenney had influenced the future shape of the city — all roads, he believed would radiate outward from the corner like the spokes of a wheel.

In his book, Red River, fur trader and settlement  historian, Joseph James Hargrave, described the McKenney store as “a long two storey building 80 feet long by 24 feet wide by 22 feet high, the ground flat of which was lighted by two large windows which, with the door, occupied one end, while the sides were windowed only in the top storey which was used as a dwelling house. The proportions of the building, with its steep roof and  side windows aloft, rendered it singularly like Noah’s Ark without the boat.”

As Hargrave noted, because of its appearance and the local knowledge that annual spring floods threatened to inundate  it with water, the community nicknamed the store “Noah’s Ark.” 

On October 26, 1864, Bentley married McKenney’s eldest daughter, Lucy, who was then only 17, in her father’s store. 

Bentley arrived in Winnipeg in May 1862, when he partnered with fellow St. Paul, Minnesota, businessmen Harris and Whiteford, to run a flatboat freight service between Georgetown, Minnesota, and the Red River Settlement. The partners transported a great deal of freight for McKenney and Company.

After leaving Winnipeg in the spring of 1870 for Pembina, North Dakota (he returned in 1874), McKenney rented his store to hardware merchants McArthur and Martin. The hardware merchants moved out of the store in January 1871, and it was occupied by Bentley, McKenney’s son-in-law.

A tinsmith by trade, Bentley continued to operate Noah’s Ark as a hardware store. A Manitoba Free Press advertisement in 1873, indicated that while L.R. Bentley was in “McKenney’s Building, Winnipeg,” he was a “wholesale and retail dealer in every description of shelf and heavy hardware, stoves, tinware, agricultural implements, and household furniture.”

In the Manitoban of January 24, 1874, it was reported the first council meeting was held  “on the upper story of Mr. Bentley’s new building on Main Street, occupied by Messrs. Thornton & Sutherland, and commonly known as the ‘Flat boat store.’”

Apparently the confusion associated with the first city hall may have intensified when later writers equated the “Flat boat store” with the nickname “Noah’s Ark” given to McKenney’s store. But a survey plan of Portage and Main, circa 1875, now in the Provincial Archives shows “City Hall” located in another building on the McKenney lot some 125 feet north of the corner of Portage and Main. A map in the book, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It is in 1860, by Elliott George Babington, also clearly shows “City Hall” to the north of the famous corner along the west side of Main Street. The 1874 map by J.M. McGregor for the provincial “minister of agriculture”shows the Davis Hotel as adjacent to and slightly north of city hall. 

Elliott wrote that Bentley had a hardware store in a large two-storey frame building on Assiniboine Street (now Portage Avenue). Elliott is referring to the McKenney building located along a branch of the old fur traders’ trail. 

“North of Bentley’s on the west side of Main St., are more wooden buildings variously occupied, among the number being a building, the lower flat of which is used as a general store while the upper floor is occupied as city hall.” This was the second building owned by Bentley north of McKenney’s store, although Elliott does not specifically name Bentley as the owner.

Anyone  reading the Elliott account can be forgiven for being slightly confused by his building locations.

The Manitoban said the room selected was “large and well finished, with lofty arched ceiling, centrally located, and in every way well adapted for the purpose for which it is intended. About one-third of the room is set apart for the use of the Council, and is separated from the ‘gallery’ by a neat railing. Inside of this is a semi-circular table, covered with red cloth, around which the members will sit, while the Mayor will occupy a chair raised on a dais. Two tables have been provided for the use of reporters — in fact, everything in the way of fitting up the room has been well and credibly done.”

According to the Free Press, “The council chamber has, considering the short time which was devoted to its preparation, been fitted up very nicely — convenience, comfort, and a little in the matter of embellishment having been looked to.”

The newspaper said the council room was also to be used as the police court and the mayor’s office.

Bentley later submitted a bill for $340.39 to fix up and furnish the council chamber.

Mayor Francis Evans Cornish told the newly-elected councillors that he had agreed upon a rent with Bentley for use of the building not to exceed $30 a month, although the rent ended up being $450 a year. Once a finance committee was appointed, it negotiated the new rate, which included light, heat and maintenance. Cornish told the council he rented the upper floor of the building from Bentley for one  year.  

Prior to conducting the business meeting, William Nassau Kennedy, the registrar for Selkirk constituency and the acting clerk and returning officer, administered the oath of office to Mayor Cornish and to the councillors (then called aldermen), who were:

• North Ward — William Gomez Fonseca, Alexander Logan, and John Byron More.

• West Ward — John Higgins, James H. Ashdown, and Archibald Wright.

• East Ward — Robert Mulvey, W.B. Thibaudeau, and Andrew Strang.

• South Ward — John McLenaghen, Herbert Swinford, and Capt. Thomas Scott (resigned May 12, 1874).

The December  and January 1873 election, following the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city on November 8, 1873, is the most irregular mayoralty contest in the city’s history. A bitter campaign was waged between Cornish and W.F. Luxton, the publisher of the Free Press.

Cornish was originally from London, Ontario, where he was “brought before a board of aldermen for rowdyism and a breach of the peace,” according to Luxton. Cornish's tenure as the mayor of London ended in 1864 when the council called out the militia to ensure he didn’t resort to some of his old ballot-stuffing tricks to remain in office. Cornish, a lawyer by profession, was charged by his various political opponents for assault, bigamy, drunkeness and political boisterousness, as well as padding ballot boxes.

No longer welcome in London, Cornish arrived in Winnipeg in 1872, and immediately became involved in some of the more controversial events in the newly-created province, such as being one of the chief instigators of a Winnipeg mob during the federal election riot of 1872 in which a St. Boniface polling booth at the home of Roger Goulet was attacked.


(Next week: part 2)