From Backwater to Park: The Forks in Relation to Downtown Winnipeg
The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
The creation of a park and national historic site on what was for many years an active rail yard is a very good example of bringing an urban backwater into public prominence. Most of the public were unaware of the existence of the East Yard because it was effectively hidden behind the developed lots of east Main Street and by the high-line embankment. Until the 1980s, those who ventured to drive through, or more infrequently, walk through the Yard were confronted by an urban wasteland which might have been written off by even the most optimistic observer. Dilapidated buildings met the eye in every direction; heaps of gravel or waste materials were piled at random, and the district bore a generally quiet, forlorn, atmosphere. This was but the final phase in an historical process which I propose to chart in this paper.
Before Confederation, that is Manitoba’s Confederation in 1870, the Flats of the Red and Assiniboine river junction had seen many uses. Prior to the arrival of whites to what would become Rupert’s Land, the Forks had a number of aboriginal uses. A portion was used for a meeting ground where various groups came together to conduct their social and economic affairs. At that time, the Flats extended to the southern boundary of what later became Point Douglas—that is, the Sinclair’s Creek area between present day Bannatyne and Market Avenues east of Main. A portion of the Flats was occupied by a burial ground, centred at the present-day Federal Building and extending southwesterly to a burial mound at the western intersection of Broadway and Main Street.
Early whites who passed the Forks were aware of the importance of aboriginal use of the area. From the time of La Verendrye in the late 1730s to the 1830s, several trading posts were erected at the Forks in order to capitalize on the Aboriginal preference for the area.  After the flood of 1826 wreaked havoc throughout the Red River settlements, an attempt was made to build another Fort Garry north of the St. Andrews Rapids. There the river bank was much higher than at the Forks which had been disastrously inundated.  The new site also gave easy access to the Norway House trade, and was also removed from possible Metis unrest.  Had Governor Simpson’s plans for Lower Fort Garry been completed, the trade centre of the Settlement might have shifted north from the Forks and it would have lapsed into obscurity.
During 1835, Chief Factor Alexander Christie took charge of the flood-damaged Fort Garry at the Forks. Christie ordered the rebuilding of this Fort, reflecting a changed Hudson’s Bay Company policy toward the old site. A new location for the fort was chosen somewhat west of the junction on a high spot of land. Completed in 1837, the new post received the name Upper Fort Garry, in deference to its rival above the Rapids. Under Christie and subsequent Factors, the Upper Fort prospered, and doubled its size during the period 1852-1854. At that time, the Flats to the east and north-east of the Fort were partly used as a loading zone for carts engaged in the plains trade. From 1837 to 1847, a functioning Company experimental farm existed on the Flats, complete with animal shelters, fields, and houses for the officers conducting the enterprise.  Economically a failure, the farm’s assets were sold to the settlers in the late 1840s. Probably nothing remains of it. The flood of 1852 would have scoured the last traces of the experimental farm from the Flats, leaving a seemingly pristine environment for the next set of adventurers.
There is little recorded of human activity along the Flats until the 1870s. It is necessary at this point to state that the northern edge of the Flats was pushed ever southward after 1812. It was the Company’s habit to sell or grant farmsteads to retiring Company employees who wished to remain in the Settlement. These took the form of two mile deep river lots of varying widths. Physically, these started with William Drever’s holding on the north side of presentday Pioneer-Notre Dame Avenues, and James Spence’s lot on the west side of Colony Creek. For whatever reason, the Company preferred to have a wide buffer zone between its establishment and the settlers. This would prove to be important in establishing the Company Reserve at Fort Garry under the Deed of Surrender in 1869. It was with this buffer zone that the modern history of the Flats commenced.
The creation of Manitoba ended Company rule once and for all. At the same time, it presented an almost boundless vista of speculative opportunity in the exploitation of land as a resource. Under the terms with Canada, the Company retained a certain reserve about each post. In the case of Upper Fort Garry, this amounted to 500 acres of potentially valuable realty. The tract had the Red and Assiniboine Rivers as its eastern and southern boundaries, with Water Avenue / Notre Dame Avenue at the north, and Colony Creek at the west. Locally, this became known as the Hudson’s Bay Reserve, (Figure 2) and it was the subject of much envy among the Winnipeggers who had formed a straggling village north of Notre Dame Avenue after 1862. The existence of the Reserve became a bitter gall in the minds of some townspeople who foresaw the speculative value of the Reserve and wanted a piece of it for themselves.  (Figure 1)
During 1871, an attempt was made by certain townspeople to seize control of the Reserve. This led Company Commissioner Donald Smith to recommend to the London head office that the Reserve be “laid out in sections with the view of offering for sale a limited number of lots”.  Head office agreed and in July 1872 Company surveyor A. H. Vaughan laid out a portion of the Reserve into town lots.  Winnipeggers figured prominently in the ensuing sale of Main and Fort Street lots later that month.  No other lots were offered for sale at the time, for the Company was attempting to channel building and development along the west side of Main Street southward to the Fort. The larger plat, known as the Town of Selkirk (or Registered Plan 18) had lots laid out along the east side of Main from the Wesleyan Church lot at Water Avenue, southward to Broadway, and then eastward on both sides of that thoroughfare to the Red River. (Figure 3) A similar strip of lots extended northward on the west side of Wesley Street back to Water Avenue. (Figures 4, 5)
This was to be the fate of the Flats which was now described matter-of-factly as Block One. A limited number of these Flats lots appear to have been sold privately for building purposes during the ensuing year, but a large empty triangle of land was left in Block One south of Water Avenue that was not laid out in to lots. It was here that the beginnings of a shanty-town appeared in 1872.
That June, a number of squatter dwellings were built on the Reserve.  Some of these were meant to test the Company’s claim.  Surprisingly, the squatters seem to have been ignored by the Company which was then engaged in a battle with the Winnipeggers over the location of various public buildings. As well, by 1873, the Flats were beginning to be isolated from the main stream of life in the town. In April 1871, the levee at the foot of Lombard and McDermot Avenues was first used by the all-important steamboat trade (Figure 6).  As a result, for a time traffic was diverted from the Company’s realm. This led to the erection of the Company’s levee and warehouse on the north bank of the Assiniboine just south-east of the Fort in 1873.  This was followed by a grist mill which was first mooted in 1874,  and opened two years later (Figure 7).  But instead of encouraging development on its Reserve, the Company’s efforts fostered further industrial development north of Pioneer Avenue (Figure 8). This took the form of McMillan’s flour mill, as well as the lumber mills of Macauley and Jarvis, and Dick and Banning. The subdivision of John Christian Schultz’s Water / Pioneer holdings east of Main Street in 1872 encouraged the construction of working men’s houses there to service the nearby industries.  This also encouraged enterprising souls to erect shacks and shanties to the south of Schultz on the Flats.
By March 1874, the first complaints regarding houses of ill-fame began to reach the fledgling City Council.  Supposedly, the problem was kept in check—until the houses spread to other sections of town such as on the Portage Road.  The spread taxed the small police force under Chief John Ingram, who was himself a known patron of the houses. By the latter part of the 1870s, the prostitution problem had spread to the McDermot’s Flats area around Lombard Avenue and Mill Street (Figure 9). Tales of raids upon the houses were by then commonplace in the local press, with the residents of the dives appearing to have been well-known to Winnipeggers in general.  Accounts of rows among the ‘flatters’ were also frequent, and there was even the dread of venereal disease affecting the residents of the Flats to entertain newspaper readers. 
Thrown into this area were a number of Icelandic immigrants who began arriving in Winnipeg after 1874. At first, they occupied the immigrant sheds near the grist mill. Soon their numbers over-flowed onto the surrounding Flats. Seeing that other flatters were unmolested by neither the City nor the Company, the Icelanders built their shacks and shanties there. It mattered little where the small buildings were placed—many were located in the middle of the streets which criss-crossed Block One after 1881.  The Icelanders and others such as widows with small children formed a block of urban poor which set up quarters within a stone’s throw of the central business district. While the Hudson’s Bay Company may not have paid much attention to the phenomenon of the squatters, their street-based hovels had been bedeviling the police and City Engineer since at least August 1879 when an attempt was made to grade Water Avenue to the river. (Figure 10). 
The 1880s opened with the Flats surrounded by development on the north and west perimeters (Figure 11). Cut off from the river trade by the two opposing levees, the Flats had developed into a zone of urban poverty and vice. It was because of these factors that the area became more isolated in a social as well as physical sense by that time.
The arrival of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway transformed the city of Winnipeg into an important centre in the 1880s, a change that had been predicted for some years before the arrival of its first train in 1881. The year 1879 had been marked by devious manoeuverings to place the all-important Red River crossing at Winnipeg which meant that Selkirk lost its place on the transcontinental line.  After the decision was made by Ottawa on the Winnipeg crossing, more manoeuverings took place among different factions which had suddenly appeared among the Winnipeggers. One interest group was the Hudson’s Bay Company which offered twenty acres of the south end of Block One to the railway should a crossing be made from Provencher Avenue over the Red River to Broadway.  This fell flat in September 1879 when the Louise Bridge location was chosen.  A traffic bridge was eventually built during 1881-82 which joined Broadway and Provencher, but the idea to use the Flats as a rail yard would not bear fruit for several more years.
The land boom brought about by the CPR had a profound effect upon Winnipeg as a whole. Realty prices became vastly inflated in the rush to cash in on the Eldorado known as Winnipeg. It was during the Boom of 1881-82 that the Hudson’s Bay Reserve came into prominence. Indeed, the southern part of Block Two, south of York Avenue, had by 1883 begun to emerge as Winnipeg first continuous affluent district (Figure 12).  Encouraged by initial land sales on the Reserve, the Company’s Land Commissioner, C. J. Brydges put the Reserve off-sale in April 1881 in order to increase the pressure of demand upon the Company’s land to inflate values to even greater heights.  Though a number of sales were made to bona fide builders during the next months, Brydges’ action effectively cut off fresh speculation in Company lands. This, of course, included Block One which might have been sold if the market had been free (Figure 13). Unfortunately, Brydges’ decision proved a disaster for Block One. In addition, an ice-jam in April 1882 caused by the spring break-up of the river wiped out the then-new Broadway Bridge and flooded the Fiats to a depth of several feet. After that, any potential real estate value which might have developed for the Flats evaporated, and the locality was “tabooed” in local minds.  The post-Boom depression even led to the cancellation of those few sales which had occurred on the Flats. 
Worse still, the business district had not extended appreciably south of Graham Avenue as a result of the Boom. A few large business buildings such as the Fortune and Macdonald Blocks, the Cauchon Block, and, of course, the elegant Hudson’s Bay Store at Main and York were erected, but these were scattered among either empty lots or insubstantial wooden or brick-veneered structures. Beyond Main Street and even Wesley Street were the Flats with their population dominated by the socially-visible bawdy-houses. So odious was the area in the minds of local citizens, that a July 1882 fire on the Flats was ignored by the fire department, which saw what was burning and went back to the fire-hall! 
That the shanty problem on the Flats gave the area its character was an understatement. In some ways, the area remained tied to the nearby immigrant sheds which were very busy in the years 1880-83 housing such new groups as the Russian Jewish refugees.  The first attention paid to the Reserve squatters came in July 1883 when the Winnipeg Times ran an article about the area.  The closure of the sheds in May 1884 appears to have removed whatever protection the status of ‘immigrant’ offered the shanties. Almost immediately, a campaign was launched to get rid of the shanties. Mr. Brydges, ever in favour of improving Company property, was behind much of the clean-up. Ina July 1884 census of shacks located on street rights of way, Brydges noted seventeen such structures within the confines of Block One.  While the City moved a number of dwellings to nearby lots, the Company staged a wholesale clearance of the area that October. 
A petition by twenty-two Icelandic residents of the Flats that fall appealed to City Council that they not be forced to move until 1 May 1885.  Council apparently favoured this, for they were allowed to remain.  Miraculously, by the following spring, shanty-town had increased the numbers of its shacks, for the structures had continued to appear as no steps [were] taken to stop them.  A by-law respecting squatters’ shanties was passed in the early summer of 1885 which contained specific reference to the situation on the Reserve.  In the ensuing clearance of the Flats, the City pulled down twenty-four shanties, removed three to adjoining lots, and about double that number were moved by their owners.  The joint action by the Company and the City appears to have removed the prostitutes from the shanty-town, for by November 1885, Point Douglas had assumed the Flats’ reputation as the most lawless area of Winnipeg. 
The next few years were quiet ones on Block One. There was a proposal to make the Flats into a city park but it came to nothing.  Another proposal early in 1888 was for an athletic park to commemorate the 90th military battalion on the land bounded by Broadway, Wesley, York and Christie Streets (Figure 14). This too fell through.  Finally, the decision was made that determined the use of land on the Flats for the next century. The Norquay government had challenged the Canadian Pacific Railway monopoly by creating the Red River Valley Railway during 1887-88. Though the legislation creating the RRVR had been disallowed by Ottawa, the Manitoba government went ahead with initial work on the line. In the summer of 1888, it seems that the Manitoba government had consulted with C. J. Brydges for the use of the Flats as a Winnipeg terminus. During September 1888, two maps (Figures 15, 16) appeared in the Manitoba Sun which depicted such a terminal upon the eastern and northern portions of the Flats.  The Hudson’s Bay Company began to remove obstacles from the path of the railway.  By October 1888, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway had replaced the RRVR as the agency to build the southern Manitoba lines, taking over the plans for the Winnipeg terminus and yards.  Indeed, a Water Avenue station was proposed at that time.  Whatever the name of the railway, the Flats changed markedly in the spring and summer of 1889. Workshops and a roundhouse were erected on the riverbank east of Christie Street at Assiniboine Avenue. A station, train-shed and freight shed were constructed along the south side of Water Avenue east of Main Street in 1889. The land sold on the Flats, which had led to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dismissal of Brydges, was nearly everything east of Christie between the Assiniboine River and Water Avenue which led into a 150 foot wide strip south of and parallel to Water A venue.  As well, in the summer of 1889, work began on acquiring a right-of-way for a riverbank railway. This became the Northern Pacific and Manitoba’s subsidiary line, the Winnipeg Transfer Railway. It joined the Canadian Pacific Railway to the tracks on the Flats. 
As the 1880s ended, the prospects looked good for the Flats to finally become a positive economic entity in downtown Winnipeg. What had hitherto been the Hudson’s Bay Company’s disreputable flood plain was suddenly transformed into a new and vital area by the prospect of the arrival of Winnipeg’s second railway. No longer was the city a one line town, and vistas to the south were now opened for commerce on a scale unheard of in the steam boat days. The early 1890s were promising years, marked by the development of the Northern Pacific’s Winnipeg yard and feeder lines. The later part of the decade was learner, as a result of the destruction of the NPR’s palace hotel, the Manitoba, and severe competition from the CPR.
While the Winnipeg rail yard ate up perhaps a third of Block One, a large part of the Flats remained either empty or sparsely built on in 1890. Its western boundary, the east side of Main Street, was virtually the same as it had been in 1882 (Figure 17). The new Manitoba Hotel would soon change that with its completion during 1891. This was a giant structure set among its earlier neighbours, a true railway hotel. The eastern boundary of the empty Flats now stood at Christie Street because of the rail yard and shops between that thoroughfare and the river (Figure 18). The northern boundary was now formed by the railway’s depot and long freight shed on Water Street. The Hudson’s Bay mill south of Assiniboine Avenue and its reserve formed the southern boundary of the cut-down Flats. In between these borders, there lay a largely empty tract, empty now that the shanties were gone, with only the odd structure, such as the Lemoine Terrace at York and Wesley to recall an earlier time.
During 1893, another proposal to start an athletic park on the Flats gained popularity. That summer, a number of citizens fostered a plan for a park to include a race track, grandstand and concession stands.  The Hudson’s Bay Company came out solidly in favour of the project, even to the point of constructing part of the facility. The land, however, was leased from the Company which meant that its usage could change quickly should more economic uses be found for it. The rights-of-way for Wesley and Balsillie Streets were closed off between Broadway and Assiniboine Avenue, with the bulk of development taking place during 1894.  The three square block facility opened that summer as Fort Garry Park.  A Main Street frontage of over seven hundred feet gave these pleasure grounds good coverage for traffic passing via the Main Street Bridge from Fort Rouge. A similar frontage along Broadway guaranteed traffic via the bridge from St. Boniface.
Throughout the 1890s, the Flats north of Broadway remained empty. The rights of way which existed for streets such as York, Wesley, Balsillie, and possibly even Christie had minimal grading and were more like trails than streets. To the commercial mind of the time, such an unused space was a wasteland. There is little to suggest that such thinking was not present in the Hudson’s Bay Company Land Office on Main Street. Potential existed for any empty tract, but until a concrete use was found, it remained only potential.
The Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway was never a financial success for its American parent, and by the late 1890s it was evident that the operation was in trouble. The firey destruction of the Manitoba Hotel in February 1899  put the lid on the railway’s Winnipeg ambitions. This was demonstrated when it was announced later that year that the Manitoba would not be rebuilt.  The ruins of the massive stone and brick hotel would decorate south Main Street for more than a decade until the Hall of Industry was built on the site in 1912. The Northern Pacific was only too happy to leave Winnipeg when Mackenzie and Mann’s Canadian Northern Railway offered to take over the line’s operations during 1900 (Figure 19). An agreement was announced in February 1901, and Royal Assent given the following month. 
With the advent of the Canadian Northern, rumours of great things began to circulate during 1902. These centred around a huge hotel-station complex somewhere on south Main Street (Figure 20).  Throughout 1903, it was obvious that the CNR was planning something, although Donald Mann only allowed delectable titbits to leak out. In November of that year, the Manitoba Free Press published a map (Figure 21) showing the Flats entirely in the hands of the CNR as a rail yard, with all the streets cancelled and Fort Garry Park passing into oblivion.  Though very rough in comparison to the eventual layout, the plan showed the Flats in full use as station ground and yards which marked the end of the Flats as a wasteland.
As matters developed, the combined efforts of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific railways created a modern transportation facility on the Flats (Figure 22). The prestigious New York architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore were hired to design the new Union Station and Local Freight Yard (Figure 23).  In redesigning the area, Broadway to the east of Main was closed, and its access diverted to a short run off Water Avenue. This effectively ended public access to the East Yard, and the area became isolated from the downtown despite all the activity there (Figure 24). Most public contacts were made in the elegant Union Station which opened for business in August 1911.  As its siting had closed off Broadway east of Main, so too did the Union Station block off public access from the yards, for all its functions were handled via covered or enclosed train sheds and platforms. The high line embankment back to Lombard Avenue aided in screening this industrial zone from public view after 1905. Finally, the Hudson’s Bay Company helped to cut off the view of the yards from south Main by erecting their new warehouse on part of the Fort Garry Park site in 1911.
The development of Winnipeg’s Joint Terminal project on the Flats was virtually completed with the erection of new freight sheds by the two railways in 1912 (Figure 25).  The success of the East Yard was short-lived, however, for the Mackenzie and Mann interests collapsed in 1917. Six years later, the Canadian National Railways system emerged from the ruins of those lines which had briefly provided the CPR with real competition. For the East Yard, this meant a slow decline from the 1920s onward. The need for a downtown yard was not obvious, given the consolidation of the Grand Trunk’s Transcona Shops and Yard with those of the Canadian Northern in Fort Rouge. Also, not all of Warren and Wetmore’s yard designs had been implemented, for several of the old Northern Pacific structures remained standing instead of being replaced by new facilities (Figure 26). These older structures deteriorated sooner than their 1907-12 counterparts, and were not regularly maintained. The importance of the East Yard declined even more severely after the opening of the Symington Yard in east St. Boniface during the 1960s. By the late 1980s, the East Yard was once again a sleepy backwater similar to its forebear, the Flats (Figure 27). The Forks had gone full circle in the space of a century.
While the rail yard came to be seen as a negative entity in the downtown, it is clear from an examination of its historical development that transportation or industrial usage represented the best known use to the Victorian or Edwardian mind for what was perceived as a wasteland. Emptiness was a waste to minds used to projecting monetary value onto a commodity such as land. The apparent uselessness of the Flats was a result both of its proneness to flooding and of the activities of some of its inhabitants. It is little wonder, then, that the Flats remained a backwater for so long.
1. I do not propose to go into a detailed accounting of the Forts at or near the Forks. The matter was adequately dealt with by William Douglas in the 1940s and 1950s. See “’The Forks’ Becomes a City” in Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions, Season 1944-45 (Winnipeg: Advocate Printers, 1945.) pages 51-80; also Douglas’ “New Light on the Old Forts of Winnipeg” in Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions, Series III, No. 11. (Winnipeg: Manitoba Historical Society, 1956.) pages 40-88.
6. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), A12/14, Donald Smith to William Armit, 20 September 1871, page 56.
12. HBCA, A 11/100, J. H. McTavish to William Armit, 15 August 1873, page 378.
16. City of Winnipeg Archives (CWA), Council Communications, Series I, #53, F. W. Hurd to City Council, 10 March 1874.
17. CWA, CC, I, #373, petition, C. V. Alloway et al, 4 August 1875, also Nor’Wester, 6 September 1875, page 3.
20. lt was stated by John Norquay in 1888 that the streets on Block One had never been graded and were not in use. See CWA, CC, II,#738, petition J. Norquay et al, 12 March 1888. It is easy to see why a shanty might be built upon a street right of way, if there was little to differentiate the roadway from the surrounding lots.
21. CWA, CC, 1,#1702, D. B. Murray to City Council, 18 August 1879; also #1720, J. J. Johnson to City Council, 8 September 1879; and #2284, Thomas Parr to City Council, 27 March 1881. One shanty, occupied by a Mrs. Rutledge, a widow with small children who received support from the City Relief Committee, had a surprising longevity.
22. Randolph R. Rostecki, “The Growth of Winnipeg, 1870-1886”, unpublished Master’s Thesis, Department of History, University of Manitoba, May 1980. See Chapter 3, “The Railway Crossing, 1878-81”, for a discussion of the crossing controversy. Hereafter, cited as Rostecki.
26. HBCA, D39 /2, C. J. Brydges to William Armit, 28 April 1881, pages 32021; also 6 May 1881, page 345.
27. HBCA, D39/3, Brydges to Armit, 23 October 1884, page 686.
29. MFP, 24 July 1882, page 1. This was possibly a smallpox shanty which was being burned by the Board of Health. See CWA, CC,I, #2774, Fred. McKenzie and C. S. Rankin to City Council, 29 July 1882.
32. CWA, CC, I, #4213, C. J. Brydges to C. J. Brown, 10 July 1884.
34. CWA, CC, I, #4387, P. Anderson et al, 1 October 1884.
35. CWA, CC, I, #4947, C. J. Brydges to City Council, 30 April 1885.
36. CWA, CC, Box 1886-87, Brydges to Alderman Archibald, 27 July 1885.
37. CWA, CC, Box 1886-87, L. Munro for C. J. Brydges to Board of Works, 13 July 1885.
38. CWA, CC, Box 1886-87, H. N. Ruttan to City Council, 28 August 1885.
41. “Proposed Athletic Park”, Manitoba Sun, 31 March 1888, page 5; see also CWA, CC, II, #738, J. Norquay et al, 12 March 1888.
43. “Imperative Sale of Frame Dwelling House”, MFP, 14 September 1888, page 4; also Morning Call, 6 September 1888, page 4 regarding the Broadway House. Brydges’ sudden death in February 1889 stopped the Company’s attempt to dismiss him for the sale of the Flats.
46. H. John Selwood and Evelyn Baril, “The Hudson’s Bay Company and Prairie Town Development, 1870-1888” in Alan F. J. Artibise (ed.) Town and City, Aspects of Western Canadian Urban Development (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1981) page 87.
Page revised: 5 October 2012