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Manitoba History: Review: Martha McCarthy, Grand Rapids, Manitoba

by Michael Payne

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Martha McCarthy, Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Papers in Manitoba History, Report Number 1, Winnipeg: Historic Resources Branch, Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, n.d.

A high proportion of the subscribers of Manitoba History are probably either present or former employees of the Historic Resources Branch, and most will be pleased to see that the branch has finally launched its own publication series. Researchers and indeed anyone interested in the history of Manitoba can only be heartened by the evidence of departmental “glasnost” which seems to suggest better dissemination of and access to departmental research in the future.

Before proceeding to Martha McCarthy’s study of the history of Grand Rapids some comment on the style and format of this series may be in order. It appears that the Department of Culture, Heritage and Recreation has chosen a style of publication that resembles nothing quite so much as the Canadian Parks Service’s former History and Archaeology Series. This may well cost the works in question much of their potential readership. If the Historic Resources Branch is serious about finding a wider audience for its work, it should perhaps be prepared to spend the money necessary to have work properly typeset and published with a more professional format and appearance. Unfortunately Martha McCarthy’s study still looks like a government report only slightly tarted up by a proper cover and 38 illustrations of varying quality and interest.

None of these matters, however, are the responsibility of the author who has produced a useful compendium of information on the history of an interesting and significant Northern Manitoba community. Grand Rapids is located at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg at the point where the Saskatchewan River flows into the lake past a spectacular series of rapids. Although never more than a tiny settlement, Grand Rapids is one of the oldest occupied sites in Northern Manitoba and, as McCarthy points out, its history is inextricably bound up with many of the most important phases in the history of the region. In this case the significance of the community is not to be measured solely in terms of the size of its resident population.

The study begins with a brief survey of the population at Grand Rapids from the pre–contact period to the early twentieth century. Perhaps reflecting the state of knowledge of the pre–history of Northern Manitoba, the description of the first native occupants of the site is rather vague and serves mostly to underline the need for more archaeological and ethnographic research in the area. From the later nineteenth century on better demographic material exists and a clearer sense of the population of the area—its ethnic diversity and the socioeconomic underpinnings of the community—does emerge.

Although this study devotes a chapter to the fur trade at Grand Rapids, claims about the centrality of the site to the fur trade ring somewhat hollow. Grand Rapids was never as significant a fur trade site as nearby posts like Cumberland House, The Pas, or Norway House, and it remained an outpost responsible only for a small local trade. The rapids were an obstacle to be overcome, and they constituted but one of several bottlenecks in the transport systems of fur trade companies. Moreover, the idea that fur trade history can be visualized as a conflict between rival transport systems and routes now seems a trifle outmoded, or at least too simplistically Innisian.

The best sections of this study examine Grand Rapids’ role in the development of steamboat navigation on Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River in the period between about 1872 and 1896 and the beginnings of a commercial fishery on Lake Winnipeg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both of these sections McCarthy supplemented archival and secondary source material with interviews with present and former residents of the community, and these add a valuable dimension of social history to her work. They constitute the core of this study and probably represent the sections of this work which will most interest other researchers.

Unfortunately a local focus on such matters somewhat obscures the larger significance of these businesses in the history of the development of Northern Manitoba. In both cases the extravagant hopes for the future of Grand Rapids never materialized: not as a result of lack of effort or energy or even resources but because economic and political decisions affecting Northern Manitoba’s development have almost always been made elsewhere. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of hydroelectric development which has changed the face of Grand Rapids and the surrounding area permanently. It is most unfortunate that this study pays only brief and passing attention to hydro development at Grand Rapids. This work would have seemed more complete and satisfactory had it referred to the work of scholars like James Waldram who have been studying hydroelectric development in the North, including the Grand Rapids development itself. In the long run hydro power and its socioeconomic consequences for communities like Grand Rapids are almost certainly more important than the tramway.

Overall it is to be hoped that Historic Resources will continue to publish the best of its research and that as this series continues a clearer sense of its market and purpose will emerge. In the meantime Martha McCarthy’s study of Grand Rapids stands as an interesting and useful contribution to the history of Northern Manitoba communities while at the same time underlining how much of this history remains unknown.

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