Manitoba History: Winnipeg’s Selkirk Avenue in 1914
by Abe Padolsky
If Lord Selkirk was the first to bring European settlers here and to help establish the city of Winnipeg and I presume that was so, then I think that the ethnic people who came from the old country to live, work, and open stores on this street that was named after him, should be called the original Selkirk Avenue Settlers.
I lived and spent my childhood on Selkirk Avenue. I was born in a shack about two blocks away where the Mount Carmel Clinic was later built on King and Dufferin Ave. My mother used to tell me that her hair was frozen to the wall when I was delivered by a midwife named Mrs. Weller. I worked most of my life on Selkirk Ave. and was married there as well. My father had a fur and cap store on Selkirk and Charles St. in the first two decades of the 1900’s. To my estimation that intersection was the only one through the length of the street that had fur stores on it. Two grocery stores were owned by Goldenberg and Rosen. One confectionary was called the Five Cent Store, with Saidman as proprietor. He had no item over five cents, mostly candy, ice cream, pop, popcorn and sunflower seeds which made him famous. My father had the north-west corner.
I believe that this area in that era had the most active, interesting and exciting ways of life second to none. It was a convenient place for all within a short distance for commercial and residential activity. It was the heart of the Jewish North-end. The Hebrew School was around the corner. The chief Rabbi lived next door to the school. A four block square beautiful miniature park stood nearby which was also named after Lord Selkirk. The Queen’s Theatre which played to capacity with Jewish talent stood majestically on this street. The Pritchard pool, police station, butcher shops, chicken and egg dealers, barber shops, church, synagogues, horse barns, watch maker, tent and awning, sign painter, etc., were conveniently located within a block or so, including Main Street. Even the farmer’s market was a short distance away. The Aberdeen School which I attended was the farthest, two blocks away.
There was a well-worn path down Charles Street over the CPR tracks for those who worked in the needle trades or wanted a shortcut to downtown or Eaton’s.
Selkirk Ave. stretched from the Red River west to a little past the CPR tracks for almost two miles. One end was the river which the Natives had used for centuries for transportation. The other end was the tracks used by the settlers. The teacher imbued us with enthusiasm to visit the river at the foot of Selkirk Ave. to see the last journey of the Indians going down the Red River to Lower Fort Garry to sell their furs. The next day, at the appropriate time I went to see the sights. I remember the surroundings, going through thick bushes and what seemed to me a forest of trees, which today is completely built up. What I saw is still clearly registered in my mind’s eye. There was a long line of beautifully painted canoes, the Indians in all their finery, feathers and beads with determined faces paddling their birch-bark canoes down the winding river, a living, moving picture of the distant past. This was their announced last trip.
We lived in the midst of this commercial and residential area, which was drab, dusty and deteriorated. There was this lovely little park mentioned above. It was a green garden of fresh air, sunshine and rest amongst all the activity. I used to go there very often by myself to enjoy the grass and flowers. There was a circular walk around the inside. Four gates gave you access to shortcuts through the park. A wire fence and caragana bushes surrounded it. The gates were closed at night and Sundays with a chain and lock. Many times I cursed when I was prevented from taking a shortcut. There was a four-legged metal structure in the middle of the park and a British flag waving on high. Around this tower was a mass of fiery geraniums and in front of these grew golden marigolds which I loved. There was another reason why I went to Selkirk Park. It was where my buried treasures lay. Here I was almost certain to find the odd penny someone had lost resting or playing in the park. My secret procedure was to look for four leaf clovers first, which gave me luck.
Once I found a five leaf clover and to my astonishment in the same area I found a nickel and two large pennies. This money naturally always went for candy and sunflower seeds at the Five Cent store across the road. One day I found a children’s street car ticket. In those days adult tickets were six for 25 cents and children’s were eight or ten for a quarter. What could I do with one ticket? I decided to walk to the end of Selkirk Ave. and ride back. I had never been that far and it seemed like a daring adventure for a six year old. I don’t remember the two mile walk very well but I do remember the end of the tracks and the vast open prairies beyond. The tracks ended abruptly with a curved wheel-shaped metal obstacle to prevent the car from going off the tracks. There were no turn around or back up tracks to return. I always used to wonder how the cars came back and now I would witness it. This was the first time I was on a street car by myself. Finally one arrived. Both the motor man and conductor came out. They both walked over to the cowcatcher, unhooked it, carried it to the return side and attached it. Then after having a cigarette, the motor man got into the car while the conductor pulled the trolley off the line, walked around the car and attached it to the live wire overhead. It took several tries sparking and crackling before the indented wheel was fitted properly. He then rolled the loose rope around a wheel and knotted it.
I stepped into the street car and sat down. It smelled musty. The interior looked old, drab and well worn. The windows were small. There were two long benches along the length on both sides with wine-colored plush seats. Straps hung from above for passengers to hold onto while standing. The motor man had a small stove near him. In a corner was a charcoal box with a small shovel and a sand box. This was for the winter. The driver stood most of the time when driving. A small round collapsible seat was behind him which he flicked up to rest on occasionally. To start the car he brought the small motor crank to the now front of the car and hooked it on the motor. Then reversing the crank he turned it notch by notch to increase the speed. Every time he stopped he repeated the procedure. At his feet was a pedal which he stomped on to clang the gong when necessary. The cow-catcher had a safety feature. In an accident if any weight was placed on it a spring would release the brakes and stop the car. Quite often I used to see these catchers placed on the side of the street broken up due to an accident.
The conductor approached me carrying a small metal box with windows in it. I pushed the ticket into a slot. The car started and I was on my way back. I didn’t go to my corner as I did not want to be seen. I got off one block before and walked home. No one knew I had gone and I never told anyone.
Page revised: 23 October 2011