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Manitoba History No. 90
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Manitoba History: Roblin City: A Gleaming Metropolis on the Bay

by James Burns and Gordon Goldsborough
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 68, Spring 2012

At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was an ambitious, exuberant place—bursting with energy and growing at a phenomenal rate. Inhabited by as many millionaires as any other city in Canada at the time, [1] Winnipeg boasted more new construction in 1910 than anywhere else in the Dominion. Its population increased by 80%, from 255,000 in 1901 to 461,000 in 1911. [2] In the latter year, Winnipeg ranked fourth in Canada in manufacturing. It was the third largest city in Canada, after Montreal and Toronto. What a vibrant place to live!

Scottish architect William Bruce rode this wave of excitement into Winnipeg with his wife Annie, in June 1906. Initially a junior employee in the architectural firm of Thomas Wright, then a partner with Daniel Smith, and finally the principal of his own firm, Bruce designed a modest number of works in the city. [3] His sojourn in Winnipeg may have lasted eleven years (1906-1917), perhaps a little longer, but he is not credited with the design of any significant Winnipeg buildings after 1913.

Bruce’s magnum opus was a signal example of the boldness that characterized Manitoba in those heady days prior to the First World War. It was a concept drawing, presented in 1912, of an entire, new city. Roblin City, as it was to be called in homage to Premier Rodmond P. Roblin, would be located at the mouth of the Churchill River, at the present site of the Town of Churchill. It might have been a beautiful monument to his sense of the dramatic, had it not been so redolent of naïve optimism.

Roblin City

The vision. William Bruce’s 1912 map of Roblin City was replete with gardens, artificial lakes, streetcar lines on both sides of the Churchill River, with Prince of Wales Fort isolated on an island at the mouth of the harbour.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Roblin City map

At the time, Winnipeg was the nexus of all rail traffic moving goods and people, especially immigrants from Europe, in all directions across Canada and the continent. Fabulous fortunes were being made in part due to the fortuitous location of the city, as the “Gateway to the West.” Yet, even as fortunes were being made, entrepreneurial eyes were turning northward. Reports of the vast, untapped natural resources to be found beyond the northern limits of Manitoba, as it was then delineated, meant that mining concerns and timber companies were preparing to make tracks and to exploit the north. Many took comfort from the northward orientation of “Golden Boy” atop the dome of the provincial Legislature, gazing and pointing “forever fixed toward the untold wealth of the northland.” [4]

York Factory, at the mouth of the Hayes River on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay, had for generations been the gateway for Hudson’s Bay Company furs bound for Europe. But the importance of a seasonally ice-free port for international grain shipping had not been truly embraced. The voyage to Europe could be shortened by almost 1,200 miles—compared to a route via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River—if a port could be established at the mouth of the Churchill River. [5] What could be done to bring this bold necessity to fruition?

Bruce was impressed by the immense possibilities at Churchill. But he was also a dreamer. When he presented his ambitious plan for Roblin City in 1912, perhaps he was trying to prove his mettle as an architect and city planner. If Winnipeg was a busy and maturing metropolis, Bruce’s new vision for a sparkling Roblin City was stunning and imaginative. It would be built properly—no doubt according to Bruce’s own precepts—in part because it is so much easier to build something from the ground up than to retrofit and replace existing facilities. It was in May 1912, during Rodmond Roblin’s fourth term as premier, that the land area of Manitoba was enlarged to its present size. The northern boundary was now located along the 60th parallel of latitude and the eastern boundary now coursed northeasterly to include Port Nelson and Fort Churchill—over strenuous objections from the Ontario and Saskatchewan governments. [6] These new limits gave Manitoba about 800 kilometres of saltwater shoreline and a fine potential seaport. The long-anticipated Hudson Bay Railway between Winnipeg and Roblin City, via The Pas, would expedite the flow of capital, and the making of fortunes in the north.

With the extension of the Hudson Bay Railway into the north, Roblin predicted that The Pas would become the second city in the province. [7] Community boosters from The Pas boldly claimed in 1913 that “the geographical and strategic position of their town is considerably more important than that of the Queen City of the prairies [Winnipeg]”, [8] a premature claim made 16 years before the railway would be completed. They dismissed Winnipeg’s great good fortune as an accident of its 40-year head-start and its profiting from the traffic of transcontinental enterprise through the city. Starting a thousand miles closer to Europe, rather than going by way of Port Arthur/Fort William and the Great Lakes, cargo would go faster and cheaper to Europe and elsewhere. Every bit of grain, every head of cattle, every ounce of minerals, every board-foot of lumber—in short, everything that would be shipped through The Pas—would help build and shape this new city, with Roblin City not far behind.

Bruce envisioned his Roblin City as home to 500,000 people, with 600 miles of streets and parkways, and a full range of facilities and amenities. One portion of the city, “a mile long and a third of a mile wide, [would be] devoted to municipal buildings, university, college, medical school, hospitals, museum, art gallery, court house, churches, schools, [and] libraries”. [9] Bruce seemed oblivious to the numerous drawbacks of the site and his design. It featured a long and narrow urban spread, exposed to the weather on the treeless tundra. The population density, for the combined east and west sides of the harbour—an area of about 39 square miles—would have been about 12,800 people per square mile, or 3.5 times Winnipeg’s urban density in 2006 (only 3,700 people per square mile). However attractive the many circular drives and promenades might have looked on paper, firefighters would abhor such divertissements because they interfere with speedy navigation to fires. While the new city would provide most of the amenities of modern cities in the south, its remote location would hobble it in the dead of winter. What would occupy the citizens when shipping was halted during the winter? How would such a large population endure the 24-hour winter darkness, unable to use the outdoors effectively? The many public gardens that Bruce included in his plans were attractive but impractical. Playful, doubting citizens might have asked Bruce what they should plant in the gardens: perhaps snow peas and iceberg lettuce? In a northern city of a half-million people, how do you treat sewage where the ground is permanently frozen? How do you build sewer and sewage-treatment facilities that will freeze unless you put them well below frostline? How do you compost garbage? Snow-clearing would be a problem given the constraints of unrelenting curved streets. All fuel for heating, motoring and industry would have to be shipped in.

On the other hand, the site was not without its advantages. It had nearly limitless fresh water from the Churchill River, and hydroelectric power production required only the construction of a dam. And there was a fine, well-protected, deep-water harbour to accommodate marine shipping.

Some insight to the nature of the Roblin City proposal can be gained from considering the career of its chief proponent. William Bruce, in a series of letters to the Editor of the Manitoba Free Press, was acutely aware of the problems facing any rapidly growing city. After six years of advocating for improved codes and tighter regulation of building inspections—as President of the Winnipeg Sanitary Association—he had made halting progress to ensure the erection and servicing of safe, healthy homes and tenement accommodations in Winnipeg. But it was not a smooth ride. And in step with his crusade for improved building codes, he continued to design buildings. These plans included a Manitoba Sanitorium on the Brokenhead River east of Winnipeg, a club house for the Reform Hunt Club on the borders of Lake Manitoba near Clarkleigh (where Bruce himself owned several “rural lots” that soon went up for sale), Winnipeg’s first public swimming pool and baths at the intersection of Charles Street and Pritchard Avenue, and the British and Foreign Bible Society building at 184 Alexander Avenue (known today as Oseredok, the Ukrainian Cultural Centre). Of the first three, only the pool and baths facility was ever erected.

Doubtless, Bruce also recognized the value of local building materials. Backed by investors to the tune of $250,000, in 1912 he became President of the Manitobite Stone Works Limited, which operated a quarry in the Broad Valley district of the Interlake. Its product was a marble-like stone called manitobite. Though hard, fine-textured, and polishable to a high lustre, and of pleasing dark yellow colour, the Silurian-age dolomite stone was probably never used in quantity in any city buildings. (A small quantity of manitobite may have been used, in 1931, to panel the staircase in the entrance to the Tier Building at the University of Manitoba. [10]) One probable reason was that Bruce was not the most diplomatic salesman. [11] More significantly, it is believed that his quarry was not capable of supplying the quantity or consistent high-quality of product due to partings in the stone; the geological stratum was also limited in areal extent, and nowhere was it more than 3.5 feet thick. [12]

The shortage of manitobite did not dissuade Bruce from trumpeting its virtues. During 1915-1916, he sought a contract to supply the provincial government with manitobite for their new Legislative Building in Winnipeg. At one point, the project’s chief architect, Frank W. Simon, grudgingly agreed to place some of the stronger-than-granite stone in the staircases leading to the galleries in the Legislative Chamber, but the offer was later rescinded. “It has been decided to use marble in the Parliament Buildings, and manitobite is not marble, nor of the quality required for such a building,” wrote Minister of Public Works Thomas Johnson to Premier T. C. Norris. It appears that the combination of Bruce’s frequent complaints to the Minister, his querulousness and open distrust of Johnson’s assistant in correspondence with the Minister, and his less-than-truthful assurances about the supply and quality of manitobite contributed to his failure to close a deal.

During the First World War, stone exploration and mining was impeded for want of labour and money to pay the men. Compounding Bruce’s problems, “the alien menace” may have proved a potent force in closing his quarry. In a letter to the editor of the Manitoba Free Press, Bruce accused Austrian immigrants living in the Broad Valley district of sabotaging the quarry, scaring off the site superintendent and his family, killing some livestock and damaging equipment. [13] (In fact, the immigrant quarry workers may have been staging a strike. [14]) Bruce’s letter comes off like a rant, for in it he claimed that federal authorities were unsympathetic to his pleas for help because they were courting the “alien vote.” [15] Whatever the truth in the case, the reality is that Bruce’s quarry was doomed. It closed in 1915 and the pits were later backfilled. The company’s charter was cancelled in 1925 and its investors were left holding worthless assets. [16]

On another front, Bruce seems to have enjoyed a good public reputation. In 1909, he served as President of the Winnipeg Robert Burns Society, and he was Vice-President of the Winnipeg Caithness Association that assisted newly arrived Scottish immigrant families. He was asked to stand for Mayor of Winnipeg in 1912 and for a federal seat in 1917 but declined both nominations. [17] On the other hand, he was unafraid to promote potentially unpopular views in public. He orated publicly in favour of conscription of men and women to the military but against women’s suffrage. [18] He favoured conscription of aliens for labour crews but argued against their getting the vote on matters of importance to the national war effort. [19] Apparently, the quarry incidents were still fresh in his memory.

By 1915, William Bruce was 63 years old. The manitobite debacle followed his greater sadness at the death, in far-away Edinburgh, of his beloved wife Annie. [20] He promptly remarried only four months after her death. [21] His new bride, Eveline Elizabeth Baillie, was 35 years his junior, and an independent woman. Soon, Bruce would disappear from public sight. He may have retired to British Columbia around 1919 but a “Mrs. William Bruce” still occupied their home on Alloway Avenue in 1923. Then, curiously, their respective trails go cold.

Bruce’s municipal dream was resuscitated in 1931, [22] and again in 1965 when local newspapers reconsidered his idea of a northern megacity on Hudson Bay, given the need for more efficient movement of prairie grain and of the products of mining, fishing and forestry. [23] The Hudson Bay Railway from the south, via The Pas, had been operating since 1929; the grain-handling facilities were operational in 1931; a large airfield was built in 1942 by the American military. By 1965, Churchill’s population had reached 6,000 and many thought it was the Town’s time to strut its stuff. But again, as in 1912, the dream city remained just that.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Churchill in 2012 and beyond is the uncertain effect on grain shipments due to the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board’s grain-shipping monopoly, currently the port’s largest user. The prevailing consensus on global warming suggests the Arctic seas will soon open up and Hudson Bay may become ice-free year-round. Churchill remains the largest, the best—the only—serviceable deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic, a decided advantage for shipping. Only time will tell if its potential will be fully realized, and there still might be a “gleaming metropolis” on the Bay.

The reality. This 2009 aerial view of Churchill, with Hudson Bay in the background, shows “Roblin City” as it was eventually developed.
Source: Mike Macri for the Churchill Gateway Development Corporation

Acknowledgements

Help in locating sources was provided by Sharon Foley and Chris Kotecki (Archives of Manitoba), Monica Ball (Manitoba Legislative Library), and Randy Rostecki. Drs. Graham Young (Manitoba Museum) and Robert Elias (University of Manitoba) provided information on the elusive manitobite.

Notes

1. A. J. F. Artibise, 1979. Gateway City: Documents on the City of Winnipeg, 1873-1913. Manitoba Records Society, Winnipeg.

2. L. Orlikow, 1959. The Reform Movement in Manitoba, 1910-1915. Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3.

3. A list of Bruce’s architectural works can be found in the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950. http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/architects/view/1228

4. I. Craig, “The Golden BoyManitoba Pageant, September 1956.

5. Le Pas Herald, 27 February 1913.

6. Manitoba Free Press (hereafter, MFP), 12 February 1912, p. 4; J. Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage, 2004, pp. 127-142.

7. MFP, 19 February 1912, p.13.

8. Le Pas Herald, 27 February 1913.

9. Winnipeg Tribune, 8 June 1912; WFP, 22 May 1965, p. 58.

10. G. A. Young, personal communication, January 2012.

11. Archives of Manitoba, G8014 GR1609 GS 0123, File 3.16.

12. Archives of Manitoba, op. cit., memo from S. C. Oxton to Public Works Minister Thomas Johnson, 30 December 1915; Goudge, 1944, p. 51. Bruce’s silence in reply to a question put by Johnson, as to whether he had ever used manitobite in Winnipeg, suggests he had not.

13. MFP, 2 February 1917, p. 4; Winnipeg Tribune, 2 February 1917, p. 5.

14. Mochoruk 2004, p. 435.

15. Federal Minister of the Interior, W. J. Roche, received letters from Bruce about the disturbance, but did not act.

16. Archives of Manitoba, op. cit.

17. Winnipeg Tribune, 29 August 1912, page 1; MFP, 19 June 1917, p. 5.

18. MFP, 7 May 1915, p. 5.

19. MFP, 19 June 1917, p. 5.

20. Annie Bruce had been of delicate constitution, and had repaired to Edinburgh in September 1913 to recuperate her health. An apoplectic seizure put her into a coma and she died on 16 February 1915. Her husband was unable to be with her or attend the funeral overseas. MFP, 18 February 1915, page 32.

21. MFP, 7 May 1915, page 5; MFP, 12 June 1915, p. 7.

22. WFP, 27 June 1931, page 2. Minister of Mines and Natural Resources D. G. McKenzie made a rather more modest proposal than Bruce did.

23. WFP, 22 May 1965, p. 58.

Page revised: 7 January 2017

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