Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: The Cornerstone Casket at the City of Winnipeg Archives
by Sarah Ramsden
Not long after incorporation, the Winnipeg City Council proposed construction of a city hall. A site on Main Street between William Avenue and Market Avenue was selected.  On 17 August 1875, the cornerstone of the new city hall was laid with Masonic honours by Grand Master the Reverend Dr. Clark and officers of the Grand Lodge. A civic holiday was declared to mark the occasion, and speeches were made by Chief Justice Wood, the Honourable R. S. Davis, Premier of Manitoba, and American Consul James Wickes Taylor. At the ceremony, a casket was deposited into the cornerstone. Among the items in the casket were coins, bills, newspapers, and photographs of the City. Today, such a box would be called a time capsule.
Completed in 1876 and formally opened on 14 March of that year, the first city hall suffered chronic structural problems. Repairs were attempted, but were not successful, and for some time, the building was propped up with wooden braces until it was finally judged unsound and demolished in 1883. At demolition, the casket was removed and eventually placed into the cornerstone of the second city hall. When this building was demolished in 1962, the casket was moved to a bank safety deposit box and then to the City of Winnipeg Archives.
Approximately sixty items were placed in the casket, including money, photographs, and documents. The money in the casket consisted of bills and coins in circulation at the time along with currency issued during the fur trade era and coins from the United Kingdom, Russia, and Prussia, brought over by immigrant groups like the Mennonites. The casket also contained photographic collages with the names and likenesses of council members and municipal officials for the years 1874 and 1875. Depicted in these collages are notable individuals like Winnipeg’s infamous first Mayor, Francis Evans Cornish, and well-known businessman James Henry Ashdown, first elected to Council in 1874. Other photographs in the casket document early views of Winnipeg and events in the recent past. Images of Main Street and Point Douglas show newly built structures in what looks to be a frontier town. It is clear that many of these views were taken from the same vantage point, the top of the former courthouse on Main Street. Simon Duffin’s well-known photograph of Louis Riel’s provisional government was also selected for the casket as well as photographs of the arrivals of Surveyor J. L. Reid in 1873 and the first Mennonites in 1874. Among the documents in the casket were legislative acts and a sample of written and printed material. Unsurprisingly, it contained a copy of Winnipeg’s enabling legislation, An Act to Incorporate the City of Winnipeg, which was passed by the Manitoba Legislature on 8 November 1873. The Statues of Manitoba from 1871 to 1875 and the laws of the Council of Assiniboia from 1862 were also included. Copies of other documents like the “New Nation” record the meeting of French and English representatives of Assiniboia on 11 February 1870 and the formation of a Bill of Rights. Moreover, prize lists from local agricultural and industrial exhibitions and newspapers like the Manitoba Gazette were seemingly chosen to record the economic activities and daily affairs of the emerging city.
The casket also included a jar of grasshoppers and a box of wheat from a field savaged by grasshoppers. Of all the items selected for the casket, the grasshoppers appear to have generated the most interest over the years. In 1970 and 2010, DNA testing showed that one of the grasshoppers belonged to a species now extinct. The infamous Melanoplus spretus or “Rocky Mountain Grasshopper” was the scourge of the North American prairies and plains in the nineteenth century, but died out quickly for unknown reasons. Scientists hoping to get to the bottom of this mystery have requested access to one of the casket specimens, one of the few samples of this species in the world. Both the jar of grasshoppers and box of wheat are currently on display at the Manitoba Museum as part of the Legacies of Confederation exhibit.
Brought together in the casket, these items represent what Council thought was important and how they wanted future generations to remember Winnipeg. Similar to stories of pioneers were tales of hardship as evidenced by the grasshoppers and damaged wheat. Celebrating new beginnings through photographs of a growing city and founding pieces of legislation was perhaps more important at this moment in time, however. The prevailing feeling of optimism for Winnipeg and its future was party captured by Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris. Responding to the invitation to attend the laying of the cornerstone, Morris wrote that the “energy and determination, which have created a large centre of commerce and industry, in so brief a space of time, will continue to characterise the citizens of Winnipeg, and will secure a vigorous and prosperous future for our growing city.”  While we may not be able to see Winnipeg through the eyes of Morris and his contemporaries, the casket and its contents help us to glimpse into the past and to imagine what it may have been like to attend the opening of the first City Hall and witness the early years of Winnipeg’s history.
1. I wish to acknowledge and thank Jody Baltessen who allowed me to use her research and written work on the cornerstone casket for this article.
2. City of Winnipeg Archives, Council Communications no. 68, Laying cornerstone of City Hall, Letter from Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris, 14 August 1875.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 26 November 2020