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How “The Crossing” Became the Town of Selkirk

by Dorothy Garbutt

Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

If the first telegraph line in the west had not set up offices where it did there would have been no town of Selkirk in Manitoba. You learned about that early communication system in an article in the last issue called "Morse Code for Manitoba." The informant was the first telegrapher, James Colcleugh of Mount Forest, Ontario. And not only was he a "first" in this line, but he was also first postmaster and first Mayor of Selkirk, and so may be quoted with authority when he tells us about the founding of that town. In an article in my possession - for he was my grandfather - he goes on to say:

"There was a post office called Mapleton two miles south of where we had set up our telegraph office. This was too far away for our convenience and we felt that a new post office was indispensable. Up to that time our quarters had been called "The Crossing" because it was considered to be the logical spot for the C.P.R. to cross the Red River and so, on to the Far West.

A petition was circulated among the residents asking the Government to establish a Post Office to be named Selkirk with myself as the Post Master. This petition was granted and I have in my possession a letter from Jack McDougall, Inspector of Post Offices for Manitoba and the North West as well as Post Master at Winnipeg, acquainting me with the appointment. Thus was the town of Selkirk founded on the west bank of the Red River between 35 and 36 years ago.

(This article was written by Mr. Colcleugh in 1911).

Things went booming along, and although there was great rivalry and jealousy on the part of Winnipeg (Grandpappy was a Selkirk man himself), we felt that as long as the McKenzie Government stayed in power, with its Chief Engineer, Sir Sanford Fleming, our position was impregnable.

The town was surveyed and layed out, plans and specifications were made of the docks and government buildings and also of the bridge, all waiting for the return of the McKenzie Government to begin construction. Had the McKenzie Government even built the bridge before their defeat it would have insured the location and Selkirk would now have been a city of 100,000. But the Government was defeated and our hopes began to totter, for we were afraid, although our position was strong, that the successful party, in order to show the folly of the present site, would make a change in the whole survey that would seal the doom of Selkirk.

We were reassured, however, upon the visit of Sir Charles Tupper to Selkirk. He told us that they might make a diversion to the south, instead of following the line north of Lake Manitoba. This plan would not interfere with the location of Selkirk. Things looked bright again until the sale of the road to the syndicate of Stephen Smith, James Hill, McIntyre and Auger. Through some untoward circumstance the route by Battleford, Edmonton and Yellow Head was changed to its present location, a change regretted by the whole Province and one which sounded the death knell to Selkirk as a great metropolitan area.

For Selkirk had everything to make a city beautiful, a city that could not have been surpassed in its surroundings. It had a soil that would have saved millions of dollars in the making of streets, a seam of gravel within a shorter distance from Selkirk than Bird's Hill is from Winnipeg. It was a spot safe from floods that inundate the country from time to time and are a continual fear to the settler. For when Winnipeg was four feet under water (he is referring to the flood of 1852 presumably) the banks of the Red River from Lower Fort Garry to St. Peter's Church (at Dynevor) were high and dry. Nor would there have been the necessity of the Locks at St. Andrew's (Lockport). We would have had Lake Winnipeg at our very doors.

Many mistakes have been made in the settlement of Manitoba and the Northwest, but none that will cause so much eventual regret as the failure to build the City of Winnipeg at Selkirk."

And if subsequent events were to break Grandfather's heart and shatter his dreams of a fortune for himself and others, their faith in the town of Selkirk was based on a shrewd knowledge of the country and a sound judgement that holds as good today as it did then. For they were right, though things went wrong.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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