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John Higgins and Higgins Avenue

by Ross Mitchell

Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2

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.

The names of Winnipeg's streets tell her story but the oblivion of time makes us insensitive to their message. Few people who drive along the winding course of Higgins Avenue from Louise Bridge to Princess Street or who cross it at the intersection of Main Street, the busiest traffic crossing in Winnipeg, have any knowledge of the man who gave it his name.

Begg and Nursey in their invaluable book, Ten Years in Winnipeg, 1870-1879, state that John Higgins came to The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine many years prior to 1870 and successfully carried on the business of a pedlar. He made and saved money, then opened a general store with W. H. Lyon near the present site of the McIntyre Block on Main Street. Later they separated; David Young joined Higgins and designed their fine three-storey brick store which they occupied in December, 1874. It stood on the west side of Main Street, across from that of their principal rival, Bannatyne and Begg. Later partners of Higgins and Young were John A. Peebles, who managed the dry goods department, and S. J. Jackson. One of Winnipeg's first millionaires, the late Alexander Macdonald, began his career as manager of the grocery division.

In the early 1850s and '60s, Fort Garry was the principal rendezvous of the plains hunters who came to exchange their furs for goods. The Hudson's Bay Company tried to enforce its monopoly of trade but this was challenged by the free traders. When the sale of Rupert's Land was made in 1870, the Company reserved the property adjacent to its forts. This explains why the free traders or merchants built their stores a half mile north of Fort Garry, so that a little village grew up about the corner of Main and Portage.

"Andrew McDermot led the way," say Begg and Nursey, "and was quickly followed by his son-in-law, A. G. B. Bannatyne. Then came John Higgins, W. H. Lyon, F. Gingras, Henry McKinney, Wm. Drever, Dr. John Schultz, George Emmerling, H. S. Donaldson, R. Patterson, O. Monchamp, W. G. Fonseca and Alexander Begg. These men and a few others not in trade were the original founders of Winnipeg and the name adopted by them became the name of the city at its incorporation."

In the interval between the transfer of authority from the Council of Assiniboia to the Government of the new Province of Manitoba there was much political unrest. A Provisional Government, headed by Louis Riel, assumed power, seized Fort Garry and held it until the arrival of Colonel Wolseley's force on August 23, 1870. The opening paragraph of Ten Years in Winnipeg begins thus: "The arrival of the troops inspired confidence amongst the people; trade which was almost dead suddenly revived and money became very plentiful. Bannatyne and Begg, John Higgins and W. H. Lyon found their stores crowded with customers."

The need of a railway to Winnipeg to replace the ox-cart trails to St. Paul and the Red River steamboats soon became evident. In March, 1875, a meeting was held in the Court House on Main Street, where the Bijou Theatre now stands. Gilbert McMicken was in the chair and John Higgins seconded this motion: ... "if necessary in order to obtain the railway and station in Winnipeg we will build the bridge and give the right of way, the Dominion Government guaranteeing the interest on the debentures." In spite of all this the bridge was not built until July 26, 1881, when Louise Bridge was completed.

On October 10, 1876, R. C. Steele of Steele Bros., seed merchants of Toronto, arrived in Winnipeg to buy seed grain. Steele Bros. reasoned that the flinty, amber-colored Red Fife wheat, grown on fertile new land in a northern climate, would have desirable qualities of hardness and early ripening. For a week the Manitoba Free Press carried this advertisement:

"Higgins and Young and Higgins, Young and Peebles will pay cash for choice wheat to export to Ontario for nine days, 80 cents per bushel."

It was late in the season, the last river steamboat was waiting, but by Saturday, October 21, twelve farmers had brought in 875 1/6 bushels. This was packed in two-bushel sacks, taken to McMillan's mill at the foot of Post Office (Lombard) Street, and loaded into the Minnesota of the Merchants International Steamboat Line. Captain Charles B. Thimens co-operated in delaying the departure. The Minnesota made the trip to Fisher's Landing (Moorehead) without trouble but forty-eight hours later the river froze over. By rail and boat the wheat passed to Duluth, Sarnia and Toronto, where it sold for seed at $2.50 per bushel.

In his later years, John Higgins and his family lived in a fine brick house, "Roseville," which stood on the bank of the Red River at the foot of Gomez Street. Their view took in St. Boniface and the fishermen who set and hauled in their nets twice a day. The house and grounds were surrounded with a brick wall, but house and wall have long since disappeared.

John Higgins died on November 22, 1884, age seventy-nine, and was buried in St. John's Cathedral cemetery. He deserves well of Winnipeg.

On June 11, 1932, the first shipment of wheat from Manitoba was commemorated by the unveiling of a bronze tablet affixed to a massive granite boulder which had been brought to the corner of Lombard and Mill Street. Archbishop Matheson gave the prayer of dedication and Dr. E. Cora Hind, agricultural editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, unveiled the tablet. A few years later the tablet was wrenched off and was not recovered. A similar fate befell the tablet which replaced it. The third tablet is now in the Legislative Building by the entrance to the office of the Minister of Agriculture.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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