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Reflections of Virden 1882

by Rev. F. C. J. McLeod

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1977, Volume 22, Number 1

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.

Came up on horseback from the end of the track at Flat Creek and visited the people and held services at Mr. Austin and Mr. Cobb's houses, about the beginning of March 1882.

Came again about end of April of same year and held service at the track-laying gang's boarding cars South from Mr. Austin's house. Another service was held next day on the prairie at Mr. Cobb's tents near Gopher Creek. A large number of Ontario people were there who were looking for land and stopped for dinner there. Among them were Messrs. Joslin and Montgomery and Hoskins and others who settled North of Virden.

Mr. McLeod had walked down from the boarding cars to visit Cobb's family and found a large number of people there resting on the prairie. Mr. Joslin had a fiddle with him and he was entertaining them by fiddling for them while visiting, so he was the first musician in the settlement.

None of them knew who the newcomer was and he knew none of them; but when there was a lull in the music he surprised them by proposing to conduct a religious service with them as that was the way he followed wherever he met people with time to spare. Mr. Joslin very cordially agreed to (this) and conducted the singing.

That was the first general public service held in the settlement as the former ones were in private houses when only two families and five men were in the settlement.

Mr. Cobb had the contract of building the dump of the C.P.R. where it crosses the Gopher Creek. He had a cottage-shaped canvas tent of 30 feet square, in which he boarded the men that worked for him, his wife and family with him attending to the workmen. He then made it comfortable for his family to stay in it during the winter by making a wall of logs and putting the tent over it and putting a floor in it, and some rooms in it with canvas partitions. He made a stable that was partly dug into the banks of the creek.

Another man was living in a shanty nearby, homesteading the Manchester townsite for the speculating company.

Mr. McLeod's horse was put in Cobb's stable and after supper he went to Mr. Austin's house and stopped there over night. He held a service at Mr. Austin's next morning and, as arranged, Mr. Cobb sent his boy Willie with the horse to Mr. Austin's in the morning. After the horse came, he went on to visit Mr. Lang and his son who lived North from Austin's place in a canvas tent, and Messrs. Pollock & Kerr who lived where they do now. He found that they were not at their place, but he saw a sleigh track going towards the river and, expecting they had gone that way for wood, he followed the track to find them. He met the whole four of them coming back with wood, which they cut in the ravine North from Mr. Sproat's gate.


Photo: Manitoba Archives.

After conversing with them he decided to go further on and see more of the country and get a view of the river valley, for he wished also that when he turned East to the people working East of Winnipeg and Rat Portage way to be able to tell them where they could get good homesteads the next summer. He went to the shaley point on top of the river or valley bank West from the bridge and got a good view of the Assiniboine Valley towards Routledge and North. He then turned back, intending to get to Flat Creek that night, but by the time he got through the snow to Mr. Cobb's it was so late that Mr. Cobb would not let him go further lest he should get lost in the dark and would be blamed for letting him away at that time. So he remained and had time for another worship service there.

Next morning he got to Flat Creek in time to catch a train going East to Winnipeg, and on the way he preached and visited in the Grand Valley and in the big bush South of Sewell & Carberry where over 100 men and some families were getting out wood. But he expected to turn West again when the spring opened out and construction on the prairie began, because the timber camps East would then close down and the construction work was about finished except gravelling the track, and the great body of the workmen were to be West next summer; therefore he expected to have his headquarters West also in the prairie country where the company calculated to lay 500 miles of track that summer and did lay over 400 from Flat Creek to near Maple Creek, West of Swift Current.

Accordingly he turned West again to Flat Creek and Gopher Creek in the latter part of April 1882, after he had visited and preached at the timber camps and special points East and held Gaelic service in Winnipeg. By that time people began to move for the West by the hundreds or thousands even - both for settlement and to work on the C.P.R. as fast as trains could bring them. Construction outfits and provisions were rushed on and construction work began to move and track laying began immediately as the dump was done to West of Gopher Creek (or as now Virden), and ground had been broken much further West the summer before.

Meantime Mr. McLeod started again on a trip West from Winnipeg. The contractors (Langdon & Shepperd) were giving him a pass as far as the track was laid. He stopped on the way at Sewell to visit families there and people working in the bush South of there.

By this time the spring floods started and the railroad dump was broken through and washed away between Douglas and Grand Valley, and the Assiniboine Crossing was in danger and the trains stopped and traffic demoralised. So he started from Sewell on foot and visited the families settled along the track and stopped overnight with the Douglas family of Douglas and conducted service for those there.

Next day he walked and after some difficulty in crossing the flood that broke the railroad dump through he got to the Grand Valley and conducted services there next Sabbath. Mr. Muldrew met him for the first time working with the gang that was fixing the break in railroad. There was no settled preacher then along the C.P.R. west of the Portage, but a man who came from Scotland the previous summer or fall and stopped at Brandon had started services in Brandon.

The week following he got to Flat Creek and arranged for services in the station that was fitted up with board seats. On Saturday he visited the halfbreeds and Frenchmen along the Assiniboine and stopped overnight with Mr. Gamash, the Frenchman, and walked in to the station next morning in time for services. By this time the Assiniboine flood had risen so that Mr. Gamash, who lived in the valley, gave him a boat ride over his farm, the great part of which was many feet under water.

It was on that Sabbath also that Gopher Creek rose and came down with such flood that Cobb's family had to escape with their lives out of their house before it sailed away downstream with a good part of its contents. The flooring and the logs held it up till it landed on the bank further down. These floods in creeks and sloughs stopped travel on the prairie trails for some time, so that after the trains got running again the great rush of people that got through to the end of the track had to camp there, besides other travellers, some coming from as far as Edmonton to meet the trains with caravans and single carts and railroad gangs there, carloads of settlers with their effects and many with teams, ready to march on till they got to a place for settlement. It was said that there were also over twenty surveying parties camped with teams there, waiting for the flood to subside and ready to start for their places of labour. Most people had tents of their own, but besides that started many boarding places and put up very large canvas hotels with great city names on them, and also several States, so that there must have been over a thousand or two thousand people there at one time. There were some people who had ranched and wintered with stock in the Sandhills, and the next week after coming up Mr. McLeod started out to visit those and next day took a course from there North to the banks of the Assiniboine and, as nearer its banks was drier, he followed it and walked on towards Gopher Creek settlement. He had difficulty in crossing the Big Ravine.

After Mr. McLeod returned from the East again and the town was started West of the brickyard, he held services in a Boarding Tent there, and as the cook and proprietor there were well inclined to religious services he started a Bible Class for the young men stopping about there. After that party moved further West the Class was kept on by a young man from Ontario who was up plowing the section that Mr. Thompson bought next year and still lives on. He went to Ontario in the fall and died that winter, but another young man who was in Virden that winter carried it on till he went West to Regina the latter part of the winter. Since Virden proper was started along in the summer of 1882, and after Mr. Meep put up his store there, the Class was kept in his store during the winter. Next spring it was organized as regular Sabbath School as more people and children had come, and Mr. McLaren was appointed Superintendent, who continued in that office till he left Virden.

When the settlers began to settle at Oak Lake and Virden districts in 1882, Mr. Hardy (a student) was sent to supply these during the summer. He stopped at Oak Lake and in the course of time as the Virden settlement increased he began to come from Oak Lake and supplied both places till he went to college. There was no regular supply of preaching after he left till next spring, but Mr. McLeod who was labouring as missionary for the C.P.R. labourers, under the Presbytery of Manitoba, had made his headquarters near Virden while going back and forth along the railroad, holding services among the railroad men and new settlements where they had no settled missionaries or other services.

When he happened to be in the vicinity of Virden and Elkhorn, he gave occasional services at the Boarding Houses where most of the people stopped that winter. Mr. Holgraph, who put up the Virden House, put benches round the sides of his general sitting-room to hold services in, at a dollar a service. He held service there on Sabbath which was also the last day of the year, and after it a midnight service was held to see the Old Year out and the New Year in, and after that Mr. Holgraph gave an oyster breakfast (as it was after midnight) to all that remained at the Virden House.

In the Fall of 1882 the people in town and the country round joined to put [up] a church and subscribed several hundred dollars. Carpenters offered their service to build it that winter, but Mr. Robertson who became Superintendent then wanted to build on the manse and church plan, and they disagreed, so that they did not agree the same after and some leaders dropped out. In 1883 new people and new members came from Canada and Scotland and Mr. Robertson sent Mr. Dow, student, so that it was like starting anew. Some new managers were put in and Mr. Dow went on with the Manse and Church building, chiefly or directly built out of the Manse & Church Fund in which the people took so little interest afterwards that it was never paid for till sold to the Methodists.

After Mr. Dow, Mr. Sutherland came with his family and laboured diligently for some years between Virden and Breadalbane. The first Session was formed in his time. One other missionary came for a while after him whose name I forget.

Then a move was made to call a minister and Mr. Currie became the first pastor between Virden and Breadalbane. The history since then will be well remembered.


Flat Creek: original name, later changed to Oak Lake.

Grand Valley: West of Brandon in the Assiniboine River valley, lately much publicized and known for its lovely Provincial tourist park beside and below the Trans-Canada Highway across the valley.

Sewell: East of Brandon; on the main line of the C.P.R.; during the World War of 1914-1918, used as a military training camp and known as Camp Hughes (named for Sir Sam Hughes of those days?).

Sandhills: possibly the same area still known as The Sandhills through: which the Trans-Canada Highway passes East of Virden and South and East of the small (former) village of Routledge, north of Oak Lake.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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