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Grand Valley, A Boom Town 1878-1885

by Isabelle B. Heeney

Manitoba Pageant, Volume 24, Number 4, Summer 1979

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 Assiniboine River curled lazily through the silent and empty valley on that day in June, 1878, when the McVicar brothers, Dougald and John, arrived from Grenville, Quebec to try their fortunes on the great western Canadian plains. Travelling by railway through the United States, and north to St. Boniface, they eventually arrived in Winnipeg. With their newly purchased supplies on their backs, they walked west in search of land.

Whether by design, or accident, they arrived at a spot on the banks of the Assiniboine, about two miles east of the present city of Brandon. Here, the location and soil satisfied them better than any they had yet seen. They picked out a good site, and built their dug-out house in the side of the hill north of the river, and here they spent their first year.

Until this time there had only been a few wandering Indian tribes and an occasional fur trader. Even the buffalo had vanished in the great slaughter of 1875, when the last herd was slain near Souris. It is true that settlers were moving out to the prairies from Winnipeg, where most of them arrived by railway. After securing supplies, oxen and carts, they headed west in search of homesteads.

Most of these settlers turned north west at Portage la Prairie, following the Yellowhead Trail to Prince Albert and Edmonton. This seemed the route favored by the Transcontinental railway being built from Ontario to the west, and settlers were anxious to secure land that would be near a railway line.

During that first year the McVicars had to purchase their supplies from Portage la Prairie or Rapid City, although often they were able to buy buffalo meat and pemmican (a mixture of dried buffalo meat and berries pounded together) from the half breed traders and Indians. These traders passed through the valley on their way to Winnipeg from Qu’Appelle and Wood Mountain with strings of a hundred or more Red River carts, creaking and groaning under their loads of pemmican and furs. They were usually accompanied by Indians with large bands of ponies which they sold along their route.

Travellers always found shelter in the McVicar sod shack, and two of these were Reverend Thomas Lawson, and Reverend Holstead, of Portage la Prairie, who got lost one night in a heavy rainstorm. (Reverend Lawson later became the first Methodist minister in Brandon). The McVicars took them in, gave them shelter, fed them, and their horses as well, and sent them on their way next morning. Surveying the beautiful valley, and appreciative of the McVicar hospitality, Mr. Lawson remarked, “What a grand valley this is ...”

During that first year the McVicars saw very few white settlers, although there were some farther east, and to the north around Rapid City, and Tanner’s Crossing (Minnedosa). The brothers went to Riding Mountain that first winter, and cut logs under contract with the Rapid City Saw Mill. In the spring, the logs were driven down the Little Saskatchewan River to Rapid City, where they were sawed into lumber.

The brothers then brought the lumber by raft down the Little Saskatchewan, and the Assiniboine to their homestead. They built a small frame house with one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs, in readiness for their wives and families who were expected to arrive later that summer of 1879.

In the spring of 1879, settlers began arriving in a steady stream. Mr. Dougald McVicar made application to the Canadian Government for a post office, which his wife appropriately named Grand Valley. When she arrived in Winnipeg in August, 1879, she was officially appointed as the first post-mistress of Grand Valley. Dougald McVicar made one trip each week to Rapid City for mail.

Rumour was spreading that the new railway was considering a more southern route than the one formerly favored, and the settlers were elated. Grand Valley was the right distance from Winnipeg for a divisional point, and well supplied with water. Speculators, settlers, and merchants rushed to Grand Valley and soon it was a thriving tent town. They came on foot, by ox-cart, and by river boat.

In the winter of 1879-80, the McVicar brothers cut down trees east of Grand Valley in the spruce bush near Sewell, and had them hauled home. A large warehouse was built near the wharf on the river bank to shelter the freight unloaded by the boats. Other buildings were erected as soon as logs and lumber were available, but tents were used at first for many stores, and homes.

Dougald McVicar also built a ferry in 1880, operated on a cable, to cross the Assiniboine. The year before the Brandon Hills Settlers had to cross the river by caulking a wagon box, which they used as a boat. When a brick maker arrived in Grand Valley, the enterprising McVicar built a brick yard.

A large comfortable tent-hotel, with wooden partitions was run by a man named Brownlee. General stores were Hobbs & Low, Hooper’s, Evans, Coombs & Stewart, Decow & Cameron and Joe Burke. Besides those, there was a small jewellery store, McLean’s Bakery, Thomas Lee’s harness shop (in McVicar’s wood-shed), Harry Speers’ Lumber Company, Leask & Rose’ Drug Store, and a doctor. At its peak, the population of Grand Valley was four hundred.

During that summer a baby girl, Effie, was born to Mr. and Mrs. Dougald McVicar, the first white baby in the new community. People flocked to see the new baby ... Among them were three young men from a few miles northwest of the village - Peter Payne (later a prominent business man in Brandon) Doddington and Sutton. Each young man presented baby Effie with a silver dollar. Others brought gifts also, until little Effie had ten dollars in cash, plus many useful articles to start her off in life.

Early in 1881, surveyors arrived in the area, looking for a road bed and a suitable crossing of the river for the railway, which was being built from Winnipeg west across the prairies. McVicar too, hired a surveyor to lay out his land into lots, because people continued to arrive from Eastern Canada and the U.S.A. and everyone felt sure that Grand Valley was the likely spot for a new metropolis.

Life was not dull in the little hamlet of Grand Valley, during its short life. In summer the arrival of new settlers and their supplies by ox-cart, and riverboat, provided a great deal of excitement. An old-timer remembers that it was much cheaper to have supplies shipped by boat than ox-cart. The Dickson brothers operated a general store, and freighting business, on the hill a few miles east of Grand Valley. In the spring of 1880, according to records, four boats unloaded passengers and supplies at the McVicar Wharf in Grand Valley - the Marquette, the Marguerite, the Manitoba, and the Alpha.

In winter, the little town was quieter, but people contrived their own entertainment. Dances were held in the new houses when they were completed. Two young bachelors, Buff and Laird, homesteaded just west of Grand Valley. On New Year’s Day, 1880, they invited all the neighbors and villagers to a party, and in spite of cold weather, had a good turn-out. Years later, Mrs. McVicar recalled it with a good deal of pleasure. Church services were held in Leask & Rose’s Drug Store by Reverend Hyde, with Mr. Laird leading the singing. Later, Mr. Laird became a missionary in Western Canada. Reverend George Roddick, who had led the Brandon Hills Settlers out from Nova Scotia the year previous, held services every two weeks in Grand Valley. In winter, they met in McVicar’s house, where, due to a lack of seats, many sat on the floor. In summer, they moved outside to the lumber piles.

The highest peak in Grand Valley’s excitement was definitely in the spring of 1881, when General Rosser of the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived to make plans for a divisional point on the railway. After negotiating with homesteaders for land for a railway crossing of the river, he offered McVicar $25,000 for the town site. But lots were already selling for as high as $2000, so McVicar refused Rosser’s offer, and held out for $50,000. General Rosser, a tough American opportunist, immediately ordered his teamster to hitch up the horses to the wagon, forded the river, and headed west to the higher ground where Brandon now stands.

Here, another speculator, J. B. Adamson, had hastily squatted on a piece of land, (about 4th Street and Lorne Avenue) and begun to erect a shack. Rosser immediately made a settlement with Adamson for the property. So Brandon had its beginning, and Grand Valley’s downfall began, as it was quite clear that this little town could never survive as a rival to Brandon ... the C.P.R.’s divisional point.

To make matters worse, the river flooded its banks that summer. So it was that Grand Valley’s brief dream of greatness was washed away too, and Dougald McVicar’s dream of a great town on the banks of the Assiniboine River vanished, as people one by one, moved to higher ground.

The Indians in the district claimed that they had never seen a flood so late in the season. According to the diary of Mrs. E. Low, a resident of Grand Valley at that time, the river overflowed its banks on June 22, and on June 28, it was two inches over the counters in Hobbs & Low’s General Store.

The water swept through the town. Brownlee’s tent hotel was carried off, as were many other tents and shacks. Mrs. McVicar moved her post office to the second floor, and people picked up their mail by boat. One of the children almost drowned when the rushing waters carried him out of the house, and down the road, where his father managed to get him into his boat. A young surveyor who was ill, died, and his body had to be removed by boat, from the second storey of a house. He was buried on the hill just north of the town.

The river boats had difficulty navigating, as in places it was impossible to find the river channel. Many of the residents, and some of the merchants, hung on tenaciously hoping their town would still be a worthy rival of the new upstart, Brandon.

There were a number of children, and the parents held a meeting to form a school, and hire a teacher. In May 1882, the first teacher, Mr. Martin L. Grimmett opened a school in a room over a store, until the school building was completed. It was built on higher ground, near the hill. Pupils from over the hill came to this school, since it was the only one in the area. Some children walked five or six miles. School closed during the winter months, and remained open all summer.

One of the first pupils, Ettie (Foster) Low, wrote in 1935 of that first school, “Besides Flo (my sister) and I, there were two McVicar families, the Andrews, the Stewarts, the Clarkes and the Lawleys, as well as others I’ve forgotten. Mr. Grimmett was a good teacher, and was well liked. He organized a baseball team among the young men, and games were played against Rapid City, and other teams. He also got up a concert on May 24th. There were forty pupils one year.”

Grand Valley might have survived, but in 1882, the river flooded again. Some say this flood was worse than the year before. At any rate, the few remaining merchants had had enough, and most of them moved into Brandon. The railway had been completed well past Brandon, and the trains streamed right through Grand Valley without even stopping. Farmers from the north, still had to cross the river at Grand Valley, as their was no bridge at Brandon at first. By the fall of 1882, not much remained at Grand Valley except some empty buildings, gaping holes where houses had stood, and the new school. Dougald McVicar eventually left, too, and opened a brick yard in Brandon.

The school was one of the last to go. With the exodus of Grand Valley families, those living to the north claimed the school was not centrally located. It was decided to move it north to a spot about one half mile south of the present Trans-Canada No. 1 Highway. A man named Noble was hired to move the school in the summer of 1885. It was taken in two parts, travelling over the easiest route which was east for a distance, then up the hill in a north-westerly direction, and north to its new location. Later, a small brick school house was built on the corner, and that spot is now marked by a small replica of the school, on Highway No. 1.

And so, today, nothing remains of the bustling little town that so bravely started life on the banks of the Assiniboine River, except a field stone cairn to mark the spot. The inscription on the cairn reads:

“Grand Valley Town-site 1879-1885.

Erected in memory of pioneers who came by ox-cart and steam-boat to settle in this area, and built the town of Grand Valley (population 400). The town’s future was doomed by the railway’s choice of Brandon, and two disastrous river floods in 1881, and 1882. Dedicated July 13, 1968.”

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Grand Valley Town Site (RM of Cornwallis)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Grand Valley School No. 206 (RM of Cornwallis)

Page revised: 19 May 2013

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