Early Minnedosa: The Crossing, the Town and the Railway
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1958-59 season
It is still true, even in our Age of Machines, that nearly everything man does in the realm of material things is conditioned by his environment. This was much more the case generations ago, when few of the powers we possess today over material objects were then in existence.
It was the universal law in the ages of what we call primitive society, of the cave-man who was almost at the mercy of the elements. For that reason, population grew only in warm countries, and even there, only in regions where rains were frequent and generous. During long ages human beings were nomads, at least in the summer months; and when settled communities arose, they were found chiefly along rivers. Exceptions might occur beside lakes or seas, where fishing provided a livelihood; or, in due course, at strategic points where fortresses were necessary for defence.
Few places in Western Canada can have been more obviously destined by nature as centres of settled occupation than the one originally called Tanner's Crossing, which for seventy-five years has been known as Minnedosa. Here the tributary of the Assiniboine which drains the southern slopes of the Riding Mountains, and flows at this point between sizeable hills in a south-westerly direction, was traversed by the North West Trail the land-route followed for generations by Red River carts from the function of the Red and the Assiniboine at Winnipeg through Portage la Prairie and Gladstone (then known as "Palestine") on to the broad plains of the Northwest Territories, until it reached Edmonton - and the end of the world.
From the moment when, east of Neepawa, this trail approached the southern shoulders of the Riding Mountains, it began to climb: particularly after crossing the fertile flat-land (in those days so wet in early summer as to be almost impassable) in the centre of which Franklin was to appear. It thus presented a serious obstacle to weary teams as it wound its way around one and another slough, until it reached the "summit" two miles short of the Crossing. Shortly before this it traversed the north-east corner of the southern half of section 4-15-17, a few hundred yards from a log cabin (built in 1880 by George Black) to reach the farmstead of Henry Jones less than a mile further on. Here was a famous stopping-place, the last before the "summit", from which it then descended into the river valley at Tanner's Crossing.
It was here, at the Jones homestead, that my father and his brother Francis arrived in the late afternoon of April 8, 1879, having been a full week on the trail with wagon and team from the rail-end at St. Boniface. Half of their load had been left behind that morning at Stoney Creek, in the care of an aged uncle, owing to the heavy road conditions. The brother went back for it with the team the next day, while my father tramped on to the Crossing, and nearly two miles farther to Odanah, where the Land Titles Office was then located. His purpose was to file their two names as homesteaders on quarter-sections lying just south of the Jones place, and facing one another across the Correction Line.
All traces of the deep ruts made along that historic trail by the Red River carts and other heavy vehicles have long since been obliterated: even if the plough did not do the work, nature herself would have filled them in. But, as a barefoot lad I have followed them for hundreds of yards in the middle nineties, almost parallel to the new railway, totally unaware of what they stood for. How could I realize that they were a landmark, worthy of preservation at some point, standing for a type of civilization that was swiftly passing into history? Along them had moved for nearly a century steady if slow traffic - people of lowly station and mostly with only one purpose - to make a living: could they have spoken what stories they would have had to tell!
The original "destination" of the brothers had been the region of Newdale, some twenty miles west of the Crossing, but they were not to reach it. Their team was tired; there was as yet no growth of grass; hay and oats were almost unobtainable west of the Arden area: so they accepted the inevitable and, liking the varied landscape, decided to end their wanderings. On the two adjoining farms homes were founded, where I, my brothers and sisters, and my cousin, Dr. S. M. Rose of Lethbridge, were born and grew up. As it turned out, the soil was not too good, much clearing of bush had to be done, and the whole landscape was studded with sloughs: but it reminded the newcomers in some ways of their home world west of Ottawa, and it offered a more pleasing habitat than the wide-open prairie. There was little chance to make a fortune: but plenty, as my father would say, to make a home.
However, this is not a family history. What concerns us tonight is rather the question of the town-site of the future Minnedosa, in particular the bringing of the railway across the river at the point where it had been forded (and even rudely bridged) for the uses of the North West Trail. This town-site was to become the core of a far-extended community, particularly northwards into the forest-lands of the Riding Mountains; and it was to achieve precedence over its nearest rival to the south-Rapid City, whose ambitions to outdo adjacent settlements were suggested by its name.
What to us of later years seemed right and proper was by no means a foregone conclusion in 1880, and for two good reasons. First of all, there was a second "unit" of occupation some two miles to the west, in the valley or rather on the western part of the "bottom" that is fairly wide for a few miles, viz. the site where Indian camps had been established for decades, just below the side valley, or "pass", which led out of the river-bottom to the higher land on the north and west; actually the route of the "Trail" on its westward line. This was called Odanah, and the name was carried over as that of the rural municipality soon to be formed. Here a number of business places were set up by incoming pioneers, and for a time they were active rivals of those at the Crossing - where stood a Post Office, and probably, though this is not certain, a small store.
Secondly, when news of the first survey for the prospective Manitoba and Northwestern Railway got about, (called the Smith Survey) it was seen that the new line would completely bypass the river-bottom that held the two existing settlements, and would traverse the river nearly three miles below the Crossing. Mostly, it was thought, this was done for reasons of easier construction. From the "summit", mentioned already, the line was to bend slightly to the south, cross the Correction Line, pass through the "Jermyn Farm", as we used to call it, and proceed due west (south of the Cowan Place) to the Ditch Farm (known as Valley Farm), and then seek the crossing of the river where the costs of construction would be lighter. What I want to suggest, and in part what follows is guesswork, is that interested people, who owned land on this higher ground, were at work, and quite honourably, trying to get this survey realized, but that they lost out to the Crossing dwellers.
In piecing together this story I owe a great deal to spade-work done by various people, old-timers who "stayed put" when I was far away, with some of whom I was able to discuss many matters when their memories were still active. Contemporary records are scarce. So far nothing of value has come to light of a written character: neither letters, nor diaries, nor notes in the local papers, one of which The Star appeared for a good part of the year 1882 but then "died." As all know, who have had experience with such things, oral tradition is an unsafe basis for history, though its value is undoubted. Memories are never infallible since all of us preserve in thought what interests us, and forget so easily salient points which do not. If then, as I expect, later searching may change some of what I am recording, no one will be better pleased than I.
Here, as everywhere on the North American continent, when the news got about of the projected railway, local settlers came wide-awake, both in their own private interests and in those of the community. Healthy, at times heated rivalries arose; since the prospect of having your property selected as the possible site for a station and town offered possibilities of reaping a fortune overnight. In the New World more town-sites have been decided on arbitrarily by the railway builders (quite independently of the functional grounds already referred to in this paper) than were ever chosen on their merits: with a few points such as Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie dictated by nature as starting points, stations would be blue-printed more or less at intervals of from nine to eleven miles - and that settled it. From Gladstone, which offered itself as an obvious "town-site", the next forty miles could be divided more or less at will, but the Crossing of the Little Saskatchewan (in our days the name has been changed) was a "fixed point". It lay eighteen miles west of Neepawa, or slightly more as planned by the Smith Survey.
For much of the way the new railway followed the main route of the North West Trail: why not then cross the river at Tanner's Place? The answer seemed obvious to those located there; but it was not so obvious to the farm-owners on the higher ground to the south. The relevant factors bearing on the controversy seem to be the following:
1. The two "cores" of settlement lying on or beside the North West Trail - around the Crossing and some two miles west at the Odanah "Pass", had every reason to expect that the railway builders would favour (and further) their interests: the more so as by the year 1882 the latter (Odanah) site was already being abandoned by some pioneers in business, a move to the Crossing being found wiser than remaining where they were. Even so, one of the first decisions of the recently incorporated Town Council was the voting of a by-law on July 4, 1883, which offered a substantial subsidy to the railway promoters if they would change their existing plan and follow the side valley from the "summit" into the "river-bottom" at Tanner's Crossing.
2. As I read the picture (in retrospect) the "third force" whose action had made this necessary were the farmers holding the higher lying properties to the south. They had everything to gain, and had taken the initiative ahead of the Crossing folk. They were aided by the view expressed on the part of the surveying engineers that a traversing of the valley would be simpler and cheaper some miles lower down.
One of the earliest farmer - settlers in these parts had arrived in 1878 - W. H. Ditch, Sr. On the advice of William Halstead, pioneer Methodist minister in Portage la Prairie, who befriended many needy newcomers, he had come west with a certain Fraser, chosen his homestead and filed his papers, before returning east for his family. When they all got back together, they found that two other pioneers, James Jermyn and J. D. Gillis, who were partners in business at the Crossing, had also "homesteaded" south and south-west of that point.
The year 1881 was to see the extension of the western boundary of the province from a line running just west of Palestine (Gladstone) to the present line some eighty miles further on. In this year John Crerar, one of the oldest residents of the Minnedosa community, was elected the first M.P.P. (now M.L.A.), and two years later he became the first Mayor of the newly-incorporated town. Where Crerar's homestead was is not certain, but his niece (Mrs. John Stewart) was housewife on one of the farms south-west of the town, right on the line of the first railway survey. It would be only natural that this first M.P.P. should be interested in the project.
In passing, it may be noted that, with the change of boundary, there followed the creation of the County of Minnedosa, two years later to be divided into municipalities. It was this County which voted in July 1882 to raise $9,000 for a new school-tenders to be called for. Nine months later, after the town had been incorporated, a meeting was held; "to consider the propriety of increasing the School Debentures, and of changing the proposed site from Main Street to one farther west." The relevance of this incident to the railway project will appear in what follows.
With the election of January 23, 1883, in which Crerar did not stand, Dr. Harrison of Newdale won the seat for the Conservatives, and he was re-elected three years later as one of two members now allotted to the riding. The other was the aforementioned J. D. Gillis, who had been Mayor of the town for a year, and who won by seventeen votes. He was to represent the community in Winnipeg for the next six years.
We thus have (for those days) a characteristic situation, in which a Liberal M.P.P. and Mayor, soon to be succeeded by a Conservative Mayor and M.P.P. (in that order) were both likely to be interested in the route taken by the long-talked-of railway: and both likely to favour the first survey, now to be described-that of Marcus Smith, as against the second, which was finally accepted.
But we are ahead of our story, and must now go back. Late in 1881, or in the next year, Ditch and a neighbour Leslie, whose daughter was to become one of the first school teachers in the district, made at least one trip to Winnipeg in order to get in touch with the railway promoters. The decision known as the Smith Survey led to some action locally, and plans were made to lay out town-lots for sale-some of them on the Ditch Farm. 
Personally I have little doubt that things done by all these men (and perhaps others) did influence the action of those who made the Smith Survey, though Jermyn's farm would have been cut in two by the line of construction. And there is one bit of evidence supporting this position. As we have already seen a major enterprise was under way in the newly-established town, which required both sanction and material support from the province. A decent and adequate school was needed to replace the temporary quarters already in use for some years; and the action taken was to build a two-storey brick building out on the hill to the south-west of the town-site, at least half a mile from the Crossing! To fill up the cup, the Presbyterians put their new church on the slope of the same hill, in contrast to the Methodists and Anglicans whose places of worship were close to the river. 
How long the prospect of having the Crossing site by-passed by the railway hung over the heads of the new community is not clear. But the pioneers of that site had not been idle. In particular the owner of the two mills, J. S. Armitage, who had come to Manitoba from Newmarket, Ont. along with R. P. Roblin, had strengthened his position by acquiring from John Tanner the script by which that pioneer held as a homestead the quarter-section in which the river crossing lay; and had added to this a "pre-emption" immediately to the north-part of this being right on the hills. By now E. O. Denison and P. J. MacDermott (the one direct from England, the other from the Emerald Isle), who had been for some time at Odanah, were moved to the vicinity of the Crossing, and what had been rival forces were united. Armitage also made more than one trip to Winnipeg to urge the Crossing as the railway-station site. Together they fought and won their case on the Town Council, with the result that a by-law passed on July 4, 1883, signed by John Crerar as Mayor and R. H. Myers as Assistant Secretary-Treasurer, authorized the sale of debentures to the amount of $30,000 (the equivalent of a quarter of a million today) as a bonus, if the railway promoters would see fit to alter their plan and bring their line into the Crossing site.
For this action the people of Minnedosa had at least one precedent not far away - that of Westbourne. Few people remember that the original name of the Company was the Westbourne and Northwest Railway Co.; that in 1880 the name Portage had been inserted before Westbourne; and that only three years later was it finally altered to the one that lasted until the purchase by the C.P.R. in 1900. When, some years back, I consulted the original Act (Man. Vie. Chap. 35-pp. 125 ff in the bound volume) I was somewhat startled to discover that the new line was to leave the C.P.R. at or near Poplar Point, and to proceed in a north-westerly direction between Lake Manitoba and the Riding Mountains, as far as the northern (or western) boundary of the then "postage-stamp" province. Somewhere or other I have read that there was an alternative project viz to carry it east of Lake Manitoba: which may explain a comment made somewhere by someone that the new railway marked a notable step on the way to the opening of the road to Hudson Bay.
In parenthesis, let me say here that Mr. H. V. Green, solicitor in Winnipeg to the C.P.R., was kind enough to let me see, in the early summer of 1957, the paper he had read to this society on the M. and N.W. a year or so earlier. The existence of this MSS., which has not appeared in print, seems to excuse me from saying more here about the general plan. My special purpose in consulting Mr. Green was to find out whether he had any knowledge of the offer made to the Company by the Town Council of Minnedosa, and whether be could help me to find any documents relating to the proposition. His reply was that he had never heard of any such offer, or indeed of any other bonus dealings in connection with the project. In other words, no trace can be found in the records taken over in 1900 by the C.P.R. of other offers save the Westbourne one. As some of my listeners know, this does not fit with traditions handed down orally, and I leave it to others to unravel the mystery.
Balked in this direction, and unable to find any documents in the Head Offices of the C.P.R. in Montreal, I renewed my requests to my sister, Mrs. E. J. Brown of Minnedosa, to continue her dogged search for the Town Council Records that seemed to have been destroyed in the flood disaster of the year 1948, or else to have been lost. In the fall of 1957 they were unearthed, in the safe possession of a trusty citizen - "the" being three volumes of Town By-laws. From this point on, the needed documents were available for study. Mrs. Brown did all the copying, and my own part has been much easier in consequence.
If some of what has been told above must be dismissed as conjecture, the following pages contain only actualities. Of them it may be true, as Mr. Green said of his paper, that they are rather dull. In any case we start with the text of the By-law No. 9, passed in Open Council on July 4, 1883. We then go on to give parts of later By-laws, either reaffirming the decisions then taken or adding recommendations necessary for the implementation of the original motion. They deal with an important chapter in the development of a community that has played a not unworthy part in the history of the province, and whose 75th anniversary was celebrated in a worthy fashion last July. They certainly disclose a fine measure of faith and foresight on the part of those who pioneered the economic and cultural life of this part of the West.
By-law No. 9 - Town of Minnedosa.
Ten weeks later on September 20th, 1883, further action was taken in the form of:
By-Law No. 15 Town of Minnedosa.
Almost a year after By-law 9 had launched the enterprise in which we are interested, and brought the results desired by the "Crossing" community, further action was found necessary by the Town Council, and on July 2, 1884, By-law No. 25 was voted. It reads as follows:
Two further By-laws, No. 27 and No. 30, dealing with matters relevant to the above, fill four pages each of the Record. The first is furnished with eleven "whereas" clauses, the second has four. They are too long to be included here, and in any case have little bearing on our theme. It may, however, be relevant to note the text of By-law 71, dated August 16, 1890, which means seven years after the original offer.
By-Law No. 71 Town of Minnedosa.
From the series of decisions Just recounted, it seems to follow that the town of Minnedosa found itself in grave financial difficulties, and in consequence could not meet its obligations. The major reason for all this was, undoubtedly, the bursting of the "boom"-about which I used to hear so much when I was a lad. This "slump" was for all old-timers a kind of milestone, from which everything was dated, most of all the "hard times" that we knew in the eighties and early nineties. Useful evidence in this regard is afforded by the following Assessment Roll figures for the Town:
and then none recorded until
which marked the beginning of "recovery".
Humpty Dumpty had taken a great fall - what we in our day should call a "tail-spin", if this term can be used any more of aeroplanes: and all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't do anything to save him. Many innocent people lost their shirts, others lost only their wild optimism, or in turn their foolish trust in various kinds of "promotors". It seems as though every newly-opened up area of the world has to go through this experience.
The story of the long-drawn-out law-suit which was inherited by the C.P.R. when it took over the M. and N.W. in 1900 has not yet, so far as I know, received the attention of a research historian. It is outside my field, and indeed of my competence as well. No one could foresee that this kind of thing would happen in July, 1883, when the fate of the settlement around Tanner's Crossing hung so delicately in the balance.
Only one footnote, which I owe to my sister: In January 1949 this item appeared in the Minnedosa Tribune: "For the first time since its incorporation in 1883, the town of Minnedosa was cleared of all debt during 1948. This was learned on Monday night at the regular Council Meeting, in the annual report from the Finance Committee."
1. The recently deceased Mrs. Walter Mann, nee Annie Ditch, told me a year or two before her death about the town picnic she could recall as a child, at which an address was given by the Lt.-Gov. of the N.W.T.- the Hon. David Laird. The issue was the above-mentioned moving of the western boundary of the province to its subsequent longitude.
2. It is worth mentioning that about 1900, on their purchase of the Manitoba and Northwestern, the Canadian Pacific Railway authorities resurveyed the whole area, and considered improving the "traverse" over the river by moving the line to something approximating to the Smith Survey.
Page revised: 16 July 2011