Under the railway’s influence

Five ways the railroad shaped Manitoba

  • Courtesy of CN.

  • The famous Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal, 1907. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Jill Brown

  • Transcona Shops – Aaron Epp

  • Portage Avenue streetcar. Courtesy of Heritage Winnipeg.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the railway was the most important method of moving goods and people across Canada. In honour of The Uniter’s annual urban issue, we decided to look at five ways the railway shaped Manitoba.

Winnipeg versus Selkirk

As Manitoba began to develop in the 1880s, many municipalities rose and fell depending on the placement of railroads. Winnipeg’s fortunes were not immune.

In fact, when the prairie section of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) was in the planning stage, CPR officials wanted to build the main line through Selkirk instead of Winnipeg. This would have reversed the histories of both cities, according to University of Winnipeg geography professor William Carlyle.

“(The railroad) was the gateway to the West when it opened up,” he said. “Winnipeg’s leaders understood how crucial the railroad was to the development of the city.”

As the line needed to cross the Red River, CPR officials wanted to build it through the area least prone to flooding. Selkirk, some 22 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and slightly more elevated, fit the bill.

The final decision came down to the weighing of national interest – the safety of the CPR line – and the political and economic interest of Winnipeg, the centre of power in Manitoba and much of the prairies.

The city organized to draw the line away from Selkirk. In 1879, Winnipeg city council pledged $300,000 to build a bridge spanning the Red River as an incentive.

By 1881, Federal Minister of Railroads Charles Tupper and CPR decided the line would run through Winnipeg. CPR also demanded from Winnipeg that the company be paid $200,000, given land for a station and be exempted from civic taxation.

The placement of the line today reflects this last-minute political decision. The main tracks change abruptly at Molson, Man., swinging to the southwest towards Winnipeg instead of continuing northwest to Selkirk.

The importance of railroads to Manitoban communities can be seen in the case of Nelsonville, emphasized Carlyle. The fast growing community was bypassed by the railroad in 1883, causing nearly all of its residents – and buildings – to move to nearby Morden. By 1905, Nelsonville was a ghost town. 

The canal that broke the city’s back

In 1870, Manitoba became a province, and Winnipeg was a tiny community of roughly 215 inhabitants. By the time Winnipeg was incorporated as a city four years later, the population had risen to roughly 2,000 residents, thanks to its growing agriculture industry. Then in 1881, Canadian Pacific Railway came to town, and the rest was history.

Sort of.

The railway caused an explosion in international trade, particularly with the United States, which in turn caused a massive rise in population. By the late 19th century, Winnipeg was the fastest growing municipality in Canada. The “gateway to the west” was experiencing prosperity that most cities only dreamed about.

America’s National Magazine, in an October 1904 feature entitled “Winnipeg, the Metropolis of Western Canada,” raved that Winnipeg had “excellent railway systems (which) afford every facility for transportation.”

The article also saluted the rise of Winnipeg’s financial centre, whose annual bank clearances rose from $50 million in 1894, to $246 million in 1903.

Yes, it was a great time to be in Winnipeg.

The population increase caused by the railway resulted in a massive expansion of the downtown and surrounding areas’ buildings, many of which still survive today, as a symbol of the city’s booming past. Land prices rapidly rose as demand increased. Construction on the Manitoba Legislative Building began in 1913.

And then, the following year, the Panama Canal opened.

The 34-year project, one of the largest engineering undertakings in history, succeeded in connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, allowing goods to be transported faster and easier than by train.

This new development caused much financial difficulty for the mid-western boom town, as the reliance on Canada’s rail system for international trade was reduced. This resulted in an abrupt decline in Winnipeg’s large real estate market.

The immigration slowed, and the city would never be the same.

Vancouver took over as the traffic and trade hub of the country, thanks to the increase of ships from Panama. By 1920, Vancouver had surpassed Winnipeg to become Canada’s third-largest city, with a population of roughly 180,000. Vancouver’s metropolitan population, according to a 2006 census, is an estimated 2.1 million people.

When the Manitoba Legislature was finally completed in 1919, the massive building was still designed to accommodate representatives for an estimated population of three million residents.

To date, Manitoba’s total estimated population stands at 1,213,815 residents.

Riding the rails for public transportation

The very start of what we now know as the Winnipeg Transit System began with the electric streetcar. At 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1891 the first electric streetcar made its way down the tracks.

After trying out streetcars led by horses and then adapting sleighs because of snow conditions, Winnipeg looked to the south at the first electric streetcar being used in Richmond, Virginia. It took nine years to go from horse-drawn streetcars to the rail system. Because of the incredible growth in Winnipeg at the time, streetcars were incredibly important for the city.

Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, can’t stress enough just how important they were, and are now, to Winnipeg’s formation.

“Currently there are no programs to educate people on why the streetcar was so instrumental to the city. It expanded our city and is responsible for creating residential areas in the city,” Tugwell said.

The streetcar truly was Winnipeg’s first form of real transportation.

According to Tugwell, mass transportation was needed in order for people to get around and to expand Winnipeg as a city.

The only remaining original wooden streetcar, Car 356, is in possession by Heritage Winnipeg and they would like to eventually have it placed in a museum so others can be educated on its importance.

If you’re wondering why we don’t see tracks or electrical lines anymore, most were taken apart and hauled away, while others were paved over.

“At the time, people viewed (the electrical lines) as an eyesore. It was a growing trend across North America to get rid of the streetcar,” said Tugwell.

The cars were viewed by the public as uncomfortable and cold. Eventually, the country moved away from mass transportation. Roads were expanding, transportation was being revolutionized. From the streetcar, we moved towards trolleys and then eventually the rubber tires brought us up to the classic bus.

The development of Transcona

Before Transcona amalgamated with the City of Winnipeg along with 11 other communities on January 1, 1972, it was its own city – a city that owed its establishment to the railroad.

In 1907 or 1908, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway purchased 800 acres of land located 13 kilometres east of Winnipeg for the construction of its new railway repair shops and the future town-site. The shops would service steam locomotives and railway cars carrying freight and passengers.

The site’s close proximity to the booming City of Winnipeg and the abundant land that the site provided for future expansion made its location attractive to developers.

By 1909, hundreds of men had moved to the area after hearing about the prospect of steady employment with the railroad. Tents of construction gangs, hurriedly constructed shacks and a few permanent homes quickly covered the area.

Construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific shops began in June of 1909. It attracted real estate developers, merchants and businessmen, thus influencing the development of the town.

“You will be sorry if you do not investigate this townsite,” reads a pamphlet from 1910, created to influence more people to move to the town. “Such opportunity comes but once in a lifetime. Fortune knocks but once. Do not miss it.”

By 1912, the Transcona Shops were officially open and the Town of Transcona was incorporated. It included two boarding houses, a bakery, butcher shop, bank, four churches, a two-room school and fire hall. Transcona continued to attract new people and grow.

The townspeople had three things in common: they were new to the area, they were physically isolated from the City of Winnipeg and they were connected to the town’s founding industry, the railway.

As a result, they formed close bonds to each other and working for the railway was a way of life for most people in the area until the end of the 1940s.

The decline of rail

While the train is still considered a luxurious way to see the country, high ticket prices, economic instability and a decrease in cargo shipping have contributed to what has been dubbed the decline of rail.

VIA Rail, a crown corporation, suffered four large funding cutbacks from the federal government within two decades which hurt its ability to serve the public. According to EconomicExpert.com, an economic research company, after a brief spike in ridership numbers in the early 1980s, VIA’s operations were cut back 40 per cent by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This was the first blow.

The second came from succeeding PM Brian Mulroney. Mulroney sought to undo some of Trudeau’s cuts by reinvigorating transnational and national cars put out of service, but in 1989 Mulroney ended up cutting VIA’s budget even more than Trudeau did.

The third blow came in 1994 when, under newly-elected PM Jean Chrétien, Finance Minister Paul Martin further cut VIA’s budget, restricting the rail service cross-Canada and between Ontario-Quebec.

The fourth cut came from Martin again. Newly elected as Prime Minister in 2003, he froze a program Chrétien rolled out promising VIA 700 million dollars over five years.

Things are looking brighter, according to the Railway Association of Canada (RAC). They report that VIA’s ridership actually rose in 2008, servicing 72.3 million passengers, and with more federal money promised, those numbers should rise.

However, in early 2009, cargo shipping dropped 25 per cent with the economic downturn. Reuters reported that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail), Canada’s second-largest railroad, has been in a slump. CP Rail’s chief executive Fred Green told Reuters that because retail trade is down, the rail has suffered. CP Rail cut 2,000 jobs due to the decline.

With air travel being the faster, cheaper method for train riders, people have been letting the rail stagnate. But, while the economy recovers, Green thinks cargo shipping will rise again.

Published in Volume 64, Number 25 of The Uniter (April 1, 2010)

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