The little prairie town enter a golden age as it becomes the gateway to the West
As the Canadian west developed, Winnipeg was transformed from a ramshackle settlement into a boomtown.
|Winnipeg entered a golden age when news broke in 1881 that the railway was coming through town. Winnipeg pictured here in 1879 looking south down Main Street. (Photograph by Robert Bell. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada C-033881)
The town began to grow in the 1870s as the first settlers trickled into the prairies. The towns streets were lined with stores selling provisions to pioneers for their long trek west.
But the first settlers passing through Winnipeg saw little that resembled a golden gateway to the new frontier.
"We got to Winnipeg and a mighty muddy city it was," recounted pioneer Harriet Neville. "If you stepped off the wooden sidewalks you sank deep into the prairies mire which stuck to you like glue. It was a rough looking place and not at all my idea of a city."
Then news came in 1881 that the railway was coming through Winnipeg.
Within months, 3000 real estate offices sprang up in Winnipeg. The population quickly doubled and the town earned the name "Chicago of the north".
Suddenly, Winnipeg was filled with speculators, land sharks, and con men, all making money buying and selling land.
The price of real estate skyrocketed. The Globe newspaper reported that land on Winnipegs muddy main street cost more than real estate in downtown Toronto.
Buying and selling land became an obsession as deals were made in bars, offices, on wagons and sleighs. Speculators bought land, then sold it swiftly, sometimes selling property in nearby towns that didnt yet exist and would never exist.
Manitoba Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache commented on the feeding frenzy,
"The unfortunate Manitoba boom has gripped the North West and many a greedy man sees it as the promised land for wealth he has not had to work for. The region is not ready for such large number of these men."
The Manitoba Métis became victims of the land frenzy. The Métis were entitled to nearly a million and a half acres of land as part of the Manitobas agreement to join Canada in 1870. The Canadian government issued coupons - called scrip - that could be redeemed for 160 acres of land per family. But as land became a premium in Winnipeg and Manitoba, the impoverished Métis sold much of their scrip to speculators for a fraction of its value.
Some businessmen made fortunes off the land craze. Winnipeg catered to these nouveaux riches. There were 180 telephones in operation in the city, at the time a novelty for the newly rich commercial class.
"Diamond pins and diamond brooches and diamond rings were greatly in evidence," wrote George Ham in the Toronto Mail. "The city was all-ablaze with the excitement of prospective riches. Champagne replaced Scotch and soda, and game dinners were very common. Auction sales were held daily and nightly, and in the auction rooms of Jim Coolican, Walter Dufour and Joe Wolf people bought recklessly. Property changed. If ever there was a fool's paradise, it sure was located in Winnipeg. Men made fortunes - mostly on paper - and life was one continuous joy ride."