Bank robbers, labour leaders and political prisoners: 140 years of history at Stony Mountain Institution

Aug. 15, 1877 was a Wednesday but people in Stony Mountain were dressed in their Sunday best clustered together waiting for very honoured guests to arrive to celebrate the official opening of Manitoba’s first federal penitentiary.

Canada's oldest running federal penitentiary turns 140 this week

On Aug. 15, 1877, people in Stony Mountain celebrated the official opening of Manitoba’s first federal penitentiary. (Manitoba Archives/Architectural Survey Collections/ Stoney Mountain 2/ N20820/ 1966)

Aug. 15, 1877 was a Wednesday but people in Stony Mountain were dressed in their Sunday best, clustered together waiting for very honoured guests to arrive to celebrate the official opening of Manitoba's first federal penitentiary.

Stony Mountain Institution, at the time called the Manitoba Penitentiary, was a sight to behold on top of the "mountain" on the prairie landscape 20 kilometres north of Winnipeg, with only a dusty road leading to its looming main building.

In the 140 years since that grand celebration, the walls and grounds have seen some of Canada's most well-known and feared criminals but also some that history has determined were political prisoners. The structure has been added to, parts have burned down and others have just changed with the times, but Stony still holds its place in history as Canada's oldest running penitentiary. 

A drawing of the main building of the Manitoba Penitentiary in 1897. (Manitoba Archives/ Stony Mountain Collection/ Manitoba Penitentiary 2/ N3269)

Fiddle, oxen and a step forward for Manitoba 

After months of planning, a local newspaper boasted that the opening ceremony would include very special guests: His Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Frederick Temple, Governor General of Canada and his wife, Harriet Georgina.

Temple's visit to Manitoba, which had been a province for less than a decade, had to be marked with fanfare. Temple and his wife were met at a nearby farm and they took a Red River ox cart, drawn by 40 oxen, to another area to hear speeches before actually making their way to the penitentiary.

The procession was led by a local violinist who played Irish Washerwoman and La Marseillaise, according to The Story of Stony Mountain and District, by Edward R.R. Mills.

Temple's wife, a countess, dumped a wheelbarrow of gravel on the road which was set to connect Stony Mountain to Winnipeg, although it would take 78 years to complete. Following the formal proceeding people celebrated with sports and a quarter-mile oxen race. 

"A modern penitentiary was often seen as a sign of settlement and 'progress,' of kind of being there and arriving. Like a university or a new hospital, the penitentiary would signal to the rest of Canada and the world that Manitoba and Winnipeg were modern in the sense that a late-19th century person would understand modern," said Cameron Willis, archives and research officer at Canada's Penitentiary Museum.

It wasn't a big day for the inmates, most of whom had actually been moved into the new structure a few months before, dealing with the cold building in January.

Before Stony Mountain, inmates had been kept in less than ideal situations, as was the case in most of the country — confederation took place only 10 years prior.

The stables at the Manitoba Penitentiary in the 1880s. (Manitoba Archives/Stony Mountain collection/Manitoba Penitentiary 1)

Trade wars and escapes: Life before the penitentiary

In the early 1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company granted Lord Selkirk an area known as the Red River Settlement. It was supposed to be up to the Company to establish and enforce laws but they were more concerned with business.

At the time, trouble usually came out of confrontations between the Company warring with rival traders, the North West Company. On June 18, 1816, the bitter feud led to the Battle of Seven Oaks, where 21 people were killed.

In 1821, the two trade companies came together and by 1835 a council was held at Upper Fort Garry, a trading post at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. That's when the province got its first sheriff and a volunteer police force, made up of 60 officers and privates.

That meant the province needed somewhere to put prisoners.

A location was set up in Winnipeg at what's now the corner of Main Street and Broadway which served as both a courthouse and a jail. 

A year later, its first case came before a jury: A man named Louis St. Denis was tried and convicted of theft, according to Stony: A History of Manitoba Penitentiary by William Edwards. He was sentenced to be publicly flogged that same day. But something went wrong as the crowd gathered to watch. The crowd ended up getting angry with the flogger, chasing him from the area. Afterward, floggings weren't quite so public.

People came out to watch again when a Saulteaux man named Capinesseweet was hanged after being charged with murder in 1845 — it was the first hanging in Rupert's Land history. It was later argued that the employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, at the time still responsible for the administration of justice, didn't have jurisdiction to pass the sentence. In Four Recorders of Rupert's Land it's suggested "it may well be that the first execution in Red River was a wanton miscarriage of justice."

But most of the people at the Upper Fort Garry jail were serving time for things like horse or cattle theft, robbery and assault. It was also used as a drunk tank.

The jail had a bad reputation for security — there are many instances of people escaping, including Griffiths Corbett, an Anglican clergyman who was charged after getting a girl pregnant and was broken free by his congregation, and John Christian Schultz, a political opponent of Louis Riel and later member of the House of Commons, senator and the fifth Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba.

By 1870, the Red River Settlement had grown to almost 2,000 people, and it needed better law enforcement. So, a mounted police force was formed. They patrolled the area until the creation of the North West Mounted Police and Winnipeg's police force in 1874.

A new administrative headquarters was set up for the provincial police force in the Post Office building, on the west side of Main Street between William and Bannatyne Avenues. A log house out back was converted into a prison.

It was not an improvement on the old Upper Fort Garry makeshift prison, and after the escape of a prisoner, the jail was moved again in 1871, this time to the Stone Fort, the third oldest building at Lower Fort Garry, a trading fort on the western bank of the Red River.

It quickly became clear that building wouldn't do either and when the federal government took over responsibility of the penitentiary it started looking for a new location.

Planning a penitentiary

While the prison was still at Lower Fort Garry, Samuel Bedson was tapped to be the warden. The British-born military man had made a name for himself when he travelled west with the Wolseley Expedition in response to the Red River Resistance.

Bedson actually came across Gabriel Dumont's pool table after the Battle of Batoche.

He took the solid mahogany table back to Manitoba and it eventually ended up at the Manitoba Penitentiary, where it stayed in the warden's house until 1976. It was then kept at the Rockwood Farm Institution, beside the penitentiary, until it was returned to the Batoche Museum in 2007.

Warden Samuel Bedson, the first warden of the Manitoba Penitentiary, had a good reputation but was later criticized for spending a lot of money. This is the warden's house on the penitentiary site in 1892. (Manitoba Archives/Stony Mountain collection/ Penitentiary 5)

The land for the new federal penitentiary was picked out in 1872, but the move into the new building wouldn't start for five years — following more escapes and two inmate deaths related to their health behind bars.

While the contract to build the penitentiary was given to a company from Ontario for $116,000, later bumped up to $125,000, the work and supplies were truly Manitoban.

The stone was quarried at Lower Fort Garry. The lime and clay were local, the sand was from Stony Mountain itself and the stone was from digging out what would become the basement of the penitentiary.

However, most of the lumber was from Ontario. The prison design was also imported, from England, and it was not suited to the province's winter weather — leaving inmates and staff complaining of cold until a steam boiler was installed a few years later.

Inmates started moving in, before the penitentiary was complete, in January 1877. The journey from Upper Fort Garry took about four hours.

The Manitoba Penitentiary was isolated when it was first built and it took about four hours to transport inmates to the prison. (Manitoba Archives/ Gisli Goodman collection/404/ N11691)

The staff at the time included Warden Bedson, a storekeeper, eight turnkeys (which we would now call guards), a carpenter, some chaplains and a surgeon. The warden made about $1,400 a year and the guards took home $480.

In a letter from Warden Bedson to the Inspector of Penitentiaries the month after moving into the new Manitoba Penitentiary, it's clear that cold was a problem.

"Finding the stove piping and heat appliances most defective, and many other defects requiring immediate attention," Bedson wrote.

In his annual report for 1877, Bedson also voiced his concerns about what would happen if there was a fire in the building and the need for a prison wall, which wouldn't be completed for 38 years.

"The penitentiary stands upon a small plateau of rising ground, elevated above the general prairie level some fifty feet, entirely unprotected by enclosure of any kind," he wrote.

The Morning Bell was at Stony Mountain Institution for decades, ringing to let inmates and workers know the different points in the day. It was eventually donated to the Village of Stony Mountain on its centennial. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

Silence and hard labour

Life inside the prison was fairly strict. Inmates weren't allowed to talk to each other or the guards and they were given a stick to indicate if they needed anything. The four-foot stick was painted white with one end coloured red and the other black — red meant the need was urgent. Inmates would point an end of the stick outside their cell door to get attention from the guard.

They also worked hard labour, 10 hours a day with a break for lunch. Not only was it considered a method of rehabilitation, the penitentiary was also expected to be self-sufficient and provide its own food.

A bell in the tower of the original administration building rang throughout the day to let inmates know it was mealtime or the workday was over, but it was also heard throughout the community. When there bell echoed continuously everyone knew there'd been an escape.

Many of the wardens kept detailed reports of day-to-day activities. Some of the Warden's letterbooks, like this one from the late 1800s, were damaged by water. But they have been preserved as part of the National Archives of Canada. (National Archives of Canada/Correctional Service of Canada/Stony Mountain Penitentiary )

Most guards didn't have much for an education but they didn't have it easy inside either. If they made a mistake, were late to a shift or didn't follow orders satisfactorily, they were financially penalized. They also suffered from the chilly building — even Warden Bedson was sick in bed for three months in 1879 because of typhoid fever, later linked to the defective drainage in the institution.

As the province grew, so did the prison population. It had been celebrated as a large building when it opened, but just six years later the warden reported that it couldn't easily hold its 100-plus inmates. 

And the problem was about to become even larger.

North-West Rebellion and political prisoners

In 1885, tensions between the federal government and First Nations and Métis people were increasing. In Batoche, Sask., Métis people led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont were attacked and defeated by federal troops in a bloody battle that lasted several days.

More than 35 people involved in the North-West Rebellion landed in the penitentiary.

"They had to put them all up in dormitories in the attic because there were no cells to hold them," Willis said. 

Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear were two of the high-profile people who ended up behind bars in the overcrowded prison, although research has shown Poundmaker was trying to get food for his starving people. Many of their possessions were seized and ended up in museums across Saskatchewan and around the world.

Poundmaker was incarcerated for seven months but the poor conditions likely led to a major deterioration in his health. Not long after being released he died at the age of 44. Big Bear served two years and was also released because his health was failing. He died soon after he was freed at 62 years old.

"It's not difficult to find material … that called Big Bear a political prisoner. Whatever crimes he committed were those of someone seeking freedom from a Canadian government or resisting the harmful and disastrous policies of the federal government on the Prairies. So they are seen as freedom fighters," Willis said.

A petition to have Chief Poundmaker exonerated has been started by the Poundmaker Cree Nation's chief and council. Chief Poundmaker along with Chief Big Bear and Chief One Arrow were all convicted of treason felony in 1885. Here Big Bear (left) and Poundmaker were incarcerated in Stony Mountain penitentiary. Both died shortly after their release. (Manitoba Archives/ Big Bear collection/ 3/ N16092)

In an 1885 report from the Roman Catholic chaplain at the penitentiary, it said three people had died in only two months and they were all Indigenous.

"I am inclined to think that too long a detention may have caused the sickness, which led them to the grave. They were young healthy, strong, but these advantages were useless preventatives against death," he wrote.

The chaplain quoted Cree that he would overhear the men say, which translated to: "If I were not here, if I were with my people, I would recover."

There were additions and alterations that same year to provide more cells, but it still wasn't enough. At one point, the prison was so overpopulated the warden was living in a tent in order to free up his house for inmates, and he moved his family to Winnipeg.

Contractors, labour leaders and bank robbers

By 1913, there were 200 inmates in the Manitoba Penitentiary. While most were Canadians, they also came from Austria, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. It included some notable figures in Manitoba's history.

In 1914, cost overruns of the construction of Manitoba Legislative Building was making headlines in the province. Eventually the contractor was charged and sent to the penitentiary for more than two years.

A few years later, leaders during the Winnipeg General Strike, including labour organizer and later politician Robert Russell, were arrested. Russell served a two-year sentence at the Manitoba Penitentiary.

The number of inmates started to drop just after the First World War and the same during the Second World War.

"Inmates were offered a pardon if instead of parole they enlisted with the Canadian army," Willis said.

"We had inmates writing in saying, 'I want to smash the Nazis let me out' ... 'I'm from there, I want to beat the Nazis up, let me out' ... I think a lot of inmates, whatever crime they committed, have a certain sense of patriotism."

Following the wars, corrections culture started to change and recommendations from the Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada, which came after riots in the Kingston Penitentiary, were being implemented across the country. Officers started getting more training and organized sports started behind bars. There was even a curling rink inside the walls until it was torn down to make room for a multi-purpose building.

Other buildings came and went, including a school, maintenance centre and chapel. For a while in the '70s and early '80s inmates also published a newspaper.

There was a farm annex, built in 1962 for about $225,000, where there were no bars. Later, it was made separate from the penitentiary and named Rockwood Institution.

Inmates were still working inside making different items and even bread for the local community. They created a lot of the equipment for the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1965, including the mats, target frames and even the winner's podium for the swimming pool.

Over the decades there were multiple escapes and escape attempts. Percy Moggey, who was known across the country for multiple police shootings and armed robberies, made an escape in 1949. But he was captured in less than two hours. He escaped again in 1960 and lasted much longer on the outside. 

One of Canada's most famous bank robbers, Ken Leishman a.k.a the Flying Bandit (so called because he used his own plane to flee heists), was sent to Stony Mountain Institution around 1957. He tried to escape but was caught and stayed behind bars until he got parole. But another attempted gold heist sent him to Headingley Jail, which he managed to escape from.

Life beyond bars: Living in a penitentiary community

There were also tragedies — five guards died, four of them killed on the job and one in an accidental explosion — and riots. Those were the instances that impacted the people who lived in the Stony Mountain community and whose families worked behind the bars. 

"I can remember being on a holiday and the RCMP coming and telling my dad he had to report back to work because there was a riot," said Wendy Pilcher.

Her father worked at the penitentiary for nearly three decades, retiring in the late '70s. She said he had a nose for hooch, or liquor made in prison, and was known for always finding it.

He didn't talk much about working behind the bars, but occasionally the reality of her dad's job would come through and she was proud of the work he did. 

"As a kid it was just so proud that they needed him to protect others, but it was also scary too, not knowing because once he was out there you had no contact," she said. 

"A lot of the time you didn't know what went on on the other side of the walls."

The Stony Mountain Penitentiary is still a major landmark, 140 years after it was opened. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

In 1982 four inmates in a maximum security range — armed with homemade knives — jumped four guards, bringing them into a cell block with more than 30 other prisoners. After 35 hours of negotiation it ended peacefully, but Pilcher said there was a ripple effect outside of the institution.

"I can remember when they were doing negotiations and everything and the men that were working there and taken hostage, they were never the same," she said. 

But it wasn't always high-stress, she said. When she was growing up her family would get bread made by inmates, their car would be fixed by inmates and the guards themselves were like a family unit — fishing and camping together.

"Every Canada Day the Canada Day cake comes from the penitentiary," she said, adding this year they made hundreds of cupcakes.

Like many in the town of Stony Mountain, Pilcher has pride in its history, including that of the penitentiary. She recalled how the community would tell tales about how during its construction there was a strike because of the overwhelming number of snakes, which was spooking the horses.

But the penitentiary also instilled lessons in everyone in the community, she said. 

"You don't want to be on the other side. It gave me a strong sense of right and wrong," she said. 

It still provides a lot of jobs and even though there had been talk of closing the giant institution down, it has continued on. 

"Over the years there was discussion about closing down the institution and whatnot, and thankfully the decisions didn't go that direction. We chose to renovate and modernize the institution as much as possible," said J.L. Meyer, assistant warden of operations at Stony Mountain Institution.

He said while the culture of corrections and the building itself have changed in many ways over the past 140 years, the staff at Stony Mountain Institution continues to feel like family and work hard.

"We are really proud of the work that we do there. I can't say enough about the staff that we work with," he said. 

If the day were to come that Stony Mountain Institution changes location or closes, Meyer and Pilcher agree that its history needs to be kept up, possibly as a museum. 

Either way, the community will remember. 

"The penitentiary has been part of my life forever and without it, my life would have been so different," Pilcher said.