'It's a disgrace': Historic Henderson House neglected, rotting away

The Henderson family name is one of the oldest in Manitoba, but that's apparently not enough to save the log house that sheltered them during those pioneer years on the prairie before Winnipeg or Manitoba existed.

'The Henderson family was very important to Manitoba's history, but nothing is being done to protect it'

Jim Smith stands in front of Henderson House, holding photographs from the 1970s, when the province first acquired it and it was considered to be in good structural condition. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The Henderson family name is one of the oldest in Manitoba, but that's apparently not enough to save the log house that sheltered them during those pioneer years on the prairie before Winnipeg or Manitoba existed.

The two-storey house made of hand-hewn timbers was built at latest in 1854 but possibly as early as 1826. Either way, it is one of the oldest in the province, but it's crumbling away behind a chain-link fence in St. Norbert.

"I personally think it's a disgrace that it's allowed to go like this," said Jim Smith, president, archivist and historian with the North East Winnipeg Historical Society.

"It's an historical building and the Henderson family was very important to Manitoba's history, but nothing is being done to protect it. Eventually it's just going to collapse, that's what'll happen to it."

Henderson House is photographed through the chain-link fence at St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park in 2019. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
Henderson House, seen in 2019, has sat for 40 years inside a chain-link fence, where it is losing boards, windows and the clay chinking between its logs. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The house has been sitting at the St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park since 1979, when it was moved from its original site at 2112 Henderson Highway.

It was supposed to be a temporary stay, maybe a year or two.

The province's minister of tourism and cultural affairs at the time said the government would spend $120,000 to $150,000 to renovate the house, then move it to a permanent site back in northeast Winnipeg.

"As you can see by looking at it, nothing has been done. It's just continuing to deteriorate. There's nothing but neglect," said Smith, pointing to boards falling off, a side door that no longer closes due to shifting and broken windows.

"Frankly, the government should be ashamed of themselves."

Henderson House is trucked to its current location in St. Norbert in a photograph from 1979. (Submitted by Jim Smith)
Henderson House makes its way from Winnipeg to St. Norbert in 1979. (Submitted by Jim Smith)

Current Culture and Heritage Minister Cathy Cox represents the city's northeast riding but calls to her office by CBC News were bounced to different media relations people. After the concerns of Smith and the North East Winnipeg Historical Society were explained, an emailed statement was sent by a departmental spokesperson.

"There have been previous discussions with local historical societies about a more appropriate location for Henderson House, but there is nothing definitive in place at this time," the statement said.

It included no information about plans for restoration or why the building has been abandoned for four decades.

That's what has happened under each government since the house was moved, Smith said.

"It doesn't seem to matter who the minister of heritage is, it's just not on the radar, unfortunately," he said.

Long family lines

The house was built along the east bank of the Red River, off a trail that later was known as East Kildonan Road, then renamed Henderson Highway in 1928 in honour of the family.

The original homesteaders were Samuel Robert Henderson, who worked with the Hudson's Bay Company then farmed, and his wife, Flora Livingstone.

The couple raised 10 children in the home, the Manitoba Historical Society website says.

Livingstone was one of the Selkirk Settlers, Scottish immigrants who arrived in 1812 and established the Red River Colony that later became Winnipeg. The Henderson family already had footprints on the land by then — the first Hendersons were in the region by 1809, Smith said.

This is what the inside of Henderson House looked like in 1978, as the walls were stripped to reveal the original log framing. (George Walker/Submitted by Jim Smith)
A 1978 photo shows an arch inside the Henderson House. (George Walker/Submitted by Jim Smith)

The family name is also commemorated in the Henderson Library and John Henderson Junior High School. John was the last Henderson to live in the house before it was sold in 1918.

As for Samuel Robert Henderson, in addition to his 10 children, he left behind a mystery.

On July 4, 1864, at age 74, he left the house to go for a walk and was never seen again. His body was never found.

Another mystery is the exact date of construction of Henderson House. There are a couple of possibilities and both make it very old.

A house was built there in the 1820s, likely around 1826, Smith said, but historians aren't sure whether a massive flood in 1852 wiped it out.

"We really don't know. It is possible it survived," Smith said. "They didn't take out building permits back then, so we don't really know."

John Henderson, one of the 10 children of Samuel Robert Henderson and Flora Livingstone, was the last Henderson to live in the house, moving out in 1918. (Archives of Manitoba)

There are tests that could be done on the wood to determine a more accurate age, but that likely won't happen, he said.

"The province, the owner of it, doesn't seem to want to spend a dime on it."

There are written records about the house in 1854, so it is at least that old.

Clay from the riverbank was used to seal the gaps between the logs and there are many spots where the hardened white material can be seen.

But it is vanishing as it continues to be exposed to, and battered by, the elements.

Henderson House, left, and Delorme House, right, sit behind a chain-link fence in St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The historical society has lobbied many times for something to be done but repeatedly has been told by the government that no money exists in the budget and there are no plans to do anything.

The society did pressure the government into covering part of the roof in 2015 because water was getting inside.

"But now I understand the other part of the roof is leaking inside," Smith said. "It's just been sitting here, basically rotting away."

He has been unable to track down direct descendants of the Henderson pioneers to get them involved.

"It's a common name now, but we've never been in contact with anyone," Smith said.

Demolition threats

The house was moved from Henderson Highway when the owner threatened to demolish it.

Smith and newspaper articles from the time say the man was building a new, larger house, and the Henderson home was in the way.

In 1977, he offered to donate it to the city, which sent out representatives from Manitoba's Historic Sites Advisory Board to look it over.

Henderson House is covered in siding in this photo from the 1970s, before it was stripped and the additions were removed. (Submitted by Jim Smith)
Henderson House as seen in 1976. (George Walker/Submitted by Jim Smith)

Some modern materials — drywall, siding and other cosmetic alterations — had been added over the years, but once they were stripped back, the house was found to be historically intact.

A newspaper story called it "a fine example of Red River frame construction, whereby logs are laid horizontally, fitting into vertical braces." It also was "heralded as one of the oldest and most historically significant buildings in Manitoba."

A city administration report, urging council to accept the donation, called the house highly desirable, saying it "depicts a way of life typical of that of middle-class pioneers in the half-century that predates the creation of the province in 1870 or the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg in 1873."

The Bohémier House, foreground, and Turenne House, right, are in much better shape thanks to preservation efforts. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The city considered moving it up the street to a park at 1940 Henderson, to sit alongside an old stone house it had recently purchased, then restoring it and turning it into a museum. But the councillor for the area objected, citing other plans for the park property.

As the city dithered, the house sat another year and the owner became frustrated, calling for quick action or he would bulldoze it.

The province stepped in to offer up the space in St. Norbert — where a handful of log-and-frame homes from early French-Canadian settlement had been relocated — until a permanent location could be found.

The restored Turenne House stands in contrast to the crumbling Delorme and Henderson houses in the fenced compound at left. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

In 1979, external additions made to the house over many years were removed to preserve the original structure, the city gave the owner a tax credit, and the province spent $10,000 to move the house, an undertaking that took 15 hours on a flatbed truck.

A city report from the time declared the home as being in better structural condition than two other historic houses being restored at the time by the province — the Riel House (1880) and the Turenne House (1870).

The Riel House, where Louis Riel lived for a time with his mother, is now a popular museum in St. Vital. The Turenne House, the oldest surviving house from Fort Garry, has a prominent place in the St. Norbert heritage park at the junction of the Red and La Salle rivers.

A weathered sign is attached to the chain-link fence surrounding the Delorme and Henderson houses. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
The Delorme House is in worse condition than the Henderson House. A sign explains its historical significance. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Another restored house in the heritage park is the Bohémier House (1888), also from Fort Garry. 

Henderson House is older than any of those, as well as Barber House in Point Douglas, which has received millions of dollars in restoration work, Smith said.

Another pioneer building, the Delorme House, sits decaying beside the Henderson House. Built in 1857 near a bridge over the Red River in the rural municipality of Ritchot, it was home to Pierre Delorme, the first MP to represent Provencher.

It is in worse shape than Henderson, wrapped in cables to keep it from collapsing.

Seeing the two houses in that condition angers and disheartens Smith, who said it's like watching history fade.

A carved sign is the only place where the Henderson House name is acknowledged. There are no plaques about the home's history. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A sign on the chain-link fence explains the significance of the Delorme House, as do plaques in front of the Turenne and Bohémier houses.

But there is nothing for Henderson House, other than a weathered board with the name carved into it, nailed to the frame.

If it can no longer be saved, Smith would like to see at least part of it salvaged, like a wall. That could be returned to the northeast part of the city, perhaps set up in Bunn's Creek Centennial Park, he said.

"Then people could see it closely — of course, you can't look closely right now because it's behind a fence —  and see all the cut marks that were done by hand axe so long ago," he said.

However, he's not giving up hope the house can still be preserved. There just needs to be some political will and 2020 could provide that, Smith said.

"Next year is the 150th anniversary of Manitoba entering confederation. This, I think, would be a great project for the government to do."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.