High lead levels in soil a lingering reminder of Point Douglas's industrial past

Nearly a decade ago, Winnipeg historian Gordon Goldsborough wanted to dig a garden in Joe Zuken Park. That's when he found out the garden products were not safe for human consumption because they had excessively high levels of metal from the soil that they were growing in.

Iron works, other industries grew up around Canadian Pacific Railway in Winnipeg neighbourhood

Vulcan Iron Works was one of the first businesses established in Point Douglas after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built in 1881. (Manitoba Archives)

Nearly a decade before reports surfaced showing high lead levels in soil in parts of Point Douglas and other Winnipeg neighbourhoods, Gordon Goldsborough wanted to dig a garden in Joe Zuken Park.

The local historian volunteered at Ross House Museum in the park and wanted to show locals what kinds of food they could grow.

"Unfortunately, we were told the garden products were not safe for human consumption because they had excessively high levels of metal from the soil that they were growing in. So we had to get rid of the garden," he said.

That soil contamination has become a concern again, after a CBC investigation that uncovered a buried report on soil testing done over a decade ago showing lead contamination above national safety guidelines in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods.

Some of the highest levels were in the area of North Point Douglas and Weston School.

Soil tests commissioned by CBC showed parts of North Point Douglas remain contaminated with lead, and the province said this week the results of more than 100 soil tests taken across Winnipeg will soon be released, showing lead contamination persists within the city.

The Point Douglas park where Goldsborough wanted to plant the garden is on the former site of the foundry of Vulcan Iron Works, one of many heavy industries that have operated in the central Winnipeg neighbourhood over its history.

The business sprouted up at the same time the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1881 and changed the course of Point Douglas's development.

Vulcan Iron Works became one of the largest employers in Winnipeg in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Manitoba Archives)

Prior to the railway, Point Douglas had been a quiet, residential area for many of Winnipeg's more affluent residents.

"With the railway came industry, because access to the railway was important," said city planner Robert Galston, who lived in the neighbourhood from 2005 to 2014.

Galston has done extensive research into the history of Point Douglas, and says it wasn't uncommon for people to live right beside, or across the street from, heavy-polluting factories.

"This was before zoning and before planning was really a thing in Winnipeg, or anywhere really," he said.

'Significant environmental impact'

Vulcan Iron Works became one of the city's biggest employers.

"Probably at one time, the majority of people in that area would have in some way been connected to the iron works," said Goldsborough.

One of Vulcan Iron Works' buildings remains at the corner of Maple Street and Sutherland Avenue. (Gordon Goldsborough)

Along with metal works, other industries — including lumber mills, food processors and natural gas companies — started relocating to Point Douglas to take advantage of its proximity to the railway.

"Some industries were just noisy or brought truck traffic or whatever, but some of them had a real significant environmental impact," Goldsborough said.

After speaking to residents who lived in the neighbourhood in the 1940s and 1950s, Galston says one man recalled the gas plant would regularly spew out clouds of coal ash.

"He said his mother would go out and she'd have to race out, and if she was drying laundry she'd have to take it off and bring it back in so that it wouldn't be covered in this dust," he said.

She would then collect the dust and use it to kill weeds growing along the sidewalk, Galston said.

Zoned for heavy industry

Once the City of Winnipeg started zoning neighbourhoods, most of Point Douglas was designated for heavy industry, despite the fact that many people still lived there.

"I think the intention was, through most of the 20th century, was that those houses that are still there would eventually just disappear and be replaced by new industrial uses, so that most of the neighbourhood would eventually become entirely industrial," Galston said.

A City of Winnipeg zoning map from around 1950 shows much of Point Douglas was zoned for heavy industry. The dark grey areas are zoned M2, which was second-highest industrial zoning level at the time. (City of Winnipeg Archives)

With changing transportation technologies and  other economic shifts, however, businesses started moving out of the neighbourhood after the Second World War. Along the railway tracks that divided the northern and southern halves of Point Douglas, buildings were left empty and many were knocked down.

"These former sites were kind of dividing lines between different pockets of the neighbourhood," Galston said.

Vulcan Iron Works moved to a new location in St. Boniface. One of its buildings still stands at the corner of Maple Street and Sutherland Avenue.

In the spring, pieces of metal continue to push their way to the surface — a reminder of the neighbourhood's industrial past.

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.