Glass treasures from Winnipeg's brewing past exposed by historically low river level
Sodas and beer were brewed on south Osborne site for generations, starting in 1883
For several weeks this spring, as the sun swung around a grove of trees hugging a bowed bank of the Red River in south Osborne, it set off a turquoise and tawny glimmer.
Historically low river levels in Winnipeg had exposed a sunken cache from the city's past at the end of Mulvey Avenue.
A carpet of thick fragments of antique bottles and ceramic jugs — mired in river mud and zebra mussels — covered a wide swath of normally submerged waterfront.
The relics are from an era that straddled the turn of the 20th century, when breweries and bottling plants dotted the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and the long-gone Colony Creek.
The latter once wriggled from north of Portage Avenue along Memorial Boulevard, and then adjacent to Colony Street before joining the Assiniboine.
Its only remnant now is a dip in Broadway, between All Saints Anglican Church and Canada Life, where the creek's 15-metre wide coulee used to cross.
Many of the bottles laid bare along the Red contained embossing — raised lettering and designs — as well as painted labels from the former Blackwood's brewing plant at the centre of a modest warehouse district tucked behind the current-day Osborne rapid transit station.
The glass beach was a treasure trove for artists like Heather Komus, who first discovered it poking out of the snow during a walk along the frozen bank.
"It's very exciting and triggers my imagination," she said.
"On a large flat rock there were several pieces of a Blackwood's ginger beer bottle, as though someone was trying to put the pieces back together," Komus said via an email interview.
"Like a puzzle, it just begged to be put together, so I took off my mittens and made my attempt but they weren't the right pieces and there were so many similar ones nearby that it quickly became impossible."
Her art process involves exploring landscapes and collecting objects. Finding an artifact from the past inspires her to seek out its story or create some kind of narrative around it.
"I have noticed random bubbles in the glass pieces and wonder if the broken bottles were discarded because they didn't pass the quality inspection," Komus said.
"There is also something about words and water … like receiving a message from the past."
She has done beachcombing in the past but was able to explore the banks in ways not possible in other years.
Recently, the glass beach was at a level below the gnarled roots of trees, blanched by years typically spent underwater.
Record low levels
For many months Winnipeg's rivers were receding.
The fall was extremely dry, followed by a winter with well-below-normal snowfall, so the runoff that typically feeds themwas meagre.
In Winnipeg, river levels are measured by the height in feet of the water above normal winter ice levels — the zero mark — at the James Avenue pumping station.
The Red River is typically 6.5 feet James in summer, and slightly lower at this time of year. According to the province, the lowest level on record at this time was in 1981, with a level of 4.76 feet.
That was obliterated last Friday when the level dipped to just 1.73 feet James.
"The rivers have always, obviously, been an important part of the development of Winnipeg, so every now and then you find that the river gives up some really interesting history," said City of Winnipeg heritage officer Murray Peterson.
A few years back, "the basic outline of one of the big riverboats" that plied the waters, with tall coal stacks, was discovered, he said.
"It's always fascinating."
While he's not surprised by the glass stash, Peterson was taken aback by the amount.
"You're shocked, because they just basically threw it away and made a garbage dump of the river," he said.
"I guess maybe they thought it would be carried away and they would really never have to worry about it. And of course, it's such solid glass that it just basically stayed and got stuck in the gumbo."
Now the rivers are climbing again with the operation of the St. Andrews lock and dam, which keeps them at a navigable level for summer.
As a result, Blackwood's beach is again being reclaimed by the water — but not before Komus was able to secure a few pieces.
"I'm most excited by the remnants that really convey another time, like a shard of glass from a rectangular cod liver oil bottle or the diversity in shapes and colours of glass," she said.
"I enjoy the old-fashioned language on the Blackwood's ginger beer bottle: 'Prepared from an old and valuable recipe.'
"The text on the Blackwood's Bottle's has a serious tone, that even though someone purchased the drink, they didn't buy the bottle, which is property of Blackwood's and must be returned."
Except there is nowhere to return it. The building, long abandoned, was eventually demolished in the early 2000s.
The factory was, according to a 2002 report by City of Winnipeg Peterson wrote, at that point the city's last remaining brewing building from the industry's early boom.
Links to Wolseley Expedition
The first brewery on the site was built in 1883 by Maj. Stewart Mulvey, a member of the Wolseley Expedition that came west from Ontario to confront Louis Riel's provisional government in 1870, according to Peterson's report.
He remained in Winnipeg and became one of the city's first school trustees, then a city councillor in Fort Rouge and later a provincial MLA.
He sold the brewery in 1888 and it went through several owners — including E.L. Drewry, who would become one of the city's most famous brewers. William Blackwood took it over in 1903, while Drewry maintained a brewery further down river, next to where the Redwood bridge would be built.
In the early 1880s, Blackwood had operated a ginger ale plant on the Assiniboine River, south of what is Granite Way today.
The business bustled and expanded in the 1890s to another location at the corner of Colony Street and Graham Avenue — two streets that once met before Hudson's Bay divided them.
When Blackwood shifted to the South Osborne location, the other breweries were abandoned and later demolished.
He poured everything into the site on what was then called Mulvey Avenue East. The original 1883 brewery was taken down and a towering new one constructed.
It then went through a number of additions and expansions over the next decade, eventually becoming a cluster of seven connected buildings with a retail annex.
Two separate warehouse-sized buildings were added to the property in 1912, with one serving as a soda and mineral water factory and the other a pickle factory.
Blackwood sold the complex just after the First World War and it became the Pelissier Brewery. That was taken over in 1976 by Labatt's, which continued brewing at the location until 1980.
Pelissier's introduced two beer brands that would later become famous under the Labatt's label — Club and Blue — and are still produced today.
Labatt's sold the building to an automotive company that remained there only briefly, leaving it vacant by the mid-1990s and the target of repeated vandalism.
The city took it over for unpaid taxes and tore it down about 10 years later.
Although the main brewery is gone, the other two factory buildings remain.
The soda and mineral water factory is now the South Osborne Exchange, which houses the Mulvey Flea Market. The old pickle factory is a blue warehouse for Dominion Auctions and CJ Storage.
And then there are the turquoise pieces of the past, being swallowed once again by the river; except for those with a new future in Komus's hands.
"My art practice involves a lot of processes so it's hard to know right now where these discoveries will take me," she said.