Historical Tours in Manitoba: Walking by History in Winnipeg’s Exchange District
by Maria Zbigniewicz
In addition to visiting the museums discussed in my previous articles our family also took walking tours through parts of Winnipeg. The first was an evening tour of the Brookside Cemetery by Muddy Water Tours (997-8687). The cost in 2003 was $5 per person; in 2004, it went up to $8. It was a nice easy walk with not too many mosquitoes. (But bring repellent just in case!) Based on the $14.95 book Brookside Cemetery: A Celebration of Life published by cemetery administrators to commemorate its 125th anniversary, the tour meandered through the grounds, pointing out graves of significance. These included the first grave in the cemetery (a child, George Smith, dated 1878), and graves of notable or famous people. These included politicians (Stanley Knowles), military personnel (Harry Colebourn of Winnie the Pooh fame), and artists (Harriet & Corliss Walker of Walker theatre - now Burton Cummings theatre). The infamous are covered too, including bank robbers and murderers. Graves of less-well-known people involved in such historical events as the Winnipeg General Strike, the Dugald train disaster, and the Spanish influenza epidemic are also viewed. Unfortunately, the tour didn’t include much more information than could be obtained from a thorough reading of the cemetery history book. It was light, popular history and would be good for anyone regardless of their depth of knowledge of Manitoba and Winnipeg history.
I have wanted to go on the tour of the Exchange District for many years ever since I heard about it but I never seemed to have the time. The historic walking tour of Winnipeg Exchange District is actually two tours; one focusing on the east side of the Main Street, and the other dealing mostly with the west side. Each tour lasts about 1½ hour. Both depart from the Exchange District Information Centre in Old Market Square. The price is $10 per person. By taking both tours, we made a full day of it and had lunch at one the many restaurants in the area. The tours were not difficult walks although it was very hot on the day we went. Remember to bring lots of water!
The Winnipeg Exchange District is a National Historic Site with many heritage buildings. The tour discusses the history of the buildings, their architectural importance, and sometimes future renovation plans. The tour also discusses some of the buildings that have been lost, providing in some cases a photo of the specific building. In some cases, there was a plaque commemorating the building with a saved architectural piece such as is the case in the Merchant’s Bank Building.
Sometimes, the tour entered the building to see an important feature. The tours provided lots of historical details and the guide was well informed and was able to answer most questions. We took our eight year old daughter along and she still comments on the historical aspects of buildings when we drive through the area.
The west tour included a discussion of the lost Gingerbread City Hall (1886-1964) and the Market Building (1897-1964). We passed the newly refurbished façade of the Red River College downtown campus along Princess actually the fronts of the Exchange Building II, Benson, and Bawlf buildings.
Facades of old buildings on Princess Streets were retained during construction of the Red River College's downtown campus (2003)
The Maw Garage (1907) on the corner of Princess and Bannatyne is not what we now think of as a garage but it was, at one time, the largest car dealership in Western Canada. It could sell and service up to 140 cars at a time. Part of it is now being used as nightclub while the rest is a dilapidated parking area. What a shame!
The tour made its way to the corner of McDermot Avenue and Albert commonly known as Newspaper Row. In its heyday, this area was crowded with newspaper publishing houses, news agencies, and printing companies.
Walking by the Union Bank Tower (later the Royal Bank of Canada) at William and Main we learned that it was the first skyscraper in Western Canada an impressive 11 stories high in 1903.
We were lucky to tour through the partially refurbished Millennium Centre (1911), the old Canadian Bank of Commerce. The beautiful stained glass dome ceiling is the highlight of the granite and marble embellished main room. The spiral marble stair case led up to the second floor. There we saw the faded but still majestic oak paneled office. We were privy to the area above the dome (a new roof was put over it to protect it). Then we progressed to the basement to see the old vaults.
The afternoon east tour looked at the wholesale, manufacturing and garment trade aspect of the Exchange area. Many Winnipeggers have probably been in the Pantages Theatre (1914) for some kind of production and some, in their youth (like me), may have participated in a school or community productions and had a chance to see the back stage, the orchestra pit and old dressing rooms. If so, they will find, like I did, that not much has changed. Historically, this is good! But I suspect that larger dressing rooms would be appreciated by the artists today. If you haven’t seen it, this is your chance to be on stage at the Pantages.
Leaving the Theatre, we strolled down Bannatyne Avenue, learning about the J. H. Ashdown Warehouse (1895) at Rorie Street (now converted to condos), the Marshall Wells Building (1900), the Bright and Johnston Building (Mackenzie Block) (1903), and the Donald H. Bain Building (1899). The Bain building was the headquarters for a successful grocery brokerage business owned by the former star player of Winnipeg’s last Stanley Cup-winning hockey team the 1901 Winnipeg Victorias. Between James and Market Avenues is Hell’s Alley, whose name came from the events of Bloody Saturday during the 1919 General Strike. From there, we walked along the Red River in the Stephan Juba Park to the High Pressure Pumping Station (1906) on James Avenue.
We passed the Grain Exchange Building III (1906) at 167 Lombard, and the Great West Life Assurance Building (1909) renamed the Craig Wireless Building at 177 Lombard.
The impressive front facade of the Union Trust Tower faces Lombard at its intersection with Main. When the Richardson Building was built, it lost its view. The tour ended in the Borealis Book shop on Main Street (which has closed since our visit) so we could check out historic photos of important buildings hanging on the wall of the shop.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 29 April 2017