Manitoba History: The Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway Engine House
by Sheila Grover
Tucked away by the banks of the Red River in the CN East Yards is an old brick house, a vestige of a pioneer era now past.
Consider a period in our history when governments stood or fell on railway issues and when one railway, the Canadian Pacific, held a monopoly on rail traffic across Canada. Within a few months in 1888, Winnipeg became not only a crucible for the western discontent that contributed to the breaking of that loathsome monopoly, but also the headquarters for a new railway that changed the face of our downtown.
The chartering of the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway in 1888 was the culmination of bitter arguments between the provincial and federal governments over competitive lines. This was an early step in providing branch lines to the developing prairie wheat lands when the CPR was financially unable to extend service much beyond its monolithic transcontinental line. For westerners, the new little rail line was both a symbol of their growing political power and a means of securing better access to markets for prairie farmers.
Temporary facilities for the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway (N.P. & M.R.) were erected in 1888. The following year a permanent station, offices, freight sheds, repair shops and an engine roundhouse were erected on vacant Hudson’s Bay Company lands north of the historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. This property later formed the basis of the CN East Yards. The station, with offices attached, was located on Water Avenue just east of Main Street, behind the present site of the Federal Building. And there, erected on that prominent corner site in 1890, was the grandest, most luxurious hotel between Montreal and Vancouver, the Manitoba Hotel. Built by the railway and attached to the station, this large brick hotel featured a fanciful roofline of towers, turrets and gables in the chateau style that was destined to become the style for later Canadian railway hotels.
The N.P. & M.R. was jointly owned by the provincial government and an American rail line, the Northern Pacific. The Manitoba Line ran south from Winnipeg to Emerson and west from Morris to Brandon. At the American border, Canadian travellers could transfer to the parent rail-way and continue on to the cities of Minneapolis or Duluth, or head west to Yellowstone Park, California, Oregon or back up to British Columbia.
The N.P. & M.R. was a relatively small operation. There was a considerable investment in land and buildings, but the rolling stock included only nine locomotives, a handful of first and second class coaches, and 281 freight and boxcars. During the 1890s the line generally operated at a loss, while the parent company was also experiencing financial difficulties. Inept management compounded the situation to the point where the Northern Pacific parent initiated negotiations with the Manitoba government to withdraw its interest in the costly subsidiary. To further blacken the situation, during a winter night of punishing cold in 1899, the grand Manitoba Hotel burned to the ground, taking with it all hopes for a bright future for the little rail line. Miraculously, the train station and shed survived the fire.
The situation was saved by two entrepreneurs, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann. As partners in the fledgling Canadian Northern Railway, Mackenzie and Mann purchased the American interests in the N.P. & M.R. in exchange for bond guarantees from the Manitoba government on a rail extension to Port Arthur. All the property, building and rolling stock of the defunct N.P. & M.R. transferred to the Canadian Northern in 1901, including the engine house and roundhouse, station and sheds in the Winnipeg terminal. All these structures remained in operation under the new ownership, but when Union Station at the foot of Broadway opened in 1911, the old Water Avenue station became redundant. In 1926, dormitories and dining rooms were installed in the former station, thereby transforming it into an Immigration Hall for newcomers arriving at Union Station.
Despite its valiant and occasionally flamboyant efforts, the Canadian Northern could not endure independently. In 1918, the western line was integrated into the larger Canadian National Railway. The East Yards were built up, with additional CNR expansion into new yards at Fort Rouge and Symington. In the face of these changes, the old N.P. & M.R. facilities from the 1889 era were further modified. From station to immigration hall, this structure became a soup kitchen and hostel for unemployed men in the 1930s, and was extensively altered in 1951 to become CNR offices. This building, and the wooden sheds behind it, survived until 1982. The engine repair house, a long brick structure close to the river junction, had its round-house removed in the 1920s. This engine house remains, displaying its venerable age with shabby dignity, as the last witness of that great adventure, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway.*
* Note: Now named the Bridges and Structures Building, the former engine house is the subject of negotiation between CNR and the various agencies involved in the ARC forks development.
Page revised: 4 January 2015