Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 141 years

Manitoba History: Winnipeg Beach by Moonlight

by Dale Barbour
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 63, Spring 2010

At the beginning of the 20th century, getting to Winnipeg Beach was half the fun. The Canadian Pacific Railway bridged the 75-kilometre gap between the city of Winnipeg and the southwestern shore of Lake Winnipeg and could sweep people from city to beach in about an hour. But the train was more than just a method of transportation; it took on the character of the beach with the Daddy’s train providing a link for male workers and the Moonlight Special providing space for youthful hijinks. The beach moved to the rhythm of the train with crowds swelling upon its arrival and shrinking when it departed. And finally, as much as the train was the link between city and beach it was also a valuable space in between; helping to create the sense that people were entering a liminal space where the rules of the city could be bent ever so slightly. This article is part of a broader study of Winnipeg Beach, which examines how it thrived and changed during the first half of the century as a meeting place for men and women. The cabins and rental rooms of the community, an amusement area that included a dance hall, rollercoaster and gorgeous sandy beach were all part of Winnipeg Beach. Tensions in Manitoba’s ethnic community are also part of the Winnipeg Beach story. But here, my focus is on the experience of riding the rails to Winnipeg Beach. A story that begins with a boat trip. [1]

Arriving at Winnipeg Beach. This postcard image of the original railway station circa 1908 captures something of the excitement of arriving at Winnipeg Beach. People stepping out of the station would have faced out towards the lake.
Source: Rob McInnes, WB0009

That a community so closely tied to the railway owes its beginning to a boat trip should not be seen as ironic. As a method of transportation, a train has to have a destination and Winnipeg Beach had yet to become one. So it was that in 1901 William Whyte, an assistant to the Canadian Pacific Railway president, Captain William Robinson, president of the Northwest Navigation Company, and Charles Roland of the CPR, cruised along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg before landing at a “beautiful crescent” of sand and naming it Winnipeg Beach. [2] They might well have been wading ashore and planting their flag in a new world. And in some ways, they were.

Like most new worlds, this one was already inhabited. Lake Winnipeg was familiar terrain to Aboriginal people, and later played its role as a conduit in the fur trade during Canada’s formation. Indeed, historian Gerald Friesen has said the lake “represented the heart of this chunk of the world … certainly to 1900” for both aboriginal people and later for fur traders as well. “Once the railway came, however, that was the end of water. The routes here were so uneconomic. The lake is dangerous and the rivers are just too long,” Friesen noted. [3] The transcontinental railway ended Lake Winnipeg’s role as a trade conduit. But the arrival of the CPR at Winnipeg Beach in 1901 gave the lake a new role. Now, its natural setting would be an object of consumption for people in Winnipeg.

By 1900, the Winnipeg Beach area had been settled by Icelandic, Ukrainian and British immigrants. Donald Arquet, a Scotchman, had homesteaded at SW34-17-4E and by the time the CPR came calling he had built himself a house and developed a farm that comprised most of what would eventually be the resort’s business district and golf course. Winnipeg Beach’s first mayor, William J. Wood, noted that Arquet “sold it to the company for the fancy sum of $1,000 cash and thought he made a good deal.” [4] In some ways, he had, because lake front property is only of value if people want to go to the beach and can reach it. [5] When it took possession of the land, the CPR’s goal was to ensure that both essential ingredients would be met.

While the resort had to be carved out of the forest, the CPR was not breaking new ground when it established Winnipeg Beach. At the turn of the century, the concept of a seaside resort was at its peak. [6] Other examples abounded from Blackpool in Great Britain to Coney Island in New York. [7] Seaside resorts had a long history in Europe, whether for religious reasons or imagined health benefits. [8] With the industrial revolution underway, the natural world was extolled as a virtuous place in contrast to the growing urban centres. [9] Trains helped bridge the gap between city and shoreline. More modestly, trolley companies in urban centres used parks and amusement areas as terminal points on their trolley lines to add business as residential areas developed and to generate revenue on weekends. [10] In Toronto, the trolley provided a link to amusement parks such as Scarborough Beach Park and Sunnyside Amusement Park, which rose and fell along the shore of Lake Ontario in the early 20th century. And in Winnipeg, the Osborne Street trolley line was able to use River Park, on the southeastern end of Osborne Street, as its terminus. [11]

The CPR already had an interest in the tourist trade. Its transcontinental line had opened markets in Banff, Victoria and Quebec City to North American and European travellers. Closer to Winnipeg, the transcontinental line had made the Lake of the Woods accessible to the city’s elite. Local railway development offered new opportunities to create regional excursion points that would be financially accessible for middle-class patrons. [12] The CPR also felt the clock was ticking. The rival Canadian Northern Railway had a partially completed line to Delta Beach on the southern shore of Lake Manitoba. [13] The CPR had been eyeing the southern shore of Lake Winnipeg in 1899 and in 1900 used its Selkirk branch line to send a trainload of excursionists to Selkirk where they boarded the City of Selkirk steamer and made their way to a beach at the mouth of the Red River. [14] But it would take rail transportation to move the masses of people needed to make a resort profitable.

Bucolic plans. This illustration shows the CPR’s initial plans for Winnipeg Beach. The business section was behind the train station and the cabins were located to the far right of the station. The dance pavilion was surrounded by a park-like area.
Source: Redrawn from “Winnipeg Soon to Have New Resort,” Morning Telegram, 1 June 1901, pages 9, 13.

Winnipeg was ready. The city was in the midst of its turn-of-the-century boom, with entrepreneurs and workers captivated by a growing economy and rising wages. In the ten-year period between 1901, when Winnipeg Beach was announced, and 1911, Winnipeg’s population soared from 42,340 to 136,035 people, and city boosters claimed the 1911 tally was closer to 166,000 when seasonal workers and those missed by census takers were included. In Winnipeg 1912, Jim Blanchard has described how Winnipeg’s British born envisioned a metropolis on the prairies and created the theatres, clubs and churches necessary to live a life as good as any in the British Empire. [15] Winnipeg’s elite felt they deserved a world-class resort to go with their world-class city and hoped Winnipeg Beach could be made to fit the bill.

The aspirations and social habits of this genteel middleclass coloured the CPR’s early plans for Winnipeg Beach. [16] Interviewed in 1901, Whyte said it would provide a place for Winnipeg residents to “take a day’s outing and enjoy the health-giving breeze from Lake Winnipeg.” [17] In 1902, CPR officials said they expected to run one train a day to the beach the following spring and contemplated developing some cottages, a dance pavilion and a hotel. They also mused about adding special excursion trains; the picnic trains that would become a staple of Winnipeg Beach. Picnickers could fill the pavilion, use its dining room for a meal and return home to the city after their outing. Finally, the CPR thought that perhaps there would be dancing in the pavilion every Saturday. [18] There was a pattern of gender relations implicit in these expectations. Ethnic, church, and business groups—including middle-class to working-class people—held picnics to bring their communities together and provide a safe space for men and women to socialize. Winnipeg’s upper and middle class—the tired business people who used Winnipeg Beach as a summer home—did their entertaining within the confines of their own cabins. Beth Bailey’s From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in 20th Century America refers to this courting approach as “calling,” so named because the man would “call” at the woman’s house, and other family members would be close at hand during the visit. [19]

The discussion over the Empress Hotel in 1908 suggests the role the CPR hoped that Winnipeg Beach might play. The CPR’s earliest plans called for a hotel at Winnipeg Beach, but it was Edward Windebank, the developer of the Empress Hotel, who approached the CPR about the project. Windebank had fallen short of cash during construction and offered to mortgage the hotel to the company if it would advance the money necessary to complete the establishment. [20] Whyte, now CPR second vice-president, pushed the Empress project noting that people coming to Winnipeg Beach who “desire decent accommodation could not get it.” [21] The term “decent accommodation” hints that servicing Winnipeg’s upper- and middle-class clientele was at the base of Whyte’s concern. Cabin owners, campers and day-trippers could still use Winnipeg Beach, but the Empress was intended to offer high-class accommodations. Similarly, a Winnipeg businessman wrote the Free Press to complain in 1907 that a lack of quality accommodation meant that the “better classes” were “entirely debarred from visiting the beach.” [22]

Whyte’s concerns were not groundless. In 1910 a group of five Winnipeg investors incorporated the Victoria Beach Investment Company and over the next few years would go on to make their vision of an exclusive resort a reality. [23] Victoria Beach—not Winnipeg Beach—would go on to become synonymous with Winnipeg’s elite, at least when it came to Lake Winnipeg resorts. But the Empress Hotel did become the signature hotel at Winnipeg Beach and, along with the boardwalk and railway, one of the symbolic images of the resort’s heyday.

The CPR’s initial suggestion of a train a day and dancing on weekends was either modest or grossly underestimated the potential of Winnipeg Beach. Within a few years, the evening excursions would run nightly, and by 1906, the track would see up to 13 trains a day on busy holiday weekends. [24] By 1920, 15,000 people made the trek on 13 trains to Winnipeg Beach for the July 1 weekend and by then nightly dances were being held in the pavilion. And the 1920 figure underestimated the number of people on the train. As an official at the time suggested, “for every adult there was one child for whom no ticket was required, bringing the grand total to about 30,000 souls carried to and from the holiday points” or more than one out of every ten people in Winnipeg. [25] A crowd of 35,000 to 40,000 was possible on long weekends during Winnipeg Beach’s peak in the 1920s. [26] By 1925, a Free Press article noted that 17 trains made the trip to the beach for the July 1 holiday. [27] Little wonder that the Winnipeg Beach line was claimed to be the most profitable stretch of CPR track in Canada. [28]

Winnipeg Beach’s popularity grew in tandem with Winnipeg’s population. But these soaring crowds also reflected a transition in what people expected out of their resort experience. With its growing amusement area Winnipeg Beach became an “industrial saturnalia” providing “a release from the ‘rules’ of urban/industrial life.” [29] This role worked in tandem with the natural attractions that had brought the CPR to Winnipeg Beach. But there were several changes at work in the resort’s growth. The genteel middle class that had colonized the beach had done much of their entertaining—including socializing between men and women—within closed social groups. Working-class citizens at the turn of the century also did most of their socializing within controlled ethnic groups. [30] But the mass crowds that populated the beach did their dating in public in the expanding amusement areas both at Winnipeg Beach and in Winnipeg. The vast numbers that were coming to Winnipeg Beach by the 1920s suggested not only the loss of middle-class exclusivity but a broader change in gender relations with the emergence of a dating culture. Couples were moving from the confines of the parlour to the public dance hall. [31]

When the CPR laid its tracks to Winnipeg Beach, it rolled them out almost directly to the beach and alongside Main Street or Railway Street as it was initially known. People could see the lake as they stepped off the train making an excursion to Winnipeg Beach quite literally a trip to the beach. [32] John Fiske sees the beach as a bonding place between the natural and the cultural. It is a place filled with meaning. [33] At Winnipeg Beach, people were brought directly to that meeting place. As the Free Press explained in 1905:

Many of the children, Winnipeg born and bred, have never seen a lake and the excitement grows intense as the train nears its destination. The “grown-ups” too, with memories perhaps of distant homes near Ontario or the old country lakes, watch eagerly for the first glimpse of water gleaming through the trees and smile in sympathy with the shrill “I see it,” of the proud youngster who catches the gleam. Finally the train pulls into the station and the lake bursts into view, sparkling like a great pale sapphire in the sun. [34]

The references to Ontario and the “old country” suggest that there was an expectation these would have been British excursionists.

As the resort developed, drawing the train through the community’s heart became a safety risk; so in 1911 the station was moved several blocks back from the lakefront. [35] The new location opened space for a line of amusements and businesses to grow between station and lake. So it was that people waded through additional cultural artefacts to get to the natural. It is this commercial development that greeted seven-year-old Christine in Gabrielle Roy’s The Road Past Altamont. Set in the 1920s or 1930s, Roy describes Christine and her elderly travelling companion’s excitement at catching a glimpse of the lake during the journey but then crying out, “The lake? Where’s the lake?” as they wade through the amusement area. [36] They were seeking an encounter with the natural setting of the lake. But for other travellers it was exactly this carnival atmosphere at the meeting point of the cultural and the natural that drew them to Winnipeg Beach; a point helpfully framed by train tracks on one side and lakeshore on the other.

After the decision on station location and the construction of the Empress Hotel, the rest of Winnipeg Beach fell into place. The resort’s role was evolving as it developed. There is no doubt that competition from the Canadian Northern at Grand Beach pushed the CPR into developing further attractions. The boardwalk continued to grow, culminating in the addition of the rollercoaster in 1919 and the construction of Western Canada’s largest dance hall in 1924, which had a 14,000 square-foot dance floor. The additions reflected a change in social relations. People were not just coming to Winnipeg Beach to gaze at the lake or to socialize within their community. Men and women were coming for the opportunity to promenade and dance in public. [37]

Similarly, Winnipeg Beach newspaper advertisements moved from being placed among transportation advertisements to being slotted with entertainment advertisements and focussed more tightly on selling the heterosexual adult experience. Children were a market, but the CPR was really interested in young adults. As one large CPR advertisement featuring dancing and the Moonlight trains intoned in 1920: “Oh Boy, Let’s Go! The board-walk a-quiver with life and gaiety.—Every attraction in full swing.— The trees, the grasses, the breezes and the Crowd—all invite you. Make it a real holiday.” [38] The product was the heterosexual experience, encouraged by the presence of nature, sanctioned by the support of companies such as the CPR. [39]

Oh, Boy! Let’s Go. This advertisement illustrates the blending of heterosexuality, nature, and the train.
Source: Manitoba Free Press, 21 May 1920, page 18.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch has argued that the train creates its destination. It focusses passengers around the departure point and the arrival point, while the space in between is unused or even “destroyed.” When passengers look outside they find themselves encountering a panorama of passing landscape, rather than a place. [40] But while the train destroyed the space between Winnipeg and Winnipeg Beach, it created the time and social space of the train journey. Indeed, it is the use of this time to build excitement in children awaiting their arrival at the beach or to provide a moment together for couples returning on the Moonlight Special that provides many foundational memories of Winnipeg Beach.

On a given day, Winnipeg Beach could see over a dozen trains, but three types of trains had particular significance; the Moonlight, the Daddy’s train; and the picnic trains. In 1913, the Free Press noted that between 40 and 50 picnics were expected—a list that included a wide range of churches and social groups such as the Canadian Order of Foresters, Rome-Italian society and the Orangemen. [41] The picnics would be a staple of Winnipeg Beach into the 1950s. The Caterers picnic, perhaps the most famous and one that had predated Winnipeg Beach, quickly made the beach its own. [42] It was also among the last major picnics at the beach and used the CPR train as late as 1961, after regular passenger service had ended. [43] A typical picnic might draw a few hundred people to 2,500 for the CPR’s own picnic in 1911 and up to 6,000 for the caterers picnic. [44] Events such as the CPR’s picnic included competitions with distinct categories for married and single men and women illustrating how these events were very much about maintaining social networks and perhaps even courting. [45]

Picnics were a way of maximizing the profitability of the beach line for the CPR. But they also added to the experience of Winnipeg Beach by ensuring that there was a steady draw for people. Nestor Mudry can remember travelling to the CPR picnic in 1934 when he would have been about 13 years old. [46] The family did not have a cottage and vacations were limited to the odd Sunday, all of which meant that going to the CPR picnic was an event. “It was exciting. I remember being in the station and ‘Are we going, are we going yet?’ Then of course they had young boys selling stuff on the train, cokes and crackerjack and all of that sort of thing,” Mudry recalled. “That was the main outing, oh that was a good thrill for us. Especially when the train was coming along and oh, we could see the lake. ‘Oh, there’s the lake! Oh there it was.’ So it was a pretty big deal for us kids.” [47]

CPR picnic train. Nestor Mudry would have travelled on this train, or one very similar, when he went to Winnipeg Beach for the Canadian Pacific Railway Employees Annual Picnic.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection, PC 18/7278/18-7278-010

The CPR’s quick service allowed Winnipeg Beach to become a commuter community, with businessmen setting up their families at the beach for the summer or perhaps just for a brief vacation while they travelled back and forth to the city on the train. This was the genteel middle-class public face the beach wanted to project. [48] At a cost of $1.20 for a round-trip fare, compared to an early 20th-century labourer’s salary of 20 cents an hour, or a skilled tradesman’s 65 cents an hour, this daily commute was beyond the budget of all but the very affluent. [49] This gendered commute was laid out officially as the Daddy’s Train in CPR advertisements, a terminology that suggests workers were male, married and with children.

The popular image of the Daddy’s train was of fathers commuting on a daily basis, but the reality was that most fathers spent the week working in the city and the weekends at the cottage. Winnipeg Beach was not alone in this pattern. “The husband train” as Orvar Lofgren has termed it, played the same role in vacation spots throughout the world until it was replaced by the car. Cabin life seesawed between the long spells with mom as the single parent, to the frenzy of activity and excitement that would accompany the return of dad. [50] At Winnipeg Beach, the train station became the focal point for weekly family reunions and departures and provided a temporal and spatial fix for their excitement. Ina Drummond can recall staying at the beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her mother and aunts rented a cottage while her father, a CPR employee, joined them on weekends. “While the mom and kids were down at the lake, dad would be at work and he’d come down Friday night and spend the weekend,” Drummond recalled. “We couldn’t wait for that Daddy train to come down on Friday.” [51] On the flipside, Orest could remember growing up in the city’s north end and seeing the rail commuters roll into the city in the morning, as much a part of summer as going to the beach itself. [52]

Memories of the Moonlight Specials are a staple of Winnipeg Beach lore. The Moonlight encapsulates the Winnipeg Beach experience as a location for dating, providing in a few short hours the journey to somewhere else, the collective and performative experience on the boardwalk and dancehall and the return, accompanied by the creation of private and hidden space. [53] While the Daddy’s train was a male space, the Moonlight was conceptualized as a heterosocial affair. [54] Howard Dundas provides us with perhaps the most graphic description of the Moonlight trains in his book, Wrinkled Arrows: Good Old Days in Winnipeg. He offers a striking illustration of the thesis that the trains and Winnipeg Beach represented an opportunity to escape the regulation of the city and to enter a locale beyond the boundary line that separated “proper” behaviour from the possibility of sexual expression. Born in 1905, Dundas is explicit in arguing that “sexual ignorance abounded” in the 1920s but that with the Moonlight train the “cool of the evening beckoned.” [55]

Dundas describes Moonlight rides to Winnipeg Beach and Grand Beach and emphasizes how the resorts provided an escape from Winnipeg. On the Winnipeg Beach side, the train passes through Whytewold and Matlock - the home of the “commuting members of the Establishment” - while on the Grand Beach side of the lake the train patrons were “stared at rather enigmatically by a few score of Indians sitting or loitering in the station’s shade” as they passed by Balsam Bay. [56] Dundas is doing more than providing narrative here. He is using class and race to form a boundary around the beaches and also tells us something of how the riders constructed themselves against that boundary. In their journey, workingclass riders on the Moonlight trains travelled through a moat of class and race to reach an area beyond the regulation they endured in the city.

On the way home “youthful passengers vied with the trainmen, putting the lights in the cars on and off eight times. Youth always won, and the trainmen left the cars in darkness, said ‘the hell with it’ and went into the baggage car to play Euchre.” [57] And what happened after “youth” had won and created this darkened space? “There were squeals of laughter, poignant silences and sudden shrieks of indignation.” [58] Bryan Palmer has argued that darkness, with its implicit link to the night has traditionally been conceptualized as an area for transgression: “The night time has been the right time, a fleeting but regular period of modest but cherished freedoms from the constraints and cares of daily life.” [59] It was this potential moment of freedom that made the late night Moonlight so enticing for the youthful passengers.

Dundas’s portrayal of the Moonlight journey replicates standard portrayals of sexual roles, with the male as pursuer and the female as defender of virtue. [60] It also offers a spatial analysis of the return journey. “The Oak Bluff whistle warned the young men there was only another twenty miles left for sweet talk and gentle persuasion, and their young ladies to dig in anew at this threat of a new ambush … The Transcona warning wail gave them their last chance to try something they hadn’t thought of since Ponema or Balsam Bay, and their girlfriends, by now feeling it was safe enough to let them cop a miniscule feel … to ensure a date for next Saturday.” [61] Dundas is tapping a familiar theme here, suggesting women used their sexuality to ensure that their date would foot the bill for the outing. That same belief kept moral reformers tightly focussed on the behaviour of women at the beginning of the 20th century. [62] Dundas goes on to describe “weary and dishevelled” youth finally leaving the trains and catching a ride home on the streetcars. Despite his colourful description of the trip, Dundas pulls back at the end of his tale to say, “I don’t think anyone ever made the ‘supreme sacrifice’ on the Moonlights … Virginity was pretty highly thought of in those days, and premarital trial runs being more the exception rather than the rule.” [63] In the end, even Dundas could not resist regulating sexual behaviour.

The clamour of the returning Moonlight train, like the arrival of the commuting daddies, was a benchmark of life in Winnipeg in the early part of the century. In 1967, Jocelyn Square wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press detailing her childhood in the Royal Alexandra during “the years of the Roaring Twenties. And the old Royal Alex did roar in those days … each Sunday from May 24 until after Labor Day, I was usually awakened around 1 a.m. by the opening of the great wrought iron gates on the Main Street side of the hotel. A great surge of people, all laughing and talking, pushing their way down the incline from the station platform heralded the return of the weekly Moonlight train to Winnipeg Beach.” [64]

In a series of letters, Helen Sigurdur, Dorothy Lynch, Agnes Walker recalled journeying to the beach on the Moonlight train in the 1930s and 1940s, often to meet dates or a boyfriend. [65] Lynch’s recollections make it clear that going on a date was the goal. “We would be back in Winnipeg by midnight, on a coal-fired train. How our mother[s] worried about their young, innocent daughters, arriving home early Sunday morning, having been out with boys unknown to them. They waited up for us, listening to the wireless radio, or pacing the floor,” she recalled. [66] Orest travelled on the Moonlight Special to Winnipeg Beach in 1956, the last year before the evening trains were discontinued. But the routine was much the same as it had been 20 or 30 years earlier. “Winnipeg Beach was summer time. A chance to get out of Winnipeg, it was something different,” Orest said. [67] He travelled with a friend or two and the goal was simple—have a good time and, he hoped, meet a girl. We can look to these groups and note the flexibility and protection that train travel and the crowd of passengers on the train gave them. “If you were 19 years of age, you didn’t go out with your date. So you’d go out with your girlfriends,” Myrna Charach recalled. “The girls would go up, four or five girls out together to be at somebody’s cottage and naturally the guys would come up separate. They’d get together there. But you never came out … You told your mother you were going with your girlfriends. *laughs*” [68] Groups of couples would have headed up together as well; travelling in a pack lent a sort of moral security to the trip. But flirting amongst the travellers started the moment they stepped on the train. [69]

In many ways the experience of travelling on the Moonlight Special has taken on the role of a regional myth: a complex of symbols and images embedded in a larger narrative with predictable rhythms. [70] That role does not make the experience any less real. But it does mean that individual recollections of the trip are likely to tap a familiar list of experiences. For example, many interview subjects remember the lights being turned off, but they never claim to have turned the lights out themselves. Orest remembered the lights being extinguished as a regular part of travelling on the Moonlight Special. “The CP cops and the conductors would just go crazy because they wanted the lights to be seen as the train was going by otherwise if it’s dark they could get into trouble,” Orest recalled. [71] The expectation, Orest said with a laugh, was that the guys were looking for a chance to kiss their dates or as Izzy Peltz recalled the “guys got into a corner and were smooching” and again the lights were turned off. [72] Within this powerful narrative, youthful love always won out.

Victor Martin worked as a fireman on the Moonlight Special on several trips. While he didn’t have to deal with it directly, he certainly heard stories of what people were doing in the coaches: “I know a few times some of the conductors were frustrated because [the passengers] were always turning the lights out in the coaches and in the end they would give up (laughs). You know, I mean I’m talking people our age, that were supposed to be the wild ones in those days, water fights, cinders coming, people would get them in the eye, people always hanging out the windows, you couldn’t stop them, but trains in those days were the mode of travel and nobody paid any attention to that stuff. It was the only way you travelled and you did what you wanted or tried to get away with as much as you wanted,” Martin recalled. [73]

Nestor Mudry performed in a band at the Dance Palace in the summer of 1941, but he made a few Moonlight trips to the dancehall with friends on his own time: “I remember going [on] the Moonlight coming back, and here’s all these guys necking with their girlfriends and turning off the lights and the poor train man, these guys are turning off the light and the poor trainmen were trying to put on the lights. A lot of them, they weren’t electrical lights, they were gas lights. Anyway, that was kind of amusing,” Mudry, recalled. Again, the goal was finding a little space to do a little kissing, and Mudry is equally careful to say that it never went further than that: “Just smooching was all. There was no love making, not in those days. That was a no no.” [74] Dorothy Garbutt wrote a column in 1961 for the Winnipeg Free Press recalling her experiences at Winnipeg Beach in the summer of 1919 and she noted that at the end of the night: “for some mysterious reason, none of the group you came with was able to find seats together and so you paired off, apart from the others, and if a little ... well, it was the Moonlight, wasn’t it?” [75]

Not all recollections of the Moonlight Special are quite as exciting. “I remember taking the ride back when my girlfriend and I took the Moonlight. It was very quiet. People were tired after the weekend or couple of days there,” Jessica recalled. “Did couples have a chance to be together alone on the train? They might have had a chance to be alone on a seat but there were always people around them.” [76] Val Kinack expressed similar scepticism pointing out how busy the train was, but also that “they didn’t have the sexual freedom that they have today.”

Life’s a beach. In this beach scene from around 1910, a number of people are going into the water, but many others are clearly sitting with no intention of entering the water. Pay particular attention to the extent of the beach in this picture. The clubhouse appears in the background.
Source: Rob McInnes, WB0038

The Free Press and Lethbridge Herald tell us that, at the very least, the lights did go out on the Moonlight Special. In a 1946 article headlined “Putting Out Train Lights Brings Fine for 2 Youths,” the Winnipeg Free Press quoted Magistrate D. G. Potter stating that “Young people making a nuisance of themselves on Moonlight Specials from Winnipeg Beach will be fined the maximum penalty in the future.” In this case, Winnipeg youths George Burke and John Kupskay received a $10 fine for turning out the lights. [77] Potter was even crankier in August that same year laying down a fine of $20 for turning off the Moonlight lights and threatening to increase it to $40 the next time someone came into his court on the charge. The Lethbridge Herald carried the story through the news wire under the headline: “Warns Romeos”—an interesting turn of phrase given the difficulty Romeo and Juliette had in getting together. The article noted that “Romeos who turn off coach lights, thereby providing themselves with a better atmosphere for their pursuits, will be dealt with more severely in future, Magistrate D. G. Potter warned.” [78] In 1950, the same sort of charges would show up in Juvenile court although the language surrounding them was less sympathetic and this time there was no discussion about the motivation the “young hooligans” might have had for turning off the lights. [79]

The news articles, and in particular the “Warns Romeos” article in The Lethbridge Herald, neatly follow the script laid down by male interview subjects and Dundas with men being charged for seeking darkness in which to create “a better atmosphere for their pursuits,” the pursuits being women, of course. Men and women did seek out dark spaces on the Moonlight trains, whether by turning out the lights or snuggling up in a seat. The Moonlight trains provided a space in which the rules could be challenged and renegotiated, not only on the rare occasions when the lights went out but also when they stayed on and couples leaned back into their seats to steal a kiss, hold hands, or let their head rest on another’s shoulder.

But when the lights flickered out on the Moonlight Special was it only men and women getting together? David B., interviewed for The Gay and Lesbian Oral History Project in 1990, could recall travelling to Winnipeg Beach with his father on the Moonlight Special to meet his mother, who was already staying down at the beach. “That was the thing to do in those days,” David B. recalled. “I can remember getting up, going through the train to see if there was people I could talk to. I met one young man, and I didn’t realize at that point that that was what I was doing, but I felt very attracted to him.” [80] Nothing sexual came of David. B.’s moment, but the Moonlight no doubt held the possibility of homosexual relations amidst what seemed to be a thoroughly heterosexual space.

Whether it was a picnic train, Daddy’s Train or a Moonlight Special, they all rolled into the Winnipeg Beach train station. Long-time Winnipeg journalist Val Werier has argued that the trains provided the rhythm for Winnipeg Beach: “When the big steam locomotive shsshed and panted into the station it was alive with people. Meeting the train was part of beach life, seeing who was arriving or going.” [81] Jessica remembered the train whistle as a rallying cry: “Even if you weren’t expecting anyone, you would go down to watch the people coming off the Moonlight in case there was someone there you knew that you could go down to the pier with”. Val Kinack was down at the station as a child as well. As she got older, the train station was a place to meet dates. It was even where she met her husband for the first time, although in this case her future husband was with a group of friends who found her waiting at the train station and convinced her to go for a drive rather than wait for a date to arrive on the train. The flexibility of the car trumped the schedule of the train. [82]

Kinack’s car ride to Winnipeg reminds us that while the CPR might have created Winnipeg Beach, it was not able to maintain its monopoly on the resort’s travel links.

Discussions about completing a provincial road to Winnipeg Beach were taking place in 1909 and by 1910, the first cars had started to make the journey to the beach. [83] There is something of the explorer in these early trips, with drivers ferreting out the best routes and then sharing their experiences in the Free Press. Manitoba’s drivers did not wait for roads to open, they actively promoted auto travel. [84] On the July 1 weekend in 1925, 14,747 people came to the beach by train, including 2,000 people on three Moonlight Excursions, but an additional 20,000 people were believed to have come in an estimated 3,700 automobiles. [85] For drivers in 1925, the long weekend probably warranted a special trip. But by 1938 when a full-page advertisement ran in the Free Press for Winnipeg Beach, it used roads and cars to illustrate how people should reach the beach. [86] The period after the Second World War was the tipping point for car use: in 1941 less than half of Canada’s suburb dwelling residents owned cars, but by 1961 a large majority of them did. [87]

The car opened new landscapes for exploration and ones that did not require a dedicated rail line to reach. Giving people the option of a seamless journey from home to destination point, the car changed what people expected out of transportation. Schedules were no longer acceptable when drivers could set the schedule themselves. [88] This competition was felt acutely at Winnipeg Beach with other government-sponsored provincial parks rightly blamed for cutting into the crowds. [89] But social relations were changing as well. The men and women who used to worry about being caught travelling with men could now travel to and stay at the new provincial parks together with little fear of sanction: a sign that courting rituals were changing once again. [90] The car also changed the social aspect of travel and created “the family pack” with families or couples able to travel independently. [91] The automobile, in other words, atomized the travel experience disrupting the collective social space that had existed on the trains, including the Moonlight experience and the myth-making that had gone along with it.

Yet, the train maintained a tenacious hold on the imagination of Winnipeg Beach. In 1942 there were still 11,000 people taking the train to Winnipeg Beach on a busy weekend, and in 1943 when a busy schedule forced the CPR to cut back to one Moonlight Special on the weekend it still expected to sell at least 1,600 tickets for the trip. [92] Even in the 1950s when the majority of people were coming to the beach by car, the trains still set the rhythm of the community. In 1965, Christopher Dafoe recalled spending his teen years at Winnipeg Beach in a fruitless quest for the heterosexual experience. Not surprisingly he bookends his failure to find female companionship with the departure of the train: “At midnight, as The Moonlight panted out of town, we always made our way back to Ponemah Beach wondering what it had all been for.” [93] Orest was taking the Moonlight train to Winnipeg Beach in the 1950s. For him, the train was shorthand for the entire experience, which is why, when the train had stopped running and the amusement area had been removed, the community had no resonance for him. “During the ’70s and ’80s, I used to go to Winnipeg Beach, my sister’s got a cottage there, but that was just for Saturday for supper and then head back. I never stayed. Just to do some visiting. I would never go into town at Winnipeg Beach,” Orest said. “But the train ride, the Moonlight, yes.” [94]

Pier pressure. The CPR pier figured prominently in beach activities in the early 1900s, including as a base for diving competitions and casual strolls.
Source: Top: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune Fonds, 18/7278/18-7278-006. Bottom: Rob McInnes, WB0043


1. This article includes a number of oral interviews. I interviewed 18 people throughout the winter in 2007-2008. I have also taped a selection of interviews from “The History of Winnipeg Beach” oral history project, which was sponsored by The Boundary Creek District Development, Inc. in 1991. I owe the interviewers, D. Harrison and D. Carpenter, my thanks for their work. I have also used interviews from the Gay and Lesbian Historical Project, which were conducted in Winnipeg and Selkirk 1991 by David Theodore.

2. W. J. Wood. A Brief History of Winnipeg Beach 1901-1955. Unpublished Manuscript. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg Beach Vertical File, 1.

3. Gerald Friesen as quoted in Frances Russell, Mistehay Sakahegan, The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Heartland, 2004, p. 57.

4. Wood, p. 2.

5. Manitoba Free Press Magazine Section, Saturday, 22 June 1907, Vol. 34, No. 302.

6. John C. Lehr, H. John Selwood and Eileen Badiuk, “Ethnicity, Religion, and Class as Elements in the Evolution of Lake Winnipeg Resorts.” The Canadian Geographer, 1991, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 46, 58, 48. James Walvin, Leisure and Society 1830-1950. Longman Group Ltd.: London, 1978, p. 69.

7. Ibid., p. 71. Robert E. Snow and David E. Wright, “Coney Island: A Case Study In Popular Culture And Technical Change,” Journal of Popular Culture, p. 962.

8. Walvin, p. 69.

9. E. J. Hart, The Selling of Canada: The CPR and the Beginnings of Canadian Tourism. Banff, Canada: Altitude Publishing, 1983, p. 41.

10. Gary S. Cross and John K. Walton, The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 32. David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 80.

11. Don Aiken, It Happened in Manitoba: Stories of the Red River Province. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd., 2004, p. 159.

12. Lehr et al., p. 48.

13. Ibid., p. 48.

14. Winnipeg Free Press, “Trip to Lake Winnipeg”. 27 August 1900, p. 5.

15. Jim Blanchard, Winnipeg 1912. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005, pp. 7, 9. Daniel Hiebert, “Class, ethnicity and residential structure: the social geography of Winnipeg, 1901-1921,” Journal of Historical Geography, January 1991, vol. 17, Issue 1, pp. 56-86, 64, 67.

16. Cross and Walton, pp.119-120.

17. Morning Telegram, “Speaks Well of Winnipeg”. 22 April 1901, p 2.

18. Manitoba Morning Free Press, “NEWEST SUMMER RESORT”. Monday, 3 November 1902, p. 5. Morning Telegram, “Winnipeg Soon to Have New Resort,” 1 June 1901, pp. 9, 13. See pavilion plan. Morning Telegram, “Train service to Winnipeg Beach”. 21 May 1903, p. 2.

19. Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp. 3, 7, 13.

20. Letter from W. Whyte, second vice-president to Sir Thomas G. Shaughnessy, President, 9 June 1908, p. 1, Canadian Pacific Railway Archives.

21. Whyte letter, p. 3. Canadian Pacific Railway Company Telegram, from W. Whyte, second vice-president to Sir Thomas G. Shaughnessy, President, 16 June 1908, Canadian Pacific Archives.

22. Manitoba Free Press, Wednesday, 22 May 1907, p. 12.

23. Lehr et al., pp. 50-51.

24. Manitoba Free Press, “WHAT TO DO ON CIVIC HOLIDAY: The Attractions are Many and Varied—Thirteen Trains to the Beach”. Thursday, 16 August 1906, p. 16.

25. Manitoba Free Press, “About 15,000 People Taken On Winnipeg Beach Trains”. 2 July1920, p. 3.

26. Russell, p. 122.

27. Manitoba Free Press, “Winnipeg Celebrates Holiday at Beaches”. Thursday, 2 July 1925, p. 4.

28. Russell, p. 122.

29. Cross and Walton, p. 7.

30. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, pp. 13, 27.

31. Bailey, pp. 3, 7, 13. Karen Dubinsky, The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. Toronto: Between The Lines, 1999, p. 155.

32. Wood, p. 4. Morning Telegram, “Winnipeg Soon to Have New Resort”. 1 June 1901, pp. 9, 13. (see map)

33. John Fiske, “Surfalism and Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture,” Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, 1:2, 1983, pp 120-149, 120.

34. Manitoba Free Press, Saturday, 1 July 1905, p. 5.

35. Manitoba Free Press, “Complaints from Beach Residents”. Monday, 10 July 1911, p. 15.

36. Gabrielle Roy, The Road Past Altamont. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1989, p. 62.

37. Nasaw, p. 116.

38. “May 24th Dancing at the Beach,” Manitoba Free Press, Friday, 21 May 1920, p. 18.

39. Annette Pritchard and Nigel J. Morgan, “Privileging The Male Gaze: Gendered Tourism Landscapes” Annals of Tourism Research, 2000, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 884-905, p. 889. Cross and Walton, pp. 72-73.

40. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986, pp. 38, 64, 193.

41. Manitoba Free Press, “Many Excursions to Winnipeg Beach”. Thursday, 15 May 1913, p. 2.

42. Manitoba Free Press, Saturday, 24 August 1904, p. 3, as one example. (note gamblers and fakirs on previous train, regulation travels by train, work in with “spotters.”

43. Winnipeg Free Press, “Caterers Picnic”. Friday, 6 July 1962, p. 14.

44. Manitoba Free Press, “Canadian Pacific Employees Picnic”. Monday, 17 July 1911, p. 9.

45. Ibid.

46. Nestor Mudry interview 12 December 2007 with Dale Barbour.

47. Nestor Mudry interview.

48. Manitoba Free Press, “Winnipeg Beach”. Saturday, 17 May 1913, p. 13.

49. Lehr et al., p. 48.

50. Orvar Lofgren, On Holiday: A History of Vacationing. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 135-136.

51. Ina Drummond interview, 18 December 2007, with Dale Barbour.

52. Jessica interview, 29 November 2007 with Dale Barbour. Orest interview, 5 December 2007, with Dale Barbour.

53. David Bell and Gill Valentine, Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities. Routledge: New York, 1995, p. 18.

54. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, p. 4-5. Heterosocial refers to the mixing of both genders while homosocial refers to the social mixing of people of one gender and not, it should be noted, to sexual orientation.

55. Howard Dundas, Wrinkled Arrows: Good Old Days in Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Queenston House, 1980, p. 93.

56. Dundas, pp. 93-96.

57. Ibid., p. 96.

58. Ibid.

59. Bryan D. Palmer. Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgressions. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, p.19.

60. Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, p. 87.

61. Dundas, pp. 96-97.

62. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, p. 61. Carolyn Strange. Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, p. 112.

63. Dundas, p. 97.

64. “A Child’s Dream: Life In The Alex,” Winnipeg Free Press, Leisure Magazine, Saturday, 13 May 1967, p. 6.

65. Badiuk, Vienna, Dance Hall Film Project. Winnipeg: Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, Heritage Grants Program, 1999. Helen Sigurdur letter, Dorothy Lynch letter, Agnes Walker letter.

66. Dorothy Lynch letter, Dance Hall Film Project.

67. Orest interview.

68. Myrna Charach interview, 8 December 2007, with Dale Barbour.

69. Ina Drummond interview. Orest interview.

70. Graeme H. Patterson, History and communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the interpretation of history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 166.

71. Orest interview.

72. Izzy Peltz interview.

73. Victor Martin C2123 interview.

74. Nestor Mudry interview.

75. Winnipeg Free Press, “Fancy Free.” Special Features, Saturday, 3 June 1961, p. 22.

76. Jessica interview.

77. “Putting Out Train Lights Brings Fine For 2 Youths,” Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, 28 June 1946, p. 1.

78. “Warns Romeos,” The Lethbridge Herald, Saturday, 10 August 1946, p. 1.

79. “YOUNG HOOLIGANS ON BEACH TRAINS GET WARNING,” Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, 15 July 1950, p. 1.

80. Manitoba Gay/Lesbian Oral History Project, David B. C1864 interview, 7 June 1990, with David Theodore, Archives of Manitoba.

81. Val Werier, “In the evening there is no longer a Moonlight,” Winnipeg Tribune, 7 August 1965.

82. Kinack interview.

83. Manitoba Free Press, “Winnipeg Beach,”, Tuesday, 15 June 1909, p. 10; Manitoba Free Press Automobile Section, “Trip to the beach.” Saturday, 6 August 1910.

84. Manitoba Free Press, “Lady Wins Gold Medal.” 20 July 1914, p. 22.

85. Manitoba Free Press, “Winnipeg Celebrates Holiday at Beaches”. Thursday, 2 July 1925, p. 4.

86. Winnipeg Free Press, “Where Manitoba Plays”. Friday 8 July 1938, p. 4.

87. Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, p.162.

88. Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 24, 4 December 2000, pp. 737-757, 745, 746.

89. Russell, p. 137. Eddy Walker, “Winnipeg Beach.” Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, 11 June 1960, p. 10.

90. Orest interview. Bailey, p. 141.

91. Lofgren, p. 63.

92. The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, “Record Crowds Go To Beach”. Monday, 12 August 1940, p. 2. The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, “One ‘Moonlight’ Only Saturday”. Saturday, 10 July 1943, p. 12.

93. Christopher Dafoe, “On the ‘Boardwalk’: Ghosts in the Penny Arcade.” Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, 10 October 1964, p. 31.

94. Orest interview.

Page revised: 23 May 2016

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