Manitoba History: The Mystery of the Abandoned Dock at the University of Manitoba
by Wayne Chan
On the north shore of the Red River, a stone’s throw away from the Drake Building, lies the remains of an old, abandoned dock. The platform is long gone, but the wooden piles are still visible, jutting above the water like a row of broken teeth. A number of questions spring to mind when you see the ruins of the dock: When was it built? What was it used for? How long ago was it abandoned and why?
University of Manitoba architecture students Tristan Osler and Stephen Meijer came across the abandoned dock during an architectural workshop and decided to seek answers to some of these questions. They contacted the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, but found that they had very little information about it. Shelley Sweeney, head of Archives & Special Collections, approached me about the puzzle and asked if I would be interested in looking into it. Not one to pass up a mystery, I readily agreed. Neither of us realized at the time that this would lead to months of research and the unravelling of a fascinating period in the university’s early history when it had to provide its own source of water.
A clue to the dock’s existence lies in its location. The dock was directly south of a water treatment facility that was located at the intersection of Freedman Crescent and Service 7 St. South, until its demolition in 2013. Until the late-1960s, there was also a water tower to the east of the water treatment building.
The tower, water treatment plant, and dock were all legacies of a time when the university had to supply its own source of potable water. According to building appraisal records (Canadian Appraisal Company 1915), they were all constructed in 1914, making them among the earliest structures on the Fort Garry campus, which indicates how important it was to have a source of clean water.
The dock was likely built to service the water intake for the treatment facility, as it was built at the same time as the facility. A temporary cofferdam was erected in the river to hold back the water while the dock and water intake system were being constructed (Canadian Appraisal Company 1915). The timber from the dam was subsequently reused in the building of a log house that was located underneath the water tower. This house was occupied by Richard and Alice Ireland and their children from the mid-1920s to the 1950s, and was one of two log houses on campus, which served as homes for university staff (Gibbons, 29 July 1949). Richard was in charge of the advanced hog registry for the federal government (Gibbons, 29 July 1949), while his wife Alice was initially a waitress at the Tache Hall residence and later became the storekeeper for the Home Economics department (Ireland 2007; Manitoban, 29 January 1951).
The total length of the dock was 138 feet (42 m), with an 88-foot (26.8 m) long plank walkway. The 10"-diameter (25.4 cm) piles were made of tamarack (Canadian Appraisal Company 1915) and were probably driven into the riverbed with a steam-powered pile driver.
In spite of its utilitarian origin, the dock was widely used for recreational purposes. In decades past, Winnipeg’s waterways saw a much greater volume of activity—both commercial and recreational—than it does today. Sailing and boating were popular pastimes, and although it may be hard to imagine now, many people found reprieve from the summer heat by swimming and wading in the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Robert Ireland, who grew up in the log house under the water tower in the 1930s to 1950s, described the dock as a very popular spot. In a 2007 interview, Ireland (2007) recalled:
The dock was also used by the Winnipeg Canoe Club for its annual “Les Canotieres” women’s canoe race, which was usually held in August or September. First started in 1929, the long-distance tandem race began from the Canoe Club’s dock (off Dunkirk Drive) to the university dock and back again—a distance of approximately 21 km. The racers took a 20-minute break at the campus dock before heading back to the Canoe Club (Winnipeg Free Press, 6 September 1961). Winning times were usually under 2.5 hours, and all entrants who finished the course in under three hours received the “Les Canotieres” pin (Winnipeg Free Press, 25 August 1943). Figure 4 shows the campus dock in its heyday, during one of the Les Canotieres races in the late 1940s. The rather precarious-looking diving tower in the earlier photo appears to have been replaced with a single diving board attached to the dock.
There is very little information on when the campus dock was abandoned, but it seems to have been in use until at least 1970, which was the last year the women’s canoe race was mentioned in Winnipeg’s two major newspapers (Winnipeg Free Press, 26 August 1970; Winnipeg Tribune, 31 August 1970). Air photos from later in the decade no longer showed an intact dock, and the area appeared to be disused by this time, showing signs of grass and underbrush regrowth. Ted Nelson, who attended the University in the early 1970s, confirmed that the dock was already in ruins by the time he was a student (Nelson 2018).
The dock’s abandonment was likely due to several factors. First, its original purpose to serve the water treatment plant was no longer necessary, and by the late 1960s, recreational and commercial usage of Winnipeg’s waterways had dropped considerably (Vince Leah, 18 June 1966), and swimming and wading were no longer considered safe activities for the city’s rivers (Winnipeg Free Press, 8 July 1967). This decline in usage was also seen by other docks in Winnipeg, such as the Alexander Docks (Manitoba Historical Society 2017). It is also conceivable that spring flooding may have damaged the dock in its later years and there was little incentive to repair it, which hastened its demise.
Water Treatment Facility
The water treatment plant’s purpose was to pump water from the Red River, filter and treat it, and supply it to the campus. The facility was a two-storey building made of reinforced concrete, with a wood roof and clad in siding. Behind the building were two clear wells and two very large concrete sedimentation basins, which were used to store the water during the treatment process. An intake pipe ran south of the building and pumped water from the river into the two basins.
The water provided by the facility was never very satisfactory, however. The heavy chemical treatment required to purify the river water made it nearly undrinkable and the supply was frequently unreliable. In winter, the ice cover on the river prevented mixing and aeration of the water, increasing its rankness (Manitoban, 26 January 1934). In addition, the plant had increasing difficulty meeting the water demands of the campus as it grew in size. By the 1930s, it had become a pressing issue. An article in the Winnipeg Free Press, 10 September 1934 stated:
The problems with the university’s water supply were finally resolved in December 1934 when the Fort Garry campus was connected to the municipal water distribution system, ending the need for the university to provide its own source of potable water (Winnipeg Free Press, 12 December 1934).
No longer needed for water treatment, the water works plant was eventually repurposed for storing Bunker C heating fuel oil for the university’s power plant. This oil storage was discontinued at some point and the building was then used for storing disused material from around he campus, until its demolition in 2013 (Architectural & Engineering Services, University of Manitoba 2018). Prior to the facility’s destruction, there was a marker of historical significance on the eastern side of the building, on the wall of the sedimentation basin facing Freedman Crescent. It consisted of a horizontal line with the words, “1950 FLOOD. R.I.” written above the line in white paint. This was done by Robert Ireland during the 1950 flood to indicate the water level at the Fort Garry campus (Ireland 2007). The marker was regrettably lost when the building and sedimentation basins were torn down.
The original water tower’s steel tank was made by the Des Moines Bridge and Iron Co. and had a capacity of 125,000 gallons (Canadian Appraisal Company 1915), which provided enough water to supply the university for about a week. The tower was a six-legged steel structure with a height of 125 feet (38.1 m) when it was first constructed. The tower continued to be used after the campus joined Winnipeg’s water distribution system; it held a reserve supply of water in case the connection to the city’s water mains was lost. According to Richard Johnson (2007), a retired University of Manitoba Vice-Provost, the tower also served to maintain adequate water pressure for firefighting purposes, because the municipal water mains were at the end of the line, far from the city. Figure 7 shows the tower during the 1950 flood.
As a prominent landmark on campus, it was not uncommon for the tower to be the target of student pranks and inter-faculty rivalries. Intrepid students climbed the high structure and sometimes left behind their names or graffiti, which showed off their faculty loyalties. Engineering and Science students tried to outdo one another by leaving behind giant “E”s or “S”s on the side of the water tank (Manitoban, 11 October 1950). Not to be outdone, one year commerce students decided to get in on the act by writing “COM” in bold red letters (Manitoban, 6 January 1954).
The tower was replaced with a taller 150-foot (45.7 m) structure in the mid-1950s, before being permanently dismantled in 1968 (Winnipeg Free Press, 28 May 1968). Figure 8 shows the top plate of the water tank at the time of the tower’s demolition, with graffiti left by students. Among the names that were identified are Brian Masson, Terry Lear, R. G. J. Hand—who made the climb in 1957, and Peter Woodward and Jack Foulds, who both made the ascent while in junior high school in the late 1950s or early 1960s (University of Manitoba Alumni Journal 1968a). Others, like David Braddell, climbed it but didn’t leave behind a signature. Braddell scaled the tower during the summer session of 1957, after first signing a waiver absolving the university of all responsibility if he were injured. In his words, ”the only slightly unnerving moment during the climb was that of reaching the ladder that went up the wall of the water tank. The ladder stood out from the wall ... wobbled ... and was fastened at the lower end by only two bits of slack wire.” (University of Manitoba Alumni Journal 1968b).
Today, the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus is surrounded by residential and commercial developments at the heart of the rapidly expanding southwest area of Winnipeg. It is hard to imagine how isolated the campus once was in the first half of the 20th century. The campus was initially considered to be in the RM of St. Vital until 1912, when it became part of the RM of Fort Garry. In the early 20th century, much of the vicinity around the campus was still very rural—consisting mainly of farmland. This isolation required the Fort Garry campus to see to its own needs, including that of clean water, which resulted in the building of the structures discussed in this article.
There is little that remains of the water treatment plant and its attendant structures. The site of the building is a grassy field now, with scant evidence of its former use. The vicinity where the water tower was located is now an apiary. Besides the wooden pilings of the former dock, there remain two crumbling concrete retaining walls on the riverbank—one of which bears the date 1914 and an hourglass symbol inscribed upon it. These are the last fragments of a once-vital part of the Fort Garry campus.
I would like to acknowledge Tristan Osler and Stephen Meijer for discovering the abandoned dock and for being curious enough to inquire about it. I thank Shelley Sweeney, head of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, for bringing the mystery to my attention. The assistance of the staff at the university archives was invaluable – in particular, Lewis Stubbs for finding material related to the initial construction of the water works building and dock, and Nicole Courrier for providing the recordings of Robert Ireland’s and Richard Johnson’s interviews. A special thank you to Jared Warkentin for his research on the Winnipeg Canoe Club fonds at the Archives of Manitoba, and for discovering an early photo of the dock in the Stovel collection. I am also grateful to the University of Manitoba’s Architectural & Engineering Services for providing very useful information about the history of the water works building. Thanks to Phil Gies for forwarding my inquiry about the campus dock to members of the Flin Flon Heritage Project, which was answered by Ted Nelson, who helped to verify that the dock was already abandoned by the 1970s. In addition, I thank Kendall Thiessen with the City of Winnipeg’s Planning Property and Development department and Carol Olsen of the Manitoba Remote Sensing Centre for providing historical aerial photos of the U of M campus. I also appreciate the assistance of Cynthia Dietz and Liv Valmestad of the University of Manitoba Libraries in this regard. Finally, I dedicate this article to Robert Ireland (1927–2013), whose memories of growing up on campus were invaluable in helping to complete this article.
1. Architectural & Engineering Services, University of Manitoba. E-mail to author, 29 August 2018.
2. Canadian Appraisal Company. 1915. Appraisal of Public Buildings of the Province of Manitoba, New Agricultural College, St. Vital, Man. Vol. 2. Montreal.
4. Ireland, Robert. Interviewed by Shelley Sweeney, Head of University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg, MB, 17January 2007.
5. Johnson, Richard. Interviewed by Shelley Sweeney, Head of University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg, MB, 25 April 2007.
6. Manitoba Historical Society. 2017. ”Winnipeg Public Docks / Alexander Docks (70 Alexander Avenue, Winnipeg),” http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/alexanderdocks.shtml (accessed 30 September 2018).
7. Nelson, Ted. E-mail to author, 10 October 2018.
8. University of Manitoba Alumni Journal. 1968a. “Names in the Sky.” University of Manitoba Alumni Journal (Summer): 34–35.
9. Ibid. 1968b. “The Tower (Part II).” University of Manitoba Alumni Journal (Fall): 6.
10. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. 1950. PC 80, File 339, Photo #10.
11. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. n.d. A2015-037, Box 1, Folder 22, Photo #34.
13. Winnipeg Canoe Club. 1949. Winnipeg Canoe Club Clippings Scrapbook 1911–1949. P7262/13, Photo #264. Archives of Manitoba.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 21 February 2022