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The Rise and Fall of Emerson

by Marjorie Forrester

Manitoba Pageant, April 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Mention the town of Emerson to almost any Manitoba old-timer and he will likely tell you that his folks landed in Emerson when they came west in the early days. He will be almost sure to launch into stories of the fabulous "boom" days of the town.

He will be sure to tell you of the spirit of excitement and optimism that made the settlers endure poor housing, muddy roads, floods and prairie fires without complaint, while they put all their energies towards improving the streets and buildings in the town that was growing so quickly.

He may also tell you that much of their fun was derived from practical jokes. Sometimes these were at the expense of the more gullible newcomers, one of whom was startled, when he heard the evening gun salute from Fort Pembina and was told, "Oh, that is just the sun going down - happens every night."

Before 1874 there were small settlements on the west side of the Red River at North Pembina - later called West Lynne - where the Hudson's Bay Post, Customs, Telegraph Office, and Post Office were situated; and at Fort Dufferin, where the Boundary Commission and later the Mounted Police had their headquarters. No settlement had been made on the east side of the river near the boundary.

During 1873, however, advised by railroader J. J. Hill, two Americans, Thomas Carney and W. N. Fairbanks, obtained a grant from the Canadian government for 640 acres of land on the east side of the Red River. For this they were to bring in 10,000 settlers. The deed to this property still hangs in the Emerson Town Hall. It was W. N. Fairbanks who named the place after his favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the fall of 1873, a Mr. Hutchison, brought materials for a hotel and put up a building. This had only a canvas roof, but did offer shelter for the party which arrived in the spring of 1874. A ferry service was soon started between Emerson and West Lynne.

Travel from eastern Canada to Manitoba via lake steamers, railway from Duluth, and river steamers to Emerson was comfortable and pleasant, so people flocked into the town in ever increasing numbers. On the other hand, travel to the rival point of Winnipeg over an all-Canadian route was difficult.

Settlers going west bought huge amounts of supplies at the Emerson stores, so business boomed. In addition to a great number of fine general stores, there were bake shops, millinery and tailoring establishments, a sash and door factory, brick yards and many wholesale houses. One day a fire in one of these caused the townsmen to push a hundred barrels of oil into the river to keep the fire from spreading. This created a great spectacle as the blazing barrels floated down the river.

Livery barns and hotels were built with astonishing rapidity to meet the ever-growing need for accommodation. One hotel, the Carney House. was said to be the most luxurious west of Toronto.

Cultural and spiritual growth kept the pace with business. The library Hall was the scene of many fine entertainments. Schools and churches were built and well attended. A newspaper which was published in the city soon boasted a large circulation on both sides of the international boundary. An early by-law forbade furious driving and the use of profanity on the streets. Emerson was becoming a proud city.

In 1878 a railroad was completed from Emerson to St. Boniface, and with steamboats on the river, transportation north and south left little to be desired. Still more people came into the district, and excitement was felt by everyone at having the first railroad in the Province. But farmers between Emerson and Roseau Crossing (Dominion City) were dismayed to find that no culverts had been put in the railroad grade and the spring run-off nearly flooded them.

This first train travelled at the speed of twenty-six miles per hour, and once was partially derailed near Otterbourne when an ox refused to move off the right-of-way.

To maintain name of "Gateway to the West", the town greatly desired a railway west to the Pembina and Turtle Mountain districts. After much negotiation, and the promise of an expensive bridge across the Red River, the C.P.R. graded a line from Rosenfeld to Emerson, and a few rails were laid.

Emerson was jubilant, but there was an undercurrent of fear, because the long talked of railroad from the east had been built north of Lake Superior and was progressing swiftly to the west. In years to come settlers who might have made Emerson the gateway to the west travelled across the all-Canadian route to Winnipeg. The C.P.R. had also built a line from Winnipeg to Gretna and already regretted its bargain to build a line from Emerson west.

The town had a little trouble with its bridge for this line, and did not quite make the dead-line as to time. This gave the C.P.R. the excuse it needed. One Sunday morning the townspeople were horrified to see workers taking up the rails that had been laid.

Thus the dreams of the city were rudely shattered and many business firms moved to Winnipeg. In 1884 Emerson was declared bankrupt, just ten years after the first settlers had arrived.

Emerson is now just a pleasant little country town, the only likeness to its former greatness being the great number of travellers who still pass through its port-of-entry - Canada Customs.

Page revised: 14 June 2009

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