Early Winnipeg Boom Makes History

by Harry Shave

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1965, Volume 10, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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When Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873, it had a population of only 1,869. Development for a few years thereafter was slow, but the railway line to Winnipeg from the south, having been completed by December 1878, things began to move rapidly. The land boom was on and immigrants were coming in by the thousands; building lots in Winnipeg and in other communities were selling at high prices and being resold at ridiculous figures. Nearly everyone who had a little money to gamble with was in the maelstrom of speculation. Men talked in $1,000s and $10,000s instead of hundreds as a few years before.

Principal George Grant of Queen’s University, Kingston, visiting Winnipeg in 1881, said, “Winnipeg is London or New York on a small scale. You meet people from all over the world.”

When the Canadian Pacific Railway had completed its line to Winnipeg, lots in the city were selling at higher prices than in Chicago or New York, land hungry (or money hungry) people were experiencing difficulty in finding sleeping accommodation. A visitor to Winnipeg at this time wrote “Winnipeg has 45 hotels, 300 boarding houses, and I defy any man twice out of five times to strike a night’s lodging. The immigrants are pouring in. I got a very good room, but if I want to go up to it at 10 o’clock in the evening I have to step over the sleeping forms in the halls and on the stairs. In the wood box, under the billiard tables, everywhere, you will find them, and yet there have only arrived three or four immigrant trains. There are seven more stuck in a snowbank near Chicago. I hope for my own convenience, they will remain there two or three weeks.”

The early part of the winter of 1881-82 saw the boom at its height. The tide had continued to rise during November and December; cold had no effect on it. Money flowed in, especially from the cities and farms in Ontario. At this time it was said that the demand for real estate was probably without parallel in any city in Canada. Each succeeding transaction sent the price booming upwards.

A lucid description of one family from Ontario when the boom was in full bloom, was given by the noted scholar, humorist and author, Stephen Leacock. From his book My Discovery of the West we quote:

“We on our farms in Ontario were in the throes of the Great Depression of the 1870s and everyone was talking about the great opportunities in the new country out west, which we called Manitoba. Just at that time there came to us from England my uncle, E. P. Leacock, still dimly remembered in Winnipeg as an outstanding character of the boom. He was an adventurous spirit, full of brains, and attraction, as visionary as a Tartarian, as loud as Falstaff, bearded and jovial as a Plantagenet. Nothing would do but my father must go with him to Manitoba. The “star of Empire” he told us children, “glitters in the West”. So it was too, for a little while.

So we had a “sale” at our farm, as countless other Ontario people did. The whiskey for the sale cost more than the thin animals and broken implements brought in. But that didn’t matter. The Star was glittering. My uncle wiped out all disappointment with a laugh and off they went. We children stayed behind to follow later. But my father and uncle “hit” Winnipeg just as the boom rose to its height, and my uncle at least rode on the very crest of it, triumphant. If ever there was a fool’s paradise, it sure was located in Winnipeg, men made fortunes - mostly on paper - and life was one continuous joy ride.”

Further, “my uncle had a large career - went up like a rocket: was in everything - railway companies, land companies, and in the Parliament of Manitoba.”

One of the most successful, if unscrupulous, in the selling of real estate, was an Irish Canadian from Quebec named Jim Coolican. Before coming to Winnipeg, he had operated in various parts of the United States and Canada. His place of business here was a small building, formerly used as a store, at the north-west corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street. Dr. George Bryce, a resident of Winnipeg since 1871, in his History of Manitoba said, “Real Estate agents are as plentiful as mosquitoes in fly time, and stories similar to the following were not uncommon: About five years before the boom a well-known citizen purchased five acres outside the limits of the city for a suit of clothes. He placed the property in his wife’s name, thinking, it is supposed, that the land was of little value. The lucky lady sold the five acres during the boom for $1,250.00 and the purchaser turned down an offer for twice that amount.”

The notable Jim Coolican had an abundance of wit, repartee and persuasive argument. He was also outstanding as a classy dresser and wearer of expensive jewelry. Dr. Bryce described him as “eloquent, aggressive, unscrupulous, and by advertising his sales without regard to the commonplace things called facts, undertook to “stampede” - to use the language of the plains - the Winnipeg community.

During this period of Manitoba’s history, lots were being sold in towns which never existed, except on paper; towns were mapped out by sub-dividing farms. The boom affected not only Winnipeg, but also towns all over the province and further west.

The boom built up by degrees, came to a rather sudden stop in the springtime of 1882. “Men who had lived in the winter of 1881-1882 in a dream of oriental magnificence, now dwelt in the winter of 1882-83 in the sad valley of humiliation”.

The boom was over. Many men, sadder but wiser, turned to the task of paying off their accumulated debts. The failure of businesses sent stocks of goods on the market at bankrupt prices, making it difficult for those still operating, to survive the onslaught. But the adventurous natives and immigrants turned their hands to more steady development of the city and Province. In the course of the decade following the end of the boom, Winnipeg and all of Manitoba were proving that here there were unlimited opportunities for all.

Page revised: 18 July 2009