Early Environs of Morden

by Howard W. Winkler

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1971, Volume 16, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In her early recollections of Morden, Hannah McLain Curtis said, that on the day she was born in 1882, the Canadian Pacific Railway laid steel past her father's farmhouse. This site (4-3-5W) is now occupied by the Government of Canada Experimental Station. From this place the railway ran westward through Wilmot Morden's homestead. After that it veered slightly to the north, crossed Franklin Morden's homestead, then struck northwesterly through a farm owned by their father, Alvey Baker Morden. It then crossed Cheval Creek and climbed gently over the escarpment.

Creeks from which water could be drawn to power steam locomotives were not plentiful in the Red River Valley. The crossing at Cheval Creek was therefore a place of some importance to the railroad. On the south side of the track the company put up a water tank and on the north side a station. The station was not much to behold; it was nothing more than a boxcar fitted out as an office, waiting room, and freight shed. But in spite of its humble bearing, it carried its name - Cheval - with pride.

For the first year of its existence, the site which was to become Morden was known as Cheval, and the little station near the creek sold tickets which were marked that way. So the only local point of departure for passengers bound for Winnipeg or other places was Cheval. The settlers got their mail, however, not at the station but at the Minnewashta Post Office, James Conner's farmhouse, in (SE6-3-5W), where postal transactions were carried on until August 31, 1884.

Whether Alvey Morden entered into a town site agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway at the outset cannot be ascertained, but from the available evidence it would appear that he did. My own earliest recollections which go back to the mid-nineties are of a community shaped like a boot at the west end of Morden. It resembled a boot at the end of a long leg - the leg being the mile long principal portion of the town of Morden.

In 1883, when it became apparent that the prospect of having a railroad connection between Nelsonville and Morden was slight, the Canadian Pacific Railway came out boldly in favor of developing a large town site at Morden. They therefore engaged with Wilmot and Franklin Morden to open all their property north of the tracks for this purpose. A new station called Morden was erected on the very site where the present station stands. What is known as North Railway Street became the main business area, and Stephen Street was set aside as the heart of an elite residential area. The northern boundary of the town site was called Thornhill Avenue, and the boundary between the properties of Wilmot Morden and Franklin Morden became Nelson Street.

The year 1884 was the year of decision in the struggle for supremacy between Nelsonville and Morden. Henderson's Directory for Manitoba and the Northwest for that year gives the population of Nelsonville at 400 and that of Morden at 200. Numerical supremacy was therefore well in favor of Nelsonville. A four-room school was built there in 1884. In the same year, Morden countered with a two-room school, civic pride dictating that the original log school should be abandoned forthwith.

The new two-room school was situated where Cowie and Mott Implements was later to stand. In 1886, after the ascendancy of Morden was well established, the four-room Nelsonville school was moved there and given the name, Maple Leaf School, the third building to be so named.

However, the demise of Nelsonville was slow. It was still the county seat of North Dufferin in 1884, and its citizens still carried enough weight with the provincial government to have a large brick (immovable) courthouse erected there. Dr. D. G. Wilson, M.L.A., a resident of Nelsonville, and a member of the Norquay Cabinet, no doubt pulled the right strings in the right places in order to get this concession. Dr. Wilson eventually took up residence in Morden, and there he lived for a short time before retiring to the west coast. In 1884 the Dominion Land Office was still doing business in Nelsonville, and a flour mill, a weekly newspaper, and several hotels and churches carried on, while the citizens at large still held high hopes of getting a railroad connection to the outside world.

It was nonetheless apparent in 1884 that the swing to Morden was irresistible, and several smart businessmen in Nelsonville, seeing, as it were, the handwriting on the wall, set up duplicate (not branch) offices in Morden. Finally, when it was obvious that the debenture issue to finance a private railroad from Nelsonville to Morden would not be taken up, hopes ran out and the mass movement to Morden began.

Small houses were moved at the rate of one a day during the winter of 1884-85. Buildings which were too large to be moved intact were cut in two, and some which were too big to be moved even when thus severed, were totally dismantled and re-erected in Morden. The buildings were securely lashed to large oaken skids which were hauled by a magnificent hitch of thirty horses, pulling together as one. They drew their heavy loads over the seven-mile route without difficulty and usually without making a stop. In the course of two years almost everything that stood above ground in Nelsonville was moved to Morden.

Mountain City, the other little place to the south of Morden, which also had been bypassed by the railway, was moved lock, stock, and barrel. Morden was now a large retail centre, (as size went in the young province). The school geographies of 1897 listed it as the fourth largest centre in the province.

It would lose that distinction, never to regain it, but the base for a substantial community had been laid in the original settlers at Cheval and in those who later moved in from Nelsonville and Mountain City.

Page revised: 23 July 2010