by Francis Walker “Frank” Armstrong
Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975, Volume 21, Number 1
J. H. Hind, the mid-19th century surveyor and map-maker, on a map dated 1858 noted a “Water Mill” just north of the Portage Trail on Sturgeon Creek not more than a mile from its confluence with the Assiniboine River.
It was on this evidence that the Pioneer Citizens’ Association of St. James-Assiniboia decided to reconstruct “Grant’s Water Mill” on the north side of Portage Avenue about 150 yards upstream from the point where it flows under that busy city thoroughfare. While some may question the authenticity of this spot as the exact location of Grant’s original mill, none have questioned the fact that it existed, albeit unsuccessfully, for about three years. Mention of the mill was made in Alexander Ross’ History of the Red River:
“The first mill was begun in September 1829. It failed again and again and was abandoned within three years ... a total failure.”
Perhaps Ross was right in his conclusions if one were to judge the venture from a purely materialistic point of view. Cuthbert Grant was an acknowledged leader of the Metis people and, in addition, held the title of “Warden of the Plains,” an honour bestowed on him by Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He accepted his responsibilities in a conscientious and dedicated manner. In command of some three score mounted followers, all fully armed and experienced Buffalo bunters, Grant was not only a “guardian of the colony” but a main source of meat supply. Perhaps the achievement for which he will be chiefly remembered was the construction of a water mill on Sturgeon Creek. The grist mill was an attempt to provide his people with ground wheat meal. He knew nothing about milling and it is said he lost £800 sterling through the venturepossibly the bulk of his personal fortune. However, there is no record of any attempt to blame anyoneor anythingnot even the unpredictable and frequently uncontrollable Sturgeon Creek which destroyed his dam three years in succession and forced him to abandon the site in 1832. He salvaged the grind stones and transported them to Grantown (the present St. Francois Xavier), and built a windmill which served the needs of the Metis settlement there quite satisfactorily hot many years. While Cuthbert Grant’s watermill was a practical failure, it was by no means a “total failure.” It remains an historic landmark in that it was the first watermill to be built west of the Great Lakes. Moreover, it was unique in that it was the first instance of the use of hydro power in the Red River area of what is now the province of Manitoba. Hydro was to become the chief power source of the province developing 2,080,000 KW one hundred and forty-five years later.
Since July 1975, residents of the area have witnessed, as their predecessors did in a very different era, the harnessing of the Sturgeon Creek so grind grain near the crossing of the Portage Trail.
Historic Sites of Manitoba: Grant’s Old Mill (2777 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg)
Page revised: 24 May 2021