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Memorable Manitobans: Charles Napier Bell (1854-1936)

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Charles N. Bell
Click to enlarge

Businessman, historian.

Born at Perth, Ontario, he was the son of James Bell, the Registrar of Lanark County and the grandson of the first Presbyterian minister in the county. Bell had a taste for adventure, and in 1866, at the age of twelve, he ran off to join the Perth Rifle Company as a bugler, to fight the Fenians. A much greater adventure presented itself four years later when he set out for the west with Garnet Wolseley, again as a bugler. He traveled west with the young Sam Steele, later a famous officer of the North West Mounted Police and the commander of Lord Strathconas Horse in the South African War. The two men remained close friends and in their later years were neighbors in Winnipeg.

Like many other troops who came west with the Wolseley Expedition, Bell did not return to Ontario. He spent a year, in 1872-73, hunting and trading along the Saskatchewan River. Lieutenant-Governor Morris asked him to write a report on his experiences when he returned to Manitoba, and, in his report, he commented on the wild game situation, especially the state of the buffalo herds.

Bell began working in Winnipeg as a customs officer for the Dominion. In 1886 he became secretary treasurer of the Grain Exchange and the next year he was hired to be secretary of the Winnipeg Board of Trade. He had various business interests and, he became the secretary of the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau building at Main and Water streets, upon its completion in 1912.

Bell was an athlete of some note when he was young, especially in the sport of skating. He was famous for having skated from Winnipeg to Selkirk on the Red River in just two and one quarter hours in 1877, and he was also a talented figure skater. He coached speed skater Jack McCulloch, who won the 1897 World Speed Skating Championship in Montréal, and he is credited with having introduced figure skating into western Canada.

He was married to Alice M. G. Bell of Toronto, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. He was a member of the Manitoba Club, St. Charles Country Club, AF & AM (P.G.M. Man. Grand Lodge; 33rd Degree Supreme Council). He belonged to many other societies, among them the Minnesota Historical Society and the Geographical Society of San Francisco. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was, in 1914, given an honorary degree by the University of Manitoba for his work with the Manitoba Historical Society. As the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge in 1895, it was Bell who laid the cornerstone of the new Masonic Temple at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Donald Street. He was the original secretary of the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition in 1891 and he served as president of the Canadian Club of Winnipeg in 1912.

On the second floor of his house at 121 Carlton Street, he created a fine library, containing many rare maps of western Canada and a remarkable collection of books, some of which he used in writing this paper. Bells maps were bequeathed to Queens University. W. E. Ingersoll later remembered that if you were a special friend he would take you home and show you the latest musty old paper he had acquired for the Manitoba Historical Society. These papers were ancient and some were smelly with age; but Charlie Bell was always able to point out that there was some special reason that they should be in the possession of the MHS. [1] Ingersolls amused tolerance was probably shared by many fellow Winnipeggers, unaware of Bells role in saving a great deal of historical documentation from destruction.

Bell was intelligently curious about the world around him; his interests included natural as well as human history. Among his friends was A. H. Reginald Buller, a noted botanist and professor at the University of Manitoba, who lived nearby and visited often. Bells daughter remembered going on nature hikes at Lower Fort Garry and at their summer cottage at Minaki with her father. [2]

Bell was one of the founders of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society, serving as president from 1889 to 1891, and again from 1913 to 1929 (holding the record for the longest serving MHS President). Along with Professor Chester Martin, Provincial Librarian W. J. Healy, and others, he revived the society in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bell was described as a genial, sunny soul, who seems to carry a summery atmosphere with him. [3] This personality, combined with his passionate interest in the subject, made him one of the Historical Societys most effective activists. [4]

He died in 1936 at his cottage at Minaki. There are extensive papers at the Archives of Manitoba.

His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:

Navigation of Hudson Bay and Straits
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 7, Read 1883

Some historical names and places of the Canadian North-West
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 17,Read 22 January 1885

Some Red River Settlement history
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 29, Read 28 April 1887

Henrys journal, covering adventures and experiences in the fur trade on the Red River 1799-1801
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 31, Read 4 May 1888

Original letters and other documents relating to the Selkirk Settlement
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 33, Read 17 January 1889

Annual Report for the Year 1888 and Presidents Inaugural Address
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 34, Read 28 February 1889

Continuation of Henrys journal: covering adventures and experiences in the fur trade on the Red River, 1799-1801
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 35

Henrys journal
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 37, Read 9 May1889

Seven Oaks: An Account of the Affair of Seven Oaks; and a Report of Proceedings of the Gathering for the Unveiling of the “Seven Oaks Monument,” June 19th, 1891
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 43, Read 1891

The earliest fur traders on the upper Red River and Red Lake, Minn., 1783-1810
MHS Transactions, Series 2, No. 1, Read 1928

A prehistoric copper hook
MHS Transactions, Series 2, No. 2, Read 1927

The old forts of Winnipeg, 1738-1927
MHS Transactions, Series 2, No. 3, Read 1927

The journal of Henry Kelsey, 1691-1692 : the first white man to reach the Saskatchewan River from Hudson Bay, and the first to see the buffalo and grizzly bear of the Canadian Plains--with notes on some other experiences of the man
MHS Transactions, Series 2, No. 4, Read 24 May 1928

The Great Winnipeg Boom
Manitoba History, Number 53, October 2006

Sources:

1. Winnipeg Free Press, 11 May 1963.

2. Winnipeg Free Press, 6 March 1971.

3. Winnipeg Tribune, 18 February 1911.

4. Information for this article was taken from the various clippings under C. N. Bell in the Biographical Scrapbooks, Legislative Library of Manitoba.

Who’s Who in Western Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of Western Canada, Volume 1, edited by C. W. Parker, Vancouver: Canadian Press Association, 1911.

A History of Manitoba: Its Resources and People by Prof. George Bryce, Toronto: The Canadian History Company, 1906.

The Story of Manitoba by F. H. Schofield, Winnipeg: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.

Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 14 September 2013

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