Memorable Manitobans: Charles Napier Bell (1854-1936)
Born at Perth, Ontario on 5 February 1854, 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 Strathcona’s 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 1872-1873, 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 and was a participant in the December 1878 ceremony to mark the opening of the first railway to Winnipeg. 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. He was a member of the Prince Rupert No. 1 Masonic Lodge. As the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge in 1895, he 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. Bell’s 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.”  Ingersoll’s amused tolerance was probably shared by many fellow Winnipeggers, unaware of Bell’s 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. Bell’s daughter remembered going on nature hikes at Lower Fort Garry and at their summer cottage at Minaki with her father. 
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.”  This personality, combined with his passionate interest in the subject, made him one of the Historical Society’s most effective activists. 
His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:
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.
Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.
“Pioneer dies,” Winnipeg Tribune, 29 August 1936, page 1.
We thank Stan Barclay for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 19 May 2018
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