Early Manitoba Railroads

by Howard W. Winkler

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 10, 1953-54 season

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When I was a small boy in the second grade in school my father took me on a trip through the abandoned town of Nelsonville which was five miles north and three miles west of Morden by the road. Although I had never seen the place before, I felt I knew it well, because it had been a topic of conversation in our home. In fact at that time most of the adult people of Morden had been residents of Nelsonville, and there seemed to me a certain pathos in the references to Nelson as if the CPR had forced them to move their town bodily to the site of Morden, and something had been lost in the move. That feeling, I suppose, was the result of being forced to make the move, even if in the long run little, of a tangible nature, if anything, was lost by it. So my first and only visit to Nelsonville, while something of its buildings remained, impressed me like a visit to an ancestral cemetery. As we turned westward after driving five miles north of Morden, with the Pembina hills behind them, one could see the roofs of buildings rising among the trees. As we approached, three or four stores or warehouses faced the road we were using. At the cross roads stood a rambling two-storied hotel in which a man lived whose job seemed to be caretaker for the village. A large brick three-storied court house loomed above the trees a quarter of a mile back, and a few hundred yards away a brick church still stood.

Fourteen or fifteen years before, Nelsonville had moved to the Morden site when all hope for securing railroad connection had been lost. From the first they had tried to secure railroad service for their town. It was an incorporated town with court house, land titles office, government land office, weekly newspaper, grist mill, saw mill and a number of implement, blacksmith and carriage shops. The Missouri trail from Fort Garry running in a south-westerly direction passed within a few miles or so and connected with the Boundary Commission Trail, sometimes known as the Colonization Trail from Emerson not far from Mountain City, a hamlet almost due south. In 1881, the Statutes of Manitoba, 44 Victoria, Chapter 39-The Emerson and North Western Railway Company-Incorporation of a company to build from the west side of the Red River, opposite the town of Emerson, to Mountain City or Nelsonville, thence Northwest to a point on the western boundary of the Province, etc. Nothing came of it because, on November 3rd, 1882, it was disallowed by order in council and appears in the Statutes of the Dominion of Canada. Dr. D. H. Wilson, resident physician in Nelsonville, was the local member in the Norquay Government, and a minister in the Cabinet, and doubtless interested and very active on behalf of a railroad for Nelsonville. He was still a member after Nelsonville moved to the Morden site in 1885, where he resided for some years.

By way of atmosphere that surrounded Manitoba and which applied in its fullest force not only to Winnipeg, but to hamlets, existing and non-existent, may I read portions of advertisements appearing in the Manitoba Free Press at the height of the boom of 1881. On the front page of that worthy paper on November 15th:

“Mr. Joseph Wolf, auctioneer, Winnipeg, announces an auction sale of 100 lots in the Town of Pomeroy. Another golden opportunity. North Dufferin railroad centre. On N.E. 18-5-4 W. on the south side of Tobacco Creek. Unsurpassed as to location on the Southwestern Railroad. The very centre of the wonderfully fertile county of North Dufferin. The natural point for the location of the county seat and Registry office, being located nearly equidistant from each extreme of the county line. Already evidence of the desirability of this point has become manifest, and the erection of two large grain warehouses, several stores, splendid grist mill and other buildings are rapidly being pushed forward. There can be no doubt that in a short season Pomeroy will have advanced to the foremost position as a live town in this highly favored district. This sale offers to buyers every inducement to invest with moral certainty of a very large return for the amount invested.”

“Pushed forward” and “moral certainty” are doubtless not the product of an exact science, for the end of the boom found this “Town” with 3 buildings only (all houses), and no railroad.

Nelsonville, which was the county seat and had the court house and land titles office which the proposed Town of Pomeroy some ten miles away sought to wrest from it, was likewise caught in the boom. In the Free Press of November 17th, Joseph Wolf, Auctioneer, Winnipeg, “offers 109 lots in Nelsonville - this splendid railroad centre - the Banner Town of South Western Manitoba.”

“Nelsonville is the oldest, largest and most favored town in the far famed Pembina mountain country. There are now in Nelsonville, 1 large 3-run grist mill, 1 saw mill, 1 shingle mill, 5 general stores, 3 furniture stores, 3 harness shops, 3 hotels, 5 agricultural warehouses, 1 printing office in which is published the “Mountaineer”, 3 churches (1 brick and 2 frame), Government land office, 2 livery stables, 2 blacksmith and carriage shops, 1 school house, 2 stove and tin shops, 2 shoe shops, etc., an Orange hall and a Masonic hall, 2 resident doctors, 1 lawyer, and over 60 private residences.

In addition to the above, a branch line of the Emerson and Northwestern Railway is already located to Nelsonville and the Southwestern Railway is already bonused for $100,000 and by January next will have a branch line completed to Nelsonville.

Nelson is also the county town of North Dufferin with registry office and county court already established. These are the facts which make this town also a favorite location for speculators from its very inception, a point which no person with money to invest can afford to lose sight of.”

In the September 2nd, 1881, issue of the Free Press, T. P. Murray offers Town lots for sale in Nelsonville, Mountain City, Crystal City, Pilot Mound, Hamilton (all ghost towns now; original Crystal City, Pilot Mound, moved to present site) also Dominion City, Stonewall, Portage la Prairie, and the City of Winnipeg.

J. F. Ruttan and Company were offering lots in Turtle Mountain City on the shores of Whitewater Lake.

G. McMicken & Company were offering lots in Clearwater on the Cypress River “with almost unlimited waterpower and the certainty of competing railroads.”

The speculative boom, of 1881, caught up Nelson and left it flat. When construction started on the Pembina Mountain Branch of the CPR (then called the Manitoba and South Western Ltd., which leased to the CPR in perpetuity in 1882) Nelson sought relief from her acute financial distress by a rail outlet.

By act of Manitoba Legislature on June 3rd, 1884, assent was given the Town of Nelsonville for the charter of a railroad to connect with the CPR at Morden. The year previous had seen the hamlet of Mountain City lose all hope for railroad connection and move in to Morden. When no further progress could be made with its own branch line, the Town of Nelson started to move to Morden site in 1885. Before the school could be moved, a two-roomed schoolhouse was built in Morden to be followed by the 4 roomed school from Nelsonville the following year. Morden suddenly became Manitoba’s fourth largest centre - Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, then Morden.

My approach to such a subject as “Early Railroads in Manitoba” will probably assume a local aspect as my interest has grown out of the need for transportation which followed the first great rush of settlers to the plains of Manitoba between 1870 and 1880. In contrast with them, the Selkirk Settlers, a few generations earlier, scarcely expected civilization would ever surround them in their time, and their best hope seemed to be a strong settlement in a savage wilderness. In the decade between 1870 and 1880, settlers poured into Manitoba with every assurance that railroads would follow. The 1870s had seen great railroads extend across the great plains of the United States. The success in new farming practise in the semi-arid regions of the great plains provided some hope for the north, but certain doubts still remained as to where the northern boundary of agricultural safety lay. The Mennonite colony in Southern Manitoba, in 1874, brought from Russian Ukraine a technique in successful handling the semi-arid prairies unknown to the somewhat baffled Selkirk Settlers. The extensive new crops at the threshold of Canada on the Red River gave indisputable proof of the future that agriculture held out for them. So there appeared to remain one barrier only toward prosperity in this raw country, and it was the means of transporting the abundance that would be shortly forthcoming. And the settlers had come most of the way to Manitoba by American railroads now busily pushing branch lines into the Northwest right up to the Canadian border. No one doubted the railroad would soon be in Manitoba.

These settlers were not particularly worried at first about Federal railroad policy in Canada. Possibly the comparative few who braved the all-Canadian route with its hardship via the Dawson route rather than set a foot on United States territory, held out for an all-Canadian route. So great was the need for transportation, most of the farmers at any rate, would have welcomed an American connection.

Canadians generally were able to approach the problem from a broader aspect, except perhaps in British Columbia where a railroad was desperately needed. The Act of 1872, of the Dominion Government set out terms and conditions under which private enterprise could construct a railroad to the Pacific coast. Rival interests sought the franchise which finally went to a Montreal group.

The flood of settlers into Southern Manitoba which had reached record proportions between 1870 and 1880, particularly in the latter part of the decade, was brought about by the new homestead policy of the Dominion Government offering 160 acres to bona-fide settlers and an opportunity to acquire the adjoining 160 acre pre-emption. This inrush completely upset the racial complexion of Manitoba which had hitherto been mainly French with a liberal sprinkling of Indian blood, and their arrival followed immediately upon the surrender of administration of the territory by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The policy of construction of a railroad to the Pacific coast had followed a bewildering course, and came to a jolting halt in the Pacific Scandal and the election of 1874. Had not the private correspondence of Sir Hugh Allan, as head of the syndicate, been stolen and published, it is possible a Canadian Pacific Railway would have been constructed much sooner, although the route would likely have crossed the Rockies through the Yellowhead Pass. Making private election contributions particularly to cabinet ministers was a practice of the day, but its publication helped to bring severe defeat to the MacDonald administration at the polls in the general election of 1874. The MacKenzie administration which succeeded Macdonald, remained in office only four years, but were bound by their own criticism of a Pacific railway policy prior to taking office. They proceeded in a very cautious manner of linking up the waterways by rail connection and providing rail outlets to the United States. So when the Macdonald administration took over again in 1878, only short links of railway had been constructed, among them the rail outlet from St. Boniface to St. Vincent, Minnesota. Also pointed toward Winnipeg, railroad construction was started at Fort William in 1876, when the first locomotive was landed there from a steamer. By 1879, the first train had left St. Boniface under Government operation for Cross Lake, Manitoba.

This is a rough picture of railroading in Manitoba when the Macdonald government again took office. Meanwhile, settlers had been pouring into the country, and the produce for market had to be transported by ox team to Winnipeg or Emerson, or to points on the Red or Assiniboine serviced by paddle wheelers whose available freight space was usually reserved weeks in advance. Although the railroad through Emerson gave some relief, by 1880 most of the homestead land in the region of the Red River valley was partly in crop and the mounting pressure of unsold grain increased.

At the time of signing of the Syndicate contract under terms of which the CPR was finally completed, the news was not hailed in Manitoba with the joy that might have been expected, for memories went back six years when hopes were dashed by the Pacific Scandal, and it was noted that the new company was to be free for 20 years from competition from lines connecting with the United States on the prairies. In that period, the Syndicate would be free to set its own rates. Nor was the land subsidy policy received with the same approval as in Ontario and Quebec where the idea of unlimited land on the prairie prevailed. In the East it was freely advocated whereas the cash subsidy of $25 million for the construction of the road would come out of their pockets, the West should pay the cost of construction over the rocky terrain and muskeg north of Lake Superior out of the subsidy to the Syndicate of 25 million acres in the West and the freight monopoly on the prairies.

The plainsman also envisaged a new colossus which was now his neighbor but only for the purpose of reaping the increment in land value contributed by the settler himself to the whole community. Many refused to see the side of the picture when from the first the Canadian Pacific Railway adopted a vigorous policy of land settlement. The skeptic saw his hopes for transportation transformed into disappointment over the prospect of high freight rates. To him it seemed that the Government proposal for relief from rising freight rates as and when offered, namely not until the annual earnings of the company reached 10% on capital construction, was a life-time away.

Shortly after the Macdonald administration was returned to office in 1878, the Norquay Government took over in Manitoba. It was primarily of a non-partisan character as were preceding Governments of Manitoba. But it soon came under the spell of Macdonald when Norquay and Royal went to Ottawa as delegates to discuss subsidies. Also for discussion were the control of public lands and the railway question. If Norquay ever had any early doubts as to the ultimate effect of the construction of a Pacific railroad on the prosperity of the province, they appear to to have been entirely overcome. Norquay himself enlisted and endeavored to enlist his Government and followers in support of the railway policy of the Dominion Government. As Manitoba’s pilot, he followed a course from which he never desisted until disagreement over what he considered minor matters between himself and the master caused him to be dropped overboard, and ultimately Macdonald was forced to accept from Norquay’s opponent, the new pilot, the very terms that would have saved a loyal supporter.

In a letter written by Macdonald to M. J. Griffin in 1881, he says “Although this cannot be openly stated, Norquay the Premier of Manitoba, made an agreement with us at Ottawa that his Government would not allow any local legislature infringing on the agreement with the syndicate ...” If instead of the word “allow” Macdonald had used such words as “try to prevail on” or “try to prevent” it would have doubtless covered all that Norquay expected he could do. If he understood his followers, as I expected he did, he must have known many of them, and several in his cabinet, were opposed to the monopoly clause from the first. The syndicate referred to in the letter to Griffin is, of course, the group which carried the Pacific Railway to its completion as the Canadian Pacific Railway. The financial part of the organization was in its representatives in London, Paris and New York and the management, who risked their personal resources and reputations, were George Stephen, R. B. Angus, J. J. Hill and Donald A. Smith. The enthusiasm of these men appears to have been transferred to Macdonald and in turn by Macdonald to Norquay. There were times when the fate of the project must have appeared in the balance and when Macdonald worried over how much further a Government could safely go to relieve them. This might explain the impatience with which Macdonald appeared to receive Norquay and the unaccountably long delays that Norquay was required to endure.

It was not long after Norquay with Joseph Royal first visited Ottawa that he must have perceived the Manitoba public was in dire discomfort over transportation. It could have been no surprise to him (though it may have shocked Macdonald) when the Manitoba Legislature passed an Act to incorporate the Winnipeg and South Eastern Railway (Victoria 44, Chapter 37) and the Emerson and North Western Railway (Victoria 44, Chapter 39). The former met its fate expeditiously when it was promptly disallowed by Order-in-Council on January 11th, 1882. This project was especially dear to the hearts of Winnipeg citizenry, especially when it proposed to join Winnipeg to the international boundary in a South-easterly direction, and there presumably link up with the CPR’s great potential competitor, the Northern Pacific. Mayor E. G. Conklin of Winnipeg and his aldermen had appealed in advance against disallowance, yet this was the first to receive the veto. Obviously Winnipeg was feeling the pinch of freight rates to the south from its rail outlet now in the hands of the CPR.

The proposed Emerson and North Western railway was not disallowed before November 3rd, 1882. Why it was disallowed at all is a mystery to me for the country it proposed to tap was being diligently invaded by the Manitoba and South Western R. R. Co. Limited, which was closely allied to the CPR, so much so that the so-called Pembina Mountain Branch was leased to the CPR in perpetuity as soon as construction as far as La Riviere was completed. In 1881, grading operations between Winnipeg and Gretna were underway and between Rosenfeld Junction and Manitoba City, later known as Manitou. Rails were laid as far as a point temporarily called Stephen in 1881, located three miles east of the present town of Morden. The proposed Emerson and North Western planned to follow closely the Boundary Commission Trail, sometimes called the Colonization Trail, over which most of the homesteaders of Southern Manitoba had arrived. The Act passed by the Legislature to incorporate the Emerson and North Western R. R. states - “to build from the West side of the Red River opposite the Town of Emerson to Mountain City or Nelsonville, or Nelsonville, thence North West to a point on the western boundary of the Province; with branch line from Mountain City or Nelsonville, westerly, etc. ...” So the CPR grade to Gretna had cut right across the proposed right of way and ran parallel with it and only a few miles away as far as Manitou, and was practically in operation when the Emerson project was disallowed.

Like the egg and the hen, it is difficult to say which came first, and so one’s reliance on the order of events, with no more evidence than I have been able to discover, must rest on conjecture. Nelson was the incorporated county town of North Dufferin, and Dr. D. H. Wilson was its resident representative. He was also a cabinet Minister in the Norquay administration. Nelsonville was determined to have a railway. The survey of the Pembina Mountain branch of the CPR contemplated a line mid-way between Nelson and Mountain City, both of which it would by-pass! In the opinion of the citizens of Nelson, the county seat was to be by-passed! Mayor Thomas Duncan and Corporation Solicitor Corbet Locke were determined men, and no doubt Dr. Wilson was agreeable and anxious. These men would bow unwillingly to the monopoly threat. The Emerson and N.W. route would compete with the monopoly which was pushing its branch line into their territory with utmost speed. So Norquay must have known Wilson had public opinion in Dufferin County solidly behind him, and the passage of the Act does not appear to have been interfered with. Whether Norquay advised Macdonald why he permitted his legislature to “infringe on the agreement” by passing the legislation is not known to me. The operation of the CPR to Gretna and Manitou must have cooled the ardor of the promoters of the Emerson project and those who might be financially interested. That should have been enough to stop any further activity, but the Dominion Cabinet for good measure made it doubly certain by disallowing the legislation on November 3rd, 1882.

The ambitious town site of Morden was surveyed, in 1882, with the full expectation of receiving shortly within its boundaries all that was movable from the Town of Nelsonville and the hamlet of Mountain City. With most of its trade cut off by the CPR line to Gretna, the colonization trail practically ceased to function in 1882, and Mountain City moved to Morden site then and in early 1883. The townsmen of Nelson were made of sterner stuff and Mayor Thomas Duncan and Solicitor Corbet Locke exhausted every possibility to induce a railroad to come to their town, the county seat possessing, as they termed it “every advantage”. Before giving up their efforts, again no doubt with the support of Dr. D. H. Wilson, they sought and obtained from the Manitoba Legislature, in 1884, (47 Victoria) an Act authorizing the building of a railway approximately 6 miles in length from Nelson to Morden on the CPR. Being unable to raise the necessary capital, the project fell through and the year 1885 saw Nelsonville evacuated when all buildings capable of being moved were transported to Morden.

Norquay in Ottawa had become a convert to the broad outlook of a United Canada and doubtless was satisfied that the cost to Manitoba was worth the price of admission. The pressure of pent-up demands for cheap transportation must have concerned him greatly, particularly when much of it came from within his own ranks. It is inconceivable for instance, that Dr. Wilson as a Conservative could have continued to represent North Dufferin in the Legislature if he had not been an irregular in the matter of competing railways within the 20 mile range of the American border. Nelsonville being 18 miles from the line. Nor could Dr. Wilson have remained in the Cabinet if Norquay had demanded from its members that they adhere to his views on the monopoly clause.

The disallowance of the Emerson and North Western Railroad coincided at least in time, if it did not help bring about a renewed agitation for the Province of Manitoba to build a rail outlet.

It is not difficult to imagine an agitated and worried Norquay coming back to the old master for relief, when even a pro-Conservative Winnipeg newspaper, The Sun, “failed to see why the Provincial Government had not the right to grant railway charters”. Norquay, back in the climate of Ottawa, was soon full of reassurance and is reported as saying “The people of Manitoba would soon get over it” - IT being disallowance.

But fate was against it. The collapse of the boom seemed to magnify the acts of disallowance and soon the cry of “CPR Monopoly” began to be heard.

An indication of the changing tide of public opinion. was an editorial in the pro-conservative Times asking the Premier to reconvene the Legislature immediately and have the vetoed railway charters reenacted. The official Liberal opposition lost no opportunity to force the pace of the Government from which local support seemed to have disappeared. Soon Premier Norquay himself was quoted as conceding the right of the Legislature to re-enact charters when localities most concerned wanted them. In this particular instance he was speaking to an audience especially interested in the vetoed Emerson and North Western Railroad.

Election-wise, the year 1883 began well for Norquay for on election day there were five ministerial acclamations. But the Liberal opposition under Greenway took up again the cry of disallowance which was never completely dropped until the collapse of the Norquay Government five years later.

Yet in 1883, Norquay carried 20 out of 30 seats, although many of his elected supporters declared themselves as opposed to disallowance. The Minister of Railways and Canals, Hon. Charles Tupper, feeling sure of his ground, asked in an unfortunate speech “Are the interests of Manitoba and the North-west to be sacrificed to the policy of Canada? I say, if necessary - Yes”.

Then as if to correct the mistakes of the past, the Manitoba Legislature went about chartering new lines of railway. These reflected the growing need of branch lines, but only one, the Manitoba Central, passed beyond the bill stage. (One of these was the South Western Junction Railway which proposed to connect Nelsonville to Carman).

Added to the financial collapse following the boom, another set-back for Manitoba came in the form of an early killing frost in the fall of 1883, and helped bring about the formation of the Farmer’s Union (Manitoba and North-West Farmer’s Protective Union). Its delegates drew up a declaration of rights which devoted no small portion of its bulk to farmers’ grievances. Among them loomed the spectre of disallowance which they proposed to correct by the right of the local government to charter railways anywhere in the Province. Furthermore, they favoured connecting with American railroads in the interest of lower freight rates which in Manitoba had been raised an average of 57 per cent in 1883.

A delegation was sent to Ottawa to present its “Declaration of Rights,” and apparently took no offence when it was joined by Joseph Martin, who represented Portage la Prairie as a Liberal in the Legislature. Thereafter, the Farmers’ Union became virtually a segment of the Liberal party, especially after Norquay, who was in Ottawa at the time, refused to cooperate with the delegation.

Coinciding with this visit to Ottawa, a change took place in the Dominion Government’s declared policy regarding the time when the monopoly clause should be dropped. Macdonald had said the time to terminate monopoly would be when the line along the north shore of Lake Superior was completed, and now he told the farmers not before the CPR was on a paying basis. This attitude was supported by all Federal members from Manitoba in the House of Commons except Robert Watson, the only Liberal member from Western Canada at the time.

Another misfortune befalling the Norquay administration was the failure of the Premier and three ministerial delegates to obtain from Ottawa a settlement in lieu of public lands or an increase in subsidy. In addition to keeping the delegation waiting for twelve days, Macdonald virtually accused the Province of ingratitude, and reminded them with reproach of an earlier bargain entered into on the points now before them.

Manitobans generally hailed with approval Norquay’s angry reply to Macdonald that redress would be secured by carrying an appeal to the foot of the throne if necessary. Norquay’s personal popularity in Manitoba was at its height when he rejected the terms offered by the Dominion Government, and the opposition in the Legislature rallied behind him. But ardent supporters of the Macdonald administration began to desert him. When Norquay personally attended a Conservative convention in Toronto, Liberals also began to withdraw their support.

From Toronto, Norquay went to Ottawa in search for better terms than those turned down by the Manitoba Legislature, and was successful. The settlement was to be an increase in subsidy and it was emphasized that this time the terms were final, and the Province must abandon any position on railroads that would conflict with the Dominion Government’s right of disallowance. Norquay managed to get approval from his legislature after he stressed that disallowance would surely end by 1886. In the House of Commons, when Western Liberal Robert Watson moved that further aid to the CPR should cease unless the monopoly clause be dropped, all the other members from Manitoba voted against his motion.

Page revised: 23 April 2011