Rails Across the Red - Selkirk or Winnipeg

by Ruben C. Bellan

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1961-62 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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To build a bridge across a river, and to lay down on that bridge the two tracks of a railway, is a matter for engineers. In the case of the first railway across the Red River, however, politicians also had something to say, and political pressures proved to be of greater significance than engineering principles. Had engineering principles prevailed, we should not be here tonight, and you would not be hearing this address. We might have been in the same building, but it would have been located twenty miles to the north, and so would practically all of Winnipeg; for most of the development which has been carried out here on the site of Winnipeg during the past eight decades would have taken place on the site of Selkirk.

I suppose we would be better off at Selkirk. We would be safe against floods - without any floodway - and there would be no need for building costly bridges across the Assiniboine River. But we would have missed out in some ways too. The floods have not been an unmixed curse - they contributed some memorable elements to the historical experience of the people of Winnipeg - and the Assiniboine River brings grace and beauty to the city's midst.

That we are all misplaced persons is due to the fact that a site which was advantageous in respect to the fur trade and pioneer settlement, was retained in the era of railways, and metropolitan development. The first trading posts were built here because the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was strategic to the fur trade dependent for transportation on natural waterways. Miles Macdonell selected for the first Selkirk settlers a site about a mile north of the confluence of the rivers because it offered good soil, land clear of trees, with water and wood in close proximity. It was these features which attracted the first white occupants of the site of Winnipeg.

Virtually isolated from the rest of the world, harassed by nature and attacked by man, the agricultural settlements barely survived during the first two decades after their establishment. Then calmer days came, and the settlements grew in population and geographic extent. Mostly the growth was through natural increase of the earliest colonists and the settling in the colony of half-breeds and personnel of the fur trade. Outside interest in the little colony only came in the 1860s following the surveys of Palliser and Hind, and the introduction of a steamboat on the Red River in 1859 which afforded access to the settlement by a relatively convenient means of transportation. Land seekers began to trickle in from Eastern Canada and business men from the United States. Troops sent here in 1870 to deal with Riel elected to take their discharges locally and to settle in the colony. In 1872, Fargo, North Dakota was linked by rail to the Atlantic seaboard, and it became possible to reach the colony by steam-powered transportation all the way - by railway to Fargo and thence by steamboat down the Red River.

With access to the area now swift and easy, people began to flock in to take up its fertile lands or to engage in the commercial pursuits which a growing population needed and would support. The vicinity of the original fur trading posts became the centre of a business community.

By 1873, the year of Winnipeg's incorporation, this business community comprised several hundred buildings and the urban population numbered about three thousand. Continuing increase throughout the 1870s of the rural population which it served, supported expansion and diversification of the Winnipeg economy. Retail stores were established in the outlying settlements and merchants in Winnipeg entered into wholesale trade to supply them. Manufacturing establishments arose in the city, including lumber mills, flour mills, and a brewery. By 1880, Winnipeg was a thriving, bustling city with a population of about eight thousand, possessed of a strong, diversified economy which served settlements that now extended up to two hundred miles to the west and southwest.

Communications between the city and its hinterland were, however, slow and difficult. Transport was, in summer, by creaking wagon often mired in the heavy gumbo of the trails, in winter by sled over the snow, often in bitter cold and howling wind. A railway was needed to link Winnipeg to the settlements in the west and southwest: to bring about the construction of that railway became a prime objective of the Winnipeg mercantile community.

Meanwhile, in 1871, the Federal Government in its negotiations with British Columbia in respect to that province's entry into Confederation, had committed itself to build a transcontinental railway. Sandford Fleming, appointed as Chief Engineer, promptly undertook surveys to determine the best route for the line. On the basis of his own surveys, the surveys previously carried out by Palliser and Hind, and information vouchsafed by local people, he proposed that west of Lake Superior the railway be built from Fort William to Selkirk, there to cross the Red River, go on to cross Lake Manitoba at the Narrows and proceed northwesterly toward Edmonton. The selection of a northwesterly route toward Edmonton was dictated by Palliser's report in 1857 that the central prairie area - Palliser's triangle - was too arid for settlement. If the railway was to open up land fit for agricultural use, it would have to be built through the Park Belt which lay to the north of the flat, dry plains.

The crossing of the Red River at Selkirk was dictated by engineering considerations. A railway bridge built across the Red at Selkirk would have the benefit of more stable banks than existed further upstream. More important, the bridge and railway would be safe against flooding if built at Selkirk. The site of Winnipeg, it was known, had been flooded seven times during the previous century. Selkirk, situated on a high ridge of land, had never been flooded. During the great flood of 1826, when the site of Winnipeg had been completely inundated, the land of Selkirk was fifteen feet above the highest level attained by the flood waters.

Since private enterprise was unwilling to take on the job of building a transcontinental railway, the Government itself undertook the enterprise as a public works. Construction proceeded very slowly, however. Alexander Mackenzie, Prime Minister of Canada from 1873 to 1878, believed that the pace of construction should be only as fast as the Government's finances would tolerate without strain. By 1878, there had been built in Western Canada only a short line, the Pembina Branch, from Selkirk down to the American border to connect up with the U. S. railway system, a few miles of track east from Selkirk, and a few miles west from Fort William. While a bridge across the Red to its west bank was projected at Selkirk, it had not yet been built, The Pembina branch ran down the east side of the Red River. It passed through St. Boniface, where a station and freight sheds were built. Albeit inconveniently, the Pembina Branch served Winnipeg. Passengers and freight arriving by rail in St. Boniface were carried by boat, barge and ferry across the Red to Winnipeg.

The decision of the Government to have the railway cross the Red River at Selkirk, and then follow a northerly route, implied that Winnipeg and the agricultural communities which had emerged to the west and southwest, would derive no benefit from the transcontinental railway. The line was to pass well to the north of all existing settlements, and its construction was to be directed from Selkirk; [1] upon completion of the road, Selkirk would be the point of entry to the West from Eastern Canada. Winnipeg, already possessed of good external communications thanks to American railways and Red River steamboats. and, after 1878, the all-rail connection from St. Boniface, required communications with its hinterland, the agricultural settlements to the west and southwest. Instead, the new railway promised rather to provide an alternative means of external communication, which would compete against the route through Winnipeg. "In any event the country south of the Assiniboine has nothing to hope for. The Pacific (Railway) can afford it no local facilities, build by which route it may. A local road is the only thing that will meet its requirements." [2]

Winnipeg delegations which importuned the Prime Minister met with his obdurate refusal. In his view the national interest took precedence over Winnipeg's claims, and it was in that interest that a northerly route be adopted and the Red River be crossed at Selkirk. [3] Winnipeg reluctantly accepted this decision, and reduced its demands to the request that the Federal Government build a branch line from the city in a northwesterly direction, joining the main line at a point west of Selkirk. Construction commenced in the meantime of the four hundred mile stretch between Selkirk and Fort William on Lake Superior, with rail being laid eastward from Selkirk and westward from Fort William. Progress was painfully slow; in 1878, three years after construction had commenced, only seventy-six miles had been laid east from Selkirk.

For a local road to the western settlements Winnipeg looked to its own resources. A mass meeting of citizens in February, 1877 passed a resolution calling upon the city to pay a cash subsidy of $200,000 to any company which built a railway from the city to the western boundary of the province. The resolution included the demands that the Federal Government furnish an appropriate land grant to such a railway, and that the Provincial Government facilitate the establishment of municipal institutions which might also contribute to the cost of its construction. In November, 1878, Mr. J. H. Ashdown, one of the city's leading merchants, proposed that the city offer a bonus of S300.000 toward the construction of a bridge across the Red River from St. Boniface and the desired railway to the western boundary of the province. A group comprised chiefly of Winnipeg citizens accordingly organized the Manitoba and South Western Railway Company, to bead the desired road and earn the proffered bonus.

Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservative Party were returned to office in the federal elections of 1878, and the national railway policy took a new turn. During the election campaign. the Conservatives had broadly hinted that, if elected, they would pass the transcontinental railway through Winnipeg; in April, 1879, Macdonald announced that the Prairie section of the railway would be built along a more southerly route than had been projected by the previous government, and furthermore, that in so far as possible, the road would be built through existing centres of population. In view of this new development the City Council unanimously approved the resolution:

"That whereas the Council having been informed that :he Dominion Government intends to change the route of the Pacific Railway to the South of Lake Manitoba, and whereas the people of Winnipeg. in mass meeting assembled, have pledged the city to a vote of $300,000, if necessary- toward the construction of a bridge across the Red River, and western railroad extension;

Therefore be it resolved that the Council pledge the City to pay the cost of construction of a railroad bridge across the Red River provided that the Dominion Government will construct the Canadian Pacific Railway from Winnipeg westward." [4]

A delegation hastily proceeded to Ottawa to interview Sir Charles Tupper, the Federal Minister of Railways, and to urge this gift upon him. Sir Charles promised the delegates that if the City built the bridge, the Government would build a branch line in a northwesterly direction from Winnipeg to intercept the main line from Selkirk, and that the branch line out of Winnipeg would in fact be built before the main line out of Selkirk. [5] The City Council promptly prepared a bylaw requesting the permission of the ratepayers to issue debentures whereby to finance construction of the railway bridge, with the stipulation that it be made available to the Manitoba and South Western Railway, as well as to the branch line to be built by the Government. Even before the by-law was passed (in July 1879), the Federal Government called for tenders for the construction of one hundred miles of the railway west of Winnipeg and let out the contract in August 1879, stipulating that it be completed within twelve months. The first twenty miles of this railway (referred to as a Colonization Railway) was to proceed in a northwesterly direction to Victoria Junction (near Stonewall), where it was to effect the junction with the main line from Selkirk; the remainder of the Colonization Railway was to proceed due west from Victoria Junction, [6] and possibly become part of the main line.

Considerable confusion prevailed in the fall of 1879 regarding the Colonization Railway; four different routes out of Winnipeg were being surveyed at the same time, and there was still no clear indication whether the line would be merely a branch line, as originally planned, or whether it would become part of the main line, as Winnipeg hoped. [7] Confusion was compounded by the fact that a civil engineer had come to Selkirk in May 1879 to survey the proposed main line west of the town.

The Hudson's Bay Company played a key role in the struggle to draw the railway through Winnipeg. The Company owned some 1,750 acres of land in the City by virtue of the agreement of 1869, whereby it had surrendered to Canada its claim to the western territories but had been permitted to retain blocks of land in the vicinity of its trading posts. On December 8, 1879, Sandford Fleming, Engineer-in-Chief of the C.P.R., recommended to the Minister of Railways that the Government not accede to Winnipeg's request that the Government construct a railway bridge across the Red River at Winnipeg, owing to the flood hazard there. Mr. C. J. Brydges, Land Commissioner of the Hudson's Bay Company, thereupon instructed the Winnipeg agent of the Company to obtain the testimony of local Hudson's Bay Company employees regarding the Red River's behaviour. The agent produced letters from five employees, all of which testified that the Red River had not flooded in the recent past to the extent reported by other sources. Sandford Fleming commented critically on these letters, and pointed out that "any benefit to property from the establishment of the bridge at that place (Winnipeg) would accrue to individuals, and mainly to the Hudson's Bay Company where they have 1,750 acres." [8]

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Macdonald continued the attempts to induce private capitalists to undertake the construction and operation of the transcontinental railway. He led a cabinet mission to Britain in the fall of 1879 in an endeavour to interest British capital, but in vain: British capitalists still remembered the misfortunes of the Grand Trunk Railway, [9] and, in any case, regarded the project of a Canadian transcontinental railway as grandiose, and premature by years. Early in 1880, however, the Canadian Government commenced negotiations with the Canadian group headed by Donald A. Smith, [10] which had resurrected the St. Paul and Pacific Railway and had completed the first American rail connection to the Manitoba boundary. An agreement was reached by September of the same year and formally announced to Parliament in December; the Canadian Pacific Railway Act embodying the agreement became law on February 17, 1881. [11]

Having achieved the desired railway west of Winnipeg, the City Council now pressed the demand that it be incorporated into the main line of the transcontinental railway, thereby ensuring that the produce of the West would flow to markets through the city. When Sir Charles Tupper visited the city in November, 1880, the Council presented a memorial to him expressing confidence that this aim would indeed be achieved ...

"... we have substantial reasons for extending the hand of welcome to you as the building of a branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway through our city, for which we have to thank you, and which we now feel sure will become, in effect, part of the main line, has given an impetus to our progress, has enhanced greatly the value of every foot of real property in Winnipeg and has encouraged us to spend over one million dollars on building operations within the last year." [12]

In the Memorial the Council expressed willingness to grant various privileges to the Company in return for the establishment of its workshops and terminals in the city ...

"... and should the Government or the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate decide to build such work shops and depots in Winnipeg, we are willing to exempt all such railway buildings and grounds from civic taxation for an extended number of years." [13]

The Council furthermore pointed out that it would be in the railway's own interest to locate its workshops in the city by reason of the supplementary facilities it afforded ...

"... from the facilities offered by the extensive carworks, foundries and machine shops now being built in our midst, and from the immediate prospects of the concentration of other lines of railway here." [14]

Sir Charles replied that if the decision were still for the Federal Government to make, it would unquestionably locate the depot and workshops in Winnipeg. Now that the private syndicate had taken over responsibility for construction of the railway, however, the decision was for its members to make. He observed that the Federal Government ...

"... would have failed in their duty had they not done so, to extend a branch to Winnipeg, and he was more satisfied than ever of the wisdom of the government in making the change. He had no doubt the change would have been followed by the location of the workshops at this point if the work of construction had remained in the hands of the Government. They had carefully considered and discussed the matter, and had come to the conclusion that they would be consulting the best interests of the railways by locating the workshops in proximity to this large centre. As soon as Parliament ratified the agreement he had no doubt the Syndicate itself would look at the matter in the same light. He would certainly have put it to be his duty to report the matter to his colleagues as it was in the best interests of the road, and he had no doubt the Syndicate would have the same view." [15]

The City Council thereupon hastily despatched a delegation to St. Paul to interview members of the syndicate, and urge them to locate the workshops and depot in Winnipeg. In June, 1881, the C.P.R. Company formally offered to locate its workshops in the city, and to build the desired railway to the hinterland settlements in the southwest, provided the city granted the Company a bonus of $200,000, land for a station, and exemption of its property from civic taxation in perpetuity. [16] If the City paid the bonus to the rival Manitoba and South Western Railway, the C.P.R. threatened to locate its workshops at Lower Fort Garry, between Selkirk and Winnipeg. [17] By an overwhelming vote (130 to 1) the local ratepayers approved, in July, 1881, a by-law framed along the lines demanded by the C.P.R. [18] The C.P.R. at once commenced the construction of workshops, a freight shed and passenger station in the City.

The people of Selkirk continued to hope that the main line would pass through their town, as originally planned. Only a bridge and a dozen miles of road were lacking to complete a connection between Selkirk and Victoria Junction, from which point the branch out of Winnipeg proceeded in a westerly direction. From an engineering standpoint, construction of the bridge and the short stretch of track was an obvious requirement, since they were links in the most direct route from East to West, with a crossing of the Red River that would be immune to flooding ...

"It is scarcely wise in a matter of fact man like myself to become a prophet, but I may state that I see so far into the future that about the middle of the coming summer, the iron horse will reach Selkirk on its way to the West, and as it turns south its drivers, who will be many and very strong, will be asked why turn ye away from the river, and they will answer, like the men of old, because there is no passage for our steed and the train which follows it. Then a very learned man shall stand forth and say, listen unto me, ye men of might who drive the iron horse, behold a straight line is the shortest way between two points. They will be astonished at this and take down their measuring instruments, and behold the scales will fall from their eyes, and they will see that it is so and a passage for their steed will be built and it will go on its way to the West without turning either to the right hand or to the left. Then will the head of Selkirk be lifted up and she will stand on her feet and be much talked of among the people, because there will be a boom there. Behold this must come to pass because it is written on the tablets of the future." [19]

The tablets erred, however.

A C.P.R. representative informed the people of Selkirk that the Company did not consider it necessary to build a line from Selkirk to Stonewall (an integral link in the originally-planned main line). However, if the local municipality would provide a bonus of $125,000, the C.P.R. would send an engineer to locate a bridge over the Red River at Selkirk, together with the connection to Stonewall. If they failed to do this, the C.P.R. would straighten out the line from Whitemouth to Winnipeg, leaving Selkirk off the main line altogether. [20] The money was never raised. In the latter part of 1881, the C.P.R., with the consent of the Federal Government, built a new line directly from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie, shortening the rail distance by seventeen miles. A private group was organized in 1882 to build a railway from Selkirk to Poplar Point, there to effect a junction with the line out of Winnipeg, but the attempt came to naught. Winnipeg's economic and political strength had proven superior to Selkirk's natural advantages. [21] The threat to leave Selkirk off the main line altogether was realized in 1907, when the C.P.R. built a new section from Molson to Winnipeg, thereby shortening the main line route by ten miles. Henceforth, all transcontinental traffic moved over the new section, and the original line to Selkirk and thence east, was used for local traffic only.


1. The town of Selkirk only came into existence in 1875 when the Railway located its offices there. Considerable construction took place there the following year, of stores and hotels, in anticipation of its future importance as a railway centre. John Macoun, Manitoba and the Great Northwest (Guelph, 1882), p. 481.

2. Manitoba Free Press, October 23, 1878.

3. Crossing the Red River at Winnipeg would furthermore require the construction of an additional 30 miles of road, with a corresponding increase in the cost of maintenance and operation. Manitoba Free Press, Feb. 27, 1875.

4. Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg (Winnipeg,1879). P. 213.

5. C.S.P., 1861, (5), p. 2; Manitoba Free Press, May 1, 1879.

6. "The Government has determined to construct a Colonization Railway to the west of Red River in Manitoba, and in order that delay may be avoided, it has been decided to invite tenders at once, the surveys being in progress. Commencing at Winnipeg, the railway will run north-westerly to connect with the main line in the neighborhood of the 4th base line, and thence run westerly between Portage la Prairie and Lake Manitoba, to a point 100 miles from Winnipeg, or for any shorter distance the government may determine." C.S.P., 1880, (19), p. 4.

7. Manitoba Free Press, Nov. 24, 1879. The Free Press claimed that Tupper delayed construction of the railway west of Winnipeg, because he was anxious to reap the maximum profit in land grabbing operations for himself and his friends.

8. Letter of 10th February to the Minister of Railways and Canals, in Appendix 16, of Report by the Engineer-in-Chief re the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1880.

9. The Grand Trunk, built in Eastern Canada during the 1850's, and financed by British capital, had been a disappointing failure. G. P. de T. Glazebrook, A History of Transportation in Canada (Toronto, 1938), p. 169 ff.

10. James J. Hill and George Stephen were the other key personalities in the group. Donald Smith's name did not officially appear on the Directors' list, since he had become estranged from Prime Minister Macdonald following his stand on the Pacific Scandal of 1873 which had led to the defeat of the Macdonald administration. It was well known, however, that he was the leading spirit in the enterprise, as evidenced by the fact that it was he who drove home the last spike upon completion of the line. Sir Charles Tupper made the comment that "The Canadian Pacific Railway would have no existence today, notwithstanding all that the Government did to support that undertaking, had it not been for the indomitable pluck and energy and determination, both financially and in every other respect, of Sir Donald Smith." From his speech to the St. George's Club, London, in January 1897. Quoted in Beckles Willson, The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, 1820-1914 (London, 1915), p. 192.

11. The main provisions of the agreement were that the Company was to receive 25 million acres of land, $25 million in cash and all those sections which had already been completed or partially constructed by the Government. Furthermore, no one was to be permitted to build south of the main line a railway which could draw western traffic off to American transcontinentals.

12. Manitoba Free Press, Nov. 11, 1880.

13. Ibid.

14. The Council also urged the construction of freight sheds in Winnipeg. At that time, goods imported via the Pembina branch were landed at the terminal in St. Boniface, involving heavy expenditures on drays by Winnipeg merchants to bring the merchandise across the river. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Manitoba Free Press, June 1881.

17. Manitoba Free Press, July 20, 1881.

18. The $200,000 bonus to the C.P.R. implied a significant burden on Winnipeg's taxpayers. It required the issue of 20 year debentures on which interest and amortization charges amounted to $17,000 a year, requiring a 4.4 mill increase in the local tax rate.

19. Macoun, op. cit., p. 482.

20. Manitoba Free Press, July 19, 1881.

21. "For many years Selkirk has been struggling against fate. From the very first the town met with the determined opposition of those who, being interested in Winnipeg property, and who knowing well the many advantages in situation etc. that Selkirk possessed over the metropolis, felt that their only hope was in crushing out the growing town to the north. They were the stronger in financial and political influence ..." Selkirk Herald, January 18, 1884.

According to an old-time resident, a former mayor of Winnipeg, the most important reason for the shift to Winnipeg, was the fact that Donald Smith, by now the majority stockholder of the Hudson's Bay Company, used his influence in the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to bring the road to Winnipeg, in order to enhance the value of the substantial block of land in the very centre of Winnipeg which was owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. In support of this suggested explanation it may be added that the Hudson's Bay Company reportedly sold out virtually the whole of its land holdings in Winnipeg during the boom of 1881, realizing an estimated two million dollars. See W. J. Healey, Winnipeg's Early Days, p. 22, also J. Steen and W. Boyce, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Her Industries (Winnipeg, 1882), p. 68.

Page revised: 22 May 2010