Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Winnipeg: Build it and They Will Come

"Nothing -- neither people, nor goods, nor chattels -- moved into or out of prairie Canada save through Winnipeg and the tolls levied by Winnipeg business, industry, commerce and labour sparked the Winnipeg boom." (Alan Artibise)

In a twenty four hour period, 3,500 people stepped off a train in Winnipeg.  While they were disappointed at the freezing temperatures and the endless prairie grasses, they were thrilled to acquire free land from the government of Canada.  How could they say no?"  They were excited about the potential that Winnipeg, a city at the intersection of two rivers, offered them.  In 1911 alone, 10,715 building permits were issued in the boomtown on the prairies.  The practice was to build a foundation capable of fitting two or three more storeys with the expectation of expanding in the near future.  
While California had its gold, Winnipeg had its wheat.  The city became the central distribution centre for wheat.  The projection was that 4.5 million people would flock to Winnipeg by 1984. Winnipeggers adopted the motto:  "Build it and they will come."

A master plan which followed the City Beautiful Movement was drawn up in the early 1900's.  It included Broadway, Western Canada's first boulevard.  The vision included stately mansions, tree-lined streets and water fountains all the way from the Legislative Building to the Fort Garry Hotel.  The Mall of Triumph was to include a palatial city hall (never built) on what is now Memorial Boulevard.  Patterned after Buckingham Palace the city hall would have been a six storey granite structure at the cost of $2.4 million (1913 dollars).

Winnipeg's "Gingerbread City Hall", built in 1866, had an Eastern European flavour about it, perhaps foreshadowing the immigrants that arrived in the city only shortly thereafter courtesy

Queen Victoria's son, Prince Arthur, warned the city planners not to be short sighted in their vision.  "The city is ever on the move.  Where you have shot prairie chickens your sons will transact business.  Where your fathers fought against Indians we are standing this you must look to it that your improvements keep pace with the growth of the city..."

With the majestic architecture came a call for places to improve health and promote recreation.  Assiniboine Park, Grandma Elm and Shoal Lake Aqueduct replaced the frontier-town elements of "saloons, prostitutes and rivers of flowing beer".  

Winnipeg was on the move.  Who could have forecast the Stock Exchange Collapse of 1929 or the subsequent drop in stock prices?  Winnipeg's beloved wheat went from $1.60 a bushel to $0.29 in 1932.  A city that, only a few decades before, saw immigrants arriving by the thousands now could not even feed its native citizens.  The Dust Bowl of the 1930's further complicated Winnipeg's plight. The projection of 4.5 million people would not become reality.  Today, the city has about 700,000.

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