Starts: Balmoral Hall – 630 Westminster
Tour Length: 9km return
This casually-paced tour will take us into the lap of luxury, exploring the beautiful old buildings in Old Winnipeg’s most exclusive neighbourhoods.
It’s no coincidence that many of Winnipeg’s most remarkable mansions are clustered along the Assiniboine River. From Armstrong’s Point to Wellington Crescent, we’ll be tracing the development of this area from backwoods bush to the seat of political and economic power.
We’ll be tracing the history of our city’s early elites: Visiting corrupt land barons, abusive mayors, and a wealthy Metis woman who taught racist writers what “respect” means on the prairies.
It’s no coincidence that many of Winnipeg’s most remarkable mansions are clustered along the Assiniboine River. From Armstrong’s Point to Wellington Crescent and beyond, we’ll be tracing the development of this area from backwoods bush to the seat of political and economic power.
Every powerful figure casts a long shadow and some are darker than others. Winnipeg was once known as the “Chicago of the North”, and our historic architecture reflects that rich past. At the same time our city developed a reputation as a wild west town, filled with outrageous characters who made their own rules.
The first neighbourhood we’re visiting is called Armstrong’s Point, which was established in the mid 1800s. The entire peninsula was given by the Hudson’s Bay Company to a Captain Hill, who put his assistant, James Armstrong, in charge of managing it once he returned to England. Little development was undertaken until real estate prices exploded in the early 1880s. Hill sold his property to a group of developers for $28,000 , and it became a gated community for the city’s elite.
The main building making up Balmoral Hall school was built in 1901 as a home for James Aikins. Aikins immigrated to Winnipeg in the 1870s and quickly built up a law firm that is now one of the biggest in Canada. He supported a number of controversial bills in the legislature, including a prohibition act passed in 1900. He later pursued an unsuccessful career as a Conservative politician. Aikins was a fierce believer in what he called “moral education”, pushing for prohibition legislation and insisting that a strong society could only be developed through Christian education. After his death he donated his home to support a girls’ school run by the United Church, which has grown into the present Balmoral Hall private school. The nearby red building was donated by Aikins’ son, who was also a prominent lawyer.
This mansion was built in 1913 for Reverend Charles Gordon, who was pastor of the downtown Elim Chapel. He was also one of the most popular Canadian novelists of his time, becoming a millionaire from his work under the pen name “Ralph Connor”. Gordon was driven to become a missionary by what he saw as a crisis of morality in Western Canada. He saw the prairies as an immoral place, where religion was not taken seriously and morals did not conform to his rigid Victorian standards. He set about transforming missionary work by preaching through adventure novels based in Christian values, and setting up church-based fitness & leisure activities to draw people away from secular entertainment. The house has been maintained and used by the University Women’s Club of Winnipeg since 1945, and is now a national historic site that can be rented for meetings and events.
A few doors down the street once sat a mansion known as Bannatyne’s Castle. It was built in 1890 for a fabulously wealthy businessman named A. G. Bannatyne; a trader from the Orkney Islands who helped found the Winnipeg General Hospital. His wife, Annie McDermot Bannatyne, is a much more interesting figure. Annie was the Metis daughter of another wealthy trader, who devoted most of her life to philanthropy. Annie also had a keen sense of justice and little tolerance for racists.
In 1869, a writer from Toronto named Charles Mair moved to Winnipeg. Mair saw the people of Red River as uncivilized and lazy, and was determined to see them replaced by a flood of Canadian settlers from Ontario. He published a series of insulting, racist letters in the Toronto Globe. In one he blamed Metis families for starving during a failed harvest due to their “laziness”. In another he characterized Metis women as drunks, claiming that they were naturally inferior to, and abusive towards, white women. These letters stirred up a commotion in Winnipeg, where the struggle for Metis rights was well underway.
Unfortunately for Mair, the local post office was located in Bannatyne’s store. One day when Annie heard that Mair had arrived for his mail, she threw on a shawl, grabbed a large horse whip and stormed downstairs. She pulled him to the ground by his nose and began whipping him in front of the staff, while saying “Look–this is how the women of Red River treat those who insult them.” Mair crawled away in shame. That night he was summoned and forced to apologize by the richest businessmen in town — almost all of whom were married to Metis women.
At the turn of the 20th century, a billionaire American industrialist named Arthur Carnegie decided to use his wealth to promote education as widely as possible. He provided massive grants to cities to build libraries, now known as ‘Carnegie Libraries’. In 1900 Winnipeg requested, and received, a $75,000 grant to build its first library. In 1915 the city received a second grant, which was used to build this branch.
The library was named to honour Winnipeg’s first mayor: Frank Cornish. Cornish was a lawyer who briefly served as mayor of London, Ontario. His term ended after he was accused of stuffing the ballot boxes to guarantee his win, along with “bigamy, assault and drunkeness”. He abandoned his wife and moved to Winnipeg in 1872. He was involved in prosecuting Ambroise Lepine, a member of Riel’s Provisional Government, and took a lead role in riots planned to falsify the 1872 federal election. Cornish joined a force of men who attacked polling stations in St Boniface and Winnipeg, beating Metis citizens with wood clubs to suppress their vote while attempting to illegally register settlers from Ontario. They assaulted many people and burned the voter registries. Cornish famously called the provincial police “Toad eating Communists” as he led the mob in burning 3 newspaper offices that were sympathetic to the Metis community.
John A. MacDonald (Canada’s first Prime Minister) ordered the Lieutenant Governor to “Put an end to this lawless spirit”, but many of the rioters had already become leading voices in Winnipeg’s new Anglo elite. Cornish responded by getting incredibly drunk and burning MacDonald in effigy in the street. That same year he helped tar and feather the Speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, who refused to work with him. In 1874 Cornish was elected as the first Mayor of Winnipeg, after receiving 383 votes out of 388 eligible voters. Cornish was evidently guilty of fraud, as his opponent received 174 votes. During his brief tenure as mayor, Cornish was arrested for public intoxication. He served as his own judge and let himself off for good behaviour. He retired to rural Manitoba to run as a vocally anti-French MLA. Cornish won the election after kidnapping his opponent and leaving him tied up in a barn during the primary debate. While awaiting trial for kidnapping in 1878, Cornish died of stomach cancer (likely caused by his alcoholism).
It seems unlikely that many of today’s Winnipeggers would support a library being named after a corrupt, violent, drunken, philandering kidnapper. In spite of his history, the name was kept after extensive renovations and a reopening in 2021.
This mansion was designed by the renowned local architect, A.E. Cubbidge in 1932 for a grain baron named James Gilchrist. It was purchased by the Eaton family In the 1940s. The home has its own dark history: In the 1970s it was bought by the infamous fashion designer and alleged rapist, Peter Nygard.
We know Wellington Crescent as the home to the city’s largest mansions and wealthiest families, but up until the 1880s this area was known as “The Bush”. It was a wild, undeveloped section of forest opposite the affluent Armstrong’s Point neighbourhood. Winnipeg was still a frontier town, but astute people realized that the trans-canadian railway was on its way. Businessmen bought massive tracts of land and tried to influence politicians to ensure that the railway passed by — or better yet — through their land. Modern transportation meant development and higher real estate prices.
Arthur Wellington Ross was one of these land speculators. He worked as a lawyer, but quickly invested in real estate and purchased most of the Fort Rouge area. He eventually owned the entire south side of Wellington Crescent. He acquired most of this land by dealing in Metis Scrip — a type of land stake issued by the government to extinguish future Metis land claims. People like Wellington swindled poor families, offering them miniscule payments for valuable land. In 1882 the market collapsed, leaving Ross and other speculators penniless.
Entire cities were ruined by this greed. Grand Valley was established in 1879 along the expected route of the railway, and lots were sold for outrageous prices. In 1881 railroad officials arrived and offered residents $25,000 for the entire town site. The townspeople demanded $50,000 instead. The head planner, a man named Rosser, exclaimed “I’ll be damned if any kind of town is ever built here!” Rosser then traveled two miles west, across the valley, to establish Brandon. Grand Valley immediately became a ghost town, as the inhabitants lost everything they had invested.
This home standing here is a modern construction with little architectural interest or value. It was home to the unpopular former Premier of Manitoba, Brian Pallister. Our province had a number of other controversial leaders in its early days:
Hugh John MacDonald (xenophobia, prohibition) was the only surviving on of John A Macdonald. He originally came here as part of the Wolseley Expedition, a military foray that violently suppressed Louis Rie’s Provisional Government and the Metis community. He became Premier in 1900, after campaigning on an aggressively xenophobic platform. He called Slavic immigrants “mongrel hordes” and promised to remove the right to vote from people who could not write in English. Check out our Birth of a Province tour to learn more about his story.
His successor kept up the ‘good’ work: Rodmond Roblinspent almost 30 years as an elected politician in Manitoba, as both a Liberal and Conservative. He spent 15 years as our Premier (from 1900-1915) in spite of a reputation for corruption. He fiercely opposed women’s right to vote and clashed with Nellie McClung. He worked to destroy labour laws and refused to enforce the existing labour standards as a favour to exploitative business owners. In 1904 he reduced the minimum age for child labour, and increased the working hours required for women and children. His government also commissioned our current Legislative Building; a project that almost bankrupted the province after it was awarded to a corrupt contractor friend. The project ran wildly over budget after Thomas Kelly stole most of the building materials to build his own mansion. Roblin was re-elected in spite of the scandal, but was eventually forced to resign after being arrested for fraud.
We’re about to pass over Omand’s Creek, named for an early Anglo-Metis family that settled and farmed nearby. The first settlers in this area were the descendents of English fur traders and their Indigenous wives, like the Omands, who built their farms near the St. James Anglican Church. The massive home across the creek from you was built around 1880 by Frederick Salter, a successful market gardener. At that time this area was agricultural, and he covered the land along the Assiniboine with 26 greenhouses. He built his fortune by supplying the CP Rail trains as they traveled west to Vancouver. His property originally stretched to Portage Avenue, where massive gates lead towards the house. Most of the land was sold to build “The Great Highway”, as Portage was originally known.
This place changed dramatically in 1872 when Winnipeg was incorporated as a city. In 1874 the first elections were held, and the first Chief of the Winnipeg Police Service was appointed. A man named John Ingram commanded an intimidating force of two constables.Before his appointment John worked as a farm labourer, and there’s no indication of why he got the job — except that he had a reputation as a drunken brawler who assaulted prominent Metis citizens. Even Mayor Cornish quickly came to hate the Chief, who was known for drinking heavily and spending time with prostitutes.
At this point Winnipeg was the edge of Canadian settlement — a literal wild west town. In an effort to improve its reputation, the new City Council ordered a crackdown on brothels and saloons. In July of 1875, Constables Murray and Byers arrested a man after raiding a home known for prostitution. They were shocked to realize that it was their boss, Chief Ingram. Surprisingly, they actually laid charges: Ingram was fined $8.00 and forced to resign in disgrace. With this stellar resume, he moved to Calgary and became its Chief of Police. Ingram died in 1905, when he blew himself up with dynamite while working in British Columbia.
Luther Judge Rumfordwas born in the US, but moved to Winnipeg in 1902. He became a laundry baron, running a major dry cleaning business on both sides of the border. His business still operates today as Perth’s Drycleaning. In 1914 Rumford made an outrageous move to defend his turf: He launched a campaign to “Drive the Chinese Laundries out of America” — demanding that the government deport 5,000 Chinese workers for under-cutting the laundry industry. He toned-down his rhetoric slightly in Canada, instead claiming that Chinese laundries were unhygienic and should be subject to regular health inspections. No such requirements existed for any other laundry businesses.
Chinese immigration to Canada first started in a major way in the 1880s, as the government consciously imported labourers to be exploited in the extremely dangerous and poorly paid work of building the trans-canadian railroad. After the railway was completed in 1885, Canada no longer had a use for these immigrants and imposed a head tax, forcing any Chinese entering the country to pay an exorbitant fee. In September of 1907, 15,000 people turned out to a rally in Vancouver organized by the “Asiatic Exclusion League”. Attendees wore ribbons that read “For a White Canada” and rioted, spending three days attacking homes and businesses in the Chinatown district
The head tax was removed in 1923 and was replaced by the Exclusion Act, banning any Chinese immigrants from entering the country at all. This remained in force until 1947. Throughout this period, Asian-Canadians suffered serious discrimination in society, receiving low wages and largely being confined to ‘Chinatown’ neighbourhoods with poor housing and infrastructure.
Wolseley School was built in 1921 at a cost of $75,000. The school itself is surprisingly attractive and open, compared to the many harsh, institutional buildings from this time. The building is significant for its namesake, more than its architecture. It was named to commemorate Colonel Garnet Wolseley, the head of the infamous Wolseley Expedition. This military force was dispatched here by the Canadian Government in 1870 to suppress the Red River Resistance and arrest Louis Riel’s government. Leaders like Riel were forced to flee to the US, and Wolseley’s men set out on a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism. They attacked and violently repressed the people of Red River, targeting the Metis community for assaults, arson and worse in order to enforce Canadian rule. A postman named Eleazar Goulet was even stoned to death as he tried to flee across the Red River.
Outside of his work here in Manitoba, Wolseley was celebrated for leading the violent colonization of Myanmar, China and Egypt. In India, Wolseley participated in a war that killed over 100,000 civilians. British forces massacred the inhabitants of Delhi, forced Muslims to eat pork, organized the systemic rape of civilians, and shot prisoners out of cannons. In today’s world, there is no question that Colonel Wolseley would be tried for egregious crimes against humanity. There is a tragic irony, which upsets many people, in the fact that one of the city’s most progressive neighbourhoods is named for a violent colonial thug.
Many of the mansions we passed in Armstrong’s Point were built for men who arrived with Wolseley’s expedition. Before 1870, most of our leading citizens were pioneering traders and Metis families. Manitoba’s entry into confederation was a tipping point, where the city’s elite suddenly came to be dominated by opportunistic and exploitative settlers from eastern Canada.
This home was built in 1911 and occupied by Nellie McClung until 1914. Nellie was a fierce advocate for women’s rights, and became known for writing a radical novel which brought her significant wealth. In 1914 she organized a major campaign for women’s suffrage, convening a mock parliament and working to defeat the long-time conservative premier (and all around bad guy), Rodmond Roblin. Her campaign wasn’t successful, but Roblin’s government soon self-destructed, paving the way for change.
McClung moved to Edmonton. Here she had better luck: She organized a political push that resulted in Manitoba becoming the first province to give women the vote in 1916. On the heels of this victory, the federal government followed suit in 1918. Nellie then launched her own political career in the Alberta legislature. She campaigned for a shocking variety of radical issues: Prohibition, support for the poor, allowances for widows, and the forced sterilization of people deemed “mentally unfit”. While advocating for some issues that are still seen as progressive today, she was also a strong supporter of eugenics.
McClung and the suffragettes fought for the rights of women, but they did not consider all women to be equal, or deserving or the same rights. Their concern was only with promoting the rights of women they considered White and socially advantaged. Canadians from an Asian background were specifically prohibited from voting until 1949, and Indigenous Canadians shockingly gained the right to vote only in 1960.
This home is actually not a historic building at all: It’s a replica of a house originally owned by J.S. Woodsworth, a prominent missionary and politician. The original building here was built in 1907, but burned in 1984. The current replica was finished in 1985 and houses the Centre for Christian Studies.
Woodsworth moved to Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century, and was a strong proponent of what he called the “social gospel”. He believed strongly in charity work, and helped start the “All People’s Mission” in Point Douglas – a desperately poor neighbourhood where less than half of residents had access to running water or the city’s sewer system. He established a food bank, English classes and fought for union rights — even being arrested for his participation in the 1919 General Strike. Woodsworth was elected as the MP for Winnipeg North Centre from 1921 – 1942, founding the Commonwealth Federation Party. His party is recognized as the forerunner of the NDP, and they still honour Woodsworth as their ‘spiritual’ founder. The Woodsworth Building on Broadway continues to carry his name.
Unfortunately his social consciousness was rooted in darker ideas. Woodsworth was a strong advocate for eugenics, believing that most of the difficulties faced by residents in these poor neighbourhoods were inherently due to their race. He had a serious case of what we would now call a “white saviour” complex, believing that he had the power to lift “lesser” people into the light of civilization through religion. He wrote sociological books which were organized along a “hierarchy of races”: The British dominated, followed by Scandinavians, Germans, and then “lesser” groups like Italians, Levantine peoples, “Orientals”, and finally on what he saw as the lowest people: “the Negro and the Indian”. It’s no coincidence that Woodsworth’s hierarchy descended according to skin tone.
These dark stories underlie many of our city’s most beautiful buildings, and most of our local heroes don’t stand up well under modern scrutiny. It’s important to remember that they were a product of their time. Many of the ideas we’ve discussed today — like overt racism and plans for eugenics — are things that we find horrifying today, but were once widely accepted. At the same time this does not give these figures a free pass. We can see that there have always been people who rejected these exclusionary ideas and pushed back in the name of mutual respect.
In 100 years people will likely tell the same type of stories, and have the same horrified reactions, to the public figures we hold dear.
As the next electoral cycle approaches: Think hard about the impact these people and their ideas will have on our society. Do today’s politicians truly represent your views, and embody the society you’d like to see? Or are they just hiding their own hunger for power behind pretty words?
The Pedal into History project was supported by contributions from the Province of Manitoba through the Heritage Grants Program., the City of Winnipeg, and Seven Oaks House Museum. We are grateful for their support.