This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
“All roads lead to Winnipeg!” declared the Chicago Tribune in 1912. Come to the metropolis of Manitoba to see the boomtown of the British empire for yourself. Who knows, you may make your fortune in land speculation and never leave.
When to go
To see the city at its busiest, come in summer. This is when daily immigration is at its peak, Winnipeg Beach is at its finest and brass bands playing British marching favourites are out in force in Assiniboine Park. In winter, the mercury plummets, the Assiniboine river freezes solid, and the city shivers from one booze-haunt to another. Avoid coming then – unless you like ice-skating.
What to take with you
You’ll need an attitude that wants to grasp the future – as well as a thick overcoat. You’ll also need good health to ward off typhoid should you plan to stay in the city’s poorer northern districts. Business bosses have done much for the city’s expansion, but there’s not much to contradict the origins of the city’s name: Win Nipiy means ‘murky water’ in Cree Indian.
Costs and money
Winnipeg is a prosperous place, growing richer every day, and it can be expensive. There will always be a shop-owner, hotel-keeper or house of ill repute happy to relieve you of a few dollars. Make sure your spending doesn’t outstrip your income: if you end up staying through winter, you’ll miss that lost money and could end up in the care of one of the many missions for the urban poor.
Sights and activities
There wasn’t much to see in Winnipeg a couple of decades ago, but the city has grown up, with buildings as grand as any in New York or Chicago. The Walker Theatre is the most splendid in western Canada, finished with crystal chandeliers and gilt. Take in a concert, or a play by visiting theatre companies.
The Palm Room of the French château-style Fort Garry Hotel is bound to pop your eyes – and your wallet. Union Station has just opened, designed by the same firm currently building Grand Central Station in New York.
Winnipeg’s Grain Exchange is the world’s biggest clearing house for grain, connected by telegraph cable to the rest of the world. The city boasts 75 churches – including Icelandic, Polish and Ukrainian – as well as five synagogues.
Locals either love or hate City Hall – some call it ‘the gingerbread house’. If you can, ask one of your grander local friends to get you into one of Winnipeg’s gentlemen’s clubs, the Manitoba Club being the grandest with wall-to-wall mahogany inside. This is where the city’s real business is done: behind closed doors and over a drink.
Throwing off its rough-and-tumble reputation, Winnipeg has started offering the finer things in life too. The School of Art has just opened its doors, as has an art gallery – with amateur and professional exhibitions of western Canadian and Scottish art – funded by the city’s ambitious business elite. You’ll find it at the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau Building.
Dangers and annoyances
You’ve no doubt heard of the expression ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. In Winnipeg, that means north of the city’s railway yard. The languages and customs here may be unfamiliar to Anglo-Saxon visitors. Don’t venture into the back rooms of hotels along the strip between the city’s railway stations: lurking there are pool sharks, confidence men (scammers), and tricksters of all sorts.
Some view the colourful Point Douglas area as a tourist attraction in itself, though ladies should avoid it at all costs. The area is mostly frequented by working women and their male clientele, a problem not helped by the city’s large surplus of men – a common situation in frontier towns.
Sleeping and Accommodation
For the business traveller, the Leland, Royal Alexandra or Fort Garry offer luxury and modernity, but for most it is a case of ‘sleep where you fall’. Prior inspection of rooms is advisable.
German food and beer are popular, owing to substantial German migration. Caribou, elk and duck all make for excellent fare during the hunting season. Beef can be found all year round in hotel eateries. Expect food to be stodgy rather than subtle, in keeping with the British imperial tradition.
Coaches can be easily obtained on the street – a one-horse vehicle for 50 cents for 15 minutes; a two-horse vehicle for 75 cents. Automobiles are far more expensive, costing 50 cents for the first half mile, and a further 15 cents for every quarter mile thereafter.
Charles Emmerson is the author of 1913: The World Before the Great War (Bodley Head, 2013)