“The Face of Yesterday” by MacDonald Coleman
Brandon has never been a village nor a town. It did not have time to pause at such intermediate steps. It was created with such stunning suddenness that it has always been a city. All of which takes us back to the beginning – back to the days of the riverboats, back to the founding of the Brandon Hills settlement and back to the story of the ill-fated town of Grand Valley.
In the early spring of 1881 the site where the City of Brandon now stands was empty prairie lying on either side of the Assiniboine River. Furrow-like buffalo trails led across it to the saucer-like depression on the western edge, which served as a convenient spot in which these monarchs of the plains had once lain down to rub themselves.
In 1881 not even buffalo gave life to the empty stretch of soil. Here and there in the prairie grass their horned skulls and heavy thighbones testified to the fact that the white man’s guns had wiped their race from off the face of Manitoba. Prairie chickens hid in the sparse brush that grew along the river. Now and again, wandering tribes of Sioux, the Bungays, the Yellow Quills, and the Bird Tails ambled across the site of the future city.
In the spring and summer months a few white people glanced at its sandy stretch as they passed by on river boats which made their way upstream from Winnipeg carrying supplies and freight to Fort Ellice – a Hudson Bay Post which, in those days, stood on the Assiniboine River near present-day St. Lazare. Save for the wild life, the wandering bands of Indians and the passing boats the prairie was empty and silent on the spot where the tiny Snye joined the Assiniboine.
A little over a year later, unbelievable as it may seem, a City stood on the land that had been so empty and silent. Brandon, they called it in honor of the Blue Hills of Brandon whose tree clad slopes stood approximately eight miles to the South. As the first city of the prairies West of Winnipeg, it was destined to become the hub of Western Manitoba and the trading centre for a wide area. Soon it began to call itself the Wheat City in honor of the vast quantity of that grain that poured through its elevators. But, in that first year of its existence, it was known as the wonder City of the Northwest because of the suddenness of its birth. Although the actual site of the future city of Brandon was vacant prairie, a number of white settlers were not far off. At the foot of the Brandon hills a few homesteaders, led by the Reverend George Roddick, were busy setting up homes for themselves in the prairie wilderness. Even closer at hand, on the North side of the Assiniboine, was the tiny settlement of Grand Valley. But for a trick of fate and but for the waters of the river in flood, Grand Valley might have become the city, and the land where Brandon now stands might to-day be a field of wheat or a cow pasture.
In the late 1870's everyone believed that the route of the great transcontinental railway would follow a northerly course through Manitoba – a course that would take it some thirty miles north of Grand Valley and the Assiniboine. The railroad had been planned to run from a point near Portage la Prairie diagonally northward to Edmonton. It seemed likely that it would cross the Minnedosa River at either of two natural crossings, and near these, in expectation the little settlements of Rapid City and Minnedosa (then known as Tanner’s Crossing) waited hopefully.
Since there had to be a divisional point at about that distance West of Winnipeg and since it was likely that a river crossing would be chosen, both Minnedosa and Rapid City hoped to become cities. Actually Rapid City had virtually been assured of the honor. As a result, interesting streets eight miles square had been laid out there and in 1880 it could boast of having a saw mill, a grist mill, several stores, and a theological Academy. And then, with scarcely any warning, the railroad officials, early in 1881, abandoned their plan for a northerly route and decided to build the main line farther south more or less straight west from Winnipeg. Rapid City’s dream faded suddenly and Grand Valley became the spot deemed most likely for the future city. After all it was the required distance from Winnipeg to make a divisional point necessary and it too was located at the crossing of a river.
Up until this time most settlers, who had ventured into Western Manitoba, had avoided the portion south of the Assiniboine and had gone farther North to settle near the line of the projected railroad. Rapid City, Minnedosa, and Birtle had been the favored areas while the southern lands were left vacant. However, the three Lambert brothers from Nova Scotia had settled in the area near the confluence of the Little Saskatchewan River (now called the Minnedosa River) and the Assiniboine, 10 miles west of present day Brandon. When the McVicar brothers arrived on the scene from Grenville, Quebec and settled on property two miles down stream from Brandon, the Lambert brothers joined that settlement.
In 1879, the wives and children of John and Dougald McVicar arrived at the new settlement. Dougald McVicar had made an application for a post office prior to his family coming west and when he went to Winnipeg to bring them to their new home they visited the postal service office.
When a name for the new settlement post office was discussed Mrs. McVicar suggested Grand Valley because her husband’s letters had referred to it as a grand place to live.
Settlers who had formerly avoided this portion of the Assiniboine valley, now rushed into it. Speculators hurried to Grand Valley on foot and by ox-team while each steamer that came down the river from Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie now brought passengers. Tents dotted the ground to provide shelter for the newcomers. Dougald McVicar built a warehouse to handle incoming freight. Lowe and Hobbes built a store and various other businessmen anxious to establish themselves in the future city soon followed them. For was not Grand Valley the most likely spot for a new metropolis? Were not Grand Valley lots being auctioned off at high prices in Winnipeg?
Ten miles south of Grand Valley the settlers of the Brandon Hills district probably partook of the general excitement prevailing nearby but, since they could not hope for a railroad to come their way, they probably went about the task of farming their land.
These settlers in the Brandon Hills had begun to arrive in the area the year after John and Douglas McVicar had staked out farms along the Assiniboine. In his parsonage in Pictou, Nova Scotia, the Reverend George Roddick, had read about the great North-West and had determined to make his home there. In April of 1879, Mr. & Mrs. Roddick, their seven children, and a group of their neighbors from Nova Scotia arrived in St. Boniface on their journey into the great lone land.
With the Roddick party when it left the Cathedral city were Mr. McKay, Mr. McCabe, Hugh Rice, Hugh McPherson, Henry Dunbar, John Crawford, and Charlie, Jack and Joe Stewart. With Prince Albert as their destination, they started out in an ox-team caravan on the long journey. Somehow or other near present day Carberry, they missed the trail that would have taken them northward to their chosen terminus and they came west, not knowing of their error until they had reached the Assiniboine valley near the site of the McVicar’s homesteads. That spring the Roddick party decided to cross the river and settle at the foot of the Brandon Hills near where the Little Souris River flows.
Mr. Roddick is supposed to have been the first to cross the river. He made himself a boat of sorts by plastering the cracks of his wagon box with mud. With shovels for paddles he transported his family across the river while his oxen swam behind holding their noses out of the water in the wake of this strange boat. By the time of Grand Valley’s boom, the Roddicks and the rest of their rather large party had farms for themselves at the base of the Brandon Hills. Their land was already beginning to yield wheat. Their gardens already producing potatoes.
Meanwhile, in Grand Valley, excitement and speculation were at their peak. Quite a little town had sprung up. By 1881 no less that four hundred people lived in it. It had eight general stores, two hardwares, one drugstore, two liveries, two boarding houses, one hotel, and it boasted a doctor, a jeweler, a baker, a carpenter, a surveyor, and a harness maker. Real estate in the ambitious little place, by a contemporary estimate, was valued at $100.00. All this had happened on the land that had been empty prairie when John Dougald McVicar had arrived three years before.
And this was only the beginning. Every steamer that arrived from Winnipeg brought newcomers. On May 3rd, 1881 a boat load of people who were arriving at Grand Valley, presented a letter of appreciation to Captain Hancock which reveals clearly the expectations that were held of the town’s future.
“Sir,” the letter read, “the steamer Marquette, on its present trip, bears to Grand Valley a small company of twenty-seven persons, the precursors of many more to follow, intent on founding on these beautiful plains of the Great north-West, a town which may, and is likely to become one of the greatest cities of the continent. May the kind officers, and this staunch boat, long survive to convey many more such companies to the same destination.”
In May 1881, according to contemporary records, four ships drew up to the wharf at Grand Valley. Three more ships- the Cheynne, the City of Winninpeg and the North-West - later made regular voyages bringing goods and people to the out-skirts of Commerce.
All of these ships were stern-wheelers. To feed their hungry furnaces the captain stopped at intervals along the shore while the crew cut down brush and trees. In spring when the water was high these ships went right up the river as far as Fort Ellice but, in summer and full, Currie’s landing, about five miles east of Grand Valley, was the head of navigation. Passengers on these old riverboats were able to sleep in staterooms, if any were available, by paying $8.00 for the Winnipeg to Grand Valley run. After the boom began at Grand Valley the ships were usually so crowded that many of the passengers had to sleep on deck. But there was probably little complaining since everyone was anxious to reach the site where the new city was sure to rise. Who knows if one got in at the beginning one might make a fortune out of real estate alone?
The highest peak in Grand Valley’s excitement was probably reached with the arrival of General Rosser in the spring of 1881. Rosser was the railroad official whose duty it was to choose townsites. He let it be known that he was interested in a location for a major divisional point. Dougald McVicar could not have been greatly surprised when the General offered him $25,000.00 for the site of Grand Valley. McVicar thought the price was too low and asked for $50,000.00. “I’ll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here,” he is reported to have said. He ordered his teamster to hitch up the horses, ferried across the river and came two miles west to the high, sandy land where Brandon now stands.
On that site, according to Ed Lowe’s diary, a man named J.D. Adamson in February of 1881 had built a shanty just west of today’s First Street bridge. It is not quite clear whether Rosser paid Adamson for this land or whether the C.P.R. officials found that Adamson had no legal title to the area. What is sure is that the quarter section that Adamson claimed as his own was chosen as the townsite and christened Brandon. Later of course, additional acreage was incorporated into the city.
From the moment that Brandon was selected as the site of the future city, Grand Valley began to decline. Many of the speculators, who had poured onto its grassy flats, rushed up the river at once to buy lots on the new location. Some of the stores were moved to Brandon or torn down and built on the land of Rosser’s choice. Others were abandoned and left forlorn and empty on Grand Valley streets.
While Rosser’s choice of Brandon inflicted a grievous wound on Grand Valley there was still hope that it might be a lusty rival. The great flood of 1881 shattered this hope. Grand Valley was on low land beside the river and General Rosser, who had gained his title fighting on the confederate side in the American Civil war, must have had serious doubts about its exposed location even if he had not been angered by McVicar’s demand for an exorbitant price.
The summer of 1881, several months after Rosser had made his choice, it was made abundantly clear to everyone that Grand Valley would never have been a suitable site for the future city and indeed could not even be the site of a rival for Brandon. On June 19th, we read in Ed Lowe’s diary, “the water started to rise suddenly. The Indians said it had never happened before and that the high water was usually in April.” June 28th it was two inches over the counters in Hobbes’ and Lowe’s store.
The correspondent went on to tell of dangerous voyages through the breakers and the angry waters on to Grand Valley whose lots were said to be “under 6 feet of water” ...Brandon, on the opposite shore, had entirely escaped by reason of it’s fine elevated position.
And so it was that Grand Valley’s brief dream of greatness was washed away by the river. The last feeble hope of the people who still remained after the flood vanished that fall when the trains began to come through from Winnipeg and steamed right past the half-deserted town as if it did not exist...Its final degradation came in 1884 when the Brandon papers carried ads offering to swap “that warehouse in Grand Valley for a horse.”
Dougald McVicar, its founder, eventually left as well. For a while he ran a brickyard in Carberry. He died in 1892 and is buried in the Brandon Cemetery. The town that he dreamed of vanished. Even as it was going through its death throes two miles up the river a lusty city was springing up on the banks of the Assiniboine.
Brandon derived its name from the Blue Hills of Brandon and they, in turn, had received the name second hand from a Hudson’s Bay trading post known as Brandon House - which in its turn had been named after a hill on an island in James Bay where Capt. James had moored his ship in the winter of 1631. (The Fort Brandon Story by Roy Brown 1974)
The claim that Brandon House was named after a certain Duke of Brandon has no foundation. Research has revealed that the story related to the Duke holding a large share of Hudson’s Bay stock is a myth.
Brandon was chosen as a town site early in May of 1881. Almost exactly one year later so many people had taken up their abode within its boundaries that it was incorporated as a City. “It grew as rapidly as Jack’s beanstalk”, was the way one contemporary writer described its amazing growth. “It was as if a fairy had waved her wand and a city had sprung forth”, the same writer adds to express his wonder at what had happened.
But though Brandon may have seemed to spring forth like magic it was certainly no fairy city. It was rather a rough, frontier town of tents and shacks that had indeed been erected with stunning suddenness in the prairie wilderness.
After its selection as a town site almost immediately a small number of businessmen and speculators rushed to the site anxious to gain an early foothold. From Grand Valley, Rapid City, Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie and other places this first group of people hastened to Brandon. By foot they came, by ox-cart, and by river boat. Their numbers were not large during the summer of 1881. Only hardy souls and hardy bodies would venture into so strange and untried a country. And those who did make the long journey to the town site had to adjust themselves to a frontier where accommodation at best was primitive and at worst was non-existent. Some of the men in the first group of settlers had to roll themselves in blankets and lie down on the prairie when night came while others slept in wagon boxes. The more fortunate lived in tents and, if they were business men, they sold their wares and conducted transactions from under canvas roofs.
Speculators had a field day buying and selling property at constantly rising prices. All the while the streets were laid out by the surveyors. Lots were being staked. On the face of the prairie, men were faintly tracing the outline of a city as an artist might pencil the outline of a drawing before filling it in. .........
James Smart, who was later to become mayor of the city, gives a fascinating eye-witness account of Brandon as it was early in June of 1881 – just one short month after Rosser had made his choice. “I well remember my first experience in walking up Rosser Avenue,” he writes. “It was a beautiful clear day. The street was marked out only by the location of three small buildings and one or two small shacks facing it. I tramped over the marshy ground west of Ninth Street through very long grass to reach Thirteenth Street where a good hotel, the Royal, was being built. The principal business establishments then were a lumber dealer, Railway Contractor, a general store, miscellaneous stores and a livery stable of canvas. There were also two hotels, both of which were canvas. ..............
Early in October the first passenger train reached Brandon over rails, which had been laid a few short days before. With its coming the town’s future became secure... The few scattered buildings that had been there in June were added considerably. Further additions were added to the community such as a grocery store and a hardware store, a surveying firm, a banking business and a planing mill. Thus it was that when the first train pulled in the temporary depot, the town had a post office, an express office, several manufacturing firms and over a dozen mercantile concerns, not to mention a few realtors.
With the arrival of the railroad the new town was easily accessible from Winnipeg and the East. The trickle of settlers of that first summer grew to a steady stream that fall and winter. The newcomers hastened to erect shelter for themselves in preparation for the long months of cold. When the snow fell, fortunate indeed were those who had frame houses for their abode. Many there were, who slept in tents.
On January 19th, 1882, the residents were able to read the first newspaper ever published in the new town. On that day the Brandon Sun made its first appearance. The population was estimated at 700 people as compared to 200 who had been there when the Iron Horse had drawn up at the station the previous October.
The 700 residents of January had increased in number considerably by spring for each train that came from the east disgorged hundreds of passengers at Brandon. It is believed that before the opening of spring there were nights when 5,000 people slept in the infant town of Brandon. It was truly the Wonder City of the North-West that had sprung like magic out of the empty wilderness.
In April of 1882, Mr. Beecham Trotter told what he saw when he arrived on one of the trains and took his first look at Brandon.
“The morning sun seemed to rise from a sea of snow and water. Its bright rays fell on the clusters of what tents here and there among the low hills to reveal a plume of smoke lazily rising from a stovepipe in a tarpaper shanty adorning one of the hillsides. There was a cut in the bank at the foot of Sixth Street allowing traffic to cross the track to the ferry. Water came literally in torrents from the hills, north and south, till the flats and rivers together were a mile in width.”
“Boarding houses were over -crowded with even the woman in some cases, sleeping on the floor, and children numerous, some so small as be tugging at their mother’s skirts. Hammers and saws never ceased their clamor. Buildings were being rushed to completion with all possible speed, and several hotels were in the course of construction.”
“The streets were filled with a picturesque throng – land sharks, remittance men with dogs and guns, prospectors, adventurers of every stripe.”
In April of 1882 the leading citizens called a public meeting, at which, despite some opposition from people who urged a policy of go slow, it was decided to apply for a City Charter. On May 30, 1882 the Manitoba Government passed a bill incorporating Brandon as a City.
By the spring of 1882, Brandon stood on the sloping ground by the side of the Assiniboine young and confident of its future. Ahead of it lay years of growth and expansion.
On July 3, 1882 the first council of the City of Brandon held its historic meeting in one of the rooms of the school on Tenth Street. Before this first City council and its mayor lay the task of inaugurating municipal services in a rough frontier town.
Its business of organization completed, the Council turned itself to the vast amount of work before it. As a general rule, that first Council of Brandon, and the Councils that succeeded it in the eighties, worked hard to give Brandon good streets, fire protection, police services, and health safeguards.
To provide light for the dark nights the council had lamp posts erected on main corners, and from these posts coal oil lanterns gave off a glow which, though feeble and faint was at least of some help.
Late in 1881 the first school board was elected. This first school board and subsequent school boards in the first years of the City’s history were faced with so rapid an expansion of the school population that today’s problems with an increasing enrolment seem small in comparison. Early in 1882 a two-storey schoolhouse was erected in Tenth Street, far away from the business section, which at the time was on Sixth Street and the eastern part of Rosser. This first school – or part of it – may still be seen from the lane between Princess and Rosser on the west side of Tenth Street. Its to floor is now used for suites in the Strathcona Block.
Towards the end of the Eighties the citizens began to complain loudly about the crowded conditions in the schools. In 1884 the primary room held 102 pupils. In 1889 there were 492 children and only 426 seats from them to sit in! The school house on Tenth Street was so full that the school board had to rent part of Knox Hall. Two new schools were built – the East Ward School on Fourth Street and the West Ward School on Fifteenth Street. Each contained four rooms and it was hoped they would care for the school population for years to come.
And so it was that Brandon was organized in the early days. The City Council brought municipal government to the young centre. Health, education and religion were provided for as the young frontier town began to put down roots on its sloping lands beside the Assiniboine.