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Pump station was wonder of its time

CentreVenture seeking buyer for groundbreaking building

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By all accounts, it was a disaster.

But a massive Winnipeg blaze at the turn of the century was the catalyst for the James Avenue Pumping Station, a state-of-the-art system for fighting fires that drew envy from around the world.

It began in 1904 when a Main Street hardware store caught fire, the flames putting the city's fledgling downtown district at risk.

Compounding the calamity was the system of artesian wells that provided the city with its water, said historian George Siamandas.

"The problem with trying to fight fires was there wasn't enough water that you could pull out of the ground," he said.

Desperate firefighters turned to the Red River, which enabled them to control the blaze but created a second catastrophe when the water mixed with the domestic supply.

"By the turn of the century, it was really a polluted river already," Siamandas said. "There was a big typhoid (fever) epidemic right after this fire."

Hundreds fell ill, and the writing was on the wall -- the city needed a way to protect its growing commercial district from the threat of fires, without effectively poisoning its citizens.

"Fires were a scourge on urban centres all over North America, and any city that could provide a capacity to fight them meant that the insurance rates could be drastically cut down to percentages of what people ordinarily had to pay," Siamandas explained.

In other words, control the threat of fires and your city becomes more attractive to potential businesses and entrepreneurs.

The James Avenue Pumping Station was the answer, said Siamandas.

The project's engineer was Henry Norland Ruttan, who had the distinction of serving as a survey engineer to Sir Sandford Fleming, the inventor of standard time.

But though Ruttan may be less well-known than Fleming, Siamandas said his legacy can hardly be scoffed at.

"When the pumping station was built in 1906 it was considered the most modern such institution in the world," said Siamandas. "In engineering circles, it was considered one of finest such facilities in the world in terms of its capacity (and) its technology for the day."

Heritage Winnipeg's website reports that the pumping station fed water from the Red River through an eight-mile system that linked to more than 70 downtown fire hydrants.

The pumping system's four main pumps could produce 1,800 gallons of water per minute, while two smaller pumps could deliver half that amount.

The pumping station's network was completely separate from the artesian well system, Siamandas added, meaning the domestic water supply was no longer at risk of contamination.

Beyond its ability to effectively fight fires, the pumping station also served its second purpose by drawing new businesses to the area.

"Once that issue was addressed, the growth in Winnipeg's warehouse district immediately after was just unbelievable," Siamandas said.

Winnipeg's well system did not extend into the North End -- which was largely populated by immigrants.

Many North End residents resorted to drinking river water, resulting in a high number of typhoid cases.

North End residents had to wait until 1919 before the Shoal Lake aqueduct brought clean water into the city -- incidentally, the James Avenue Pumping Station also used the aqueduct as its water supply.

The pumping station served Winnipeg for more than 80 years, closing in 1986.

The property eventually fell into the hands of CentreVenture, the city's downtown development agency, who in 2001 sold it to Peter Ginakes, a partner in the Pony Corral Restaurant chain, and Bob Harris of Harris Transport, for $150,000.

The city bought back the station back in 2004 for $750,000, minus a large piece of historical pumping machinery the former owners removed and donated to a heritage museum in Austin. The transaction was a major embarrassment for CentreVenture.

The agency is now seeking a new owner for the property, which remains difficult to renovate because of the presence of heavy equipment.

Siamandas said he hoped whoever bought the property would recognize its historic value.

"I think the importance of heritage is to create a sense of character in the place. It becomes sort of a touchstone to understanding our past if there are real buildings, real facilities, not Disneyland-like recreated parks," he said.

"The pumping station, if it were to be properly done, would be an incredible showcase of what the city was like at the turn of the century -- forward looking, making investments in things that would take it right to today," he said.

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