OTTAWA -- It appears to be just another block in Winnipeg's West End. There is nothing overtly remarkable about the century-old homes with weathered siding and well-kept lawns, some chain-link fences, a handful of front porches and the occasional tree.
But this is no ordinary street.
This is Valour Road.
At the beginning of the last century, the lives of three men intersected on this block. A few years later, their actions thousands of kilometres away in Europe on separate battlefields would combine to make this street a historian's dream. All three were awarded the Victoria Cross, Canada's highest award of valour.
After the war, the families lost touch, the medals were handed down and put away in safe places. One was offered up for auction.
Now, more than 100 years later, an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum has finally brought the three heroes together again.
How this came about is a thrilling story in itself.
Sometime between 1904 and 1911, Leo Clarke, Frederick Hall and Robert Shankland all moved into houses in the 700 block of what was then known as Pine Street.
When the First World War broke out, all three enlisted. They served with different units in different places.
Their stories, however, crossed again. In 1915, 1916 and 1917 respectively, Hall, Clarke and Shankland were awarded the Victoria Cross.
"This story is legend," said Heritage Minister James Moore during the unveiling Nov. 5 of the three Victoria Crosses -- the first time they have been on display together.
Only 70 soldiers received Victoria Crosses during the First World War, out of more than 600,000 who participated in the conflict. That three of them went to men who lived within metres of each other on the same street in Winnipeg made their stories unique.
In 1925, the City of Winnipeg first marked the unique coincidence by renaming Pine Street as Valour Road. A bronze plaque was erected on a light post near Portage Avenue. The story took on new interest in the 1990s when a Heritage Minute about the Valour Road Boys was played repeatedly on television. It was re-released in 2005. That short film, part of a series of historical vignettes about Canada, was recently voted as one of the Top 10 favourite Heritage Minutes in a poll by the Historica-Dominion Institute.
In 2005, the city and the province came together to build Valour Road Plaza at Valour Road and Sargent Avenue, commemorating the story of the Valour Road Boys with a steel sculpture of their silhouettes. Bronze plaques were unveiled in the plaza last spring.
Melanie Morin-Pelletier, assistant historian for the First World War at the Canadian War Museum, said keeping the three heroes of Valour Road in the public eye is part of the inspiration behind the new exhibit.
"It all starts with the men and their acts of bravery but also we wanted to focus on how the residents of Pine Street asked city council to change the name of the street to honour them and how that has continued since 1925," she said.
She said the award itself is so "special and rare" that it makes the story of three men from the same block earning it incredible.
The exhibit is in the Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour, which displays other commemorative exhibits, including a model of the National War Memorial and a multimedia display on Afghanistan.
The medals will be loaned to the Manitoba Museum in 2014.
It's unclear whether the three Valour Road Boys knew each other before the war.
Historians know Shankland and Hall lived on Pine Street at the same time but it's unclear if Clarke was still there when Shankland and Hall arrived. Clarke lived at 785 Pine St. Hall lived across the street and about four doors south at 778 Pine St. Shankland's home was about 100 metres further south at 733 Pine St.
Doug Cargo is Frederick Hall's great-nephew. His mother, Hall's niece, ended up with the medals her uncle earned and for years had his Victoria Cross displayed on her wall until people pointed out the medal was too valuable to be left there. She had a replica made and put the real medal in a safety deposit box.
"I have always been proud of it," said Cargo.
The story of his uncle's valour, and the Valour Road Boys, was impressed upon him from the time he was born.
Cargo said he expected the medal would have eventually been passed on to him, but as he has no children of his own, he and his family began talking about what they could do with it. They eventually approached the Canadian War Museum about donating it. Nothing came of the discussions for many more years.
Eric Fernberg, collections manager of medals, insignia and arms for the Canadian War Museum, said getting all the medals together was like a "perfect storm" of events.
In 2009, someone put the medals Robert Shankland earned up for auction -- which had some veterans and politicians up in arms. Fearing someone outside Canada would purchase the medals, then-Veterans Affairs minister Greg Thompson promised to do what he could to save them.
In May 2009, the Canadian War Museum successfully bid $288,000 to buy the set of medals, which includes not only the Victoria Cross but the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Fernberg said the two together make Shankland's medals "quite the set."
Around that time, the family of Leo Clarke also approached the museum with the medals he was awarded. Negotiations to have them donated to the museum followed and in 2010, Clarke's medals arrived at the museum.
Frederick Hall's medals were acquired in 2012.
Fernberg said whenever the museum is working with families regarding objects the museum would like to have, the process is about relationship-building and giving the family time and space to make the decision.
Cargo, who attended the exhibit unveiling last week, said he was delighted to see the three crosses on display together.
"I really do think it's very significant," he said.
His mother still has the replica of the Victoria Cross on the wall in her Oakville, Ont., home, along with some newspaper clippings and a letter from King George. She can't wait to see the exhibit the next time she visits Ottawa, said Cargo.
"It will be the first thing on the agenda."
The Victoria Cross
Awarded to members of the Commonwealth for conspicuous acts of bravery, daring, self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The medal is in the shape of a cross with a dark brown finish. They were made from cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean war. The front of the cross has the Royal Crown and a lion. A scroll beneath the crown reads: For Valour. The reverse side has raised edges and the date of the act for which the medal was awarded. It is hung on a crimson ribbon. Ninety-six Canadians have received the Victoria Cross, out of 1,351 awarded worldwide.
Canada's modern version of the Victoria Cross was created in 1993, but none has been awarded. The last time a Victoria Cross was awarded was during the Second World War.
Sgt. Maj. Frederick Hall
Feb. 21, 1885-April 24, 1915
Hall was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He moved with his family to Winnipeg sometime in 1911. He enlisted in the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion in September 1914.
In April 1915, Hall was with Allied troops in France during the Battle of Ypres. After his company moved to a different trench, he realized two of the men under his command were missing, so he left the trench and pulled them to safety. The next day he left the trench again with two comrades to help another injured soldier. His two comrades were wounded so he helped them back, then left again on his own. This attempt, sadly, was fatal. Hall was shot in the head by an enemy bullet and killed.
His Victoria Cross was presented to his mother, Mary Ann Hall, who was living in Winnipeg. It was the first Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian in the First World War.
Cpl. Lionel "Leo" Clarke
Dec, 19, 1892-Oct. 19, 1916
Clarke was born in Waterdown, Ont., the only one of the three Valour Road Boys to be born in Canada. He moved to Winnipeg with his family around 1904. Prior to the First World War, he worked as a railroad surveyor in Saskatchewan, but returned to Winnipeg to enlist when the war began. Clarke ultimately was part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, with his brother, Charles.
On Sept. 19, 1916, while serving with a bombing platoon on the Somme Front, he was tasked with clearing part of an enemy trench. All his comrades were killed or wounded, but Clarke, on his own, killed 19 enemy soldiers and captured a 20th.
Clarke was wounded in the leg but survived that day. Tragically, he was killed just over a month later after a trench collapsed on top of him. In his final letter home, he told his parents, "I don't care so much of the V.C. as getting home for a couple of months."
His Victoria Cross was presented to his father, Harry Clarke.
Lt. Robert Shankland
Oct. 10, 1887-Jan. 20, 1968
Robert Shankland was born in Ayr, Scotland, and moved to Winnipeg when he was 23. He was working in Winnipeg as a cashier at a creamery before he enlisted in the 43rd Canadian Infantry Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) in December 1914.
On Oct. 26, 1917, the opening day of the battle of Passchendaele, Shankland was leading his platoon to a hill overlooking enemy trenches when they came under heavy attack. Shankland realized they needed reinforcements, so he returned alone to headquarters to provide a report of the situation and a plan to counterattack. He returned to his men and they were soon successfully reinforced by soldiers from two other battalions.
He was the only one of the Valour Road Boys to survive the war. He went on to serve in the Second World War as well. He died in Vancouver in 1968.