Of any spot in Winnipeg, the block in the curve of Main Street between William and Bannatyne avenues has seen some of the city's best and worst during its 140-year history.
But it's what lies underground -- or once did -- that tells a lot of the story.
The Red River Rebellion, dungeon-like jail cells, the city's first official execution by hanging, one of the worst fires on record, in 1904, and supposedly -- let's stress "supposedly" -- a network of secret tunnels.
It's this stretch of Main Street, a stone's throw from city hall, that at one time was one of the busiest places for commerce and government in Western Canada, as busy -- if not busier -- than Polo Park is today. Now, years after another fire in 1979 destroyed much of that block, it's being reborn with Red River College's $35-million makeover of the 108-year-old Union Bank Tower at Main and William.
Like the province itself, the evolution of the west side of Main Street at the bend got its start after a single act on March 4, 1870 -- the execution by firing squad of Thomas Scott by Métis leader Louis Riel's provisional government just a few blocks south at Upper Fort Garry.
That sound of gunfire and shot to the head to make sure Scott was dead -- his body said to have been dumped through a hole in the river ice -- made folks sit up and take notice that the western frontier outpost, soon to become Winnipeg, badly needed some law and order.
Col. Garnet Wolseley and his 1,000 soldiers were dispatched by then-prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald to put down Riel's rebellion, plus make a show of force to the Americans to the south not to creep north. Wolseley and his men arrived in August, but Riel and his supporters had already skedaddled.
Wolseley didn't stay long, but many of his men did. And without anyone to fight, many did the next best thing -- drink.
Members of Wolseley's expedition had already set up the province's first police force and built its first jails, first at Upper Fort Garry and later near Main Street, in the shadow of where the Richardson Building now stands.
Business must have been good, because by 1873, police moved to a larger building on the west side of Main Street, at a spot right next to where Red River College's Union Bank Tower now stands. The oak-log structure, fitted over with pine, also served as a courthouse, jail and part-time legislature for the new province.
There were about 30 jail cells with most on the main floor, but some historical records suggest there were also a few in the basement built into the stone foundation. The courthouse was on the second floor.
A demon with a dirk knife
It wasn't long before the jailkeepers had their first star customer. Not Riel, but one of Wolseley's soldiers, who couldn't resist a night on the town. Some accounts say there were 28 saloons and bars in the city at the time, serving a population of about 3,700.
Gunner Joseph Marchaud (archived court records spell his last name "Marchand," but other historical sources, including the Free Press, have spelled it "Marchaud") left his barracks on the night of June 18, 1874 and went on a thirsty tour of Winnipeg's many saloons.
The Winnipeg Police Service history says when Marchaud was leaving the Red Saloon (another account says it was the Pride of the Prairie), he got into a drunken argument on the street with a companion. James Brown, a bystander, intervened. Marchaud turned on him and stabbed him 32 times in the upper body with a large dirk knife (a type of dagger.)
Marchaud, described by a witness as a "demon in human shape," ran back to his barracks, which at the time had moved from the fort to the original Osborne Barracks, now the site of the Manitoba Legislative Building. He was soon thrown in the jail on Main Street. He was still wearing his blood-stained uniform.
Justice was speedy back then -- and ruthlessly efficient. Marchaud, 23, confessed to his crime. Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood subsequently convicted him of murder. His sentence? To die at the end of a rope.
He was hanged Aug. 24, 1874.
The Daily Free Press reported: "He has expiated his offence on the scaffold" and public opinion is unanimous in believing that he merited the punishment which the law has inflicted.
"Silly fanatics and the advocates of capital punishment may believe as they prefer, but theirs is a sickly sentimentalism which the practical world ridicules and repudiates and to a great extent we believe justly.
"Nor need it be urged in extenuation that drink was the cause," the Free Press continued. "A man who can use a knife with fatal and terrible precision on his fellow man without provocation and who can deliberately hack that fellow being into pieces needs not plead as an excuse drunkenness. If that were allowed, in what would public and private safety consist? Life and liberty would be set at naught, and a bonus would be given to murderers and assassins."
Marchaud became the first person to be hanged in Winnipeg in the courthouse building, but not completely out of public view. Some with inside connections did buy tickets to watch it, not that far from where the Cube stage now stands in Old Market Square.
The basement jail cell he occupied until his death, and the underground passageway to it and several others, was closed in 1882 when the Main Street courthouse was replaced by the larger and more secure Vaughn Street Detention Centre.
But those underground jail cells didn't go anywhere. And over the years have become part of this city's folklore.
"In the 1970s when we got down there, there were actually two of the cells intact," local historian Randy Rostecki says. "They were kind of like little cubbyholes or closets. I could barely stand up straight in them."
Rostecki is currently putting the final touches on a book detailing 100 buildings in Winnipeg no longer standing. He calls it Lost Winnipeg.
He says the old courthouse building was bought by businessman John Rickard Clements, who demolished it in 1884, but not before the building was used as a theatre, saloon and brothel.
In its place, rose the Clements Block and the Bijou Theatre. The remnants of those buildings burned down in 1979. The rubble from the blaze crashed down into the sub-basement below and into the old cells, burying them forever. The site, next to the Union Bank Tower, is now a park.
The only evidence that these cells ever existed is a black-and-white photo taken in 1958 and kept in the provincial archives.
Reuse and recycle
Recycling is really nothing new to Winnipeggers. We did it way back when, especially with our buildings -- and especially with our foundations.
Rostecki says you can see that when you go down into the basement of the Crocus Building at Main and Bannatyne, the site of where Winnipeg businessman James Henry Ashdown established his first hardware store in 1870.
The original stone foundation is clearly visible, and Rostekci says the stones may have come from the walls of Upper Fort Garry as it was being dismantled to make way for Main Street to continue south over the Assiniboine River.
"It would've been available pretty cheaply," Rostecki says. "It was a workable building stone."
Ashdown later built a four-storey store on the site, using some of the same foundation.
That building wouldn't stand long.
On the evening of Oct. 11, 1904, the newly built Bulman Block across Bannatyne at Albert Street caught fire. It was blamed on defective insulation in the recently installed electric freight elevator. A spark from it ignited waste paper. The Bulman Brothers business was lithography and printing, so there was a large supply of ink and paper to feed the flames.
"Before a line of hose could be laid, the fire had shot up through the centre of the building, and quickly cutting its way through the thin roof, shot into the air in rolling masses of flames," The Free Press reported on next morning's front page. "It was a magnificent but awful sight, and the light reflected from the clouds put electric lamps to shame."
Feeding the flames was a steady wind from the south. Stray sparks and burning embers blew in the wind as if leaves on a gusty autumn day.
The Bulman Block was like a fuse. Ashdown Hardware, on the other side of Bannatye at Main, was the bomb.
"The fire soon spread across Bannatyne because of the narrowness of the street," Rostecki says. "It got caught on the wood of the Ashdown building and really got going. For a while, it looked like it was going to take the whole block down."
The Free Press described the fire: "The heat was so intense that the fire department was helpless to check this fresh outbreak, though they fought with the greatest determination."
Besides the wind, the fire department had no quick access to water. A pressurized water or fire hydrant system would be installed in the downtown only with the construction of the James Avenue pumping station in 1907.
Without that water, the Ashdown ignited like a marshmallow in a flame.
"The contents of the rear portion of Ashdown's building were largely of an inflammable nature, and when the fire had worked its way into the interior, this fact was signalized by frequent explosions, which drove the flames and gases through the whole building," the Free Press said. "Oils, kerosene and gasoline, rolls of tar paper, tins of mixed paints and similar substances made a combination against which water was of no avail, and all that could possibly be done was to confine the flames as much as possible. At this period, the scene was at its grandest and everything within a quarter of a mile was illuminated as if by the midday sun."
It was so bad the fear was even the Union Tower Building could be next.
Huge crowds had gathered on Main and the surrounding streets to watch. As the flames crashed down to the front of Ashdown's, that's when the disaster hit another level.
It being October, it was fall hunting season. Ashdown's had a huge display of bullets and shotgun shells on prominent display. Bulk cases of gunpowder had hastily been removed before the fire spread.
"There was still a large quantity of rifle and shot gun ammunition which exploded with the rattle of musketry," the Free Press reported. "When this began, the crowd scattered with a speed which all the efforts of the police could not duplicate."
The next morning as the Ashdowns surveyed the rubble, there was no question they would rebuild their profitable hardware store. The question was how fast.
The answer was, really fast.
Two floors were built on the existing foundation, and the store was stocked and ready for the 1904 Christmas season. The following four floors were built in 1905 and 1906.
The Bulman block was never rebuilt and to this day remains a parking lot behind Antiques & Funk at 474 Main St.
What the Ashdowns did that was different was dig underground so any flammable or combustible stock could be safely stored out of harm's way in the event of another fire.
To do that, workers cut several doorways through the foundation and reached beneath the sidewalks running down Bannatyne and at the back, under where the Pita Pit and the Winnipeg Folk Festival's music store are currently located.
These were not so much tunnels as area-ways, or bastions, as they are described on large, detailed fire maps produced by the Charles E. Goad Company in 1914 for insurance companies to set rates. The maps are preserved at the City of Winnipeg Archives. They also detail what materials were stored by Ashdown's in these bastions, items such as kerosene.
A network of tunnels
An urban myth is that there was once a network of secret tunnels connecting not only Ashdown's to the old underground jail cells, but also to the Baker and Duffin Blocks at 470-474 Main St., a building that became home to Birt's Saddlery and now Antiques & Funk and Parlour Coffee.
Not so. There was stuff underground, but none of it was connected. Not according to the fire maps, the most accurate portrayal of the city at the time. Other area-ways are clearly depicted, such as one at the former Leland Hotel at William and King, used to store cordwood for the hotel's boiler. An arsonist burned the Leland down in 1999.
Another tunnel is marked as running under Market Avenue between two buildings owned and operated by Great West Saddlery. It was sealed in the late 1980s.
The tunnel that runs from the Manitoba Legislative Building to the central powerhouse near York Avenue -- it's still in use -- is marked on a later fire map.
There are no other tunnels marked on the maps.
And physical evidence of what was once underground at Main and Bannatyne is now tough to find, but not impossible.
In the basement of the former Ashdown Hardware -- it became the Crocus Building in 2001 -- there's a part that hasn't changed much. There's a rusty steel door in the brick-and-stone foundation, an entranceway to under the sidewalk on Albert. But it was sealed with concrete a long time ago.
On the other foundation wall, the entrance to the bastion under Bannatyne has been sealed with brick.
On the old steel door, on both sides, someone painted long ago "Must Be Kept Closed."
The door opens, but it goes nowhere.
Comfort stations -- underground public bathrooms
If Winnipeg was going to be a big cosmopolitan city like Paris, it needed a pot to pee in. Nice pots.
So city councillors made the decision in the early 1900s Winnipeg needed to build "comfort stations" downtown the public could use in times of need.
By 1917, the city had budgeted $17,818.76 to run its five underground public washrooms.
There were 16 attendants hired to keep them clean, earning annual salaries ranging from $609.60 to $732.
The stations were at:
- Market Avenue for men and woman (1907)
- Fort Street for men only (1914)
- Garry Street for women only (1914)
- Selkirk Avenue for men and women
- Logan Avenue for men and women (1917)
The cost to build the Logan and Selkirk stations was $27,319.25.
The underground washrooms operated for about the next 50 years, but not without controversy.
During flood years, they filled with water and by 1948, there was a move to get rid of at least two of them for sanitary reasons.
There was also the spectre that they could collapse under the weight of a heavy truck, according to a Free Press story at the time.
"Then," said Alderman Jack St. John to health committee meeting March 10, 1948, "it would not be the city engineer or medical health official who would be responsible for those deaths or injuries, but the health committee."
The stations stayed, but by the early 1960s, some were getting in the way as the city widened its downtown streets to handle more and more commuter traffic.
The last of the comfort stations, the one on Garry, closed April 30, 1979. Its closure saved the city $85,000, what it cost each year to operate -- about a $1 per flush.
Hume Young, civic properties director, told the works and operations committee Feb. 18, 1979 -- also reported by the Free Press -- that a survey indicated average daily use of the facility was 187 men and 60 women, 15 to 20 per cent of them bus drivers.
The train tunnel
One of Winnipeg's more lurid urban myths is the one about the tunnel that runs from Union Station on Main Street to the Fort Garry Hotel on Broadway, and underneath the storied Manitoba Club that sits between.
The myth goes the tunnel was sometimes used to smuggle prostitutes into the Manitoba Club.
There is no tunnel, according to city records. There are just the remnants of a large pipe from a plant at The Forks -- now a TV studio -- under Main Street to the hotel. It was used to carry steam heat to keep the hotel warm in winter.
There's no truth to there being a tunnel running from the train station under Main Street to the Fort Garry Hotel. But there was a tunnel at another train station and another hotel a few blocks north on Main Street. It was at the Canadian Pacific's Royal Alexandra Hotel that once stood at Higgins Avenue.
City archivist Martin Comeau says blueprints for the hotel, opened in 1906, show a basement corridor that ran from a revolving door on Higgins, down some steps and around the front perimeter of the hotel, down its eastern side and underground towards the train station farther down the block on Higgins.
The tunnel, or corridor, was built to allow train passengers to walk in warmth from the station to the hotel's front desk.
The blueprints to the hotel have been preserved by the City of Winnipeg Archives.
The hotel was torn down in 1971. The station is now home to the Aboriginal Centre.