Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/5/2015 (729 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For a fleeting moment in Winnipeg’s history, a grand, magnificent amusement park entertained the masses and lit up the quaint neighbourhood we now know as Wolseley. Described as "The city of fun for old and young," Happyland Park lived a short but glamorous existence.
"You can sort of see it because on Sherburn and Garfield the houses are smaller and they are newer," said Jim Blanchard, author of Winnipeg 1912 and other early history books.
Blanchard said the houses to the east of Aubrey and to the west of Dominion (on the south side of Portage) are from before the First World War, which is apparent because they tend to be big, two-storey dwellings. Meanwhile, the two solid blocks of bungalows lining Sherburn Street and Garfield Street were constructed after the Great War during the 1920s. This thin slice of land from Portage Avenue down to the Assiniboine River outlines the approximately 30-acre stomping ground of Happyland Park.
The Happyland Park Company was formed May 1, 1906 with J.H. Anderson — one of
Winnipeg’s most successful young entrepreneurs — at the helm, serving as president of its board of directors. The park itself was a product of the Ingersoll Company of Pittsburgh, famous for designing and building amusement rides and eventually owning and operating amusement parks all around the world. W.O. Edmunds, vice-president of the Ingersoll Company became the manager of Happyland Park.
According to an article published in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 19, 1906, Happyland Park was set to open "in a blaze of glory" just three weeks after the company formed. A reporter toured the grounds a few weeks prior and called it "the greatest amusement park in Canada," confirming some 30 structures were nearly ready for opening day.
Heyday at Happyland
On May 23, 1906, the giant gates swung open and the city flocked to see the many promised attractions. With more than 44,000 Winnipeggers flooding the site in the first two days, the only grumbles on record were of chilly weather and inefficient street car service, according to articles on file at the Manitoba Archives.
Gordon Goldsborough, journal editor and webmaster for the Manitoba Historical Society, supplied The Metro with a map depicting Winnipeg in 1908. The map shows how Happyland Park at that time was on the outskirts of the city and defined Winnipeg’s west border. In 1906, street car service had only recently been extended further west along Portage Avenue and failed to adequately accommodate the large crowds.
Postcards capturing opening day show an 80-foot-high circular swing soaring above the park and wide boardwalks guiding the mobs from one alluring attraction to the next. The grounds, divided into 12 acres of amusement park property and close to 20 acres of picnic areas and athletic grounds, were buzzing day and night. The stadium, believed to cost more than many of the major parks built in the United States at the time and boasting a grandstand seating 8,000, hosted the first professional baseball game of the Winnipeg Maroons. The team lost 7-5 against Duluth, playing in the Northern Copper Country League.
Park visitors raved about the figure-eight rollercoaster, the ferris wheel and the many shows at the vaudeville theatre. Other attractions included: a shooting gallery and rifle range; the Edisonia, "the smallest steam railway in the world"; Japanese tea gardens; a restaurant; a giant dance hall; the laughing gallery (house of mirrors); a picnic pavilion; Myth City; Tour of California; the Chateau Alphonse; and Ye Olde Mill.
At the Olde Mill, couples could drift off down a stream in a small boat together and float through winding tunnels to a mysterious destination.
"The attraction there was it was very, very hard to get your girlfriend alone anywhere in those days without being chaperoned," Blanchard said. "So this would be a big chance to share an illicit kiss."
Happyland Park stole the show throughout the rest of that summer and thousands of glowing lamps turned the park into an electrical spectacle at night.
Rob McInnes, a local accumulator and purveyor of historic postcards, with a stock of approximately 5,000 postcards of Winnipeg and Manitoba, says parks were very popular in Winnipeg during the early 20th century, as there was River Park, Elm Park, Winnipeg Beach and City Park. Happyland stood out for its grandeur and options for fun.
"You could count the number of attractions each of them had on one hand and they would be lucky to have five, not 22, so Happyland was quite different that way," McInnes said. "The other ones were kind of parks that had amusements there, while this was an amusement park."
A quick decline
Over the course of three seasons, Happyland went from bustling to bankrupt.
"Winnipeg wasn’t all that big, it was a boom town and it was growing but you need a lot of people passing through your gates every day to make a living out of it," Blanchard said. "And there were other things to do in Winnipeg in the summer. You could take the train to Winnipeg Beach on a weekend and that would be more exciting than going to the amusement park."
The 1907 season saw some success, as a gypsy queen once loved by an English earl told fortunes and the Women’s Hospital Aid Society hosted a successful fundraiser in July. But the weather that summer was far from favourable.
Edith Paterson, a journalist and historian, wrote in her weekly column "It Happened Here" in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1974 that several storms of near-hurricane proportions happened during the summer of 1907, the worst of which occurred late Saturday evening, Aug, 10.
Lights went out across the city and the wind uprooted trees around town. Wooden structures at Happyland suffered significant damage and in the commotion of the storm, circus animals at the park escaped from their confines.
Christopher Dafoe, former editor of Canadian history magazine The Beaver, wrote in a 1983 article for the Free Press of how his mother’s family lived on Aubrey Street during the days when Happyland Park was alive and described how Barnum and Bailey’s elephants broke loose and stampeded his grandmother’s garden. Referring to the same event, Richard Waugh, who became mayor of Winnipeg in 1912, reported spotting a toothless lion on his back stoop the next morning. This was also reported in Paterson’s column.
In 1908, the fireworks failed to arrive for Canada Day, rumours of the roller coaster being unsafe spread, and the professional baseball league crumbled, forcing the Winnipeg Maroons to disband. On Aug. 20, it was announced Happyland Park had gone bankrupt and the property went up for auction. The magnificent destination that cost $150,000 to build two years earlier was sold to a group of local businessmen for a paltry $6,000.
W.M. Fisher, the new owner of Happyland, tried to stir up hype for the park the following season by adding new exciting draws such as German-style beer gardens — but the crowds never returned.
In 1910, the land on which Happyland sat was considered valuable real estate as the city’s population continued to explode. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Winnipeg was the third-largest city in Canada in 1911. Fisher declared bankruptcy after only one season and the park, to some extent, began to be dismantled.
Fisher approached city council the following year with a request to subdivide the land into lots to open up Sherburn and Garfield streets but it was too late. Proposals were put on hold as the First World War broke out. It wasn’t until a few years after the war, in 1924, that residential development on Sherburn Street and Garfield Street began to flourish for the first time.
A daring, delightful and occasionally disastrous destination, Happyland Park represents the past life of Wolseley and some of Winnipeg’s earliest thrills.