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Reclaiming a slice of history along the Red

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It’s little more than a pile of limestone gravel and a pair of small, water-worn floating docks, but Jamie Watt still sees a marina bustling with boats and harbourmasters at the Louise Bridge Boat Launch.

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was known as the Buchanan Marine, and at its peak was a hub for the city’s nautical and business class — a harbour for some 80 boats that would draw hundreds from across the city on evening and weekend nights, where families barbecued on the docks, kids jumped their bikes off hills into the river, and people had no problems teaching area kids how to caulk a boat, or have them sweep a garage or plant flowers as a way to earn some cash.

"It was time for people to come and unwind," said Jamie Watt, a St. James resident who spent her childhood summers and winters at the marina.

"The river was an important part of life."

In March, the city’s protection and community services committee approved renaming the area the Buchanan Marine Boat Launch to recognize its rich history. The public works department will spend about $450 on new signage for the area.

The marine was established in 1958 after Richard (Dick) Watt (no relation) purchased the land from his employer, the nearby Brown & Rutherford lumber company.

Jamie Watt’s father, Patrick, was a close friend of Dick’s, and was one of the first to purchase a boat and join the marina. Dick named the marine after the Clan Buchanan, recognizing the common ties between the families and paying tribute to the Scottish clan that protected the Watt family in northeastern Scotland.

The marina matured at a time when The Forks was a mere idea on paper and the Louise Bridge still opened, and found itself playing host to a mix of clients: war veterans, local businessmen, visiting entertainers and celebrities, Winnipeg Jets players, the River Rouge and Lord Selkirk cruise ships, and the Winnipeg Harbour Patrol.

The marine was a "playground" for kids, Jamie said, noting fishing was common, as was stealing lumber from nearby yards to build forts for the homeless in the nearby woods.

"There was a sense of awe. People would come just to walk the docks to look at boats and talk about family. New friends were made between strangers," said Jamie, now 50.

"It was a wonderful meeting place to tell stories. The guard was down. I learned so much as a child. There were no secrets."

Her son Josh began pushing for the name change with city councillors late last year to commemorate the history and stories he grew up hearing about as a child.

He presented the name change to his mother and family as a Christmas gift.

"It helps to capture an era where that spirit was alive and vibrant, instead of naming it after a local feature," Josh said.

"It helps bring meaning to this place."

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, who helped approve the renaming at the Lord Selkirk-West Kildonan community committee meeting in December, was easily swayed by his own memories of the marina.

As a young teen living on Luxton Avenue, Eadie, along with neighbourhood kids, took full advantage of access to a friend’s house and motorboat to visit the marina and explore the riverside.

 "The river is a great place for adventure when you’re young," Eadie said.

"We don’t take advantage of it nowadays."

The site has seen a steady decline in use since the marine shut down in 1984, when the land was transferred to the city after Dick’s death.

Jamie is hopeful the site will see new life, and is planning to write a book about its history.

In June 2012, the Forks Renewal Corporation and the City of Winnipeg released River City Connections, a 20-year planning document aimed at building up river tourism along the Red River from Point Douglas and North St. Boniface south into Norwood and Riverview. The Assiniboine River is also included.

Part of a proposed plan for Point Douglas includes re-establishing a harbour and marina at the old Buchanan site, enveloped by infill mixed-use development and the establishment of a provincial park along the shore of The Point.

The plan, however, still has to consider a possible future rapid transit corridor connecting St. Boniface and Point Douglas through an alignment of Higgins Avenue, and the city also has to determine what it is doing with the Louise Bridge, Eadie noted.

"There’s a long-term future for that lot," he said.

Do you have a story about the old Buchanan Marine? Email and a selection will appear in the April 17 issue of The Times.
Twitter: @timesWPG

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