Fire hall serves as Elmwood’s heart
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/06/2015 (2787 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Since before it had an official name, way back when “rapid transit” meant a dry, unobstructed dirt path through the bush, the area now known as Elmwood has been home to an active, evolving community.
In 1877, when Charlie Midwinter moved into the area west of where today Stadacona Street runs in Elmwood, it was largely uninhabited. What was developed, along the Red River southeast of where Nairn now runs, was part of the municipality of St. Boniface. Henderson Highway, to the west, was little more than a rutted trail known as the East Road (Main Street, at the time, was the West Road).
Midwinter set up the first homestead in the area while working for Bronn & Rutherford Lumber across the Red in Point Douglas. In short order, the enterprising market gardener became a municipal councillor for the Municipality of Kildonan (which had annexed the area from St. Boniface) and a later city controller for Winnipeg. In 1913, Vaudreuil Avenue was renamed Midwinter Avenue in honour of the early Elmwood pioneer.
Others soon followed Midwinter over the river, clearing the bush and making way for industry, which spread north from St. Boniface and across the river from Point Douglas. But it wasn’t until the Louise Bridge was built in 1880 that things really began to heat up in the area.
The first bridge to span the muddy Red River, the Louise was one incentive Winnipeg used to lure the Canadian Pacific Railway to run its mainline through the city, rather than up through Selkirk to the north.
“(The bridge) carried not only trains but pedestrians, horses and rigs of all kinds, which certainly must have created the potential for disaster,” Jim Smith, president of the North East Winnipeg Historical Society, said.
Development poured over the bridge. Nairn Avenue was the first stop, with urbanization spreading north to William Newton and Talbot Avenues. J.Y. Griffin Meat Packers set up shop west of the bridge, and the Elmwood Cemetery (from which the area takes its name) popped up in 1902.
By 1906, demand for services in Elmwood was too much for Kildonan to provide. So local residents petitioned for the City of Winnipeg to annex the area. One of the conditions included building a fire station, which Elmwood was sorely lacking. Winnipeg accepted, pushing the city’s boundaries across the Red River for the first time.
Located at 325 Talbot Ave., Fire Hall No. 8 was built in 1906. And while the building still stands, the site has seen plenty of changes over the last 109 years.
Constructed on a stone foundation, the three-storey, 75 x 55-foot building was designed to house 11 horses and 16 firefighters. Hay was stored on the second floor. Sleighs were kept in a shed in back, along with coal and wood to heat the place.
According to the North East Winnipeg Historical Society, the fire hall was home to “one horse-drawn hose wagon, one horse-drawn hook and ladder wagon, one horse-drawn chemical fire engine with a 100-gallon capacity and one steam fire engine with a 750-gallon capacity.”
While motor vehicles soon began to replace horse-drawn wagons throughout Winnipeg, horses remained more versatile in the Elmwood and Kildonans area, where dirt roads outnumbered paved streets.
With Winnipeg’s ever interesting weather, those dirt roads were often little more than mud bogs, which were impassable by early automobile.
“The area around the Louise Bridge was sort of the hub of what is now the Elmwood area before it shifted more to the Henderson Highway area,” Smith said.
That shift towards the west side of Elmwood was accelerated after the Redwood Bridge was completed in 1908. However, the older Louise Bridge area remained the working class industrial and residential heart of Elmwood for decades.
On the corner of Talbot and Stadacona, businesses came and went. Pete’s Candy Kitchen was on the western corner in 1933, replaced by Chalmers Paint Shop by 1942. Apartment buildings began to replace wood-frame houses.
In the 1970s, historians working for the City of Winnipeg on a series of local histories spoke with then-longtime Elmwood resident Ed Wallace as part of their research on the area. According to statements by Wallace published in On The River East, during the Great Depression, Stadacona Street was home to “All different kinds of stores, and every second one of them was a bootlegger.”
On The River East collected the stories of the communities that today make up northeast Winnipeg.
“That was how they stayed in business. That whole Watt Street was bootleggers. Every store sold booze. As long as you just sold beer, the cops didn’t seem to mind,” Wallace is quoted as saying.
Through the ups and downs Elmwood residents faced over the course of two world wars and the Great Depression, the fire hall remained a cornerstone of the community. But when Unicity pulled the communities of East and North Kildonan and Transcona into the unified City of Winnipeg, amalgamating their services, Fire Hall No. 8 was no longer needed.
However, the space remains a hub of activity to this day. Starting in 1974, the building served as an ambulance depot, with Pan-Am’s boxing ring and training facility in the basement. By the late ’80s, Youth For Christ had taken over the space, running a climbing wall in the building, among other active programming.
“I have fond memories of the building and the staff at the time,” said Rob Waddell, who often visited the Youth For Christ climbing wall in the late ’90s. Today, Waddell operates an antique furniture warehouse across the river in Point Douglas. “Myself and a friend were given a key once we had our climbing safety certification. We would climb the walls until our fingers were raw.”
When the Riverwood Church Community took the old hall over in 2013, they dove head-first into extensive interior renovations.
“We basically gutted it,” Diana Barnowich, office manager at Riverwood, said. “We tried to restore as much as we could, and renovated it to suit our needs.”
In 2014, the century-old building was named a municipal historic site, and received a Heritage Winnipeg Preservation Award for the renovations Riverwood had done. Today, the main floor has been converted to a place of worship, the basement into the church’s Kidzone and women’s drop-in space, while the second floor houses Riverwood’s offices. Barnowich said the busy local community has been welcoming.
“We love it here.”
Sheldon Birnie is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at email@example.com Call him at 204-697-7112