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This article was published 6/5/2015 (2232 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Walking along the quiet, homey streets of Riverview, it’s hard to imagine the neighbourhood as the site of a buzzing amusement park, drawing thousands of Winnipeggers to a shaded oasis along the banks of the Red.
Connected by the electric streetcar from Main Street, River Park was the place to be in Winnipeg during the early 20th century.
The 150-acre park stretched east along the river from current day Elm Park Bridge to the end of Clare Avenue and operated between 1891 and 1942. The location of present-day Churchill Drive was once the site of a bustling midway with a surrealist Crazy House, dodgem cars, an electric riding gallery (carousel), and a massive roller-coaster, often anecdotally referred to as the largest coaster in North America at the time, The Deep Dipper.
A race track that served double duty for both horses and cars sprawled west of Osborne Street and roared in the evenings with excited spectators. Meanwhile, across the park, young bodies gathered in the popular dance pavilion to hear live bands.
"It was the absolute centre of social life in Winnipeg," Ted McLachlan, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Manitoba, said.
Having grown up hearing stories from his family about River Park, McLachlan took on the task of researching the forgotten attraction. He has been studying River Park and Winnipeg’s other early parks, including nearby Elm Park, and Assiniboine Park, for over 30 years.
Albert W. Austin (1857-1934) was the man who set Winnipeg’s parks in motion. An import from Toronto and son of the founder of the Dominion Bank, Austin created the Winnipeg Street Railway Company which operated horse-drawn cars within the city.
An entrepreneur, Austin was interested in bringing electric street cars to Winnipeg, having seen them in action in Toronto. However, he failed to sway Winnipeg council to allow him to develop the technology within city limits.
“It was the absolute centre of social life in Winnipeg”
"When he first asked to build electric street cars in the city there was a lot of fear of the technology. Electricity was sort of lightning in a bottle and people were afraid of it," Manitoba Transit Heritage Association historian David Wyatt said.
So Austin went south to the forested municipality of St. Boniface, now Fort Rouge, where he ran Winnipeg’s first electric street car down River Avenue from Main Street to Osborne Street in 1891.
"Once he was running on River Avenue, people saw that they weren’t dangerous and they were quick and comfortable, and they were quite popular, quite immediately," said Wyatt.
Riding Park Line
Having proven the viability of electric street cars, Austin ran the Park Line south to Elm and River Parks, land he had purchased just years earlier.
It was a great business plan for Austin. Patrons paid to board the electric street car, a novelty itself, and then paid to use the amusements at River Park. It was a model that had been used by other street railway companies in the past to increase ridership, Wyatt said.
In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Beach and Grand Beach park developments mirrored the River Park model with a train, dance pavilion and roller-coaster, McLachlan added.
"They were creating that kind of activity for urban people and that’s basically how amusement parks developed — the journey there was as important as being there," McLachlan said.
River Park flourished during its last 20 years of operation servicing the working class of Winnipeg who commuted to the park via public transit in droves.
During the winter people would gather to go ice skating, snowshoeing, and use the massive toboggan runs. In the summer, patrons would compete in rowing regattas or check out the zoo, complete with bear pits and believed to be the first of its kind in western Canada.
"The records at the time would show that 50 per cent of the population of Winnipeg would be there on a day," McLachlan said. "There were only about 25,000 people at the time and there are records of 10,000 people being at the park. It was just massive."
Alex McLeod (born 1902) was a farmhand who came to Winnipeg from Montreal. During an interview with the Archives of Manitoba for the Winnipeg Past and Present Oral History Project he recalled visiting River Park in the 1920s to check out the baseball games.
"You’d get on that streetcar, there was no such thing as the bus, and you’d hop on there and you’ve got the air blowing through you, the attendant would go crazy because you’d hang on the side and you weren’t supposed to," he said with a laugh.
McLeod described the park as a "riot" saying that the area was so expansive "you could lose yourself in there if you wanted to."
"You’d go on the roller-coaster if you had the nickel to pay for the ride. It was just a lovely spot to go to; it was a pity it ever closed up," he said.
Joseph Elford (born 1909), a plumber who lived on Jessie Avenue in Fort Rouge, recalled visiting the park in his interview with the Archives of Manitoba for the same project.
The Winnipeg Electric Company would often put on spectacular fireworks shows hoping to get crowds of people taking the streetcars to River Park, Elford said.
"One night somebody dropped one of the lighted ones in the box with all of the fireworks, and the fireworks were going over everybody’s heads, and they had to duck and everything," Elford recalled.
“There are very few people to talk about it anymore”
"It didn’t last long that night."
With all that River Park had to offer it also had its vices — peddlers, betting, and so on. Based on descriptions from McLachlan’s family, the park had become dilapidated near the end of its run.
McLachlan’s mother was forbidden to go to River Park, though she did anyway.
"By that point, even when she was growing up in the ’30s, it was not seen as a becoming place. It was noisy, it was rowdy, and it wasn’t part of that district," McLachlan said.
As early as 1908 residential housing began to develop in Riverview, Assiniboine Park had opened, and with the start of the Second World War in 1939, River Park had seen its best days. The park was abandoned in 1942 and the amusements were decommissioned, with materials being recycled for other projects.
The land was developed into residential housing and the contemporary Churchill Drive Park. Not much remains of River Park today, save for a few murals along Osborne Street, pictures stored in the archives, and tales passed down through the generations.
"There are very few people to talk about it anymore," McLachlan said looking back on his 30 years of research, though he still lectures about River Park to his graduate students in his course titled "Everyday Landscapes."
"As a landscape architect, it really reinforced the role of reading the landscape and understanding the layers of history in a landscape, and the stories that it tells," he said, "both physically in the landscape that is still there, but then the narratives of the people who lived that landscape."
What memories do you have of River Park? Share them in the comments below.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.