Saskatchewan Avenue Becomes Our Downtown After Main Street Destroyed By Arsonist

By James Kostuchuk

 

The 1880 coat of arms features locomotive, paddle boat steamer, and a plow; symbols of a prosperous prairie centre.

The 1880 coat of arms features locomotive, paddle boat steamer, and a plow; symbols of a prosperous prairie centre.

The night of Friday, January 18th, 1885 was intensely cold with the thermometers reading 40 below zero. The sharp and hurried ringing of the Town fire bell woke many people from their sleep.  Within minutes the Town’s steam pumper was pouring water on flames coming through the roof of the Presbyterian Church.  For two hours men battled the inferno but by one in the morning, nothing was left of the Church but smoking embers.

Robert Hill inked this story in 1890, when he penned the first history of Portage la Prairie. He stated that the fire had a “depressing effect on the community… like the stab from an unseen foe”. His book Manitoba chronicles the earliest days of Portage la Prairie, and the Church fire foreshadows the darkest time in our City’s history.

The Portage, Westbourne, and North-Western Railway was incorporated in 1880 to build a line from Poplar Point to the western boundary of the province, and a line south to Emerson.  Portage la Prairie was to be the starting point of the proposed line. An engine house was built to house two locomotives. Fertile soil and a rail line were key ingredients to build a successful prairie community. The town soon filled with citizens. Elementary and high schools were built.  Fine brick homes appeared. Portage had a knitting factory, chair factory, wood mill, bakery, stables, and a thriving downtown with merchants selling all forms of modern goods.

Railway fever

Railway fever also fuelled rampant land speculation.  So great was the town’s ascent that a former  blacksmith, J.A. Little, amassed a personal fortune of $100 000 in three years simply by acting as the town’s real estate agent.  Unbelievably, sixty acres of farm land near the West End was valued at $40 000. When Dr. Cowan sold his farm of 640 acres he received $23 000. Roderick McLeod sold his river lot of 240 acres for $50 000. To put this into some form of historical context, a Portage la Prairie teacher at this time earned around $40.00 a year. If we draw a comparison to a current teacher’s salary, 60 acres of prime city land would be worth $70 000 000.

Dr. Cowan made a fortune from the sale of land in the boom years.

Dr. Cowan made a fortune from the sale of land in the boom years.

 

The decline of the boom began in 1883 when the banks decided to draw in their loans for fear they had over committed to property speculation. This was coupled with an early frost, destroying any wheat profits. Hill relates the story of one farmer who, arriving with a full cart of grain at the Portage Milling Company, was told that his wheat would not be purchased at any price. By 1886 Portage la Prairie’s government was no longer immune to this economic downturn and the courts rendered a judgement against the town, calling for repayment of $16 000 in loans. Without any money to pay for the town’s operations the council resigned and the school board closed all the schools. A Mr. Martin offered to serve as solicitor, without salary, in order to try to bring some order to the situation by negotiating with creditors and the province.  Hill reported that “… the spectacle of such a noble institution as the Portage Central School building, one of the finest in the province, erected in 1883 at a cost of $40 000, with its doors closed, and the future legislators and population running the streets wild… was a state of matters that could not long be tolerated.” 75% of all property sold in the district was returned to the original sellers as buyers could not make payments. It is estimated that fewer than 5% of investors realized any profit.

 

Landsdown College. "Men who would 'not contribute a dollar' to keeping the public schools open were quite comfortable contributing toward the creation of a private school. I wonder what their political preferences were...

Landsdowne College. “Men who would ‘not contribute a dollar’ to keeping the public schools open were quite comfortable contributing toward the creation of a private school.
I wonder what their political preferences were…

 The Riel Rebellion

Portage la Prairie was in a state of chaos. The Riel Rebellion had left people concerned over relations with their Metis and First Nations neighbours.  Tensions in the town rose with the planned opening of Lansdowne College, a private school. Men who would “not contribute a dollar” to keeping the public schools open were quite comfortable contributing toward the creation of a private school. Owing to easy credit during the good times, people were unable to pay their bills. Seizure of goods and chattels was a common occurrence.  Merchants had to liquidate stock below cost. The town offered 30 cents on the dollar to its own creditors. These were “dark days”. The town was bankrupt without access to any further credit.  Town council having resigned, there was no leadership to communicate with the government.  Building owners couldn’t afford insurance. Indeed, the Presbyterian Church was without insurance when it burned, the policy having lapsed a few months earlier. Insurance companies responded by increasing the premiums. Portage had hit rock bottom, but it was about to get a whole lot worse.

In 1885 a Lieutenant Cassels spent a few minutes in Portage la Prairie while his ox train took on water. He described the town as " miserable looking place" and he took "pity" on anyone condemned to live there.

In 1885, a Lieutenant Cassels spent a few minutes in Portage la Prairie while his train took on water. He later described the town as ” a miserable looking place” and he took “pity” on anyone condemned to live there.

 

On December 13th, 1886 at six o’clock the town’s fire bell rang and Portage citizens ran to the streets to see flames rising high into the sky from the fire-hall. The fire-engine’s horses were in stalls behind the fire engine and people rushed to save the animals. At great risk, the horses were freed but it was impossible to move the engine. Portage’s “Ronald” fire engine was completely destroyed, along with the fire-hall, hose cart, and fifteen hundred feet of hose. The cost of the engine alone was $3500.00. To add to the horror citizens were distraught to learn that the insurance on the building and contents had lapsed three days prior to the fire.

Fire engine on loan

The City of Winnipeg offered the loan of an engine on a temporary basis. This was fortunate since six days later the Doiger block took fire. Unfortunately, the engine was not serviceable, and a bucket brigade had to be used. The fire was contained but damage was substantial ,amounting to some $3500.00. On New Year’s morning 1888 a serious fire erupted in the business block on Main Street. Without a fire alarm citizens had to spread the word by shouting. Again, the fire-engine could not be used and the fire consumed several buildings, almost taking the life of businessman Roddie Campbell and his wife. In the spring the fires continued.  Rossin House and the Queen’s Hotel were burned to the ground. The O’Reilly block and skating rink were also threatened, but the fire-engine made a difference. On May 15th, London House was completely destroyed.  By now it was clear that the fires were not simply an unfortunate coincidence. A citizen was attempting to raze the town building-by-building.

In the absence of stable government a citizen’s committee hired Detective Foster of Brandon to find the arsonist. No sooner had the invitation been accepted than the criminal struck again. This time the mill was on fire. The Pratt block, Lorne House, blacksmith shop, Club House and stables were also destroyed in this fire. In this single action another $20 000 of Portage la Prairie property had gone up in flames.  In short order several more buildings were put to the flame, but prompt action was able to minimize the effects.  However, Portage la Prairie’s Main Street, the scene of so much activity and hope during the 1870s and early 1880s, was effectively a “burnt and deserted ruin”. Portage’s business class abandoned the site of so much destruction in favor of Saskatchewan Avenue.

In the midst of this calamity, Detective Foster was spending his time in the company of Portage’s “rough class”  “not known in the category of those regarded as respectable citizens” [at a] “low groggery” known as The Queen’s.  It was here that he first heard the name Sam Mick. Sam Mick was known to have a “kindly” face, but was also “tall” and “powerful”. He also had a mean drinking problem. Foster suspected he was on the right trail when his prey quit town to head to Minnedosa. Foster followed Mick and intercepted him as he attempted to board a train bound for the west. The manager of The Queen’s, Jim White, was also apprehended.

He had intended to burn down the court-house and jail

Two weeks later the men were brought before Judge Ryan, under the Speedy Trials Act. Mick was initially charged with setting fire to the building of Mrs. Young, and White was charged with inciting Mick to the action. There wasn’t much to discuss in terms of Mick’s guilt. He had already admitted to Detective Foster that someone had provided him with a coal-oil can to light the fire. This person had also paid him $25.00 so that he might watch the fire.  Mick further revealed that he had intended to burn down the court-house and jail. David Drain was called as a witness. He testified that Jim White had offered him money to burn city properties including the Hudson’s Bay Hotel and the post office. It would appear that White intended to burn every prominent building in Portage la Prairie to the ground, a claim he denied.

The case was a difficult one for Judge Ryan.  White was under the influence of alcohol when the crimes were committed and so may not have understood what he was inciting Mick to do. Prior to passing judgement Judge Ryan communicated with his colleague, Justice Taylor, of Winnipeg. Taylor stated that “…if there was any doubt, the prisoner was entitled to the benefit of it”.

Accordingly, on the 18th of June 1888 Mick was sentenced to five years in the Provincial Penitentiary. White was given the benefit of Taylor’s doubt and discharged. Hill records that “no pen could picture the expression of poor Mick’s face, as he saw White, the inciter of his ruin, walk forth into liberty, while he, the poor tool, got five years for doing his dirty work”.  However, things were not entirely rosy for White. When he stepped foot from the Court House he was warned that he should leave town for his own safety. He packed and left Portage on the first train, making his way to the United States.

A pall had been raised from the town with the capture of Mick and White. With the pair in custody a provisional Act was introduced in the Manitoba Legislature allowing town Council to reorganize. Taxes were set at two mills on the dollar with one half devoted to creditors, the other half to be used for town operations.

No further information is known regarding White or Mick. It is clear that either would have met a rough reception if he attempted to return to Portage la Prairie. Not many cities can lay claim to having their own supervillain, but for the incendiary destruction of the entire downtown district in an alcohol fueled fury, Sam Mick earns the title of Portage la Prairie’s official nemesis, our kryptonite, our city’s supervillain.

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One Response

  1. Robert W Holliday

    I was born in Oakville and was related to Caddy Halliday .I donated slides to Irene Blight to related pictures

    Reply

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