A walking tour of the east end of Winnipeg’s Exchange District National Historic Site
The Exchange District National Historic Site, a 20 block area in central Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the original centre of commerce and culture in the city. The area boasts many heritage buildings and historic sites from the period of 1880 to 1920, when Winnipeg was known as “Gateway to the West” and “Chicago of the North”.
During the summer months, the Exchange District Biz offers a variety of guided walking tours. In 2014, I took the East Exchange tour, which focused mainly on the area east of Main Street, where the warehouse district once resided and where events of significance to Winnipeg’s General Strike of 1919 took place. Today the area is home to condos, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, businesses, and retail outlets. I updated the post in 2017 with current status information.
The tour started in front of Bijou Park. In 1873, a jail containing cells on the main floor and underground, was built on this site. The jail was demolished in 1884 and Clements Block and Bijou Theatre built in its place. The Bijou Theatre featured vaudeville acts until it was converted to film in the 1920s. The remnants of Clements Block and Bijou Theatre burned in 1979. Today, Bijou Park is home to craft and food vendors during the many summer events occurring in Old Market Square at the centre of the Exchange.
The tour then crossed Main Street and what was once known as Banker’s Row. The two block stretch of Main Street from Portage Avenue to Bannatyne Avenue was home to 20 financial institutions in the late 1800s. Each institution sought a unique way to attract customers. For example, the Bank of Toronto (not shown in the above photo) catered to wealthy females and had a powder room. Because each bank tried to stand out from the others, the architecture of each building is different from the ones beside it.
The streets on the east side of Main Street were home to the Warehouse District. The Winnipeg Transfer Railway ran along what is now Waterfront Street at the east end of the district. The spur line connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway to the north and the Canadian National Railway to the south, providing means for warehouses to transport goods.
The James Avenue Pumping Station was built between 1906 and 1908 to create a dedicated fire protection system drawing water from the river. It was built largely in response to a typhoid epidemic which occurred after a serious 1904 fire forced fire fighters to pump river water into the mains of the artesian well system providing water to the city’s core. The new high pressure system was built at a cost of $1 million and introduced mains and hydrants separate from the domestic water supply. The building sat empty since 1986, when it was decommissioned and became derelict. Because the building was constructed around the machines, equipment could not be moved out. Because of its heritage designation, the building could not be torn down. Redevelopment is now in progress with commercial, retail and residential space being built around the pumps. New buildings are being constructed on the east and west ends of the station. The pumps gears will be visible from rafter-level offices and through new windows along James Street.
The lane between James and Market Avenues is known as Hell’s Alley because of its role in the 1919 General Strike. Unemployment, poor working conditions and low wages among the largely immigrant working class, and inflation led to labour unrest that culminated in 1919 in one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history. On May 19, 30,000 works walked off their job. The strike lasted until June 26. On June 21, now known as “bloody Sunday”, strikers gathered to protest because streetcars had started running again. Strikers stopped one streetcar and set it on fire. The Northwest Mounted Police rode into the crowd with baseball bats and firearms, killing 2 people. (The entire Winnipeg police force had been fired for refusing to sign papers agreeing to never unionize.) 200 people, including women and children, sought refuge in this alley. The police swept through the crowd and arrested over 90 people.
The Exchange District offers other walking tours, including a tour of the west end of the area, food tours, and specialty tours focusing on particular themes in history or the design nature of the district. Tours operate from June 1 to August 31.