Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Haunted Winnipeg - Theatres: Guest Post by Author Matthew Komus

Guest Post by Matthew Komus
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp. 
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

For over a decade I have worked as a tour guide in Winnipeg. In this role, I have had the opportunity to showcase many of the city's amazing heritage buildings to visitors from around the world. Over the years, I have been asked countless questions but there is one question that comes up far more than any other. It doesn't matter what building is being discussed or what the topic of the tour is, someone will always ask "is this building haunted"? 
The Masonic Temple on Donald Street. Photo courtesy of Matthew Sinclair.

It was the frequency of this question that lead me to begin Winnipeg's first haunted walking tour Winnipeg Ghost Walk. The tour showcases the history and ghost stories connected to some of Winnipeg's best known heritage buildings. 

It should not be surprising that we find a connection between history and ghosts. Both subjects provide us with a pathway to our past. Historic buildings provide us with a physical connection to the lives of their previous owners and visitors; we can still wander through their rooms and see where they lived and died. Ghost stories provide a spiritual connection to the souls that have remained behind.

The entrance to the Fort Garry Hotel, a famous haunted heritage building. Photo courtesy of Matthew Sinclair.

After operating the tour for a number of years, in 2014 I wrote Haunted Winnipeg, Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent. The book includes far more buildings and stories than what can be included on a walking tour or in a blog post. Though the book includes many different types of buildings, for the sake of brevity I will focus on one type of building for this blog. 

Winnipeg is fortunate to have a number of historic theatres. The theatrical world is an environment full of energy and superstition. It is the perfect setting for ghosts and so every theatre seems to have at least one ghost story. Winnipeg is no exception, as the following two examples will illustrate.

The Walker Theatre

On February 18th, 1907, the Walker Theatre held its grand opening with Puccini's new opera, Madama Butterfly. Founded by Corliss Powers Walker and his wife Harriet, the expatriate entrepreneurs dreamed of bringing the very best shows to Winnipeg. The couple brought in the most popular shows touring Europe or the eastern United States. It was where many Winnipeggers were first exposed to the symphony, opera, musicals, and ballet. 

The Walker Theatre which later became the Odeon Cinema in 1944. Photo courtesy of Mark Komus.

The Walker attracted the biggest names in show business of the day, including Harry Houdini, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Durante. The Walker also held many important community events. Harriet Walker was an early suffragette and helped Nelly McClung hold her Women's Parliament at the Walker.

The Walker's support for their community went beyond women's rights. They built the theatre with a second balcony to allow as many people as possible to see the shows. This balcony soon became known as "The Gods", as you were sitting so high up you must be sitting with the gods themselves. Tickers to "The Gods" were only 25 cents, allowing many people who otherwise could not afford the theatre to attend. 

The Walker Theatre, now called the Burton Cummings Theatre. Photo courtesy of Mark Komus.

Today "The Gods" are known as one of the spookiest places in the theatre. Performers have been rehearsing on stage, alone or in small groups, when they have heard applause coming from "The Gods" as if there was an invisible crowd watching an unseen show. There are many other strange occurrences at the theatre, mostly at night when the building is empty except for security guards. Doors that are supposed to be left open are found closed with no explanation. Guard dogs who were normally very well behaved at other job sites would bark at nothing and refuse to enter certain rooms in the theatre.

The haunting of Walker Theatre is often explained as the work of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, a famous acting couple from England. They had just completed their North American tour at the Walker and soon set sail aboard the Empress of Ireland for the voyage home. They would never make it. On May 29th, 1914, the Empress of Ireland went down, resulting in over a thousand lives lost, including Laurence and Mabel. It remains the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history. After the accident, a plaque was put in the lobby of the Walker Theatre in their memory. 

Though Laurence and Mabel are the best known ghosts at the Walker Theatre, they are not the only ones. To operate a theatre the size and scale of the Walker, a large staff was required and one of the most important roles was the ticket seller in the box office. Dealing with fussy customers made it a position that was often tough to fill until the Walkers found Joe. 

The Walker Theatre Interior 1907. Photo courtesy of Archives of Manitoba-Winnipeg Theatres.

Joe loved the theatre and the people in it, and soon became a popular fellow with both staff and patrons. In 1914, Joe's employment would be interrupted with the start of the war. He answered his country's call and went overseas to fight. While fighting in the trenches, he was caught in a German gas attack. Joe managed to survive the gas and returned home to Winnipeg, but was now in poor health and would soon pass away. Now it seems Joe has decided to remain in the space where he once had so many happy memories.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Another haunted theatre is home to the oldest English-language regional theatres in Canada. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has produced hundreds of shows ranging from Shakespeare to musicals to theatrical world premieres. Located in the John Hirsch Theatre, the building does not fit the classical description of a haunted theatre. When picturing a haunted theatre, one is likely to think of old and ornate buildings. This description does not fit MTC as it was built in 1970, in the brutalist style of architecture. Though not as old as most heritage buildings, the theatre was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, 2015. Photo courtesy Heritage Winnipeg.

Even though the building does not fit the classical description of a haunted theatre, staff have reported many strange occurrences. Office staff have said items go missing and then reappear in the exact same spot only moments later. Others have reported hearing giggling and running footsteps when no one else is present. While working late one night, a set designer claimed to see a young boy run through his workshop.

The reason for these strange occurrences may be explained by MTC's first home, the Dominion Theatre built in 1904. After many strange events, including unexplained childish laughter and seats flipping up and down by themselves, staff started to investigate the history of the Dominion. This investigation lead the staff to discover the story of George. 

The entrance to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Photo courtesy of Heritage Winnipeg.

The Dominion Theatre had a caretaker who lived on site with his son, George. George loved the theatre and dreamed of becoming an actor. He was also known for playing little pranks on visitors. Though only a young boy, George was in poor health and required the use of a wheelchair. Tragically, there was a fire at the theatre and George, unable to escape the building, perished.

After spending ten years at the Dominion, the theatre was slated for demolition and MTC was forced to move. Once in their new home, unexplained pranks started to happen again. One such prank happened to an out of town actor who refused to believe there was a ghost at MTC. While he was rehearsing a scene, a book being used as a prop flew across the stage and hit him in the head. After this event, he apparently changed his point of view. It seems George had decided to move with the theatre company.

The idea of a ghost moving locations is questionable, but the story about George has a larger problem. The Dominion Theatre never had a fire and would not have been accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The story has a dated Victorian feel to it, describing a poor little crippled boy who is to be pitied. So if George never existed, just who is haunting MTC?

Though it may not be known who is behind the strange occurrences at Winnipeg's theatres, it seems certain that as long as they continue to put on shows, the ghosts will continue to visit.

About the Author

Matthew Komus works as a tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba's heritage sites. Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk tour can be found at

A copy of his book, Haunted Winnipeg, Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent can be purchased at

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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Death & Debauchery Before the Theatre - Exchange District BIZ Walking Tours

Article by Rushika Khatkar, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Hi! My name is Rushika Khatkar. This summer I am working at Heritage Winnipeg. I was placed here through the Winnipeg Foundation’s Summer Internship Program. It's an opportunity for students to understand the charities in Winnipeg at a deeper level. I got involved with this program through my participation in the Youth in Philanthropy club at my high school. This was a club that was dedicated to helping local charities in Winnipeg. 

I hope to go into business once I graduate high school. I am a member of numerous clubs at my school such as yearbook and student council.  I love to read in my spare time and can be often seen with my nose in a book. 

On Tuesday, we went to Music at the Millennium, sponsored by Telpay, which was a real treat as I was able to hear members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. It happens on Tuesdays at noon and it's free for anyone who wishes to come. If you are looking for something to do in the summertime, this is a great option. 

Death & Debauchery Tour 

We also went on the Death and Debauchery tour provided by the Exchange District BIZ. We met our tour guide at Old Market Square, in front of Smoke's Poutinerie.

Where we met at Old Market Square for the tour
Right away our tour started with stories of Winnipeg's First Mayor, Francis Cornish. He also happened to be the chief magistrate. So what happened when he was charged with public drunkenness? He was the judge at his own trial. He gave himself a long lecture about the evils of drinking. He then walked down from the judge's seat to plead guilty. After putting himself back on the judge's seat, he gave himself a choice between a fine or jail time. Talk about bias!

As we moved along the tour, we were also told about Winnipeg's first police chief, John S. Ingram. He made a deal with the brothels of the city. If they stayed in one area of the city, he would not arrest them as long as they didn't stir up trouble. The area chosen was what is now Minto Street. Later, a raid was performed on the brothel and none other than Chief Ingram was found in bed with a prostitute. Ingram had to pay a fine and resign from the job. He later became the chief of police in Calgary. 

Our tour guide talking about Chief Ingram
The focus of the tour then turned to hotels. Three in particular. The first hotel we looked at was the Mariaggi Hotel. The story was not about the hotel, but about the owner, Frank Mariaggi, who came into the city with the Red River Expedition. He was accused of the murder of James R. Brown, who was stabbed 33 times. He was kept at Upper Fort Garry while still drunk and with blood all over his body. Although he was later proved innocent of the crime, his friends within the Fort where he was imprisoned had to smuggle him out in order to avoid the angry mob that formed in protest of the murder.

The Mariaggi Hotel
A short walk later, we saw the building that used to be the Royal Albert Arms Hotel. The hotel had a shady past. It was surrounded by controversy about one of it's performers, Tom Leary. He was not allowed in Winnipeg but one of the owners of the hotel was in politics and able to get Leary a work permit. In years to come Leary was kicked out but the politician never got punished. While we were still there, the tour guide talked about one more hotel. It was known by the name Roblin House. What was notable about this hotel was the entertainment they provided. They would tie bears to telephone poles outside on the sidewalk and this went on for about 10 year. The hotel didn't even stop when a 4 year old was mauled by one of the bears. 

The next stop on the tour was the Electric Railway Chambers. This was the location of the biggest, unsolved robbery in Winnipeg. The value of the money stolen at the time was $87 000, in today's time it would equal to $1.2 million. The money was coming from the Bank of Montreal, which was so close that you could walk there in 5 minutes. The money was being transported by truck and when it arrived at the Electric Railway Chambers, the driver was held at gunpoint. He then drove a short distance before being kicked out by the robbers. The money was never recovered.

The Electric Railway Chambers Building
The tour continued with more stories of Winnipeg's darker side. We talked about the killing of a gang leader  and how the killer didn't get charged. We walked past the Kelly building and were told about the builder, Thomas Kelly and his role in the Legislative Scandal where he stole approximately $1 000 000. 

At Bijoux Park, we stood where the provincial court once was located. This was also the site for 3 hangings, including the first hanging in Western Canada. This was the perfect conclusion to a great tour about a not so great part of Winnipeg's history.

Bijou Park, where the old Provincial Court used to stand

Theatre District Tour

We also went on Exchange District BIZ's  Theatre District tour on Monday. It started off with information on the first theatres in Winnipeg, which were mostly in churches and barns. They usually ended up being really small and one in particular was so small and so hot that it was said if you were to faint, there would be no where to fall.

The Cube Theatre, currently in use for the Fringe Festival
As we had started the tour at Old Market Square, we started with the Cube Theatre. It was built in 2010 and since been used for a number of festivals. Right now it is being used for the Fringe Festival.The Fringe Festival originally started in Edinburgh but they are numerous festivals around the world now. Winnipeg hosts the 3rd largest Fringe Festival in the world. 

At Bijou Park, where the old Provincial Court once stood, the Bijoux Theatre also stood there. Opened on January15, 1906, it hosted mostly vaudeville productions and would become one of the first movie theatres in Winnipeg

The outside of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre
We then went the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. It was built for the working class but was still a grand theatre. Tickets cost 15 cents and to compensate for the low price, the theatre ran 3 shows a day, 6 days a week. The theatre hosts film festivals and was the first stop for many performers hoping to succeed on their way to California. Some famous performers include Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin. It was also the where the debut for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet took place.

An air vent inside one of the lobbies in the Pantage Theatre
The Pantages Playhouse Theatre was founded by Alexander Pantages. Pantages ran away from home at the age of 9 from Greece. He made his way to San Francisco where he worked in bars and theatres where his love for theatres was born. He made his way up to Canada in hope to find gold but was unsuccessful. Instead he made money by giving readings of newspapers to miners. With the money he made he opened his first theatre. He ended up building over 75 theatres but only a few still remain, the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg being one of them. His dying wish was for his theatres to not be made into movie theatres. 

We went to the MTC (Manitoba Theatre Centre). It was founded by John Hirsch and Tom Hendry. The street by the building is dedicated to John Hirsch as he was also the first artistic director at the MTC. The highest grossing production was Keanu Reeves' portrayal of Hamlet. His name still hangs on the dressing room to this day. 

A monument outside the MTC dedicated to Tom Hendry (sitting) and John Hirsch (standing)
 Once again, the Royal Albert Hotel appeared on our tour. It was mentioned because of its bizarre performers used for entertainment. There was a man labelled the "Prince of Steel" whose act included putting needles through his skin. Tom Leary was also an infamous entertainer. He was widely known for promoting LSDs as a stand- up philosopher. The Royal Albert Hotel was a different kind of stage. 

The building that was once the Royal Albert Hotel
That was the last stop before we headed back to Old Market Square. It was fitting to finish the tour there, as the posters for the Fringe Festival reminded us that performers and their art is still appreciated today.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Forks Oral History Walking Tour with the Nepinaks

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

For the month of July, The Forks is offering an Oral History Walking Tour. Running every Wednesday (July 8, 15, 22, & 29) starting at 10:00am, this tour gives you the opportunity to see the Forks through the eyes and interpretations of Clarence & Barbara Nepinak, two Aboriginal elders who have been influential in the creation of The Forks as we know it today. 

Taking 1-2 hours, the tour is a little different each time, as it is taken purely from the memories of your tour guides. There is no registration required and the tour is free, as well as suitable for all ages. Just remember to wear good walking shoes and bring mosquito repellent!

We met for the tour at the front of the St. Boniface Cathedral/La Cathédrale de Saint-Boniface. The Eastbound Number Ten Bus, St. Boniface-Wolseley, will get you from Portage Avenue to within easy walking distance of the Cathedral in about ten to fifteen minutes. You can plan the bus route from your location using the Winnipeg Transit Navigo website

Clarence Nepinak began the tour by giving us a bit of background on his own family history. A member of the Bear Clan, Clarence's ancestors moved from the area around Sault St. Marie, Ontario. As the area became more and more trapped out, they headed west in the 1860s, not unlike many others at the time. Starting the tour at the Cathédrale de Saint-Boniface allowed us to mimic this movement westward, like so many before us. 

Beginning at the Cathédrale also gave us the opportunity to see two important grave sites: that of Chief One Arrow, and that of Louis Riel. Chief One Arrow was an indigenous leader who was incarcerated for his friendship with Louis Riel. He eventually died while still imprisoned, and his final words to the Canadian government, "Do not mistreat my people," are engraved on his tombstone. In 2007, his remains were returned to his home reserve.  

More information about Chief One Arrow can be found here:
Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1982)
Eagle Feather News (September 2007)
Metis Museum Biography
Saskatoon Star Phoenix (2007)

Louis Riel was also briefly mentioned, as well as the controversy and different perceptions of his actions, not only among the settlers but among the indigenous communities. For more information on Louis Riel, visit the Louis Riel House website here.

As we crossed the bridge over the Red River to the Forks, Nepinak gave his version of why it had that name; once there were two groups of people, one on each side of the bank. One group wished to cross the river but the other would not let them; as they attempted to cross the river, they were killed, spilling their blood into the water until it ran red. And thus it is known as the Red River. As Nepinak pointed out, there are likely other versions as to the name of the river, but they likely aren't as good a story.

The bridge itself is beside another, along which is traces the the history of Manitoba back to prehistoric times, with symbolism and imagery to represent Manitobans in all of their diversity. Along with giving us the meanings behind the imagery along the bridge, Nepinak told us stories from his own childhood, such as learning about the importance of environmental awareness during a trip to get wild bird eggs with his grandfather and the belief system behind dreamcatchers.

The Forks is a place for people to meet, a tradition the CMHR seeks to continue. For over 6,000 years, people have been meeting there for one reason or another, the place where two rivers meet. These two rivers can take you in any direction in North America - north or south, east or west. A path made up of squares containing the symbol below leads you across the bridge. Each of the four loops represents each of the four directions these rivers can take you.

Across the bridge we were joined by Barbara Nepinak, who told us about the symbolism of the rocks and water of the fountain nearby. Rocks are like grandfathers, she told us, but water gives life, and thus it is a symbol for women, who are also life-givers. It makes a person look at the fountain quite differently, I must admit. 

Close to the CMHR is a memorial, in the form of a meeting place, to the survivors of residential schools. Nepinak shared with us that he himself was a survivor of the residential school system, having been in one school or another for eleven years of his life. The memorial itself is a beautiful tribute and isolated enough from the rest of the Forks to create a sense of peacefulness.

We also passed by and discussed the stage, the Public Orchard, the Railway Bridge, the Memorial to Missing Aboriginal Women, and finally stopped at the naked eye observatory. I have previously heard the observatory referred to as the "sun dial", but it's purpose, aside from housing a fire pit, is to provide the information and opportunity to view the stars and constellations

Dependent upon the time of year, the tube-like shapes around the exterior have a circle in which a certain star will sit. A helpful guide engraved in the stones around centre circle tells you which ones you should be able to see when. Finally, if one stands in the very centre and speaks, the sound of your voice will echo back to you - try it next time you're there. It's the sort of thing that amuses adults almost as much as the kids.  

The Nepinaks are both dynamic speakers, gifted in holding your attention and enthralling you with their stories. I highly recommend you try out their tour, available only in July 2015!

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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Dalnavert Museum: A New Beginning (with interior photographs!)

Guest Post & Photography by Megan Redmond, Volunteer and Membership Services Coordinator at Dalnavert Museum.  
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

On May 30, 2015, the Dalnavert Museum and Visitors’ Centre reopened to the public during the Doors Open Winnipeg 2015 event. The official reopening on June 1, 2015 was thanks to outstanding community support and a group of dedicated individuals called the Friends of Dalnavert. 

Under their guidance, the meticulously restored home and adjoining community meeting place has started a new chapter in its already colorful history. The refreshed Dalnavert aims not only to respect the past, but also to support the future of our city and its vibrant cultural community.

So what is Dalnavert exactly?

The Early Years

Originally built in 1895, Dalnavert was once the home of Sir Hugh John Macdonald. You might know him as the son of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, but he was also an influential member of Winnipeg’s community during a time when our little city was still the boom town know as the “Gateway to the West.” 

At the time large homes or estates were often given names that were significant to the family. In the case of Dalnavert, Sir Hugh named his home after the Scottish birthplace of his two grandmothers. The original, Scottish Dalnavert was probably once a small village, but today it is only a single residence in Aviemore, Scotland. 

Dalnavert was the third Winnipeg home that Sir Hugh and his family resided in, and the last. It was custom built by a well-known local architect of the time named Charles H. Wheeler, who referred to Dalnavert as “a perfect home.” 

At the time, the house was quite a marvel, featuring central hot water heating in addition to fireplaces, indoor plumbing and electric lighting. These high-end features came at a costly price for the time – $10,500 – over ten times the cost of an average family home in 1895. 

Some of Wheeler’s other architectural works can still be seen in the city today, including the Holy Trinity Church at Graham and Donald. Wheeler also custom-built his own home, but unfortunately, it has since been demolished.

During it’s heyday, Dalnavert provided residence for Sir Hugh, his wife Lady Gertrude and their son Jack. Sir Hugh’s daughter Daisy also came from Toronto to join her father in the home. However, the family members weren’t the only people to live under Dalnavert’s roof. 

The back half of the house features servants’ quarters for maids and a cook. You’ll notice that the interior is strikingly different from the areas the family lived in – on your visit be sure to take note of the simpler floors and wallpapers.

After the Macdonalds

In 1929, Sir Hugh passed away and Lady Gertrude sold the home to live in the apartment block at the corner of Roslyn and Osborne. It was at this point that Dalnavert entered the second stage of its life, this time as a rooming house.

Not much is known about Dalnavert during this time period, but in 1940 it was sold to Eugene and Olivine Rouillard. They converted the home to a ladies-only boarding house. By 1957, the interior of the home had been divided into approximately 17 suites! It’s remarkable to imagine home many people may have at one time called the large house home.

The Restoration

In 1969 Dalnavert was sold to a company called Ronald Developments. It was at this time that Dalnavert was almost lost forever. 

When Dalnavert was built, the area was almost entirely residential, but by the late 60s the area had been transformed by high-rise apartments and Ronald Developments intended the same fate for Dalnavert.   

 The Manitoba Historical Society stepped in and was able to purchase and restore the house with the help of community supporters. 

The restoration process was quite the undertaking, since the layout of the home had changed drastically since it was built. 

Restoration architect, John Chivers, with interior designer, George Walker, lead the intensive process of recreating the Dalnavert of 1895. 

It took nearly four years and $559,000 to achieve this goal through funds raised by the Manitoba Historical Society. 

The house was then furnished through the joint efforts of Kathleen Richardson and Kathleen Campbell, who acquired a collection that creates a truly remarkable late-Victorian experience.

The Dalnavert of Today

Since its restoration in 1974, Dalnavert Museum has relied on the passion and commitment of community members and volunteers. This is still true today. Without dedicated people offering their time and expertise, this historic home and community resource simply would not exist.

The new stewards of the museum, the Friends of Dalnavert are a diverse group of heritage advocates that hope to give Dalnavert yet another chapter in what has already been a colourful life. 

New programming, events and community initiatives are being developed to give visitors a diverse experience at Dalnavert, whether they tour the museum, rent the Visitors’ Centre, browse in the Gift Shop, or even just stroll through the garden.

The museum is open during the summer from 12:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

 You can stay updated on the museum's progress by following their new Facebook and Twitter accounts while they work on developing a website.

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