Thursday, 26 October 2017

Haunted Heritage

Guest post by Matthew Komus, tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba’s historical sites and museums.

As Halloween will soon be upon us it seems like a good time to talk about heritage and hauntings. A great number of heritage buildings are said to be haunted. This should not be unexpected as supernatural and heritage worlds both share a common connection to the past. This connection is especially true when talking about museums. Museums are places that showcase the past. They exhibit to the visitor the way we used to live but they can be much more than that. As Jay Winters says: “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them.”[i] The theme of reflection fits well with the spirit world. If museums function as the connection between the past and the present, and ghosts come from the past to visit the present, it should not be surprising the museums would often find themselves the home of supernatural activity.

In the early 1900s Winnipeg was growing rapidly and plans were drawn up to build several new fire halls in a short period of time. The typical hall consisted of “beige-coloured brick exteriors, two floors, three or four apparatus bays, and characteristic three-story tower for draining and drying fire hose.”[ii] The No. 3 hall was a special case. The hall was to be located on Maple Street just back from Higgins Avenue and the Canadian Pacific Station. The city leaders realized this meant thousands of tourists and new arrivals to Winnipeg would view the station only minutes after arriving in the city. This resulted in the No. 3 hall having far more ornamentation then the other buildings.

Fire Hall No. 3 with the Canadian Pacific Station in the background.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Station No. 3 was the oldest operating fire hall in western Canada when it was closed in 1990. The building found a new role as the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg. On exhibit are numerous wagons, vehicles and equipment from over a hundred years of fighting fires in Winnipeg.

The museum is home to more than just artifacts; it has a live-in apparition. The ghost apparently has a keen interest in what’s going on at the museum. One instance took place when a volunteer was performing maintenance work on one of the old fire engines. Busy with his work he was not paying much attention to his surroundings. The volunteer then felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. Annoyed to be interrupted he looked up to see what was so urgent, only to realize no one was standing next to him. The volunteer really started to feel a chill when he realized the museum was closed and no one else is in the building. There have been many incidents similar to this and the firefighters think they know who is haunting the station.

The No. 3 hall was equipped with four fire poles to ensure a speedy response. On June 9th, 1915 the station was responding to a house fire when twenty-five year-old firefighter Peter McRae somehow lost his grip while sliding down the pole and fell hard onto the floor below. The fall resulted in McRae’s death. It was a tragic accident for the fire hall, to lose the young Scottish fire fighter but an even great tragedy for his wife and two young sons. The firefighters believe it is McRae’s ghost that continues to keep an eye on things.

Fire Hall No. 3.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Haunted buildings tend to be spread throughout Winnipeg but in the case of the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia, two spooky buildings are located only feet apart. The St. James Museum uses exhibits and programs to tell the story of the communities of St. Francis-Xavier, Headingley, St. Charles and St. James. The museum consists of three buildings, the Brown House, a Red River Frame cabin built in 1856, the former Municipal Hall of St. James-Assiniboia, built in 1911, and a newer building used for displays and events.

The Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
The Brown House was not originally located on the museum site. Instead it was located in the parish of Headingley along the Assiniboine River. The Brown House has a kitchen, parlour and dining room on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. The house remains largely unchanged from its original appearance. To help create the appearance of being back in time the museum has furnished the home with period appropriate pieces. The house was named for its builder and first owner William Brown. Born in 1809, Brown came to the Red River Settlement in 1830 in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After eleven years with the Company, Brown retired and begin a new life as a farmer. He would pass away in the home he built in 1891 at age 82.

The Brown House is now used by the museum to stage re-enactments of what early farm life would have been like in the settlement. Summer students are hired to play the various roles of the Brown family. Over the years the summer students have witnessed a number of unexplained events in the house. These events include doors slamming shut by themselves even when there is no breeze. Open windows have also slammed shut even though the windows are very tight to open and in some cases have even had sticks holding them in place. Two students once witnessed the lid of an antique trunk rise up and then slam shut without any touching it. Staff have locked the house up for the night only to come back the next morning and find chairs and other items have been moved around.

The Brown House at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Many of the museum staff have heard children’s voices in the home and suspect the ghost may be that of a little girl. The house features an old checker board and it is not uncommon to find the checkers have been rearranged as if someone was playing a game over night. If the ghost is a child, she seems to enjoy the company of other kids. If no school tours have visited the house in some time the ghost is known to cause more trouble.

Located just west of the Brown House is the Municipal Hall. It is an attractive two-story brick building with a stone foundation and cupola above the front door. It was built in 1911 for the Rural Municipality of Assiniboia, which was later merged into the city of St. James-Assiniboia. The town hall held administrative offices on the main floor and the council chamber on the second floor. At one time there was even a police station and jail cell in the basement.

The Municipal Hall at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Due to all of the supernatural events the museum has, on occasion, had psychics visit. One medium was going through the town hall when she had a vision of a tall man in a military uniform. This vision connects to one of the most unnerving incidents in the museum. A summer student was working in the town hall when a tall man dressed in a military uniform came in. He asked her for information about an old air field in the area. She told him she would look it up and turned her back to try and find the information. Her back was turned only for a few seconds but when she looked back the man was gone. The student was positive she did not hear the door open. She walked through the building to make sure the man had not just wandered off but he was nowhere to be found.

The following stories are recounted in great detail in 
Haunted Winnipeg: Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent
Haunted Winnipeg may be found HERE

Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk can be found at

[i] Winter, Jay. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2009: 34.
[ii] City of Winnipeg. 56 Maple Street - Fire Hall No. 2. Winnipeg, 1990.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The Stories Our Buildings Tell: Tragedy and Mystery in North Point Douglas

Guest post by Greg Agnew, Heritage Winnipeg Board Member
Edited by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Behind the buff brick walls of 187 Sutherland Avenue in Winnipeg hides a story of mystery and intrigue. An unassuming two story building in the North Point Douglas neighbourhood, the façade gives no hint as to what tragedy transpired there in 1928. Cheerful arches with decorative keystones grace the entrance and windows on the front façade, with a brick cornice detail running along the roofline, giving no suggestion of heartache. In a neighbourhood where immigrants came to start a new life, a little girl’s life was cut short leaving unanswered questions that haunted those involved for years to come.

In 1812, the Selkirk Settlers arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. With Fort Gibraltar already established by the North West Company at this location, Governor Miles Macdonell choose to lead the settlers further north along the Red River, to an area on the west side which had been cleared by fire in recent years. The land was divided into long narrow river lots for settlers in the north, the colony’s buildings on the narrow point of land to the south and “King’s Highway” (which would become modern day Main Street) meandering through it all. It was in this area that the settlers would soon build Fort Douglas, named after Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, the reigning Lord Selkirk in 1812. It was the site of conflict for many years, as the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company (aligned with the Selkirk Settlers) struggled for power. Destruction, reconstruction, struggle and strife all finally ended in 1821, when the two warring companies merged, with the fort still standing. It took a force of nature, a flood in 1826, to wash away Fort Douglas forever.

Fort Douglas on the banks of the Red River in 1817.
Source: Douglas Archives
Although the fort was lost, the name remained, with the narrow point of land carved out by the Red River becoming known as Point Douglas.  The neighbourhood was a growing settlement, with streets, houses, schools and churches being built and businesses being opened. Many of Winnipeg’s founding families, the Ashowns, Bannatynes, McDermonts, Logans and Schultzes called the area home. For most of the 19th century, Point Douglas was a prestigious place to call home, with many elegant houses filling the neighbourhood.

In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived, with its tracks running right down the center of Point Douglas, cutting the neighborhood into two. North Point Douglas remained a residential area, while South Point Douglas was more commercial. The presences of the noisy trains and the unpleasant industry growing up around it drove many of the residence away, replaced with working class immigrants of non-British origin. North Point Douglas soon became an immigrant community, where people could shop, worship and speak as they did in the homeland. Yet through this change, the original buildings of the area stood unfazed, a reminded of a time of prosperity and promise. Many of the areas larger homes were divided into boarding houses while single family homes where tucked between the stately old homes.

Point Douglas in 1912, the narrow point of land surrounded by the Red River on three sides.
Source: CBC News Manitoba and Achieves of Manitoba
It was into this North Point Douglas, filled with old homes and new immigrants that Julian Johnson was born. By 1928 Julian was five and a half year old little girl that lived a happy life at 138 Austin St. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Julia was a pretty girl of about 40 pounds, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and a pale complexion. She lived with her mother, her father Anton, who was a construction worker, her sister Bernice, 11, her brother John, 16, and brother Joseph, 13. The family was of Polish decent and by no means wealthy.

On April 25th of 1928 Julia was playing outside while waiting for her sister and the next door neighbor, Elizabeth Kral, to come home from school so they could play together. Julia was a shy, quiet little girl. She was taught not to talk to strangers and to always stay close to home. Her mother was washing clothes in the kitchen around 1:30pm when Julia went outside to play.   Julia was wearing a red and black dress that her mother made for her and little black shoes that just had a new sole put on one. With fawn stockings, a sweater and brown toque, she was ready to go outside and play. It was a mild day, with the temperature around 0ºC and no rain in sight.

Julia’s mother would call out to her daughter periodically, with Julia coming in to tell her mother what she was doing. She would tell her mother she was just playing with her favorite tennis ball, or that she was watching the “gas man” as he made his rounds. Around 3:30pm, Julian’s mother got a strange feeling. She called out for Julia, but here was no answer. She went out the front door and called again, but still no answer. Mrs. Kral, the neighbour, came out and told her she had just seen Julia a few minutes ago playing with her ball, bouncing it against her house. They immediately searched the area, calling out, but could not find Julia. The Kral’s son Alfred came home from school just before 4pm, and when asked, he said he had not seen her along the way.

It was not like Julia to disappear and so after the search continued fruitlessly for a short time, the police were called. Constable Thomas McKim got the call on his callbox #4 as he made his rounds in the area, so he responded to the Johnson home and joined in the search. Nothing turned up to give them any clue as to where Julia was. When Julian’s father, Anton, arrived home he started searching the entire area with the help of her brothers and some school kids that knew Julia. They searched the neighborhood and along the riverbank looking for clues or footprints, but found nothing. Panic set in and the family was stricken with anxiety.

The case was turned over to the detective division as suspected foul play. Inspector R. Macdonald, in Division E, was put in charge of the case. Chief Detective George Smith, Sargent Fred Batho, Sargent Charles Maciver, and Detective Alex Kolomic were assigned to the case and the search for clues started in haste.

Nathan Taplinsky owned the blacksmith shop at 190 Sutherland, just a half block away from the Johnson’s home. He had seen Julia around 2:00pm with some other children playing in the yard that he used for storing his wagon and material. It was a dangerous area for kids to play in and he chased them out. Mrs. Newmark indicated that she and her son talked to Julia on Austin Street in front of her house at around 3:15-3:30pm. The neighbor, Mrs. Kral, said Julia was bouncing her ball against her house somewhere around 3:45pm.

A search started that took up the whole Point Douglas area and continued all the way to St. Johns Avenue past Redwood. Every home, building, back yard, river bank was checked by the police with the help of the local citizens, as well as a Boy Scouts troupe that offered to help.   Tons of metal in piles were searched in back yards, alleys and businesses. Anywhere where a small girl could hide was searched and then searched again but nothing.

Julia Johnson's family offered a reward of $50,
which was a large sun of money for a poor family n 1928.
Sadly, it was speculated that Julia had been abducted and as the search continued the family was starting to losing hope and Mrs. Johnson became bedridden with grief. The search went on for months but with no new leads, and the detectives were at a standstill. The case was not closed, but put aside, with the detectives continuing to monitor it for any breaks.

The family could not live in the home anymore because of the memories and moved to 1105 St. Mary’s Road. Detective George Smith became Chief Constable in 1934, and he never dropped the case, but like the others, he watched over it looking for a possible break. Every two weeks, Mrs. Johnson and her husband Anton would go to the police station and ask Chief Smith if there was any new leads as he always gave them time. He had become close to the Johnsons and wanted to relieve their pain by solving the case, which is why it was never closed even though it went cold.

 In 1937, 187 Sutherland Avenue was sold to Muzeen & Blythe, a machine shop company. They were preparing the building for their business, clearing out a lot of scrap and equipment in the building from its soda bottling days. One item was the old boiler that sat in the basement. Wilfred Adams had the task of dismantling the boiler so it could be removed. To his horror, when he took off the back cover, there was a gruesome discovery - small skeleton was inside. The police were called and when word reached the station George Smith and Alex Kolomic rushed to the scene.

187 Sutherland Avenue in North Point Douglas, seen at the center of the photo.
There in the boiler were the remains of a small girl bent over so her head had almost touched her feet. A brown toque and a ball with a tear in it were found by the body. The Johnson’s son John came down and identified the body by the ball, toque, and what was left of the dress Julia was wearing the day she disappeared. It was devastating news for the family, as they always had hope that she was alive somewhere.

The case was then reopened and the search for new clues began. It had been nine years since Julia’s disappearance. People had passed and memories had grown foggy, but the detectives continued on. During the course of their investigation, they discovered Mr. Hamilton, who owned 187 Sutherland Avenue, closed the business down on April 7, 1928. The building was boarded up and the doors locked. He went to the blacksmith shop of Nathan Taplinsky and left a key there for the meter man, which was hung on a post by the door. Nathan and his assistant denied having the key, but a former worker testified that there was a key on the post, although he not knowing what it was for. A meterman also said he got the key from Nathan to read the meter and he hung it back up at the blacksmith shop afterwards.

Florian Kovacs, a neighbour, said he saw Julia talking with a bearded man, walking and holding hands. No one saw or knew of this man and Julia, known for her shyness, would never talk to strangers. The premises of 187 Sutherland Avenue, including the boiler, had been searched more than once, but because the body had been pushed right to the back into a cavity, it was never found. A metal tube was found by the boiler, which could have been used to push Julia’s body back and cause her hip to dislocate, as noted by the corner.

A coroners hearing was held after police were given time to reopen the case and look for new clues. When they presented what they had found, the jury at the inquest hearing was not satisfied. There were too many discrepancies in the witnesses’ testimonies in 1928 and in 1937.

Who would do such a thing? Why was the ball found with the body? If foul play was suspected and she was lured into the building, why were no screams heard? Surly she would have screamed if she did not know the person. She did just that two weeks before she disappeared! She ran home and told her mother the “boogey man” was after her. It took her mother almost two hours to calm her down. The building at 187 Sutherland Avenue is only 60 feet from the back of her home so her mother would have heard her screams for sure.

187 Sutherland Avenue still stands in North Point Douglas today,
steadfast in its silence, the only witness to what really happened to Julia Johnson.
Unfortunately, too many unanswered questions never got answered. Little Julia was buried March 30, 1937 and laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery.  The case was closed as unsolved in June of 1937 and remains a mystery to this day. Only the walls know what really transpired at 187 Sutherland Avenue that heartbreaking day in 1928.


CBC News Maniotba

Douglas Archives

Manitoba Historical Society

Neighborhoods of Winnipeg

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Heritage Heroes: Historic Oak Room Preserved for a New Chapter in Our History

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

In 1904, two referendums on prohibition had failed to ban liquor in Manitoba. A livery stable stood at 285 Smith Street in Winnipeg and the 31 year old, Winnipeg based Dominion Express Company opened the doors to it new stables at 108-112 Alexander Avenue. Fast forward 113 years to 2017: Manitoba’s three year old Liquor and Gaming Control Act is the first major liquor legislative update since 1956, and the St. Regis Hotel at 285 Smith Street is set to be demolished for a parkade and a new micro distillery is opening in the former Dominion Express Company Building. The three events may seem unconnected, but they are set to join forces and make new history with Winnipeg’s heritage.

Liquor has been legislated in Canada since 1657, with the Hudson’s Bay Company playing a large role in the control of liquor sales until 1870. Eight years later in 1878, a provincial liquor commission was established in Manitoba, which decided the bar to people ratio in the province should be 1:300. By 1883 Manitoba attained the right to grant licenses for liquor sales to various retailers, until the majority of liquor sales were quashed by prohibition in 1916. With few legal options for consuming liquor, bootleggers thrived, speakeasies opened and medical prescriptions for liquor skyrocketed. Yet despite this apparent thirst for liquor, prohibition held fast until 1921, when liquor became available through a Manitoba government agency.

The Hudson's Bay Company liquor store in Winnipeg in 1899.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation 
Liquor laws continue to evolve through the decades, with the Liquor Control Act of 1956 becoming the major legislative guide for the next 58 years. Finally in 2014, the new Liquor and Gaming Control Act was enacted. Balancing “consumer choice and business flexibility within a framework of public safety and social responsibility” (Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba). These new regulations are seen as a slight loosening of laws, designed to grow and adapt with modern society’s changing views on liquor consumption.

Much like Manitoba’s liquor laws, 285 Smith Street had also undergone great changes through the decades. By 1910 the livery stables had been replaced with the Rookery Block, a two story mixed use building. This incarnation of the building was quickly expanded upwards to four stories, becoming the St. Regis Hotel. The hotel officially opened on July 12, 1911, as a modern hotel with the latest amenities, boasting “superior cuisine and service” (Manitoba Free Press).

An undated photo of Smith Street looking north towards Portage Avenue,
with the St. Regis Hotel on the left side of the frame.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
The St. Regis offered outstanding dining in a restaurant originally called the Grill Room. Outfitted with a French trained chef, the 130 seat restaurant was designed in the Moorish style with an abundance of oak finishes. An oak coffered ceiling was supported by carved oak corbels that sat at the top of decorative oak columns, while tall oak paneling continuously clade the walls. A row of heavily cased oak arched doorways contained beautifully glazed double oak doors, with mullions gracefully following the curves of the door. Additional doorways were squared off, with solid, imposing oak doors set inside them. Anchoring the room was a set of oak cased stained glass window flanking a substantial fireplace with an oak mantel that nearly reached the ceiling. It was a room filled with grandeur, built with quality materials, and superior craftsmanship that could easily stand the test of time.

The fine oak details of the Oak Room remained relatively unchanged for the St. Regis Hotel's 100+ year history.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
In the late 1940s, the hotel was undergoing one of many renovations, which included the dining room surrounded in oak, hence being renamed the Oak Room. The name was well suited for the room, and it was still in use when the hotel closed in mid 2017. The room that had hosted countless events and was enshrined in the hearts and memories of many Winnipeggers was sadly set to be demolished. Over one hundred years of history was going to be lost forever and replaced with a parkade. Heritage Winnipeg disagreed with the earlier decision but the city did not deem the hotel worthy of designation, which would have protected it from demolition.

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg’s East Exchange District, instead of being destroyed, a different heritage building was being giving a second chance. 113 years after opening, the Dominion Express Company Building was still standing proudly, unfazed by the passage of time. The three story buff brick building designed by John Woodman was relatively unadorned aside from brick dentil cornicing on the second and third floors, to arched entrances proclaiming “DOMINION EXPRESS CO” above them in stone arches, and a peculiar small, round window on the second floor of the front façade. The building had originally functioned as a stable and warehouse, from which packages where shipped to and from, similar to a modern day UPS.

The Dominion Express Company Building at 108-112 Alexander Avenue, seen here in 2014.
Source: Google Maps
Although much of the Exchange District had undergone a renaissance in the 1980s, the Dominion Express Company Building seemed to have been forgotten. Nowhere to be found on the City of Winnipeg List of Historical Resources or nominated list, it was left to owner Leon A. Brown to ensure the priceless piece of Winnipeg’s heritage was preserved. Fortunately for the building, they understand the value of our built heritage and they are committed to its reuse. His efforts have been so substantial that in 2017 Heritage Winnipeg recognized their work with a Distinguished Service Award at the 32nd Annual Heritage Winnipeg Preservation Awards.

Recently the owners of the Dominion Express Building have welcomed Brock Coutts, another admirer of Winnipeg's built heritage, as a tenet. Thanks to the modernization of Manitoba’s liquor laws, Coutts was planning on opening an artisanal distillery in the building at 108-112 Alexander Avenue when he heard about the demolition of the St. Regis Hotel and the plight of the Oak Room. With no government willing or able to contribute any funding to remove and reuse historic elements of the Oak Room, Coutts gallantly stepped forward to offer to rescue the timeless oak features of the aged dining room. In addition to spending their own resources to remove the oak, they wanted to provide these stunning elements with a home in the new distillery, which would be open to the public via a 50 person tasting room.

As efforts to find public funding to save the Oak Room failed, Heritage Winnipeg was elated by the generous offer by Coutts. Preserving built heritage and making it available to the public while repurposing another heritage building was making the best of the loss of the St. Regis Hotel. The two owners and developers of the St. Regis site, Fortress Real Developments and Edenshaw Developments were happy and accommodating, working with Heritage Winnipeg and Coutts, allowing for the removal of the Oak Room. As demolition loomed, no time was wasted in removing the precious wood and storing it safely at the Dominion Express Company Building. It was a perfect partnership between the private and non-profit sector.

The Oak Room in August 2017 as the historic element were being removed.
Source: Patent 5 Distillery
On October 10, 2017, Coutts, with the support of Heritage Winnipeg, received unanimous approval for his micro distillery from the City of Winnipeg Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage and Downtown Development. Called Patent 5 Distillery, it is named after the fifth patent to be issued in the Dominion of Canada, which was for a distillery in 1867. The Oak Room will be featured in the approximately 600 square foot tasting room where the micro distilled gin, vodka and whisky will be available for sampling and purchase. 

The historic element of the Oak Room are being safely stored at 108-112 Alexander Avenue
until they can be installed in Patent 5 Distillery's new tasting room.
Source: Patent 5 Distillery
Proving that all things old can be reused and become a successful part of our social fabric once again!

To learn more about the history of the St. Regis Hotel, read 

The St. Regis Hotel – Paradise Lost to a Parkade

If you'd like to see more archival photos of the historic Oak Room, visit the Heritage Winnipeg Facebook page and check out our St. Regis Hotel album!


Biographical Dictionary of Architect in Canada 1800-1950

CBC News

City of Winnipeg

Google Maps,+Winnipeg,+MB+R3B+0L2/@49.900467,-97.1329219,3a,90y,234.25h,109.42t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skjcNLbFNLue3wBsDUYhOmA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x52ea71424f8a14e1:0x4de48f39f085540a!8m2!3d49.9003983!4d-97.1330199

Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation

Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba

Manitoba Free Press

Toronto Railway Historical Association

Winnipeg Cab History

Winnipeg Downtown Places

Winnipeg Free Press