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208 Princess Street – Carriages, Cars and Community

The Red and Assiniboine Rivers were the first mode of transportation in the burgeoning settlement that would become Winnipeg. Canoes traversed the muddy waters, followed by York boats, barges, flatboats and steamboats. The floods in the spring, rapids in the summer and ice in the winter all made the river a challenging route to take. But travelling by land was no easier.  Meandering foot trails followed the paths of the rivers, laying the foundation for the later Portage Avenue and Main Street. Red River Ox Carts soon took to the trails, a painstakingly slow mode of transport but capable of carrying nearly a half ton load over the unforgiving terrain.  Stagecoaches appeared for a brief seven years, disappearing with the arrival of the first train from St. Paul, Minnesota on December 7th, 1878.  

The Red River Ox Cart was used to transport freight over rough prairie terrain.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
Prominent citizens of Winnipeg were determined to see the city flourish, lobbying to ensure the Canadian Pacific Railway would bring its groundbreaking transcontinental railway through the city. In 1886 the railway arrived, further spurring the growth of the city. Expansion that originally followed the old trails along the rivers now followed the steel tracks of the railway, further creating a sprawling urban jungle.

The growing city was clearly in need of improved transportation, although the pioneering attempt at public transportation in 1877 was considered a failure in just one day. It was not until 1882 that a successful streetcar company took to the roads, with horse cars on rails in the summer and horse drawn sleighs in winter. Although the streetcar’s popularity did not initially explode as the horses slowly slogged through the muddy streets, demand did increase enough that by 1891 Winnipeg introduced electric streetcars. 

Capitalizing on the growing demand for transportation in Winnipeg was the McLaughlin Carriage Company. The company was started by Robert McLaughlin, a farmer from Ontario, who fell into the carriage business by accident, having sold his first sleigh to a neighbor who just happened to see it. With a growing reputation for the finest quality sleighs and wagons, McLaughlin went on to open a carriage plant in Oshawa and was quickly overwhelmed with more orders than he could possible fill. With two of his sons, George and Robert Samuel, McLaughlin began expanding westward, first to Saint John, New Brunswick and later westward.

Robert McLaughlin was the founder of the McLaughlin Carriage Company.
Source: Harvey Historical Society
By 1902, the McLaughlin Carriage Company arrived in Winnipeg and began construction on their own warehouse and showroom at 208 Princess Avenue. Located on the northwest corner of the block, the building was designed by Ontario architect James H. Cadham in the Romanesque Revival style. Cadham was a self trained architect, prolific in Winnipeg during the early 1900s, designing many of the buildings in the area that later became known as the Exchange District. For $20,000, a three story buff brick building was erected, with a heavy stone foundation, the rhythmic placement of windows in bays topped with graceful arches, all capped with a detailed dental cornice. The east façade facing Princess Street featured two large plate glass windows on the ground floor flanking the central main entrance. The south façade facing Ross Avenue was also finely dressed, featuring a single plate glass window on the corner and advertising painted on the wall above.

The McLaughlin Carriage Company in Winnipeg at 208 Princess in 1903.
Source: City of Winnipeg
The McLaughlin Company quickly found success in Winnipeg. By 1906 construction started on an expansion on the north side of their building, doubling their space. The same architect designed the expansion, at a cost of $20,700. Built with the same materials and in the same style as the original, the main distinguishing feature from the original building is the slightly wider window bays. Interestingly, the addition was never tied into the original building, resulting in some separation of the old and new facades over time.

The Princess Street facade shows the original building on the left and
the new additional on the right, seen here in 2015.
Source: City of Winnipeg
Inside, the building was supported by square timber posts and beams, with wood flooring.  Metal fire doors separated the old and new parts of the building and an ornamental tin ceiling was featured on the first and second floor of the original section of the building. There was also a freight elevator and walk in safe. The ground floor was used as a showroom while the upper two floors were used as storage, supposedly capable of holding “65 carloads of carriages” (City of Winnipeg).

An ad for the McLaughlin Carriage Company.
Source: City of Winnipeg
The start of the 20th century was a time of great change in Winnipeg, with innovation creating rapid change. On June 14, 1901, the first private automobile arrived in Winnipeg, ushering in a new era. The introduction of private automobiles did not spell the end of the horse era in Winnipeg, which was good for the McLaughlin Company, for McLaughlin had dismissed automobiles as a passing fad. Roads were being paved and progressed moved forward, with more and more automobiles taking to the new asphalt.

By 1907 McLaughlin’s sons were finally able to convince their father that they should produce automobiles. They set about creating the McLaughlin Motor Car Company and were just starting production when their engineer fell ill. The McLaughlin’s turned to an old friend, Bill Durant, who was working for the Buick Motor Company. An agreement was struck - Buick would provide the engines for the automobiles and McLaughlin would provide the rest of the parts. By 1908, the McLaughlin Company produced 154 automobiles, soon advertising its new products in Winnipeg.

A 1909 McLaughlin Buick, a brand favoured by Canadians.
Source: Generations of GM History
Although the new automobile company struggled, the McLaughlin brand was a favourite of Canadians, dominating the streets of Winnipeg in 1912. During the same year there were still over 6,000 horses plodding through the streets of the city, hauling freight and delivering essential services. By 1915 the McLaughlin’s conceded that carriages were becoming a relic of the past, selling their carriage company after producing 270,000 carriages. The same year the McLaughlin Company began producing Chevrolets, further investing in the automobile business.

A picture from the February 12, 1916 Manitoba Free Press,
showing the inside of the showroom at 208 Princess Street in Winnipeg.
Source: City of Winnipeg
In 1918 the McLaughlin Motor Company was sold to General Motors of Canada. George was appointed vice president and Robert Samuel was appointed president of the new company. They remained at the Princess Street building until 1924, when they moved to a different Winnipeg location. The building stood empty for nearly a decade after the McLaughlin Company left, eventually reopening as the Princess Street Dining Hall, as a soup kitchen that fed citizens during the 1930s depression. In 1942 the building was purchased the Beatty Brothers Limited, manufactures of farm implements. The building subsequently changed hands again in the 1970s, with various businesses occupying the space throughout the decades, until its final use as a storage facility. Despite changing owners, much of the building has remained unchanged, with minor alterations taking place on the ground floor.

Heritage Winnipeg would like to support the proper redevelopment and reuse of this important heritage building. Mixed used with retail on the ground floor and commercial/residential on the top floors would be ideal.  Allowing this historic building to once again make a significant contribution to the urban landscape of Winnipeg's downtown and the Exchange District, a national historic site.

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


City of Winnipeg

Generations of GM History

Harvey Historical Society

Manitoba Historical Society

The Manchester of Canada

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