David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Discovering Historic Downtown Brandon

Brandon Sun, October 24, 2011 - David McConkey

I had a great time researching and guiding a historic downtown walking tour in July, part of “Doors Open Brandon.” It is an excellent way to see the city with fresh eyes, learn some local history, and meet some good people.

The walking tour was anchored by the heritage sites along Rosser Avenue and grew out of one created last year by local historian Ken Storie. I added some of my ideas, including my interest in two tragedies that hit Brandon in January 1916.

(One of the stops on the tour: 10th and Rosser. On this spot, exactly 100 years ago this month, Mayor Fleming drove the first spike for the new streetcar tracks.)

Tour participants shared their own stories. They also asked about more sources of information, of which there are many.

The tour sponsor, the Brandon Municipal Heritage Committee, has an informative website Heritage Brandon about the patrimony of the city. The website has a walking tour of 61 homes – most over a century old – around Stanley Park. As well, it has a listing of another 250 buildings of architectural or historical significance. There are also links to other sources, like the S.J. McKee Archives at Brandon University.

The Brandon Sun has been chronicling the life of the city since the earliest days. Old issues can be read on microfilm at the Brandon library, or online at manitobia.ca.

Finally, the Brandon Municipal Cemetery is a wonderful (but often overlooked) part of the city. Here one can contemplate and connect with community citizens and stories of the past. Check out the annual theatrical presentation “Gossip in the Graveyard,” the City’s cemetery walking tour, and the book series Every Stone a Story: Manitoba's Buried History.

Now, what about those two 1916 tragedies?

The first was the snow train wreck on Jan. 12, 1916.

A freight train crashed into another train involved in clearing snow after a blizzard. Nineteen men were killed, making it Canada’s ninth worst train disaster.

One was Scottish-born George McGhie, a CPR section foreman. He was buried in the Brandon cemetery. 
The other 18 were day labourers. All born in eastern Europe, they lived in the “flats” on the north side of the tracks. They had signed up for the grueling work of shoveling snow in the bitter cold.

From the Brandon Daily Sun:

“They are chiefly married men who had applied for the work . . . [CPR officials] state that they are the only class of men that can be procured for the work, being a hardy type and driven to undertaking the work by necessity to get food for themselves and their families.”

They were buried in one row in the cemetery. (Today, however, most of the graves are not marked.)

The men: Michael Balawyder, Wasyl Balicki, Stephen Batycki, Joseph Bielawski, Joe Dryla, Stephen Greskow, Anthony Jarnowski, Ignace Kucharsky, John Lacarski, John Lisawski, Shenik Lowestian, Andrew Malnozok, Alex Meskowski, Harry Moroz, Mike Robeck, Tony Rutkowsky, Antoni Rzemyk, and Wasyl Sojczik.   

The second tragedy occurred five days later, on Jan. 17, 1916.

A fire destroyed the three-storey Syndicate Block on the southwest corner of Seventh and Rosser. Four employees died in the fire.

Three were single women in their early 20s. They worked as dressmakers at Doig, Rankin & Robertson, the department store that occupied much of the building. Sadie Eggertson, Jane Marsh, and Caroline McCort were buried in the Brandon cemetery.

The other was Clarence Walker, head of household furnishings at the store. Walker, who had moved to Brandon from Halifax a few years earlier, was married with a one-year-old daughter. (He was buried in Halifax.)

A public inquiry into the fire convened soon after and met in the city council chamber. The inquiry discovered that amidst the disaster there had been some moments of genuine heroism. (Remember this was before modern fire alarms and safety procedures.)

From the Sun:

“Reggie Wells, the 16-year-old elevator boy was warmly complimented by the Fire Commissioner for his bravery in running the elevator to the top and second floor when the flames were fast getting hold of the elevator shaft.

“A hush fell over the council chamber when the boy said he distinctly heard the dressmaking machines still at work when he got to the top floor and called to the employees there to come quickly . . .

“[The Fire Commissioner] shook the boy warmly by the hand and . . . told him he had played the part of a man and of a real hero.”

* * * *
See also:  

Historic Downtown Brandon Walking Tour

Take a Brandon Ghost Walking Tour

Murder and Mayhem in the Brandon Cemetery

Walking Tour of East End Brandon History

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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