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

Ghost Signs Whisper of Stories from Brandon's Past

Brandon Sun, June 30, 2017 – David McConkey

“The past is never dead,” American writer William Faulkner once wrote. “It's not even past.”

The past is imprinted on our present. Look at our streets: their shapes, their spectres and their stories.

Soon after Confederation, the federal government began mapping the prairies. The West was to be marked into square mile sections in preparation for settlers, farms, villages, towns and cities.

The survey was a new way to look at the land. This was in contrast to the traditional indigenous way. We still see an evolving interplay of perspectives and peoples.

The survey got stalled in 1869 when it conflicted with the Métis inhabitants of the Red River settlement. This resulted in a rebellion and creation of the province of Manitoba. The survey carried on and the railway followed. Red River became the city of Winnipeg.
In 1881, General Thomas Rosser, chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, chose the location for the future city of Brandon. A few settlers had already established their homesteads at that spot. Those settlers became the first residents of the new city.
The streets of Brandon are patterned on the survey. Streets run north-south, numbered east and west from First St. Lots are numbered east and west from First and north and south from the tracks. So city streets reflect the order of the survey and the central place of the CPR.

Avenues run east-west. The early names reveal the sensibilities of the founders. One important avenue takes the name of the city’s creator, General Rosser. The CPR is remembered by Pacific Ave. Other main avenues denote the loyalty to royalty: Queen Victoria, her daughter Princess Louise and her husband (who served as Governor-General), the Marquis of Lorne. 

The city’s main thoroughfares follow the mile roads. First and 18th and Victoria and Richmond border the one square mile designated as “14-10-19 WPM” – Section 14, Township 10, Range 19, West of the Principal Meridian.

(Winnipeg still reflects the pre-survey understanding of the land. Streets flow alongside and out from the rivers; lots are numbered outward from the rivers.)   

The earliest commercial centre of Brandon was at Sixth and Rosser, near the first train station. A few years later, the centre of the city could be identified as 10th and Rosser. It was at this corner in 1911 that Mayor Fleming drove the first spike for the new Brandon Street Railway.

The streetcars ran until 1932 and circumscribed the key parts of the city during the first decades of the 20th century. The cars travelled along Rosser and Princess through downtown: west to 24th and east to First. They also went down 10th and 13th to the Exhibition Grounds.

Later, the centre of the city would move from downtown to 18th St. But does the heart of the city still beat on Rosser between Sixth and 10th? 

Brandon’s streets resonate with ghosts and stories. Some stories are re-told in the memories of citizens; on historical plaques and monuments; in museums and archives; through books and films, and in commemorative publications like the one you are now reading. 

Stories are also remembered when celebrating anniversaries. This year we mark the 135th of the City of Brandon, The Brandon Sun and the Provincial Exhibition.

Stories are also re-told at events like the upcoming “Doors Open - Brandon” on the July 15 - 16 weekend. Please join me for a walking tour where I will relate stories of the downtown. For more information: the city’s Heritage Marketing Coordinator at 204-729-2117 or heritagebrandon.ca.

“Ghost signs” on some walls hint at the past. These are old painted advertisements that are still visible on buildings that are being put to new uses. Signs of the past can be also seen as inscriptions carved into the stone of original structures. 

Sometimes there are only whispers of stories and ghosts. Take the old Winter Fair site on Victoria where the police station is now. For more than half a century, the arena and exhibition buildings at that location hosted fairs and other events. How many stories!

As well, there are ghosts from the times the Winter Fair facilities were conscripted into two unusual uses a century ago. The first was to house hundreds of patients from the insane asylum on the north hill, after it burned down in 1910. The second was to imprison hundreds of enemy aliens during the First World War.

As a community, let’s remember our ghosts.

And tell our stories.

* * * *
See also: 

Growth of Brandon has been Quite the Journey

An Education Lesson From 100 Years Ago

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Citizen Active

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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