Well here we are. Beginning another semester on a big stretch of aspen parkland on the banks of the Assiniboine river. Most of us don’t give much thought as to what preceded our existence in a place and prefer not to think of ourselves as a data point on a census.
After the glaciers of the last ice age receded in southwest Manitoba about 10,000 years ago, the land was home to people who would become known as the Ojibwa, Cree, Dene, Sioux, Mandan, and Assiniboine groups. Although the area’s history doesn’t start in the 1880s, most information readily available to the public regarding Brandon’s past starts with the era that saw a great influx of Quebec and Maritime Protestants followed by British and American immigrants.
The expanse of a city we now inhabit was first imagined by a boat of people, carrying goods upstream from Winnipeg to Fort Ellice, a Hudson Bay Post on the Assiniboine near todays St. Lazare.
The south bank of the Assiniboine was empty, but the north bank housed a bourgeoning town named Grand Valley. Grand Valley was settled by two brothers; John and Dougal McVicar in the 1870s. Although the exact location of the westward extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway had not yet been determined, routes through Minnedosa or Rapid City had been considered. With this expectation, regular voyages made by steamwheelers brought increasing numbers of settlers from the east.
In Spring of 1881, citizens of Grand Valley were thrilled to find out that the railway powers that be had decided on a more westerly route Winnipeg. The McVicar brothers jumped at the chance for their humble settlement to become a railway trade hub when the CPR sent a scout to decide on the divisional point for a townsites along the railway. This scout was Thomas L. Rosser, who had recently made a career change from being Confederate Cavalry Major General in the American Civil War to the chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
For the railway to be built through Grand Valley, Rosser offered Dougal McVicar $25,000. McVicar countered with $50,000 to which Rosser supposedly replied “I’ll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here” – a fairly courteous response, considering his previous employment. So Rosser crossed the Assiniboine and built the railway town on the south side of the river. When rumour of an impending change for the site of the railway began circulating, Grand Valley had hope again to be the site but the city was built on a low lying plane and flooded extensively. After this, Grand Valley began to gradually disappear, 1884 Brandon newspapers ran ads offering to swap “that warehouse in Grand Valley for a horse”.
Within a year of Rosser’s passive aggressive move to build an entire town opposite the McVicar’s, population growth was exponential. In April of 1882 leading citizens called a public meeting that resulted in applying for a city charter. The charter was passed by the provincial government on May 30, 1882, meaning Brandon had skipped village or town phase of growth and skipped straight to being a city.
It’s thought that the name Brandon originated from the Blue Hills of Brandon. The namesake of a Hudson Bay trading post “Brandon House”. Which was named after a hill on an island in James Bay where Captain James moored his ship in the winter of 1631. Brandon may more accurately be referred to as Brandon IV.
The population of Brandon increased considerably with each coming train from the east. Settler Beecham Trotter described Brandon as of April 1882 with “streets… filled with a picturesque throng – land sharks, remittance men with dogs and guns, prospectors, adventurers of every stripe”.
The first school board was elected in 1881. The Brandon Sun published their first paper in 1882. 1882 also saw Brandon’s first agricultural exhibition, the construction of multiple hotels, and the first central school on the west side of 100 block of 10th street. In response to inequities regarding railways and tariffs, including the CPR’s monopoly over land and the provincial control of resources, the Farmers Protective Union was established in 1883 in Brandon.
The County of Brandon was formed in 1884, with the incorporation of surrounding municipalities including Cornwallis, Elton, Whitehead, and Glenwood, but was dismantled the same year. This was the same year that the construction of the first Brandon Courthouse began on Louise Avenue east and Rideau street. It operated until 1908, served as a provincial jail until 1979, and is not part of Rideau Park personal care home. The Canadian Pacific Railway was finally completed in 1885. Prior to this year, 6th street was a bustling hub, but after the economic development of 1886, Rosser Avenue became the most dominant street in the city. By the end of the 19th century, Brandon was ahead of its prairie counterparts with a federal agricultural research station, provincial jail, mental hospital, school of nursing, and Brandon College.
Brandon’s first taxi service opened by the Dennison Brothers offered the choice between an auto or horse drawn vehicle in 1909. In 1912 construction of the Prince Edward Hotel began at the southwest corner of 9th street and Princess with an estimated cost of $500,000. The building was set to be extravagant, faced with brick imported from Belgium, and set to be decked out with European furnishings that ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic with the Titanic. The building was demolished in 1980.
Although the first woman elected to Brandon’s public office in 1915, settler women couldn’t vote until 1916. However progressive a woman in office may have been in 1915, Brandon’s first female mayor wasn’t elected until 2010. In 1916, compulsory education was instituted and the purchase and consumption of alcohol was declared illegal in Manitoba. Seed packaging company, McKenzie Seeds originated in Brandon and during this grew into one of the largest seed houses in the British Commonwealth.
The first world war saw many of Brandon’s buildings being repurposed; Brandon’s exhibition building was used as an internment camp from 1914 to 1916. The Brandon Collegiate Institute was used as an emergency treatment centre to treat the unmanageable volume of patients during the 1918 flu epidemic that took approximately 1,215 lives. Prohibition ended in 1923, the same year that the first radio station was established by CKX and owned by Manitoba telephones (now known as Bell MTS).
From a small blip in the endless great plains to a stop for the Assiniboine River fur trade, to the modern Wheat City we now know, that is a brief and fairly accurate description of how Brandon Manitoba became the default coordinates for our google maps app.