For hundreds and hundreds of years, The First Nations people of Northwest Ontario lived and worked on the Winnipeg River system and its tributaries using the river as an important travel route and as a primary source for food and clothing.
In the 1800’s as the white and Metis fur traders and explorers travelled west, the Winnipeg Rivers north route provided one of the shortest and safest routes from Lake Superior to lake Winnipeg and the Red River region and beyond.
In the late 1800’s the federal government of Canada believed it was in the countries best interest to more aggressively populate the largely undeveloped prairie region of Western Canada. Canada needed to strengthen its sovereignty through population expansion in the western region and needed to find and supply more goods to trade with its European Partners and cereal crops such as spring wheat were their best opportunity to accomplish both goals.
To accomplish their goal the Canadian Government aggressively marketed the Canadian Prairies as the land of vast opportunity to primarily poor farming Families (usually working for landholders and estates) all across Europe. Canadian Land would be sold at very reasonable prices. Travel would be subsidized. Religious freedom ensured. The weather was similar to their region. They could farm in similar country within the Canadian northern aspen tree belt. And spring loans were offered for planted crops! All were welcome!
The Rush was on!
To make this grand plan work, infrastructure and services were going to be required on a massive scale and quickly, as this was to be one of the largest mass migrations of people across continents in the 1900’s.
To fully unlock the full potential of the Canadian Prairies, Canada first needed to expand and increase their east to west Canada railway load capacities to get more people and their goods west and the grain harvests moving east to waiting Merchant ships on the Saint Lawrence River and at harbors in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prairie Grain and timber would also be railed west, delivered to Vancouver and north to Prince Rupert which had one the best natural seaport harbors on the Pacific West Coast and provided the shortest shipping routes to Asia.
The Canadian Government studied Plans for an additional rail line (northern route) from the east coast starting at Moncton New Brunswick to Prince Rupert on the Northwestern coast of Canada.
The Canadian Government would need to partner with Canadian and European private company’s to share in the expense and rewards of this great experiment.
One of the governments chosen leaders and guardians of this grand Canadian vision was Charles Melville Hays. Hays, an American born Railroader, became the president of Canada’s Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad in the late 1800’s. Through common ownership Grand Trunk, Hays also managed and operated the rail lines and freight for Transcontinental Railway. Grand Trunk Pacific Development Company was also a subsidiary company under Hays Stewardship.
In 1900, Sir Wilfred Laurier convinced parliament to invest 30 million dollars to build the first leg of the new northern railway from Moncton, New Brunswick ending at Winnipeg Manitoba. Hayes was placed in charge of the construction and was the liaison between the business entities and the government.
Hays was a visionary, he used his Grand Trunk Pacific Development Company to purchase land along the new Railroads route all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
With Hays involvement train passenger transportation now became a more sophisticated and glorified way to travel. The railways invested heavily in its paying travellers and catered to their needs. Dinning cars and night coaches became popular. First class fares were promoted with perks such as lounge and smoking cars, observation cars and suites. Layovers were encouraged to break up a long trip, coincidently where major railway hotels and holiday destinations appeared. Private cars were also available and simply attached to the end of the train closest to the service cars.
Winnipeg River Crossing was also to be a home for naturalists and outdoor tourists to come and enjoy this classic outdoor living visual display of the sheer beauty of the pre Cambrian shield with its many lakes, tall timber stands and immense granite shears and towering cliffs. Enclosed powered touring boats with closed-in windowed decks and operators were available for touring the 100’s of miles of shoreline departing from the INN. This was where the white pine and yellow birch from the eastern Canada Region meet and fuse together with the jack pine, black spruce, trembling aspen and balsams of the great western boreal forests. This fusion of two ecological habitats is further amplified with many of the western and eastern song bird species, the great birds of prey such as the North American Bald Eagle and an immense variety of shore birds to admire and enjoy throughout the hundreds of miles of shorelines of which Winnipeg water Crossing was to be the epicenter. Truly a photographers paradise!
The Winnipeg River Town site plan of 1910 included tourist accommodations some 300 residential cottage and seasonal lots with over 100 of the lots to be situated on the east side of the river. Notable facts about the early development plan included Holst Point Lodge, managed by Skipper Holst, and the construction of the new “Minaki Inn” owned and managed by the railways development company. Minaki Inn was the predecessor to Minaki Lodge.
Clearly Winnipeg River Crossing was not only an outdoor living experience for adults, but heavily promoted as a family adventure with activities for the whole family!
There were no residential lots with water front access, instead 66 foot wide roads dominated the shoreline with street names like Gun Lake Road and Sand lake Road and River Road. The railway route passed through the Center of town with Front Street located on the north side of the tracks and Railway Street on the South side. The bridge construction width additionally allowed travellers and residents passage from east Winnipeg River Crossing to the west side of the sub division where the train station and various shops were to be constructed.
In the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, destination hotels were constructed by the Railways and planned for all the major cities. Major Canadian tourism attractions like Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper were all developed, managed and could be reached by railway transportation networks. George H. Ross and David H MacFarland, prestigious Canadian architects, were also commissioned by Hays to design and oversee the construction The Chateau Laurier in Ottawa at a budgeted cost of 2 million dollars and later the Hotel Fort Gary (1.5 million) in Winnipeg Manitoba. Both structures are very similar in their design. Plans for Edmonton and Price Rupert were well underway by 1910.
In 1910 Hays Grand Trunk Railway completed a new northern bridge in Northwest Ontario, over the Winnipeg River, some 30 miles north of Kenora, Ontario. Prior to the completion of the bridge, Hays Land Development Company purchased land at the Winnipeg River location and commissioned L.V. Rourke to survey a plan of a new town site called the “Winnipeg River Crossing.” This new town site was to be developed into another jewel in the Railroads crown and be used as a holiday destination attracting Canadian and U.S. Tourists to this pristine preserved natural habitat in the central Canadian Shield green belt district.
The new train station was constructed in 1910 shortly after the bridge was completed and consisted of 14 rooms with staff living quarters on the second floor. The station was also a refueling and water stop for the steam trains. The station agent was a very responsible position, responsible for the sale of tickets, baggage and incoming dry goods freight and the over site and management of properties owned there by the railway.
The river was navigable by Steamer and early drawings give the distance between Winnipeg River Crossing to Kenora up river at 20 miles. Numerous photos dated around the construction period of Minaki Inn show shallow draft riverboats 60 to 80 feet in length were used to cargo passengers and goods to the Winnipeg River crossing. These coal fired Riverboats were quite impressive and effective prior to the Railways Completion.
Hays was the early leader and visionary as to the value The Winnipeg River Crossing “held for all Canadians to experience the raw natural beauty. Truly “an on the water experience.”
In early 1912 Hayes travelled to England with his family to begin lengthy discussions with his board and owners he represented in Canada. The Railway was almost broke, the Canadian governments funds long spent and his superiors were not convinced they were not throwing good money after bad. Hays finally won out and procured enough funds to complete his unfinished development projects. Hays had to wait for his
Hays and his family began their return journey to Canada from England in April 1912. Shortly upon his return to Canada would be the grand opening of the railways Ottawa crown jewel, the Chateau Laurier, hundreds of dignitaries from all over Canada were expected to attend. Hays accepted an invitation from his friend, J.Bruce Ismay Chairman of the White Star Line of London to travel home on their latest and most sophisticated cruse ship, The Titanic.
The death of Hays postponed the opening of the Chateau Laurier and put numerous other projects including the “Winnipeg River crossing” township development on hold.
However not for long, in 1914 Winnipeg River Crossing’s name changed to Minaki, an Ojibwa name for beautiful water or good land, and the railway proceeded development with a new, however much smaller, plan to develop the River crossing.
The first Railway hotel “The MinakI Inn” was completed in 1914 North of the main rail line on the West Bank of the Winnipeg River.
In 1922 Canadian National Railway became a corporate entity and rose from the ashes of Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, and the national transcontinental railway.
Sir Henry Thornton was CNR’s first president, his quote about Minaki “since I cannot bring this natural beautiful region to the tourists I will have to bring the tourists to the region.”
In 1925 Sir Henry Thornton renovated and rebuilt the more lavish Minaki Lodge only to see it succumb to fire just prior to opening. Thornton’s admiration and love of the natural beauty of the surrounding area was strategic in the sense he convinced his board and investors to again rebuild Minaki lodge, this time in a much grander scale.
Thornton used building materials available in the region and retained skilled European stone Mason’s and Swedish log cutters to build the magnificent structure, which was to be comparable to CPR ‘s hotels in Banff and Lake Louise.
The new Grander Minaki lodge was completed in 1927.
The community grew in size to support the tourism industry created by and supported by the railway. Tourists from the U.S. Midwestern states were able to connect to the CNR lines at Winnipeg via the great northern railway. Bundling train travel and your Minaki.
Lodge stay including attractions could all be purchased on one ticket.
CNR continued to service and support the region with a regular train schedule supplying fresh passengers throughout the summer and providing the now famous “Camper Special,” which allowed Winnipeg residents the opportunity to book passage on a special day coach train. The train would leave the CN Station in Winnipeg every Friday evening and stop at small hamlets and settlements in North west Ontario including the largest stop, Minaki.
On Sunday evening the train would return and start picking up passengers along the line to return them to Winnipeg.
The Minaki highway 591 was completed in 1956 connecting Minaki by road to the outside world via the Trans Canada Highway.
The CNR in the late 1960’s began to focus more on their freight side of the business and though their cost cutting strategies were no longer interested in attracting new passenger traffic or continuing day passenger trains. The railway closed Minaki Lodge in 1978 and the camper special was cancelled shortly thereafter. Through misadventures of numerous new owners Minaki lodge never got back to its old luster and appeal.
In September 18th 2003 during renovations by its latest owners, Minaki Lodge succumbed to fire.