Chapter 2:   Beginnings

So as we approach that hectic period when Brandon was created, we see that conventional thinking in 1879 wouldn't have predicted that in less than two years the new town would appear overnight, and within days this unanticipated collection of hastily erected commercial buildings would become the most important place on the prairies west of Winnipeg.

The summer of 1880 saw quite an upswing in activity in the neighbourhood of the future city of Brandon and the Winnipeg newspapers did take an increasing interest in the happenings in our area. For instance on April 16, 1880 the Winnipeg Times reported that; "A ferry has been established at the Grand Valley crossing of the Assiniboine River. This will give people visiting the Souris country from the north shore better travelling facilities. Another ferry is projected at Brandon crossing 15 miles further down the river." (5) 16-April, 1880 - Winnipeg Times

The article seems to indicate that the importance of the Grand Valley location was that it offered access to the regions to the south were settlements near the mouth of the Souris, and in the Turtle Mountain area, were just beginning. That is not to say Grand Valley wasn't a destination in and of itself. The McVicars, who first appeared in 1878, had established a river crossing, a steamboat landing and eventually some warehouse buildings to facilitate its role as a river port. But that was about it. The article also reminds us that although the name Brandon appears, its use bears no relationship to the site of the current city. The projected "Brandon crossing" ferry sight would in fact close to the location of the former fur trade posts at Souris and near the already established town of Millford. If the term was used in reference to a community, that community would be the Brandon Hills settlement.

Stops on the steamboat route didn’t include Brandon.
7-May, 1880 - Winnipeg Times

The above ad reminds us that in the pre-settlement days place names had flexible meanings. A place didn't need to be a "town", in the sense that we know it, to be on the map. Indeed in the sparsely settled land that we now call home, towns and villages were of little consequence. There weren't enough farms, therefore, enough commerce, to justify them. Portage la Prairie was a town, indeed an important one. Cypress River, Souris River, Oak River, Arrow River and Birdtail Creek were not towns but landings named after streams entering the Assiniboine. (Cypress River, Oak River and Arrow River would later come to identify towns, but in each case many kilometres from the river landings.) In the case of Grand Valley, although it later aspired to being a town, it was, as we see, essentially a landing - a stop on a route.

Another informative story, from The Winnipeg Times in May 17, tells us of a party of sixty immigrants brought to Rapid City as part of an organized colonization program. It reminds us the Rapid City was expected to be the commercial centre of the region.

On January 6, 1881, The Winnipeg Times reprinted a Letter to the Editor from the Montreal Witness about, "an educational institution recently established in Rapid City." The letter outlines the reason for the establishment of said institution: "allow young settlers (men) to receive a good mental training" and to be "brought under the influence of the gospel."  The letter is notable for two reasons. Once again we witness the pre-eminence of Rapid City as the place to be in western Manitoba (technically still the Northwest Territories). As well, we are witnessing the beginnings of the McKee Academy, which later moved to Brandon, setting up shop on the upper level of the Fraser Block before being incorporated into the Brandon College. All in all it tells us quite a bit about Brandon's roots.

So in the winter and early spring of 1881 we see only hints of the changes that were taking place in terms of settlements, post offices and routes. Hindsight allows us to see the occurrences in these few months as what we might now term a paradigm shift in settlement patterns; all hinging on the C.P.R. decision to follow a much more southerly route to the Rockies, which would soon be followed by the choice of the exact location of the necessary Assiniboine crossing.

By the end of March 1881, something was in the air. Discussion was taking place, and decisions would soon be made that would alter the future of settlement and commerce in western Manitoba.

The month of April, 1881, which was to become, in hindsight, such an important month for the future city of Brandon, was quiet in the media.  But the news that did appear turned out to be quite important.

The Toronto Daily Mail, (April 5, 1881) under the heading, "Manitoba Notes", datelined April 5, has picked up the story that "General Rosser, chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific railway, has returned from locating the second hundred miles west, and has instructed the district engineer to direct the main line some distance east of the terminus a hundred miles, so as to run south-westerly toward the Assiniboine, and cross near the rapids of that river."

The rapids are a few kilometres downstream from today's Brandon. If you drive east on Richmond Avenue as far you can, walk down to the riverbank and look south, you will be looking at the very beginnings of those rapids. It is clear from this article that the exact site of the future crossing has not been chosen, but that article and the rumours that would certainly have accompanied it, would have caught the interest of settlers, or anyone with an interest in speculating in the region.

This would confirm the worst fears of settlers along the Carleton Trail. The railway that they felt was coming their way would bypass them. Their loss would mean an opportunity for settlers and landowners along the newly announced southern route.

Buried in the third paragraph of an article in the Toronto Daily Mail (April 18) (reprinted from the Winnipeg Times but based on "Cable news from England") we learn that at a meeting of the shareholders of the Canadian Pacific railway has announced that, "350 miles of railway west of Winnipeg are expected to be in operation by the end of the present year." and it later refers to "the crossing of the Assiniboine at Grand Valley". We also learn that "General Rosser has just returned from a reconnaissance of the proposed route for some distance west."

There was no doubt that the immediate vicinity of our hometown was about to become a more important place, but details remained sketchy, and the exact location of the crossing was either not yet decided, or kept secret.

As recently as February 11 of 1880 an ad by the CPR in the Winnipeg Times sought tenders for the construction of a rail line line from, "near the western boundary of Manitoba (at that time this was near Gladstone) to a point on the west side of the valley of Bird Tail Creek.” It seemed a done deal.

The announcement that a rail line, in fact the main rail line, was now coming this way, was a surprise. Some would say that was the whole point. The C.P.R. and its operatives, General Rosser in particular it seems, stood to make more money by opening up new towns rather than visiting established ones. Whatever the motivation, the railway was coming and excitement would follow.

May, 1881

One finds, from early May, increased confirmation the railway would cross the Assiniboine near Grand Valley.

How was the decision made to locate the station, and thus the town site where Brandon sits today? Why was it not located on the site of Grand Valley, an established steamboat landing and ferry crossing with a post office, store and a few other facilities? There are two theories. One is that physical aspect of Grand Valley was not suitable.  The river was high that spring and the Brandon site offered a more secure location. The other story is that Dougald McVicar, the owner of the Grand Valley site held out for a higher price and Rosser, who intended to make a profit himself on the creation of town sites, found a better deal upstream.

The Grand Valley Incident

When rumours began to circulate that the transcontinental railway, instead of following the expected, more northerly route, might cross the Assiniboine nearby, it began to appear that the little settlement at Grand Valley might be destined for greater things. 

Hindsight allows us to see the occurrences in these few months as what we might now term a paradigm shift in settlement patterns - all hinging on the CPR’s decision to follow a much more southerly route to the Rockies.

The speculation ended when Brandon was selected as a place for the crossing and the all-important divisional point.

How did that happen?


Grand Valley Map - Kavanaugh, The Assiniboine Valley

General Rosser 

Enter Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Chief Engineer of the CPR. Rosser was not your typical railroad engineer. In fact, it is proper to refer to him as General Rosser, an American no less, southerner even, and a well-respected veteran of the American Civil War.

In fact he was also a friend of the late Union General, George Armstrong Custer, his former adversary, with whom he had worked in his previous position with the U.S. Northern Pacific Railway. Custer’s ill-fated 7th Cavalry had been assigned to protect the workers and he and Rosser had struck up a friendship.

Now Rosser was about to play a pivotal role in the settlement patterns of the Canadian West.

In the spring of 1881 he crossed the Assiniboine River at a point about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg, bargained briefly with a Mr. Adamson and purchased the town site of Brandon for little more than a song.

As with many other deals struck in the creation of railway towns in the era, potential profit for Mr. Rosser was a consideration. He’d just rejected the site of Grand Valley, just a few kilometres downriver in a famous confrontation with area pioneer John McVicar, who had his own notions about profit.

James Secretan, a CPR surveyor who worked with Rosser reported that Rosser indeed made a $25000 offer for the Grand Valley site, and when McVicar countered with a request for $50000, the General abruptly ended negotiations and moved on upstream.

According to Brandon pioneer Beecham Trotter’s account, the negotiations ended with Rosser saying, “I’ll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here.”   (1)

And it wasn’t.

On May 13, the Winnipeg Times reports that, "Gen. Rosser is laying out the station grounds and Mr. Vaughn is surveying the town plot adjoining the station at Grand Valley, the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing of the Assiniboine."

A few days later (May 16) they report that the station will be on section 23, township 10, range 19, (the site of present day Brandon). 

The name Brandon has not yet been used, and on the very next day large ads appear under headings such as, "The Grand Valley Crossing, site of the Great City of the C.P.R and crossing of the Assiniboine River", and announcing that said town" has been located by the Chief Engineer of the C.P.R. on Section 23, Township 10, Range 19 West, On the south-west side of the river". The ad continues in this vein making it clear that the C.P.R. station will be on the aforementioned site and that .."Any other lots advertised are from two to three miles distant from the station." (Winnipeg Times, May 17, 1881)

This was a direct response to the continued efforts to promote the original Grand Valley location. But the issue was settled. The battle fought and won. Brandon had a railway station and it would be the C.P.R. town.   The arrival of the CPR in the spring of 1881, transformed an empty stretch of riverbank into a bustling city, almost overnight.  

RosserAve1881  (Archives of Manitoba)


Sixth Street 1883  (Archives of Manitoba)

In 1883 from corner of Sixth and Rosser, looking north towards Pacific Avenue and the Assiniboine River the three-storey Grand Central Hotel dominated the streetscape.

By 1883 it had progressed from a tent town of a few hundred souls and assorted makeshift businesses to crowded streets lined with well-built stores and hotel.

The Grand Valley site May, 2011. The village was near the centre of this photo - under water as it was in June of 1881. Regardless of the details - the right decision was made.