Grand Valley

When Dougald and John McVicar came west from Grenville Quebec, in 1878, most settlers in what is now the Brandon region were selecting lands to the north of the Assiniboine in the Little Saskatchewan Valley.  Here they were closer the Carlton or Saskatchewan Trail, the main highway of the northwest, and nearer to the proposed CPR Route which many assumed would follow the old fur traders route.  Rapid City was an established town and was soon to experience some rather reckless land speculation based on the hope that the main line would cross the river there.  The McVicars chose, however, to travel due west from Portage on the less traveled path, and selected land on the banks of the Assiniboine, a few miles east of present day Brandon. And here they soon were involved in one of the most celebrated transactions in the “Manitoba Boom” of 1879 - 1882.

The first year was a lonely one.  They built a dugout home on the north side of the river, and for a time there only human contacts were the traders who passed by.  The nearest place to purchase supplies was at Rapid City, 35 miles away.  The only othewr option was the buffalo meat and pemmican that still could be had from Metis traders or natives.  In 1879 their wives and families arrived. They built proper homes out of lumber from the Rapid City sawmill, and they were on their way to becoming the leading citizens and premier entrepreneurs of a rapidly growing settlement.

By the spring of 1879 the population was over thirty. As usual, newcomers were drawn by glowing accounts they had heard from friends and relatives.  A town was forming on the corner of McVicar’s land, and by 1880 there was a collection of tents, shacks, and a few log and lumber buildings. Businesses included several general stores, a jewelry store, harness shop, bakery and brickyard”. Travelers could stay at Brownlee’s comfortable “Tent’ Hotel.  A drug store was opened and a doctor soon was in residence.

The "City of Winnipeg" at Grand Valley (MB Archives)

As more settlers arrived Dougald applied for a Post Office and his wife was appointed Postmistress.   Mrs. McVicar passed on the opportunity to have it named after herself and choose the name Grand Valley, a name first suggested by a passer-by who had taken shelter at their home. [1]

The Grand Valley site in 2013.

The arrival of the McVicars coincided with the beginning off steamboat traffic on the upper Assiniboine, before long traffic on the river was increasing as more settlers followed. In 1879 The Marquette would be the first of the big riverboats to pass Grand Valley as it made its historic trip to the northern reaches of the Assiniboine, and service was quite regular after that. [2] The little settlement became quite an important depot for supplies headed into the northwest, and one of the regular scheduled stops along with Portage La Prairie, Cypress River, Souris River and Fort Ellice. The McVicars, beginning to see that they were perhaps in the right place at the right time, soon established both a steamboat landing and a ferry crossing.

As early as the spring of 1880 the settlement’s advantageous location was noted by railroad speculators who where already planning, or rather, trying to anticipate, the transportation routes of the future. A notice appeared in the Winnipeg Daily Times of an application to Parliament to incorporate “The Grand Valley and Souris Railway” from that “ a point on the Canadian Pacific Railway about 120 miles west of the City of Winnipeg” to the coal fields of Roche Percee in southeastern Saskatchewan. At that time the C.P.R. wasn’t yet anywhere near Brandon, and indeed wasn’t planning to pass that way. [3] But the Grand Valley settlement was making a name for itself

In 1881, the railway engineers made an appearance amid speculation that the CPR route might pass along the Assiniboine Valley instead going by way of Rapid City as originally planned. [4] If so, a crossing would be necessary somewhere in the vicinity, as the channel turns northwards shortly after it passes present day Brandon.  Aside from its importance as a potential crossing, Grand Valley was by the spring of 1881 deemed worthy of regular stagecoach service from Winnipeg and a recognized distribution centre. [5]

Map from "The Assiniboine Basin"

When Sanford Fleming made his first trip west, he followed the well-established Carlton Trail. Many early settlers expected that the railways would naturally follow that route. Some, like those in Rapid City, hoped the line would stay southwards before veering northwest to Fort Ellice. (Map from "The National Dream")

Fleming's Route

Crossings were likely places for thriving settlements, but there was more than a crossing at stake, there was the opportunity to become a “divisional point”, something that was placed very 120 miles or so on a mail line. This meant even more commercial opportunities. The McVicars, who had ignored railway speculation in their original choice of a homestead, were now very interested.  As the C.P.R. marked out a roadbed and planned a river crossing, the lots that John McVicar had had surveyed were selling for $2000 and the population had expanded to 400.  [6]  The planned town site was about a half a kilometre north of the river.

Map from Pierre Berton's "The Last Spike

One evening that spring General Rosser of the C.P.R. offered John McVicar $25000 for it.  Spurred on, some said, by locals who insisted he could get more, he held out for $50000 and Rosser soon purchased land from D.H. Adamson who was squatting on a parcel of land that lies from Victoria to Pacific Avenues, and from First to 9th Street in present day Brandon. It was about 2 km west of Grand Valley and that became the divisional point for the railway.  The people of Grand Valley, having lost their chance to become a major site were prepared to settle for a siding.  Deals were made, influence was peddled, but alas it wasn’t to be. After losing out on a chance to be major railway centre, two consecutive years of floods sealed the fate of the community. [7]

It is interesting to note that this version of the story, which appeared years later in the memoirs of Mr. Secretan, who was there when it happened, was not widely circulated at the time and contemporary reports focus more on the floods that made the site unattractive in the springs of 1881 and 1882.

The flood of 2011 must have been similar to the ones in 1881 and 1882. The Grand Valley town site was about the middle of this photo - under water.

Note that the bridge was not far from the Grand Valley site - but the C.P.R. had decided that the new town (Brandon)  would be on the other side.  Grand Valley was left not far enough away to merit even a station and not close enough to profit from the Brandon site.

Another interesting element is the intrigue surrounding just who owned the land in the “Brandon’ town site. Records show that it was actually owned by A.W.Ross of Winnipeg who on April 27, 1881 signed an agreement with D.H. Adamson by which he gave up any claim in consideration for one-seventh interest in the land. [8] The speculation, advanced by most observers was that General Rosser and Alpheus B. Stickney had engaged in some rather “sharp” dealings behind the scenes which allowed them to profit considerably from the sale of lots in Brandon. [9]

The Winnipeg papers of the time merely report that General Rosser had established the crossing, the first mention of which comes on May 13, 1881 and still refers to the site as Grand Valley, the name Brandon perhaps not yet chosen. [10]  A May 16 report informs us that Messrs Stickney and Drinkwater had located the station on section 23, township 10, range 19; that “the station grounds were laid out by General Rosser , and J.W. Vaughn, D.L.S. is laying out the town plot on the above section,”. [11]

May of 1881 must have been a confusing time for Grand Valley residents, future settlers, land speculators and prospective businessmen. A flurry of display ads, appeared on a single page of the May 17 Winnipeg Daily Times offering lots for sale. One ad offered lots at “Grand Valley Crossing” the “Great City on the C.P.R. and crossing of the Assiniboine River”. Another ad offers the (intentionally?) misleading location as being “the C.P.R. crossing, Assiniboine River, McVicar’s Landing, Grand Valley. “ Nearby an ad announces the opening of a store at, “McVicar’s Landing, Grand Valley” that they indicate is  “Two minutes walk to the C.P.R. crossing. “ None of thee ads used the name “Brandon” yet back-to-back news items in the “What is Going On Around Town” column of that same paper announce the establishment of a brick-yard in Grand Valley and the establishment of a hotel in the “new town of Brandon” [12] The confusion might stem from the fact that the new town of Brandon had not completely been distinguished from the existing established settlement of Grand Valley. As of May 17, Brandon would have no post office, no steamboat landing and no services. It existed only in theory, whereas Grand Valley was a known commodity. I’m pretty sure that there was no “McVicar’s Landing in the new townsite. Another factor was that these ads were likely composed in Winnipeg by people who quite literally didn’t know what they were talking about.

Winnipeg Daily Times, 25/05/81

A news report on May 25 mentions that surveyor A.H. Vaughn arrived on the steamer Manitoba with plans for “new town of Brandon”. [13] By May 28 the steamer North-West had already landed at the new town site with a "heavy consignment of lumber:" for pioneer merchants Whitehead & Myer. [14] On May 28 an ad appears indicating plans are on view and “Information Given for the  “Town of Brandon, Grand Valley” and a news report on June 9 still refers to the new town as Brandon, Grand Valley in reporting that over $25000 in property had been sold privately in the “past two days: [15] By July 8 the ads offer, “Brandon City Lots” while noting that “the post office at McVicar’s Landing is under six feet of water, whilst Brandon is high and dry.” [16]

By late June the Rapid City Landing Warehouse established at Grand Valley to serve the country to the north was moved to the new location, and advertisements  dated July 8, for the new steamer, the North West, announce it’s departure for Grand Valley, Brandon and all way points. [17] It was all happening very quickly.

Winnipeg Daily Times 22/06/81

The summer passed with the actual construction of the rail line proceeding to a point on the river where bridge was constructed about a mile to the west of the McVicar townsite. The locals still held out hope that perhaps the actual station might be constructed to the east of the crossing, giving their town a sliver of hope. Failing that there was the possibility that a stations or at the very least, a siding would confirm the existence of their town and offer some reason for its continued survival. The trains however ran right on by, denying them even a siding. [18]

By November of 1882 Chater was being promoted as the new Grand Valley – with ads claiming that it “has taken the place of Grand Valley in being the distribution point for the settlements on the east side of the Assiniboine River, and hold the same position on the east side of the river that Brandon does on the west.” It goes on in this fashion shamelessly. Who knows what the results were. [18] In 1882  Dougald McVicar sold the town site for $1500.  He soon moved to Brandon where he established a brickyard. A decade later we find him with another brickyard, this time in Sydney. [20]

Grand Valley Townsite, after the boom.

Winnipeg Daily Times, 08/07/81

By 1884 all that was left was McVicar’s Hotel, a blacksmith’s shop, and a few other structures.  The hotel burned down that year and the John McVicar family, who were living there at the time “narrowly” escaped  with only “what clothing they could quickly lay their hands on.” [21] The school had already been moved to another site. The crossing he had established still served those who objected to the toll at the main access to Brandon just a few kilometers upstream and were willing to “take the long way”.  [22]

 A tree nursery occupies the site today (2008) and a cairn explains the significance of the spot. Otherwise one would pass by without know about one of the most short-lived of the of the first wave of Westman settlements.



1. Heeney, Isabelle, B., Grand Valley, A Boom Town 1878-1885 Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1979, Volume 24, Number 4 and; 3. Kavanagh, Martin,  The Assiniboine Basin,The Gresham Press, Old Woking, Surrey, England 105-108
2. Winnipeg Daily Times 23/05/79
3. Winnipeg Daily Times 02/04/80
4. Kavanagh, Martin, The Assiniboine Basin,The Gresham Press, Old Woking, Surrey, England 109
5 Winnipeg Daily Times  30/05/81
6. Heeney
7. Secretan, James Henry Edward,Canada's great highway: From the first stake to the last spike (Ottawa: Thorburn & Abbott, 1924), 125-128; Berton. Pierre, The Last Spike (Toronto:  McLelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto 1974), 25; Berton relates conflicting accounts by J.H.E. Secretan, a CPR surveyor and memoirs of Charles Aeneas Shaw, a “locating engineer”;  Doerksen, A. D., The Brandon Wheat Kings - 1887 Vintage (Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1977, Volume 22, Number 1) favours the account of Trotter.  The evidence indicates, at the very least,  a lost oportunity for McVicar and the Grand Valley speculators.
Kavanaugh 141 Brandon Sun Weekly 13/01/87

8. Kavanagh 141
9. Cruise, David and Griffiths, Alison, Lords of the Line, 129
10. Winnipeg Daily Times 13/05/81
11. Winnipeg Daily Times  16/05/81
12. Winnipeg Daily Times 17//05/81
13. Winnipeg Daily Times 25/05/81
14. Brandon Manitoba, Canada, and her industries, Steen & Boyce Publishers 1882
15. Winnipeg Daily Times 09/06/81 & 28.05.81
16. Winnipeg Daily Times 08/07/81
17. Winnipeg Daily Times 22/06/81 &  05/07/81
18. Kavanagh, 113-116
19. Winnipeg Daily Times 08.11.82
20.  Footsteps in the Sand,  Sydney History (Find)
21. Brandon Sun Weekly 11/12/84
22. Brandon Sun Weekly 05/06/84