THE FORKS: RED RIVER'S
PERENNIAL MEETING PLACE
By George Siamandas
In most inhabited places in the world were two rivers meet, settlements will eventually develop. So it was in Winnipeg at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine River, where natives are known to have used the area for at least 6,000 years.
It has been a meeting place, a fishing camp and a fur trade centre. Archaeologists have found campfires dated 4,000 BC. Here the aboriginals fished and hunted, preserved large quantities of fish for winter, harvested plants, and berries and traded with people from other regions.
When white man arrived in the 1730s, they found Assiniboine, Cree and Salteaux camped at the Forks. The famous explorer, La Verendrye arrived at the Forks in 1737. His main interest, and that of Europeans for the next 150 years would be the fur trade. Two fur trading companies, the Hudson Bay Co and the North West Co., competed for decades until 1821 when they finally joined forces.
Fort Gibraltar was built in 1811 by the North West Co. just north of where the B&B building is now. This became an important provisioning location supplying pemmican. In 1812 the Hudson Bay Co. built Fort Douglas two and a half kilometres north at Point Douglas. Fort Gibraltar was burned in 1816 in the battle between the North West Co and Selkirk's settlers and was rebuilt in 1817 west of the original location. Part of the Gate still stands behind the Manitoba Club. By 1821 the two companies merged and the Fort was renamed Fort Garry in 1821. The 1826 flood damaged Fort Garry and the Lower Fort near Selkirk became a more favoured location.
The Forks became an important port for the steamboat traffic in the 1870s and 1880s. The federal authorities built immigration sheds in 1872 in preparation of the immigrants that were expected to arrive on the prairies. In 1874 and 1875 hundreds of Mennonites came through the Forks on their way to settle in southern Manitoba.
In the 1880s a shanty town and red light district sprang up at the north west corner of the junction. It was called the flats and housed the city's recently immigrated destitute population: Jews, English, Scottish, Irish, Italian and Icelandics. Their tents and shanties were washed away in the 1882 flood but were rebuilt in 1883-4. By this time natives were gone. The French community developed across the Red in what became St. Boniface.
THE RAILWAY TAKES OVER THE SITE
Once the decision was made in 1879 to put the CPR railway through Winnipeg instead of Selkirk, the site's future was determined. Winnipeg would soon become the prairie metropolis. Major railways lines were put through in 1886 and by 1901, a major terminus for rail existed at the Forks. The CN Station was built in the early 1900s, and by the first world war, access to the land was cut off and prime land literally disappeared from view and from public use.
In the 1960s there was talk of rediscovering this land and it took another 20 years before the removal of the rail operations and the new Forks project could go ahead. In part the initiative for redeveloping the Forks came from a new Conservative government and local minister Jake Epp, wanting to do something different in downtown development in Winnipeg when they inherited the Winnipeg Core Area Initiative in the mid to late 1980s.