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Under the Boardwalk


c_In 1901, the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased 330 acres of the west shore of Lake Winnipeg for $3,000 and announced it was building a resort area known as Winnipeg Beach.

It would prove "a splendid resort for the toilers of the capital, who are in badly need of a place within easy reach, where they can take a day's outing and enjoy the health-giving breeze from Lake Winnipeg," CPR vice-president William Whyte told an interviewer.

In 1901, the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased 330 acres of the west shore of Lake Winnipeg for $3,000 and announced it was building a resort area known as Winnipeg Beach.

It would prove "a splendid resort for the toilers of the capital, who are in badly need of a place within easy reach, where they can take a day's outing and enjoy the health-giving breeze from Lake Winnipeg," CPR vice-president William Whyte told an interviewer.

 

 

 

 

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POV: Winnipeg Beach

And it was. Within a few years, there were 13 trains running the line to and from Winnipeg Beach on busy weekends. There were the picnic trains for church and community groups, the Daddy's Train for commuting businessmen, and the Moonlight Special for... well, let's just say a healthy breeze wasn't the only thing that drew 40,000 visitors a day to Winnipeg Beach during its peak in the 1920s.

 

 

According to the author of a new book that charts the rise and fall of Manitoba's first beach resort, our "Coney Island of the West" was a "centre for courtship" that played a surprising role in a sexual revolution of sorts.

"The boardwalk's bright lights provided a moral security to the area, but there was darkness in this summertime adventure, whether in the areas beyond the boardwalk, the inky darkness of the beach, or the darkness created when male passengers on the Moonlight train extinguished the lights," Dale Barbour writes in Winnipeg Beach: Leisure and Courtship in a Resort Town, 1900-1967. Book available at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

The book project started out as an essay for an undergraduate history class, says Barbour, 40, who grew up in the Interlake but now lives in Toronto, where he's completing a PhD in history.

When he started his research, Barbour wasn't aware that the Winnipeg Beach of his childhood -- with its eroded shoreline, boarded-up storefronts and peeling paint -- was but a shadow of its once-grand former self.

"It was never a romantic place for me," says Barbour. But the people he interviewed -- folks whose ages ranged from late 60s to 90s -- would beg to differ.

It turns out that Winnipeg Beach was not only our province's first, largest and most diverse (it welcomed Jews at a time when other resorts denied them entry) cottage community, "it was built to be a setting where people fell in love."

The Moonlight Special -- which departed Winnipeg every evening at 6:45 p.m., returning to the city at 12:45 a.m. -- became synonymous with the dating experience.

"There's definitely a mythology around it," Barbour says. "It has a bit of a reputation for being a bit naughty."

Val Werier, 93, recalls the 70-minute trek back to the city at 12:45 "could be quite boisterous at times."

Turning the lights off inside the train on the ride home created a symbolic ---- and very real -- moment of freedom for the youthful passengers, Barbour explains in the book.

Remember, Winnipeg Beach flourished in the early part of the 20th century, when swimsuits stretched from shoulders to knees and "calling" was the established form of courtship.

When courtship moved from the parlour and veranda into the public sphere, men and women began sharing space in ways they never had before.

"People used to promenade on the pier. It was like Main Street on the water," recalls Werier, who adds that he started wearing his trademark beret one summer at the beach when he and his friends were trying to impress the ladies.

The 1950s were the beginning of the end for the Coney Island of the West. As cars began to replace trains and the rules of sexual engagement started to break down, Barbour says amusement parks "became stained as raunchy places."

At the same time, he says, the restrictions on where, when and how men and women could be together were changing, so the demographic that used to flock to the beach could just pick up and go elsewhere.

"Tying its success to the impulses of young people cost Winnipeg Beach in the end," he says.

 

About the Beach

By 1906, Winnipeg Beach was so popular that CPR was running 13 trains a day to and from the city. During its heyday, the Winnipeg Beach line was hailed as the most profitable stretch of CPR track in Canada.

Round-trip fare for the 70-minute ride was $1.20, at time when an early 20th-century labourer's salary was 25 cents an hour and a skilled tradesman's 65 cents an hour

Round-trip fare on the MoonLight Special, which ran for 50 years, was only 50 cents.

The dance hall, which boasted a 14,000-square-foot dance floor, was Western Canada's largest at the time.

In 1928, Winnipeg Beach was home to Manitoba's only women's beer parlour -- which lasted just a few hours before being closed down over licensing issues. The men's-only beer parlour operated into the early '60s.

In 1943, town council passed a bylaw requiring persons over the age of 12 "be clad from shoulders to knees" while in public spaces.

 

Carolin Vesely
Written for the Winnipeg Free Press and published in the May 17, 2011 Free Press. Contact email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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