Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Guest Essay: The Story of West Lynn

West Lynne, Manitoba townsite, today.
The Story of West Lynne and the First Customs House in Western Canada 
by James McClelland

To  say that the oldest federal building in southern Manitoba had a diverse and chequered past would be an understatement. According to the old Winnipeg Telegram, this building was originally built in the 1850s. The design and architecture were similar to buildings found in the Acadian region of Canada. The article describes the building as "20x26, and made from hewn oak timbers, dove tailed at the corners." Later this building would serve as a symbol of Canadian sovereignty and a floodgate against Yankee commerce.

Today it sits just 500m north of the border it guarded for so long.
The line separating the United States from British territory had always been vague and tentative. Agreement that the 49th parallel would record the western boundary was established as early as 1818, but its exact location tended to shift each time a party had been sent out to survey it. Between 1823 and 1870 three different boundary lines had been drawn; all of them controversial.
In the 1840s, agitation began to develop along this line between the free traders from the Red River Settlement and the Hudson Bay Company officials at Fort Garry. In 1843, the first regular cart service between Pembina and St. Paul was opened. This provided easy access to the American markets. This bickering heightened as more Red River traders sought the higher American prices. It intensified in 1845 when Norman Kittson, an American Trader, opened a store just a scant 4km south of British Territory, at the junction of the Red and the Pembina Rivers.

The door of American commerce was beckoning. In fact, Kittson offered such good prices for fur that the ensuing rush of illegal trade from British Territory was referred to by the HBC as "Kittson’s Fever". As a counter-move in September of 1845, the Hudson Bay Company opened a post called North Fort Pembina. It was located on what they considered their side of the line. The Company put John Palmer Bourke, a retired officer living in the colony, in charge of this new frontier post.

During the winter of 1845-46, Robert Clouston, an employee from the Stone Fort visited this place. In his journal, he described these Spartan surroundings.
"Mr. Bourke has a rough log house, the walls of which, inside and outside are plastered with clay, and the roof covered with earth - it is floored with rough logs: the men live in the same house, with merely a partition between them - a mud chimney in each room and a door opening from Mr. B's apartment to his trading room"
The following day Clouston visited Kittson's store. The uncertainty of the exact spot where American and British authority met is noted in his diary:
"About quarter of a mile above the house (the HBC store) we saw a post planted by Major Long - marking the boundary at a place called Monroe’s Encampment some wag had pulled up the post of demarcation and placed Uncle Sam's initials toward British territory." 
Clouston later reported that Kittson's store was about 3 kms farther south. Here, between Kittson's store and the HBC post, the log house was originally located.

From these squalid beginnings the HBC post at the border continued to develop. A sketch from 1858, shows several log buildings surrounded by a sturdy log palisade.

However, the strip of land between North Pembina and Kittson’s store quickly developed into a "no-man's land." Other buildings sprang up and an unsavory frontier community known as Huron City was born. A few years later the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba would complain to Ottawa about the rowdy brawling atmosphere and the flourishing trade in whiskey smuggling that was going on in this "Whisky Post". By this time, the log building, had been turned into an inn.

Unquestionably, many travelers passed through the doors of this establishment, but two guests in particular played a very important role in the creation of Manitoba. In the autumn of 1869, the Hon. Wm. McDougall, the Governor designate of Rupert's Land, stayed here briefly after he was denied entry into the Red River Settlement by Louis Riel's metis guards. In December, McDougall would return to the deserted post and read a Proclamation declaring himself the official lieutenant-governor of the region. Ironically, in August of the following year, Louis Riel himself found momentary refuge in the same building after his hasty escape from Fort Garry.

On July 1, 1871, F. T. Bradley arrived to become Collector of Customs. The log building, empty at the time, became Manitoba's first regular Customs House. It also served as a telegraph, express and postal office. Yet, in October 1871, one of the most bizarre events in Canadian history had yet to unfold on these premises.

In the spring of 1871, William Donoghue, a fiery Irishman and one time Riel ally and member of the Provisional Government, was in New York. He was pressing the Fenian Brotherhood to assist him in his plan calling for the annexation of Manitoba and union with the United States. Aided and encouraged by Enos Stutsman, a prominent Pembina lawyer and politician, O’Donoghue drew up a Constitution for the Republic of Rupert’s Land. Among other things this constitution proclaimed O'Donoghue president of the new republic. According to the plan, General John O'Neill, president of the Fenian Brotherhood, General J. J. Donnelly and Colonel Thomas Curly also prominent Fenians, would recruit up to 2000 Irish nationals and invade Manitoba. Maggie Siggins noted, in her recent study on Louis Riel, a real fear existed in Manitoba if Riel's supporters joined the Fenians the province would be lost to Canada.

On October 3, Lieutenant-Governor Adams George Archibald issued a proclamation calling on all inhabitants to volunteer to help the small existing military force in repelling the invasion. Interestingly, among those volunteers was a mounted force of Metis buffalo hunters. Fearing the worst the chief factor at North Fort Pembina packed up all the money and papers and sent them into Fort Garry. It was none to envision. Instead a ragged band of forty soldiers marched north . These raiders captured the Hudson Bay fort, the Customs House and took about twenty hostages. Placed under guard and herded into a large log building the hostages waited. The raiders also waited for the anticipated arrival of the Metis that they expected to join them.

Among the hostages, however, were Mrs. Wheaton, spouse of Col. Wheaton commandant of the U.S. Fort Pembina, and an American soldier who had escorted her to the store. One of the prisoners - a young child - escaped, and word reached Wheaton of the situation. Very quickly, two companies of American Infantry complete with cannon were marching northward. Surprised by this turn of events the Fenians were quickly routed. Rounded up by the American military and returned to Fort Pembina, they were left to ponder why an American military force scattered them from a supposedly Canadian facility.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, news of the invasion had reached Fort Garry and the militia was mustered and given marching orders. In mud and rain they left Winnipeg that evening. Shortly after their departure, Col. Wheaton sent a telegram to the U.S. consul in Winnipeg informing him that he had "captured and now hold General J. O'Neill, General Thomas Curly, and Colonel J. J. Donnelly." As a reassuring footnote he also concluded that "anxiety regarding a Fenian invasion of Manitoba is unnecessary." Thus ended Canada’s last incursion by armed foreign nationals into Canadian soil. Still, fears of Fenian raids persisted for many years, as a result two local militia units were formed, the West Lynne Artillery Battery and the Emerson Infantry Company. Fortunately the effectiveness of these militia units never required testing against a foreign invasion.

In 1872, the Joint International Boundary Commission accurately established the boundary line between Canada and the United States. It was discovered that a good portion of North Fort Pembina was in American territory, and the Canadian Customs House was 280m on the wrong side of the line. The building was speedily moved northward. The portion of the fort that was on American soil was likewise moved to Canadian territory. The following year, the Hudson Bay Company, to avoid confusion caused by its similarity with the American fort, changed the name of North Fort Pembina to West Lynne.

The origin of the name West Lynne seems to have been lost. Yet a local history, View From the Portcullis, suggests this possible explanation. Accordingly about this time a young artist, named Washington Frank Lynn was living in Winnipeg. Trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London, Lynn had arrived in 1872. Unfortunately, painting could not sustain him and to make ends meet, worked as a journalist. Lynn had journeyed to St. Paul to try and improve his finances, but was not happy there and returned to Winnipeg. The story goes that Mr. Lynn arrived at the border on a lumber raft from Minnesota. The lumber was to be used for the new town site being build on the east side of the river. The new town was called Emerson, in honour of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Speculation is the people on the west side of the river chose to name their town after a less prominent, but English/Canadian writer, Mr. Lynn of Winnipeg. Later, Mr. Lynn became a successful and well-known artist. Interestingly, one of his better known paintings is Fort Pembina. Clearly, then Mr. Lynn was not a stranger to the area.

By 1879, the site of the new town West Lynne started to grow. Caught up in the railway and immigration boom of the early 1880s the new town prospered. Stores, hotels, breweries, agricultural implement dealerships, grain storage facilities, churches and a local school suddenly sprang up. Some West Lynne merchants even envisioned a railroad called the West Lynne, Rhineland and Rock Lake Railway. Alas, it was not to be. The arrival of the CPR line through to Winnipeg meant those trade goods and people would now travel west from this growing metropolis 60 miles to the north. West Lynne's prosperity and dreams faded. Amalgamated with the Town of Emerson in the mid-1880's, West Lynne became just a suburb of it larger neighbor. Today, only two original buildings remain. One of them is the stone mansion built by West Lynne business person George Pocock; the other is the old custom house.

And what happened to the old log building over the intervening years? It served as a Custom office until 1879. At the beginning of this century, a picture of the building, serving as a backdrop for the district’s original pioneers, appeared in a Winnipeg newspaper. Eventually it ended up on the property of wealthy West Lynne entrepreneur George Pocock. For many years it served as a stable. In the early 1950's, it was moved to site near the Red River. Along with another historical building, Emerson's first jail, it served as the Gateway Stopping Place Museum. After the 1979 Red River Flood, the buildings were moved to a site 1 km west. Both buildings have been structurally restored and should easily last another 150 years.

West Lynne, although a ghost of its former self, remains a distinct part of Emerson. In recent years, because of its highway location, it has seen the establishment of several new businesses. These, along with many new homes, have continued to give the area some of its former separateness. Canada Customs’ decision in 1992 to rename their Highway 29 office Emerson-West Lynne is another example of the recognition given to the site that played an important part in the development of this area of Manitoba.


Winnipeg Telegram, May 15, 1899

"Shooting the Stars" Article by Marjorie Forrester,The Beaver, Spring 1960.

"Clouston Goes to Pembina" Article by Elaine Allen Mitchell, The Beaver. Autumn 1961.

"West Lynne" Article by H. Mulligan and W. Ryder, Ghost Towns of Manitoba.

"Emerson in the 1880s: The Town, the People and the Railroad.", Article by James McClelland, The Centennial History of Emerson, 1879-1979.

"Manitoba's Own Fenian Raid: A Call to Arms,"Article by Edith Patterson, Centennial Collection Tales of Early Manitoba from the Winnipeg Free Press.

"A Boundless Horizon," Article by Virginia Berry,Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1983

View From the Portcullis. E.D. McClelland. D.W. Friesen Publishing, Altona: 1992

Riel: A Life of Revolution. Maggie Siggins. Harper-Collins,Toronto: 1994