Tuesday, September 1, 2020

108 - 112 Alexander - Dominion Express Company Stables

© 2020, Christian Cassidy
Place: Dominion Express Company Stables
Address: 108 - 112 Alexander Avenue, 109 - 111 Pacific Avenue
Opened: 1905 (expansions in 1909, 1913, 1946)
Architect: John Woodman (1904, 1909, 1913)

The building at 108 - 112 Alexander Avenue, which was expanded to include 109 - 111 Pacific Avenue in 1946, was originally constructed as the stables for the CPR-owned Dominion Express Company. When the company changed from horses to motorized vehicles in 1926, it was converted into the garage for its familiar red delivery trucks.

In the early 1970s, the space was subdivided into many different units over five addresses. Today, one of those spaces is home to Patent 5 Distillery.

The development of the block, 1903 - 1907

The first decade of 1900 was one of great change for this block of Alexander Avenue East as it transformed from residential to industrial use. The housing stock was very basic and likely meant for labourers who worked at the docks or other industrial sites along the river. (During the trial of a man who lived at one of the addresses, his house was described as a "shack".)

The 1905 Henderson Directory, which would have been compiled in late 1904, shows most of the residences gone. This signalled the arrival of the Dominion Express Company.

July 6, 1883, Manitoba Free Press

Dominion Express was established in Kingston, Ontario in the early 1870s. In 1882, it was bought out by the CPR to be its country-wide cartage company. The first CPR-era Dominion Express depot and head office opened in Winnipeg on Main Street in October of that year. (The head office moved to Montreal ca. 1884.)

All of the CPR's regional cartage companies were soon pulled together under the Dominion Express banner and it had thousands of employees in cities and towns from coast to coast and even overseas where the company's steamships docked.

Originally, the company's local offices were located at 482 Main Street and its depot and stables were behind the CPR station on Higgins Avenue. (The offices soon moved to 214 Bannatyne, then, in 1915, to 212 Notre Dame Avenue.)

Dominion Express Wagon ca. 1905, City of Vancouver Archives

By the turn of the century, Dominion Express required new stables for its horses and rigs. With land in the area at a premium, it chose this former residential block on Alexander Avenue East on which to build.

John Woodman of Winnipeg was hired to design the brick and stone building.

Woodman is an unsung hero of Winnipeg's architectural past. His name doesn't immediately come to mind when thinking of the era, but in his nearly 20 years as a railway industry architect and 30 years in private practice he had a profound impact on the skyline of many prairie cities. He was the go-to architect for the Hudson's Bay Company and designed many of their early department stores across the prairies.

Some of his Winnipeg buildings include the Winnipeg Eaton's store, the former B and B Building at The Forks (now the Manitoba Children's Museum), The T. Eaton Warehouse right across the street from this one on Alexander Avenue, and the Bredalbane (now Ambassador) Apartments on Hargrave Street Street. (For a detailed list of his works.)

Woodman's original building measured 60 feet by 72 feet. It was two storeys in height with a basement. The rigs were parked on the main floor and the horse stalls located above. No wood was used in its construction to prevent a stables fire, a pretty regular occurrence at the time.

Construction tenders were awarded on April 26, 1904 to a Minneapolis company and construction got underway in May. Additional land to the east was left for an eventual expansion.

As this was a just a stables building there was no grand opening reported in the media. A November 1904 Manitoba Free Press article recapping the year that was in the construction industry said about the facility: "With so much provided for the comfort of man, the horses have not been forgotten." It noted that the stables were electrified and everything from horse grooming to feed loading was done by machine.

Strangely, the Henderson Directory does not note the building as being here until its 1907 edition, (which would have been compiled in late 1906.) This may have been a two year oversight on the part of Henderson's or there may have been a construction or other issue that delayed the company from moving into the building right away.

Google Street View

As Dominion Express continued to grow, so did its stables.

In May 1909, it took out a $10,000 building permit to build an extension - likely a third floor to the existing building - that ended up costing around $12,000 after fixtures and fittings. In July 1913, work began on a more substantial, $39,000 extension that measured 73 feet by 82 feet. Both of these were designed by Woodman.

It is likely that the western section of the building, with the more ornate brick work and Tyndall Stone trim, is the original building and the plainer, eastern facade is the 1913 addition.

Dominion Express poster, ca. 1923

Due to the nature of its work Dominion Express employed many fit, young men. This made it very successful in commercial sports leagues and meant that it felt the impact of the war more than most businesses.

The company estimated that one quarter of its staff served in the First World War and about 60 were killed. As part of the Canadian Pacific family of companies, which included rail and steamship lines, it was also called upon to do extra wartime duties such as transporting troops, moving equipment, and even clandestinely transferring gold and securities to governments in Europe to fund their war effort.

The strain on workers led to labour disputes.

During the war there were two organizations, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and the Brotherhood of Dominion Express Employees, competing for their membership. 

The company actively tried to dissuade its employees from organizing by providing wartime wage bonuses. In 1916, the company gave a ten per cent raise. After a threat to strike in July 1918, the bonus was raised to thirty-five per cent retroactive to May 1.

One of the two employee factions threatened to strike again in September 1918 if a federal conciliator was not appointed to hear other concerns. The federal minister of labour, T W Crothers, refused, saying that that the company's organized employees were split about 50 / 50 between the two unions, making fair negotiations impossible.

May 19, 1919, Western Labour News

Labour unrest mounted across the country after the war. Dominion Express joined the picket lines in mass strikes at Victoria, Halifax and Montreal in April 1919 and at Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge in May 1919.

On the evening of May 14, 1919, the Winnipeg branch of the Brotherhood of Dominion Express Employees held a strike vote. According to the Western Labour News, the outcome was 110 to 6 in favour of joining other workers in the Winnipeg general strike. Within a couple of days all of the company's 205 Winnipeg-based employees were on the picket line.

The impact of Dominion Express' work stoppage was felt immediately. Many rural food producers relied on the CPR to bring their milk, butter and eggs to market in the city. In return, rural communities relied on the express company to deliver fruit and other perishable food products.

It was reported that Dominion Express did not try to hire replacement workers. There are no newspaper reports of violence or picketing at its facilities.

The union informed the company on Sunday, June 22, 1919 that its rural employees would go back to work the next day and city employees the day after that. "Neither they nor the company officials said much about their reasons for stopping work nor for returning", reported the Free Press.

All but 13 of the 205 employees went back to work according to general supervisor G. Ford. The Western Labour News reported that the company refused to take back some of its workers - presumably those 13.

June 26, 1926, Winnipeg Free Press

Two big changes for Dominion Express came in 1926.

It was the end of an era on Monday, on June 14, 1926, when the Winnipeg office of Dominion Express retired the its horses and wagons in favour of motorized trucks. The changeover had been going on for a number of years as the company already had about a  dozen trucks in its fleet. Another dozen were purchased and decked out in its famous red livery - just like its train engines - for the big day.

The Sunday before the changeover, the company paraded its fleet of trucks in their famous red livery - just like their CP Rail train engines - through the streets of the city.

Some companies, such as breweries, bakeries and delivery companies, kept a team or two of its best horses and rigs around even after notorization to do some some deliveries and for public relations events, such as parades. It seems there was no room for such sentimentality in the railway business.

Even during the horse era, when many companies showed their best horses in local and regional horse shows, Dominion Express didn't seem to participate very much. One exception was "John", a brown gelding, who won some awards in 1914 and 1915 at the local annual horse show. "George" was also mentioned in a couple of stories during the same period.

July 19, 1949, Winnipeg Tribune

The other big change that year was a new name.

The CPR wanted to bring its various divisions under one company name, especially those that now had a large overseas presences like telecommunications and express hauling. Effective September 1, 1926, Dominion Express became Canadian Pacific Express, or CP Express.

CP Express was as busy as ever during the Second World War. This meant another big expansion to its Alexander Avenue garage in 1946. The $48,000 construction project was to the rear of the building, taking it right through to Pacific Avenue and creating a new entrance at 109 Pacific.

As a truck garage, much like its times as a stables, the building and its employees didn't make the news.

October 17, 1963, Winnipeg Tribune

The 1960s was a decade of change at CP.

In 1960, it began dropping its passenger service trains, including four trains in Manitoba. It also brought its rail freight, long distance trucking, and express delivery operations under the banner "CP Merchandise Services".

Locally, this meant a $1.5 million dollar freight terminal at Keewatin Street and Selkirk Avenue that opened in October 1963. The new facility's docks were longer than a football field and could load / unload 33 semi trucks, 33 city delivery trucks and 24 rail cars at one time. (Most of its operations, including warehousing and transferring cargo from bay to bay, is done in a 35,000 square foot underground building.)

The new facility included a truck garage for its fleet, which meant the end for the antiquated truck garage on Alexander Avenue. The building continued to be listed as the "CP Express Garage" until at least 1965 and was sold off by the end of the decade.

The complex was subdivided into numerous spaces over six addresses that began appearing ion "for lease" ads starting in 1972 to 1975. Various warehouses, galleries and offices have called the various units home over the decade. (109 Pacific Avenue, for instance, was home to the Dugald Costume Museum from 2007 to 2010.)

Currently, Patent 5 Distillery operates from the 108 Alexander Avenue address - likely the original portion of the building. Its tap room features furnishings and finishes rescued from the St. Regis Hotel to give it a feel that it has been a lounge for many decades.

Dominion Express at War:

More Dominion Express History:

The story of the Dominion Express and its change of name UBC Library
Royal Commission into Winnipeg General Strike Peel's
More photos of the building

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