Interior view of a Pinawa generator c. 1906
Courtesy of Manitoba Archives
|Introduction and Map
1. First Log Homes
2. Company Garden
3. Four Brick Houses
4. Staff House
5. Company Store
6. Town Hall
7. Five Lumber Houses
8. Horse Barn
9. School House Walk
10. Wood Pile Yard
11. Last Seven Houses
12. Looking into the future
Welcome to Old Pinawa. Come and explore the
original town on the Old Pinawa Self-guiding
Trail. The townsite tour trail is 0.7 km long and should take you about an hour to walk.
As you walk, refer to this pamphlet to find out what
once existed at each of the granite trail markers.
Discover the history of this isolated little company town that was self-sufficient and had great
This was a pioneering town, but of a different sort.
The people of Old Pinawa were pioneers of
hydroelectricity. The residents constructed and operated the first hydroelectric plant of its kind. The
power they provided enabled Winnipeg to grow from a prairie town to an industrial centre.
In the early 1900s, the Winnipeg Electric Company
set out to do something unique—build a yearround
hydroelectric generating station in
Manitoba's wilderness. Many people said it could
not be done.
Construction started in 1903. Corduroy roads were
built over muskeg to get to the site. New
immigrants, many from Scandinavia and England, came to find work. They arrived in Lac du Bonnet
by train, then walked or hitched a wagon ride, crossing the Winnipeg River on the ferry. At the
time, the average labourer made ten cents an hour for a 10-hour day. For skilled workers, the pay was fifteen cents an hour. The work was hard, done by backbreaking labour and horsepower.
Tents and crude shanties sprang up around the
construction site. As work progressed and men
began to bring their families out, the first permanent houses were built.
A row of log houses ran from here to the park office. Some people called these first log houses Beehives. They had two bedrooms, a screened veranda, white pine floors, with a garden and outhouse in the back. Heat came from a wood stove, light from oil lamps, and water from a pail dipped in the river. The Beehives were used until about 1924.
Matt and Lucy Pearson came from England in
1904. Matt heard of work at Pinawa. He only
had a little money, so he took the train from
Winnipeg to Milner Ridge, then walked to Pinawa.
He landed a job on the construction crew blasting
the channel. Two years later, Lucy joined Matt and
they moved into a log house.
When the plant began to operate, Matt took up the job he was trained for—gardening and landscaping. The Winnipeg Electric Company hired him to grow vegetables for the town and maintain the grounds.
The three-acre company garden, in the open area
west towards the road, grew every kind of
vegetable and some fruit. There was also a greenhouse. Vegetables were supplied to the staff
house and sold at the company store in town. During the winter, they were kept in a root cellar
behind the town hall.
Because of Matt's hard work and good planning,
Pinawa became known as the "Jewel of the
In Old Pinawa, you would be standing at the far end of the sidewalk, 1920s. Courtesy Jessie Erickson Wilderness." It was a very beautiful town. These spruce trees were once a hedge. Look at the trunks about 10 feet up and you will see where they were trimmed; the branches now grow in mass.
In winter, Matt tended the boilers that provided
steam heat to the town and plant. He was very
involved with town activities, including ordering the Saturday night movies, like those by Charlie
Chaplin, and later the tlkies. Matt worked for the company for 45 1/2 years, until he retired at age 69
in 1950, a year before the plant closed.
Four brick houses stood in a row down this lane.
Look for cement pads in the grass. These were
the homes of people such as the superintendent and head foreman. The last house, farthest from the power house, was for visiting company executives.
The bricks for the houses were manufactured in Lac du Bonnet. The houses were built in 1906 and had steam heat piped from the plant. They each had a fireplace, dining room, indoor plumbing, and a veranda. It didn't take long for them to get electric lights. One or two even had a telephone.
Elling Texmo left his family's island off the
Norwegian coast when he was 17. He arrived in
Pinawa with wife Marie and children in 1910 and started work as a dynamite man. Later he became a foreman. Tex and his family lived in the second brick house from the end. Part of his job, his
favourite part, was taking the visiting company dignitaries staying next door, on fishing trips with
the company boat. They caught plenty of sturgeon and walleye.
Tex was a gregarious fellow who got along with
everyone. Tragedy struck in 1929 when Marie died.
The townspeople helped him cope and care for his eight children. Five years later, through the Ranch Romance Magazine, Tex started corresponding with a woman in Kentucky. They eventually met and married in 1935.
A large two-story brick staff house stood here. It
was built in 1906 for single workers and
visitors. There were 10 bedrooms, a smoking room,
large dining room, kitchen, full basement with
meeting rooms and a suite for the matron who ran the house. There was also a cook, and staff to care for the house. The company gardens, chickens, cows and sheep provided the food.
The staff house was busy in the early days because there were more single workers. Omer Bernard stayed at the staff house when he was a lineman. He was responsible for checking the transmission line from Pinawa to Lac du Bonnet.
Amy Dorland was the staff house matron in 1935.
Her husband had died the year before while
working at the Seven Sisters plant. The company found her a job so she could support her young
One of Bill's chores included delivering the milk in town. The milk was brought to the staff house every morning after the company herd was milked. There, it was separated into cream and milk, then bottled. Bill delivered some; the rest was sold at the store. Amy and Bill left the staff house when she married Harry Nystedt who operated the ferry across the river to Lac du Bonnet.
The Winnipeg Electric Company took good care of
its employees. At Christmas, there were turkeys for
every family, and a toy for every child. The
company supplied transportation to Lac du Bonnet
and even ran the ferry. A doctor was supplied as needed and a room in the staff house was used as adoctor's office. When an influenza epidemic broke out, the company sent a nurse immediately, thus saving many lives.
The company store was a busy place, especially
on payday or when the mail arrived because it
was also the post office. The accountant's office was around back. Bill Loveridge, described as "gentle goodness," was the storekeeper and postmaster for several years.
In the beginning, this tiny store had to carry all the
staples because a trip to Lac du Bonnet was a
journey by horse and wagon on corduroy roads. Staples included things like flour, sugar, salt and
The company gardens and animals supplied a lot for the store. The cows provided meat, milk, butter and cheese; chickens provided meat, eggs and feathers for pillows; and sheep provided meat and wool. As the community grew around Pinawa, local farmers also brought in produce and meat to sell at the store.
Clothing was not available at the store. A travelling
salesperson stopped in town to sell fabric to the
women, who made shirts, pants, and dresses with it. Later, with the arrival of the Eaton's catalogue, many things could be ordered and delivered to the post office. The catalogue served another purpose. When the new catalogue arrived, the old one was retired to the outhouse.
There were about 20 families and several single
people living in Pinawa. The population was
near 100 most of the time. By 1919, the school, also used as the town hall, was no longer big enough to hold events, so a warehouse was renovated into the town hall.
The hall became the meeting place, movie theatre, church and dance hall. It even had a player piano that fascinated the children. In a time before cars, the town made its own entertainment. Everyone volunteered for something.
Victoria Day in May and Dominion Day on July 1 were big events, featuring picnics, hand-cranked ice cream and bonfires with roasted potatoes. At the Christmas concert, everyone, young and old, played a part. People who had moved away, came back to attend the Halloween Dance. Everyone in town brought home-cooked food from their country of origin. Even after cars were commonplace, allowing travel beyond the town, the residents continued to hold town events.
The Winnipeg Electric Company made sure there
were many recreational facilities for the people of
Pinawa. These included tennis courts, two hockey rinks, a baseball diamond and a curling rink. The curling rink had one sheet of ice. Teams from Great Falls, Pointe du Bois, Seven Sisters and even the Granite Curling Club in Winnipeg, came to play.
In the late 1920s, things began to change in
Pinawa. Cars were replacing the horse and
wagon—making the trip to Lac du Bonnet, and even Winnipeg, a lot easier. Materials were brought
in over better roads. Lumber houses replaced the log cabins.
This is the foundation for one of a set of five lumber houses, built of materials from the sawmill in Lac du Bonnet. Inspired by gardener Matt Pearson, people took pride in their homes and community, creating park-like yards and gardens.
There was a healthy competition established by
the company among the "Jewel of the Wilderness"
and her sister towns of Great Falls and Seven Sisters to see who had the most beautiful gardens.
WE: Winnipeg Electric Employees Magazine, reported on the annual competition every year. Pinawa won its share of awards.
On your way to the barn, watch for the foundation
of the former one-pump gas station, located in the
clump of balsam or black poplar.
From 1903 to 1907, when the dam was being
built, horses were the most important part of the
workforce. They did the heavy work, like pulling the generators into place and hauling turbines on sleighs from Lac du Bonnet to Pinawa. Horses were the bulldozers, tractors and dump trucks in
Fifty to 75 teams of horses were used during the
construction phase. Later, 12 teams were kept for
daily work, and housed in the barn that stood here. A couple of fast pacers were always kept ready for emergencies like trips to get the doctor. The horses were treated well. They had hay and oats to eat, a steam-heated barn and several staff to take care of them. Some horses did die during onstruction due to accidents or from foot disease caused by working all day in mud.
The stable boss was in charge of the barn and
horses. His job also included driving the company
officials to Lac du Bonnet and back. In winter, sleighs were pulled by horses for the trip to town.
Passengers were kept warm with heated bricks and piles of blankets and buffalo robes. In the early days, if you didn't have a horse to take you places, you walked or snowshoed.
The old schoolhouse was a 10-minute walk from town into the trees, over the bridge and up the hill.
The first school, built in 1913, was located by the park entrance. It was a one-room log structure with a big potbelly stove that the nine students gathered around for warmth on a cold day. This first school also served as the community hall for several years.
The second school was built farther from the
town. Some say the reason was to keep the town
quiet so shift workers could sleep during the day. The new location was also more accessible for
children from the growing farm community around Pinawa. This was a one-room school as
well. Grades one to eight were taught. The older children were often responsible for helping the
younger ones with schoolwork.
School lessons included going to the movies. The children had to learn to read the subtitles of silent movies. Teachers took advantage of the outdoor classroom around them. There were plenty of field trips to identify trees, animal tracks and plants.
Children were an important part of the town. There were activities planned for them at every event. The children also found many other things to entertain themselves, such as swimming,skating, fishing or just exploring nature.
Just up this road to the north was a huge woodpile. Several men were employed all winter to cut and haul wood to feed the two large boilers at the plant that supplied heat for the power house and the brick houses, staff house, store, and horse barn. Twenty cords of wood were needed just to heat the school in winter.
Hans Erickson immigrated to Canada from Norway in 1904. In summer, he blasted rock during the construction of the dam. In winter, he cut wood for the boilers.
Like many of the European immigrants, he was drawn to Canada, the “Land of Milk and Honey,” by the promise of free land. Immigrants were granted title to the land if they cleared and farmed it. While Hans worked for the Winnipeg Electric Company, he started clearing land just past the school. Hans was one of the first to receive a homestead grant of land in this area. His farm supplied the company store with milk and he continued to cut wood for the company in winter.
When Pinawa closed and the diversion dams were blasted, Hans would not leave the farm to witness the sight. His daughter said it broke his heart to know it was being torn down.
Some people called Pinawa a quiet oasis. Perhaps this had to do with the atmosphere of the town, because the power plant would have made a continuous roar.
You have been walking down a little street here, where a row of houses—four small ones and three big ones—stood. The family gardens were in the field behind you.
There were always visitors coming out for holidays and former residents coming back to visit old friends. The residents enjoyed the rugged setting and everything nature provided. Many families ate venison all winter, fish all summer, grouse in fall and wild berries and preserves for dessert. The only drawback was the bugs. Girls, who still mostly wore dresses, put newspaper under their stockings to prevent mosquito bites.
On Sunday evenings after church service, families would stroll through the town. Often they found themselves up on the walkway of the dam looking out at the islands and quiet water.
On September 21, 1951, after 45 years of service, the first year-round hydroelectric plant in Manitoba switched off the power. By then the town of Pinawa was almost deserted. Only a few employees remained to take the power plant out of commission. Those who did not retire were moved to other plants—Great Falls, Seven Sisters and Pointe du Bois. To the end, the company took care of its people.
Mrs. Bernard, who wrote the monthly article “Pinawa Pointers” for the Winnipeg Electric Employees Magazine, submitted her last column over fifty years ago. In it she wrote:
I often wonder what it will be like here in years to come… if this place is ever a ghost town, I’ll bet there will be nothing but friendly spirits here. If, years hence, someone comes to Pinawa on a summer’s evening, I’m sure if one listens carefully, there will be strange sounds carried on the twilight breeze. The echo of the laughter of all the children who have played here from the beginning, the voices of the women discussing gardening and recipes and calling the small fry in at night and the raillery of the men coming home from work at five o’clock. Though Pinawa may be deserted, I’m sure it will never be lonely.
Other interpretive features you can explore in the park are the signs on the information kiosk, historic photographs in the park office, and the nature trail.
The Friends of Old Pinawa and Manitoba Conservation wish to thank the many former residents who shared their stories, and those who generously donated to construction of the trail. Information on the Friends of Old Pinawa can be found on their Web site