As the railway made its way across Canada, small communities began to pop up along the route it took. From Ontario all the way out to British Columbia, thousands of communities grew. Some lasted, some did not, but all owe their existence to the railway. In Manitoba, many communities existed before the railway arrived, but its arrival changed everything for them.
For the early settlers of the area, the 1870s and 1880s was a time with limited access to advanced transportation. This proved difficult for the farmers ,who had to get their crops to the market and receive supplies for their work. Without a railway, it meant long days of travel for those settlers. By 1882, this trip was shortened somewhat thanks to the rail arriving in Brandon.
Once the railway had reached Brandon, it was believed that there would be a southwest extension of the line from Deloraine to the Saskatchewan border. This was because there were large deposits of coal near Estevan, Saskatchewan, and running a line to that community would make financial sense.
Nonetheless, it was not until the 1890s when a railway reached Melita. There is some dispute over the exact year that it arrived through. According to Norman Wright, who wrote a book on southwest Manitoba, it was 1892 when the railway arrived. That being said, the Melita paper reported on a train arriving on June 14, 1891. Most likely, it was that scheduled train service did not start until 1892, while the line was built in 1891.
The high grade awaits the railway in Melita
The first train station was completed in January of 1892 and a roundhouse was built in Melita in 1893. With the railway came the telegraph as well, arriving in Gainsborough in 1891. Mail cars also brought news from the outside world at the same time. The first station agent would be E.R. Redpath, who would serve from 1891 to 1901, followed by E.B. Lauglin from 1901 to 1916. The longest serving station agent would be H.M. Smith, who served from 1922 to 1940.
Due to flooding from the Souris River, a high grade had to be built over the low-lying flats. This was done by horse-drawn scrapers and it took some time to do. A wooden bridge was also built over the Souris River. That bridge remained in service for just over a decade before a permanent cement and steel bridge was opened on Feb. 19, 1905. That bridge cost $75,000, or $1.6 million in today’s funds.
With the railway needing water for its steam engines, a pumphouse and water tank were located just west of Melita and the CPR gave the town permission to use the water for firefighting in the town. The CPR also went into an agreement with the Melita Flour Mill, which was powered by steam. This allowed the mill to also serve as the first electric light plant for the town because of their steam equipment from the CPR.
The original bridge for the railway
On March 9, 1916, the first station would be destroyed by fire and two freight cars would be used until a new station was built on Dec. 15, 1916.
Passenger train service also began, with a train arriving early in the morning bringing passengers and taking people away. As time went on, the passenger train service would improve and the number of stops during the week would increase. Eventually though, passenger service, mail service and freight service declined as automobiles and airplanes took over.
Suggestions for columns or questions? E-mail Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his podcast by searching for “Canadian History Ehx” on your podcast platform. Find his show on YouTube by searching for “Canadian History Ehx”.
Information for this column comes from Melita: Our First Century.