Long before Europeans ever set foot on the land that would be Canada, the area that would be Selkirk was the home to the Anishinaabe and the Saulteaux people, who followed the immense bison herds that once dominated the landscape.
The first Europeans to arrive in the area would be European fur traders and explorers, who began to set up trading camps and areas of trade for companies back east. As those fur traders came to the area, they would bring rise to a new Indigenous culture, the Metis, who would have a long lasting impact on the area and Canada as a whole.
One fort built by these fur traders was located just north of Selkirk along the Red River. Called Fort Maurepas, it was built in 1734 after two explorers reported that the location would be a good site for a fort. Returning to the area again, they brought with them 12 men in three canoes to build the fort. The site of the fort is not known today, only identified as five leagues up the Red River on high ground where the marshes end. The fort would produce 600 packages of furs in 1735, and in 1737 officials in the area of the reported that all the Indigenous around the fort had died of smallpox. In 1739, the fort was abandoned for Fort Rouge at the present site of Winnipeg.
A second Fort Maurepas would be built soon after the other for was abandoned, but there is little documentation regarding this fort. Some say that the original fort was moved to this new location, but there is little to confirm this. It is stated that the fort was rebuilt in 1749 when the Indigenous burned it to the ground. By 1793 though, nothing was in the area.
Fort Gibraltar would become the main fort for the area in 1809, located at The Forks in Winnipeg. After the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, it would be renamed Fort Garry and later become the City of Winnipeg.
Located near Selkirk you will find the Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site. Built along the west bank of the Red River, this stone fort played a pivotal role in Indigenous-Canadian relations. The fort was home to the Hudson’s Bay Company and Indigenous trappers would often journey to the fort to sell furs. It was at this fort that Treaty 1, the first of the Numbered Treaties, was signed on Aug. 3, 1871. This treaty would lay the ground work for the next 10 that would be signed between that date and 1921, and the influence of those treaties continues to this day. At this historic site, many of the buildings that were built in the 1830s still stand, including the original limestone walls. The fort had been built in 1830 after George Simpson decided to move the original fort to a safer location after it was destroyed in the 1826 Red River Flood. The fort never became an administrative centre as most residents were near The Forks to the south, and they did not want to travel to the new fort to do business. As a result of this, Upper Fort Garry was built in 1835 at the original fort site. Lower Fort Garry would serve as a training ground for the North West Mounted Police prior to their March West in 1874 and the fort would serve as a mental hospital from 1885 to 1886, an HBC residence and a golf and country club from 1911 to 1963. The Hudson’s Bay Company actually owned the fort until 1951 when it was turned over to the federal government. It became a National Historic Site in 1958 and was named one of the top 10 National Historic Sites in Canada in 2011.
The start of Selkirk gets its start thanks to an event in 1813 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold 410,000 square kilometres of land to the Earl of Selkirk. Soon after, settlers began to arrive in the area.
For the next half century, the area would be sparsely populated by settlers, the Metis and the Indigenous, and the townsite of Selkirk was still some time away.
By 1876, the townsite of Selkirk was in the hands of three speculators and the first surveys of the future townsite would begin. A major reason for this was the planned arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was supposed to come to Selkirk where a large bridge would cross the Red River, helping the community become an important stop on the line. Of course, that wouldn’t happen as the bridge and its infrastructure, including roundhouses, would be built in Winnipeg instead.
Selkirk wouldn’t fade away though, and soon enough the community would have a grist mill, and more than 200 people living in the community.
Something else would start up in the community around this time. It was in 1878 that several farmers came together to form the St. Andrews-St. Clements Agricultural Society, and a rodeo and agricultural fair would be formed soon after. That rodeo runs to this very day and is one of the oldest in Canada, and while it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it will return in 2022. The rodeo has grown since those early days as well, and is now one of the most important and biggest rodeos in Western Canada.
On July 24, 1882, a warm Monday for the area, the Town of Selkirk would be incorporated, with James Colcleugh being chosen as the new mayor of the community. An industrial boom soon followed as the fish from the lake were in high demand, and industries of all sorts began to appear in the community. As the community grew, there were characters who would pop up as well. One such character was a Mrs. Johnson, who claimed to have been 121, had 23 children and every New Year’s Eve she would go and kiss every man in town for ten cents.
In 1884, construction began on a three-storey brick facility on the outskirts of Selkirk that would have a long lasting impact on the community. The Manitoba Asylum for the Insane would open on May 25, 1886 with a capacity of 167 people, 59 of which were brought in from the Stony Mountain Penitentiary. In 1910, the facility would change its name to the Selkirk Hospital for the Insane, and then to the Selkirk Mental Health Hospital in later years. The building would be extended in 1900, and then in 1911. In 1978, the original building was demolished but a monument marks its site, made from brick and marble from the building and commemorated in a ceremony by the Lt. Governor on May 29, 1986. A new centre was built, with more modern facilities for helping people with mental health issues and for treating brain injuries.
By 1892, the community had 1,836 people in it. One year after this, a man named Howard Edward Joseph Simpson would be born in Selkirk, but he would later gain fame as Bullet Joe Simpson. Earning the nickname Bullet for his fast skating style, he would serve in the First World War and was wounded twice. Upon his return, he began to play professional hockey in the Western Hockey League where Newsy Lalonde called Simpson the greatest living hockey player. Simpson would make his NHL debut with the New York Americans in 1924-25. He would play a total of 228 games in the NHL, recording 40 points. While his NHL career was short, he had a long professional career that ran from his time in the war to 1931. In that time he won the Allan Cup in 1916 with the Winnipeg 61st Battalion and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. He would pass away in 1973.
Curling spawned in the area around this time with the birth of the Selkirk Curling Club in 1893. That club would become one of the top clubs in the province in short order with 50 members by 1895. The Selkirk Rink also proved to be formidable on the ice sheets, defeating two rinks from Winnipeg in a friendly tournament in 1893, and then doing so again in 1895. The club then went down to Milwaukee, one of only two clubs from Manitoba to do so that year, for the Northwestern Curling Association’s annual bonspiel. In 12 games played, the Selkirk Rink lost only one, and defaulted on one other, to capture the Jobbers Cup. Upon the team’s return to Selkirk afterwards, they were treated to a parade, bonfire and banquet as conquering curling heroes.
In 1906, the ratepayers in Selkirk voted in favour of allowing the town government to borrow $150,000, or $4 million today, to build a waterworks and sewer system for the community. The most noticeable feature of that system still stands to this day and serves as a landmark for the community. The Selkirk Water Tower holds 275,000 litres of water and stands 32 metres above the ground. It was built by the Canadian Fairbanks Company and the Minneapolis Steel and Machine Company and its pump house had the ability to pump up 450,000 litres of water every day. The entire system would go into operation in September of 1910. The structure is still standing today and also is receiving a new paint job sometime in the summer of 2021.
The community would slowly grow over the next few years but it would not have its first real boom until 1916 when the steel rolling mill began to dominate the town’s economy. Starting as the American Horseshoe Company in 1907, it would move to Selkirk at the start of the First World War, and eventually become the Manitoba Rolling Mills, now known as Gerdau in the community, a mill that still operates and employs many in the community.
A very strange event would occur on June 4, 1923 when Alex Martin, the chief of police, and Robert Ramsay, the owner of the Lisgar Hotel, robbed Gaston F. Gatin and George Country of alcohol valued at $1,200 and later disposed of it. It was alleged that Martin used his position as chief to seize the liquor. In the end, after standing trial, the charges were dismissed.
In 1935, an iconic part of Selkirk, which stands to this day, was built. The Selkirk Lift Bridge is a steel truss bridge that spans the Red River and was built to replace the ferry that had existed for many years in the community. The hope for a bridge over the Red River at Selkirk had existed since the 1870s and the topic even made it to the House of Commons at one point. The total cost of the bridge construction was $250,000 and it provided a great deal of employment for the area when everyone was hurting for jobs during The Great Depression. On May 15, 1936, the lift span portion of the bridge was operated for the first time and today it remains the last remaining lift bridge in the entire province.
In 1972, the Marine Museum of Manitoba would open in Selkirk to highlight the marine history of not only the area, but all of Manitoba. The museum operates to this day and features many important boats from Manitoba and Canadian history, as well as a large collection of historical artifacts. Among the ships within the museum grounds are the SS Keenora, which was built in 1897 and is the oldest preserved steamboat in Manitoba. There is also the CGS Bradbury, built in 1915 when it started its service as an ice breaker for the federal government. Other ships on the grounds were built between 1942 and 1963 and include a tug boat, a fishing vessel and a connection vessel between Warren Landing and Norway House.
The community would receive a very special visitor on July 17, 1982, when Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the community and attended the heritage fair. It was a clear, but very hot day when the Royal Daughter came to the community for the opening ceremonies of the event. Also in attendance were over 500 residents who crowded Selkirk Park, watched as the princess set a bundle of balloons into the air to mark the opening of the big event. The princess would then tour the community, including visiting the Selkirk Mental Health Clinic.
In 1986, a very recognizable piece of Selkirk was built when Chuck The Channel Cat, a 25-foot long fiberglass representation of a catfish was completed. The catfish was named after Chuck Norquay, who had died doing what he loved the most, fishing in the Red River. As Selkirk is known as the Catfish Capital of the World, it was the perfect way to honour not only Chuck, but the fishing heritage of the area.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Selkirk and the surrounding area, then check out the Selkirk Museum. Unlike other museums, this one is completely virtual and you can learn all about the city’s past through your phone through their website, while you are in the community as it educates and entertains visitors and residents alike.