Before the arrival of Europeans, Lac du Bonnet was home to the Anishnabewaki, who were a subgroup of the Anishinaabe. The area was important to the Indigenous as the Winnipeg River was a highway for travel through the region. There was also an abundance of wildlife to hunt for food and clothing.
As fur traders started to move through the area in the 1600s and 1700s, they would form a new culture with the Indigenous that today we call the Metis.
Today, Lac Du Bonnet sits on Treaty 1 land. To the west of Lac Du Bonnet is the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. The Brokenhead were one of the five First Nations to sign the Selkirk Treaty of 1817, which granted 116,000 square miles of land that would lay the foundations for Manitoba. This was the first formal written agreement in western Canada that recognized Indigenous land rights.
Founding Of The Community
The first mention of the area that would be Lac Du Bonnet came from Pierre Gaultier de Varenees, sieur de La Verendrye and the story of the name of the community comes from him, at least according to legend during his travels in the area during the early 18th century.
While out with his fellow explorers, they camped on the banks of the Winnipeg River and he looked around the area that would eventually be the location of Lac du Bonnet. He decided that the lake was in the shape of a bonnet and from that came the name Lac du Bonnet. He tossed his hat against a tree and said “ici je pronounce Lac, Lac du Bonnet”, or in English, “I herewith name this body of water Lac du Bonnet.”
The first settlement in the area was called Eureka and in 1896, the Lac du Bonnet Development Company would be formed in 1896. The company would own the land where Lac du Bonnet now stands.
In 1901, the CPR line was built to Lac du Bonnet, the same year that a sawmill started to operate in the community, which would greatly help its growth. The sawmill would operate until 1918, and the brick plant would operate until 1920.
For years, the population of Lac du Bonnet was made up of French Canadians and Metis but as more immigrants entered Canada, they would settle in the area bringing a variety of different cultures into Lac du Bonnet.
By 1922, Lac du Bonnet had 200 people, while the surrounding population was 1,800.
On Jan. 6, 1948, the unincorporated municipality of Lac du Bonnet because the Village of Lac du Bonnet. On June 16, 1958, the village became a town.
Today, Lac du Bonnet has a population of over 1,000 people.
The First Airmail Flight
Today, we take mail traveling by air for granted, but in the 1920s it was something unique and new. On June 1, 1927, spectators at the town dock watched a plane take off from the mining area, flying to the northeast. Most did not realize that they were not just seeing a plane take flight, but that it was the first airmail flight in the history of the province. Which was being done as a test flight to see if the new form of delivery would work.
Around this same time, the RCAF moved its base from Victoria Beach to a point three kilometres downstream from the village.
Due to its location, Lac du Bonnet served as a stopping point and gained a reputation as one of the finest seaplane bases in western Canada. As a result of this, Western Canada Airways chose the community as its first flying base in Manitoba.
The first official contract airmail service undertaken by the company for the Postal Department was carried from Lac du Bonnet on Oct. 4, 1927. The pilot of that plane was W.L. Britnell, who would eventually become the assistant general manager of Canadian Airways.
The Pigeon Post
For seven years during the 1930s, Lac du Bonnet had a very unique air force and communication network. It wasn’t done with planes, but pigeons. For those years, two men would sit in an old framed building and a bird would fly in with a message in a container attached to its leg. This was done through the Forest Protection Service and the pigeons were the first communication network for it. The pigeoneer and his pigeons served a vital role in protecting not only the forests of Manitoba, but its people as well.
All of it began in 1930 when Manitoba took over its own administration of her resources. Prior to this, planes with the Royal Canadian Air Force were used. When the province took over management, they received five aircraft, their crews and the pigeon post. The cost was five dollars.
Flying out 240 kilometres from Lac du Bonnet to different points, flying to the network of forestry towers across the area. As the system could be unpredictable, and there were predators out there that would hunt the pigeons, two pigeons with the same message were often sent to increase the odds of a message getting through.
For the men in the towers, they would send the birds out well before dusk to ensure they had daylight to make it home.
Of course, over time the system began to break down. With it being The Great Depression, people were finding food where they could and that included hunting pigeons.
By 1937, it was decided that the Pigeon Post would shut down for good.
Old Pinawa Dam Provincial Park
If you like history and beautiful landscapes, then the Old Pinawa Dam Provincial Park gives you both. The Pinawa Generating Station was Manitoba’s first year-round hydro generation station and it began the hydroelectric development along the Winnipeg River.
The station first began to generate power for the area in 1906, and it would continue to do so for almost halfa century until it closed in 1951 due to the construction of the Seven Sisters Hyrdo Station. During the time it operated, the Old Pinawa Dam provided Winnipeg with residential and commercial power, helping to spur its development into one of Canada’s major cities.
In 1985, the 193-hectare area was designated as a provincial park by the Government of Manitoba. Today, visitors can not only enjoy the beautiful landscape, but also learn about the generation of electricity there on the Dam Ruins Walk, have a picnic, go for a swim, and walk along the Old-Pinawa self-guided trail. This trail takes visitors through the history of the area, from the first log houses, to the creation of the dam, to the other industries that popped up around the area.
The Usackis Rink
One of the greatest athletes to ever come from Lac Du Bonnet was John Usackis, who reached the highest levels of curling in the country and brought glory to the community.
Learning from Ralph and Glenn Butchart, he quickly picked up the fundamentals of the game and began to compete in high school bonspiels and other local bonspiels as he began to make a name for himself in the curling world.
After dominating those bonspiels and winning several championship, the highlight of Usackis career would come in 1977 when he made it to the Brier, the biggest curling event in Canada, where he played as a third, finishing with a record of six wins and five losses.
That wouldn’t be the only time that he would make it to the Brier. In 1989, serving as the fourth on the team, he would once again represent Manitoba and finish with a record of seven wins and four losses.
In all, John Usackis would make 30 appearances at the men’s championships, five appearances at the Senior Men’s Championships, six appearances at the mixed championship and six appearances at the Masters Championships.
In 2008, he was inducted into the Manitoba Curling Hall of Fame.
A Bridge And A Train Accident
Today, a bridge crosses the Winnipeg River north of Lac du Bonnet. The history of a bridge crossing there dates back to 1907, although the bridge there today is not the bridge that was first built.
That first bridge was built to service the hydro development nearby and over the years, a lot of construction material would go over it. Unfortunately, all that traffic over the bridge would come at a terrible cost less than a decade after the bridge was built of local timber.
On June 30, 1914, a hydro train was going over the bridge from the west when suddenly the bridge collapsed, sending the engine into the water. George Wrighton was killed instantly, while the fireman escaped injury.
The crash created a serious situation for Lac Du Bonnet and residents of Pointe du Bois. Until the bridge was repaired, a ferry had to be used to transport people and equipment across the river. A steam tug and scow was operated by the Winnipeg Electric Company for that purpose, along with a passenger boat for transporting vehicles.
The bridge was eventually repaired and a train was put into service. Unfortunately, there was worry about how sound the bridge was due to vibrations in the bridge. Soon a policy emerged that stated no passengers could cross the bridge on the train. When the train reached the bridge, all passengers would get off and the engineer would set the throttle and then walk across, waiting for the train to reach him on the other side. Once it reached the other side, he would stop it and everyone would get off.
For the passengers, they had to walk across the eight-foot wide bridge that had no railings, over a very swift river. Most became accustom to this odd break in their travel, but for some it was a worrying crossing.
This practice would continue for years. In fact, the Winnipeg Free Press would write on June 30, 1928, quote:
“The train stopped to unload at one end of the bridge and every person save one walked over to wait for the train. The man who stayed behind set the throttle to keep the train moving slowly, then he too got off and the train rumbled across the bridge empty. On a rainy day, the sight of all those tourists running over planks was something to see.”
The issue existed for 17 years until a steel bridge was built in 1931 by the City of Winnipeg and the Federal Government. In 1952, the bridge was raised, widened and reinforced after a dam was completed at Powerview.
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The Explosion and Fire
Whenever I do a town history, I often like to look at the serious events that occurred in a community, especially tornadoes and fires. I do this because I feel these events have a way of remaking a community. From the ashes, new businesses come up, often the buildings are stronger than before. The events are terrible, but from them comes new parts of the community.
One of the worst events in Lac Du Bonnet’s history came on February 22, 1965 when the explosion of a furnace ignited a fire that would destroy part of the downtown core, while tragically taking three lives in the process.
The explosion happened at 1:30 p.m. on that day in the basement of the bakery. The explosion quickly caused a fire to spread, which trapped the owner and his toddler on the second floor, while his five-year-old daughter was on the ground floor. Sadly, all three would perish. His wife survived, as did a third child who was playing outside. Sandford Peterson had received second degree burns on his face and hands. It is likely he would have died in the building but a second explosion threw him out the window.
High winds caused the flames to quickly spread to the MacLeod Store, which was burned within minutes. After hitting that store, the Lucky Dollar Store was hit. Only a few items could be saved before it too was burned to the ground. Next in line was the post office. Employees quickly cleared out the building of mail, records and other items in an attempt to save them. The building was made of brick, and firefighters worked hard to save it. While the building was saved, it suffered extensive water and smoke damage in the process.
Due to two of the buildings also serving as homes, several people were left homeless from the fire.
The firemen, 20 in total, fought the fires for hours in the cold and biting wind until it was under control. Even in the evening, several remained in an effort to stamp out any bits of the fire that may have flared up.
One room schools are hard to find these days, but they are out there if you know where to look. In Lac Du Bonnet, or at least near to it, you will find Riverland School. The school was built in 1924, during the heyday of one-room schools as a means to provide education to the children of the area, which were increasing in number.
Fronted with a storm porch, the school is the last remaining facility of its type in the RM of Lac du Bonnet.
Featuring a multigrade classroom, a large bank of windows, upper openings for air circulation and a central entrance, the building was built on land donated by Gus Anderson.
Over the course of four decades, the school would serve students from grades one to eight. Many of the children were Swedish families who had just emigrated to the area.
The school remains nearly unchanged from how it looked decades ago, offering a glimpse into schooling from the long-gone past.
The school remains an important part of the legacy of the area and on Dec. 11, 2008, it was made into a Municipal Heritage Property.
Located on a rural lot near the Pinawa Channel near Lac Du Bonnet, there is a small log cabin that was once the home Hans Erickson. Built in 1937, the cabin still features the same well-chosen logs, smoothed and notched to fit together tightly. Erickson lived in the area to help construct the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company generating facility. He was also employed in cutting wood for the boilers of the plant in the winter. In addition, he supplied the company store with milk from his farm and was one of the first individuals in the area to receive a homestead grant.
The structure itself was built for his daughter Linnea, and today is the only remaining log structure from that time still around after the 1951 closure of the hydroelectric installation and the end of the company town around it.
On May 24, 2005, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site.