Rivers / Daly HeritageInterpretive Signs
Sign #8: Lake Wahtopanah

Sign #1

Rivers Millennial Park

In 1929 the CNR established a gravel pit on this site to serve ongoing maintenance needs of its operations. At one time, an average of sixty carloads of ballast material were being taken from the site daily, resulting in a transformed landscape.
It has now been transformed anew as Millennial Park
Thus it connects us to our Railway Heritage.  As we wind our way along the trail and by the Rivers Wetlands Centre of Excellence to the Lake we will learn about the other elements of our heritage.

The Birth of a Town

The story begins with the railway.

At the beginning of the twentieth century The Grand Trunk Railway was a well-established successful company. It had completed a line between Montréal and Toronto in 1856, then expanded rapidly through takeovers and new construction. By the 1880s it had lines from Chicago to the Atlantic coast, and ranked among the largest railway systems in the world.


New York Times, Dec. 7, 1902

At that time approached railway operations in western Canada were under the control of the Canadian Pacific, which in 1885 had completed its cross-country line, and by the Canadian Northern.

In 1903 the Grand Trunk established a subsidiary, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, to build a line from Winnipeg to the Pacific. Under Charles M. Hays, the Grand Trunk's energetic general manager the new company pushed its line west.

In 1907 the Grand Trunk Pacific entered the municipality from the east.  A spot just west of the crossing of the Little Saskatchewan River was just the right distance from Winnipeg to be designated as a divisional point. It would require a large station, a roundhouse and a host of storage, maintenance and housing facilities. Thus a substantial town was born, named Rivers, after Sir Charles Rivers Wilson, the Grand Trunk Chairman. 

Sign #2

The Station


As a Divisional Point on the Grand Trunk Pacific, Rivers saw a building boom. A large two-story depot was soon under construction.  Situated at the foot of Main Street it dominated the skyline of the rapidly growing town.


- W. Buggey was first GTP Agent.

- The first passenger service arrived on Sept. 21, 1908 - a tri-weekly timetable in each direction.

- Mail for the first time brought from Winnipeg by GTP on Oct. 5. 

- Dignitaries such as Clifford Sifton and T.C. Norris, of Laurier's Liberal Government, Conservative candidate T.Mayne Daly, GTP. Executives Charles Melville Hays and F.W. Morse visted.

- On August 24,1908 the first Canada Railway News Company restaurant west of Winnipeg opened in the stationhouse.

Black Sunday, March 4, 1917

In Rivers' most disastrous fire in which the Grand Trunk Pacific depot fell prey to flames. in what was termed, “the worst conflagration in the history of this decade-old community.”


The new railway station was started in July and finished in September. It was presented to the public with a station restaurant (The Beanery) and waiting room dance.

In the early 1990's the Rivers Train Station eventually closed it's doors completely after a gradual decline in services.

In the late 1990's the Rivers Train Station is designated as a federal heritage site.

In September 9, 2008 the Rivers train 'stationette' officially opened after the closing of Brandon North station making Rivers the only boarding station in western Manitoba for VIA passengers traveling to points east and west. Close to 2,000 passengers board or arrive on VIA at the Rivers depot annually. VIA and the RTSRP committee anticipate those numbers to increase.

From a full service depot, to a whistle stop, and back to a major boarding depot, the Rivers Depot continues toi serve VIA travelers.

Sign #3

The Rivers Roundhouse and Shops

Many buildings were required to service and store the many locomotives that would be passing through. By 1909 up to 300 people were employed in railway operations. The most important structure was the Roundhouse. 


The first roundhouse, under construction.
Photo courtesy the Archives of Manitoba.

Motive-power required constant care and attention, to be kept ready for duties on "the road." Above, an engine prepares to move off the turntable.”

Roundhouses or Engine Houses are large, circular or semicircular structures that were traditionally located surrounding or adjacent to turntables.
Early steam locomotives normally travelled forwards only; although reverse operations capabilities were soon built into locomotive mechanisms, the controls were normally optimized for forward travel, and the locomotives often could not operate as well in reverse. A turntable allowed a locomotive or other rolling stock to be turned around for the return journey.


Roundhouse interior

In 1918 the roundhouse and machine shop were rebuilt and updated. Fire damaged the newly completed structure but the building was saved. A tornado destroyed one end of the building in August 1935 and a storm buckled part of the roof in July of 1940. But it remained a vital part of the railroad operation until the 1950’s when diesel locomotives were introduced. These new engines required much less local maintenance.

In 1918 the roundhouse and machine shop were rebuilt


The modernized roundhouse

The Final Years

The era of the steam locomotive was coming to an end in the early 1950’s.  New diesel engines were faster and stronger. They didn’t require the types of local maintenance that the roundhouse and yards had been providing. For a time these new engines used local makeshift facilities in the roundhouse, but soon new liquid fuel tanks replaced the coal dock and the roundhouse was no longer vital to operations.

Rivers was still a busy place. No less than twenty-eight crews (one hundred and forty men) were operating between this point between Winnipeg and Melville. An  average of sixty carloads of ballast material were being taken from the railway's gravel pit on a daily basis as road beds needed constant attention.

But what we today call “downsizing” was inevitable. In 1954 twenty-three men - four roundhouse and eighteen car-department employees - received termination notices from the Canadian National.
In 1958 the railway removed the sixty-foot high smokestack landmark above the roundhouse. In 1961 it was sold to Structural Fabricators Ltd and demolished.

Sign #4

The Rivers Yards

Aside from the Roundhouse a number of other structures were essential to railway operations. 


Coal and water were the fuel of the steam locomotive, and they were used in abundance.

Coal was dispensed from the Coal Dock in a timely manner.

Rivers was the first place on a main line in Canada to have known coal-burning locomotives, and was the last place to see their use. 

Water was pumped from the Pumphouse located about a kilometre south on the Little Saskatchewan River into the water tower for ready use.

Freight had to be loaded and unload, and at times stores in the Freight Shed.


Engine and Coal Dock.


Some 250 to 300 men were employed in Rivers during the early railroad operations at this point. Pictured here are some members of the machine department.

Another view of the yards.


A busy workplace.

The End of an Era

A significant change in railroad operations came in the 1950’s when - locomotives were being converted from coal to diesel. Liquid fuel tanks were installed in the roundhouse.

By mid February of 1953 diesel power reduced the running time of trains from Winnipeg to Edmonton by by several hours – the time was soon cut by almost a day.

The company pile of steam coal was removed.
Freight were checked and on their way in 15 minutes.

In late September a diesel hauled passenger train made a test run from Montreal to Vancouver. By the end of the year the local day yard was shut down.

In Mid May 23 men – four roundhouse and 18 car-department employees were terminated..

In 1960 the final steam locomotive passed through the yards.

Sign #5

The Rivers Trestle Bridge


The Rivers Trestle (Photo from the Rivers Library Collection)

When there is a river to be crossed, a surveyor looks for the place that it can be most efficiently bridged - the best crossing. The search for such best crossings has determined the location of many a town and city as the railways crossed our land.

The Little Saskatchewan is a little river in a big valley, a valley left over from the huge streams that drained the melt water from the last ice age. There are two accepted ways to cross a deep valley. One is to plot a gentle decline along the edge of the valley, cross the river on modest bridge, then plot an equally gentle climb up the other side. This can take one on quite a detour, and that in itself can be expensive.

Or one can cross at the top by building a bridge from rim to rim of the valley, far above the stream. For that one needs a trestle bridge, like the mile-long structure the Grand Trunk Pacific built in 1908 to bring the railway to Rivers. At the time it was the longest of its kind in western Canada.

Grant’s Cut

Some excavation was requited in the hills south of the trestle to level the rail line. The dirt removed to make the cut was used to fill in the original trestle, creating a stronger structure and decreasing the fire hazard. The result to this day is known as Grant’s Cut likely named after the Resident Engineer in charge of construction along that stretch of line.

The first trestle was built of wood - about 4 million board feet of Douglas Fir, with about one third of that going into the piles alone.

Those piles, that end up supporting the full weight of the structure and the trains that cross it, were sunk deep into the ground. 


Wood Trestle Bridge Construction. From the collection of W.J. Bonner, Miniota Mb. And donated by his son, John Horace Bonner

Building the Structure

The engineering principals and construction procedures were tried and true by 1900.
The Grand Trunk Pacific chose a C.P.R. veteran Horace Haney to supervise the building of trestles in the west. Haney had extensive experience in trestle bridge construction for the C.P.R., including work in the Rocky Mountains.

Working from an appropriately wide base, and supported by the aforementioned piles, a series wooden beams called bents, are connected by horizontal beams, walers and crossbracing,  are fastened with bolts to create a framework upon which a deck is set and tracks are laid.

Along with the massive initial investment, the Rivers bridge, like most railway bridges, required considerable ongoing maintenance and upgrades.

In 1924, a portion of the unfilled trestle over the roadway diversion and the
river was replaced with a short piece of steel bridging. The steel was fabricated and erected by the Dominion Bridge Company.


This local landmark is still impressive today.

Sign #6

Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Dam & Pump House

A good supply of water was essential for steam locomotives, and the Little Saskatchewan River, while providing challenges for construction, was indispensable for the operations of the Grand Trunk Railway in Rivers.

Like all small prairie rivers, the Little Saskatchewan is very seasonal, and slows to a trickle during dry summers. By 1910, a dam was constructed to back up a dependable supply of water and a pump house built to send the water uphill to the water tower located near the roundhouse.


Aerial view of the site in 2001. In subsequent years high water has washed away more of the dam. The pumphouse is visible near the bottom of this photo. Also visible is the abandoned CPR line from Brandon as it approaches Cossar Crossing on it’s way to Wheatland, Bradwardine and beyond.

Operations were conducted by a pumpman, with John Borroff serving until his retirement in 1947. It could be a dangerous job. In 1917 shop-worker Olive Archer had suffered head and facial injuries when a valve blew out, and Robert McGregor was killed when caught up in the pump house engine.

The Pumphouse in 2014

The dam, and the small lake it created, soon became a popular spot for swimming, picnicking and fishing.

Railway infrastructure south of Rivers.

Sign #7

Commercial Growth


This photo from 1909 shows the North American Lumberyard, which was established in 1906, and grew from this starting point to a nation-wide chain.

It was part of a building boom that began when word of the coming of the Grand Trunk Pacific was confirmed.

Perhaps one of the earliest photographic views of Rivers is this taken in 1907, facing north from the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway yards along Main Street - a settlement of few structures but intense activity as lumber and other commodities were freighted from Wheatland prior to the laying of steel to this new born terminal.

The first citizens of Rivers could have taken the train to the south side of the Little Saskatchewan River where bridge building was underway. They forded the shallow stream, and then walked the last mile into the bustling centre named in honor of Grand Trunk president Sir Charles Rivers-Wilson.

Before that bridge was completed Second Avenue was lined with commercial structures.

R.S. McKenzie was one of the first on the scene, where he built a store that became a Rivers institution.


By 1909 residences were springing up adjacent to the business district.


By 1908 R. S. McKenzie’s General Store and the first office of the North American Lumber & Supply Company, were joined by establishments such as the J. A. Grummett & Co. post office store, the J. E. Thompson hardware, the Ferguson & Herbert furniture and furnishings emporium, the W. R. Head & Co. building supplies, the Bishop & Dennis meat market, and the the Jonason & Poston bakery.

A livery stable was essential although the automobile was already about to take over as the primary means of transportation.
Photo from Mb. Archives

The Alexandria Hotel, another Rivers landmark, was conveniently located across from the Grand Trunk Pacific Station.

Rivers grew rapidly into a progressive and well-serviced town.

Sign #8

Lake Wahtopanah


Lake Wahtopanah, also known as Rivers Reservoir, was built by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in 1960 to supplement water supplies for irrigation. It also provides the water supply for the town of Rivers, stock watering and recreation.

The reservoir is about 2,000 feet (610 m) wide and six miles (10 km) long. The deepest point is about 50 feet (15 m). Riparian flows are regulated by a four foot square gated conduit. High flows pass over a 110-foot (34 m) wide concrete chute spillway.

The reservoir stores about 24,500 acre feet (30,200,000 m3) and covers an area of about 1,580 acres (6.4 km2). The drainage area is about 1,260 square miles (3,300 km2) and extends well into Riding Mountain National Park

Rivers Provincial Park

This park consists of 38 hectares of mixed grass prairie, and the campground is located on Lake Wahtopanah, a reservoir that was created by damming the Little Saskatchewan River. The name Wahtopanah is a form of a native word watopapinah meaning “canoe people.” Rivers was named in 1908 after Sir Charles Rivers Wilson, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.