Our second full day on Via Rail’s Canadian, Thursday October 16, 2014, dawned in rural Manitoba near the boundary between the Canadian Shield and the great prairie. Our next stop was scheduled for Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital and largest city.
My father and I watched the sunrise from an empty Skyline dome car. The train stopped for a few minutes around 7:30am CDT at a location roughly 55km east of Winnipeg. The colors were at their peak and, due to the stop, it was possible to get some decent shots without upping the ISO to levels where noise would be evident. For the shot above, I set the camera on a flat area at the end of the dome and set a timer to avoid camera shake. I metered off the sky and snapped a handful of shots. One is the header image for my article Introduction to Via Rail’s Canadian.
Winnipeg is one of the few cities that remained on both versions of the Canadian‘s route from 1955 until present, although it uses a different station now than it once did. Winnipeg has the longest scheduled station stop (3 hours, 45 minutes westbound) of any city on the Canadian‘s route. Passengers on westbound trains are usually in a better position to take advantage of the lengthy stop and stretch their legs since it’s scheduled for daylight hours; eastbound trains arrive late in the evening (if on time).
The train is serviced and crews changed in Winnipeg. Winnipeg and Toronto are the two bases for Via’s service crews (the sleeping car, lounge, and dining car personnel) on the Canadian. Passengers traveling the entire route will see two sets of faces; Toronto-based crews operate between Toronto and Winnipeg while Winnipeg-based personnel operate between Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Winnipeg has a gritty reputation, with more Murder Capital of Canada titles to its name than any other city since record keeping began (though of course even at its worst, Winnipeg’s homicide rate was maybe a tenth of Detroit’s). However, like many other cities with gritty reputations (i.e. Marseille or Philadelphia), I found the downtown area in Winnipeg thoroughly pleasant.
We arrived at Winnipeg’s Union Station around 8:45am CDT, about 45 minutes behind schedule. With the padding built into the schedule, there was still an on-time departure at 11:45am. That left me with about three hours to explore. Although that was a generous amount of time, seeing as the next train wouldn’t arrive for another four days, I wasn’t eager to wander too far from the station. I started by walking up the platform a ways to take a shot of the train. From the elevated platform there’s a view of the city skyline to the north and the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights to the east (as depicted in the header image for this article).
Union Station opened in 1911 and was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architecture firm that also designed New York’s spectacular Grand Central Terminal. Winnipeg’s Union Station is one of many in North America including Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto. The designation doesn’t refer to any political union, but rather it means that when established, several railroads operated a shared station facility. In addition to hosting the Canadian, Union Station is also the southern terminus for Via’s passenger train service to Churchill, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” on Hudson Bay. The station houses the Winnipeg Railway Museum, which is where my father planned to spend most of his time in Winnipeg.
I stepped out front to get a look at the station’s architecture. It was certainly an impressive building from the outside, with the style of a Roman temple common in major North American railway stations built in the early 20th century, although its interior wasn’t as expansive or impressive as the other union stations I mentioned.
I also admired the Fort Garry Hotel, a 1913 building across the street from the station. The hotel is named after a Hudson Bay Company outpost that stood nearby. (All that’s left is its gate, which I’d have visited if I’d done my homework before my visit!) Its architecture reminded me of the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. Indeed, it seems “Châteauesque” describes an architectural style common in Canadian railroad hotels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I headed back into Union Station and out the back entrance, walking east to an area known as The Forks. The Forks refers to the area near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Two modern, attractive structures dominate the north end of The Forks. One is Esplanade Riel, a foot bridge spanning the Red River. This gorgeous white bridge opened in 2003.
According to Wikipedia, it is classified as a “side-spar cable-stayed bridge” and happens to be the only bridge in North America with its own restaurant. Since I don’t know squat about bridge architecture and I have not made an exhaustive study of each of the one million or more bridges in North America for the presence or absence of restaurants, I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for it. The bridge is named for Louis Riel, an important, though controversial 19th century leader. Riel is a interesting historical figure with a complicated story that I may return to in a future post.
Near the Esplanade Riel sits the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights which opened in September 2014, just prior to my visit. It’s a handsome modern building with a spire that seems like it belongs in a cathedral. Considering the depressing amount of suffering not only in Canada but also worldwide during recent centuries, it was perhaps inevitable that the museum has proved controversial for its choices of exhibits.
While the museum was under development, people argued over the extent to which the abuse of indigenous peoples, Japanese internment (which happened in Canada, not just in the United States), the Armenian genocide, the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and other tragedies should be covered. A rather ghastly debate erupted in which various groups perceived the suffering of theirs as receiving inadequate attention in the museum and others too much.
I considered heading over to the museum, but it would have been a rushed visit. It was a pleasant day for a walk, sunny and about 10°C (50°F). After spending so much time cooped up on the train, I decided it would be preferable to enjoy the remaining time outside, so I headed south to explore the rest of The Forks.
Along the Red River, south of the Esplanade Riel, is a park known as The Forks National Historic Site. It has a few historical placards, although not a museum or any artifact display. Archaeological evidence indicates the area was used by indigenous peoples as long ago as six millennia.
During my visit I was pleased to find the trees along the rivers were at peak foliage. There are a few walking paths through The Forks, including a Riverwalk that runs north-south along the Red River before curving to run east-west along the Assiniboine. The south end of The Forks has installations and other outdoor artwork.
South of the historic site is a section of The Forks with a more commercial character. Like many cities, Winnipeg has converted former industrial buildings for commercial use. The Forks Market (former railroad buildings) and Johnson Terminal (former warehouse) have been transformed into malls to host shops and restaurants. The Forks really does seem like a family destination; there’s the pleasant parkland of course, but also playgrounds, the Manitoba Children’s Museum, and the Manitoba Theater for Young People.
The Forks Market Tower has a platform that offers a great view of the surrounding area (although the area to the north of the tower, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, can only be seen through tinted glass).
At the south end of The Forks, an old railroad bascule bridge (built in 1914) spanning the Assiniboine River has been converted to a pedestrian footbridge. A concrete counterweight at the north end has been painted with a rather unusual mural.
Some graffiti on the side of the bridge was almost as strange as the painting. “Just JUMP its fun” one panel encouraged mischievously. Next to it, another panel dissuaded potential jumpers in flippant fashion: “My friend JUMP here lol hes dead as hell”
I wish I’d walked a little further on the Riverwalk north or west, but I was a little anxious about the fact that the next westbound train wouldn’t be arriving for four days. I headed back to Union Station after poking around some railcars on display. One had a sign indicating it was hosting a candy shop! The Canadian began boarding around 11:15am CDT and left Winnipeg on time at 11:45am.
Series on Via Rail Canada’s Canadian
Night of Departure and Day One (Across Ontario by Train)
Day Two (Three Hours at The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba)
Day Three (Across Alberta by Train: Edmonton to Jasper)
Day Three—journey resumed after stopover in Canadian Rockies—and Day Four (Across British Columbia by Train: Jasper (Alberta) to Vancouver)