Museum explores Brandon's dark history

·8 min read

Unearthing the darker side of Brandon’s past, Brandon General Museum and Archives administrator Alyssa Wowchuk has been documenting the more unseemly and tragic moments of history in the Wheat City.

Brandon is unique because the city’s lore has no tales of hauntings or ghost stories.

“Brandon doesn’t really have anything that follows the format of a good ghost story that has caught on in our city’s history,” Wowchuk said. “We have a lot of stories, but a lot of them have a lot of heavy trauma and depression.”

It can be interesting contrasting Brandon with Winnipeg, she added, because the provincial capital is rich with unique ghost stories. She cited the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg to explain what makes a classic ghost story — an anecdote based on reality, featuring an actual event that happened, an intrigue or a twist is added to the tale with a dash of sensationalism to build on the lore and there are consistent sightings taking place at a location.

Based on her research, no location in Brandon fits these parameters.

Often the tales from Brandon’s past serve to process the grief and trauma people experienced during terrible accidents or scandalous incidents. She added unpacking these tales becomes further complicated because Brandon is a small community and in many cases descendants of victims might still live in the city.

“We don’t want to use the dead as props for personal entertainment or unethical profit,” Wowchuk said. “You’re welcome to talk to the dead, but if you talk for the dead, I feel like that’s crossing a line.”

In the early 1900s, Brandon was like the Wild West — it was a new and shiny city, with residents constantly on the move and the nearby train dropping off fresh faces each day. Pacific Avenue was filled with hotels, and the city gained a reputation for fun events that made it a destination for many.

“It was pretty crazy back then when it came to trying to control crime,” Wowchuk said. “You think of the early settlements along with the CPR, you got people from all over Canada, new immigrants coming from overseas and trying to find places to settle.”

One of the more wanton incidents to take place in the city’s early history involved the removal of the entire police force under Chief Watson Boyd, who served from 1905 to 1912. He was fired after an investigation into the police department discovered the entire department was corrupt.

“It started with a rowdy and drunk party at Boyd’s home [on the corner of 16th and Victoria],” Wowchuk said. “He wasn’t home and there was this big rowdy drunk party happening involving one of the sons and a couple of his son’s friends and what was later confirmed to be a sex worker.”

A number of neighbours were awoken to the sounds of a woman screaming and being dragged inside the house by someone threatening to kill her. The police were called multiple times but never went into the house to investigate. The following morning, the police committee was asked to investigate the Boyd residence.

“A warrant was put out for the arrest of Boyd’s son, but it was never acted upon because they found out later the son was just given an envelope with $25 and a train ticket and asked to leave town,” Wowchuk said.

The incident prompted several meetings with the city council and the Social and Moral Reform League of Brandon, to discuss what actions should be taken, especially in regards to how it would reflect on Brandon’s reputation.

“Very quickly the comments about corruption and a lawless city were already well into circulation and there was even gossip among travellers that ‘you can get away with anything in Brandon’ as long as you could slip the police $5,” Wowchuk said.

Brandon City Council was “shocked” at how rough things had become right under its nose, Wowchuk said, adding she questions how oblivious council could have been given how rampant the corruption was.

“You could tell some people were really peeved off that things had gotten so bad and it took something like this to happen for something to change within the police service,” she said.

The incident culminated in the entire police force being let go in 1912. A new team of officers was hired and brought in.

While it is strange the entire police force was fired, Wowchuk said, the story becomes even more intriguing as this has happened twice in Brandon’s history.

In 1919, after the Sympathetic Strike, tensions were high between officers and those who participated in the labour strikes. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 shut down the entire city of Winnipeg, and the reverberations of the strike were felt in Brandon.

Violence and disruption were growing in the summer of 1919, Wowchuk said, and by the time fall came around, there were still high tensions and many questions about how officers had treated strikers.

Another investigation, launched under Chief John Esslemont and Sgt. George Carter led to, once again, the entire police service being fired. Wowchuk noted this time they could re-apply for the jobs after going through an investigation to see if they were a part of any of the suspect behaviour.

“When the 1919 thing came around, city council didn’t hesitate as much. They had done it once before,” Wowchuk said.

The police drama in the city overlapped with prohibition, another dark mark on the city’s past, lasting from 1916 to 1923.

The late 1910s and early 1920s were a dark time in Brandon as people were living in the shadow of the end of the First World War and the Spanish flu.

It was a time of great trauma and loss for the community, and many people were looking for ways to self-medicate, including soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from the First World War.

“You had soldiers coming back from the trauma of war, seeing their friends killed and shot in front of them. Drinking was a way to help them disassociate or to self-medicate. When they couldn’t find ways to get their hands on alcohol, they would turn to other things.”

Many were looking to ease their trauma and would visit pharmacies to seek out medicines with alcohol during prohibition, Wowchuk said. These quests often had tragic results. She cited an example at the King Edward Hotel, located beside the Brandon Museum, where three men were found dead from drinking woodgrain alcohol after being told it was unsafe to do so. It was, unfortunately, a common scenario when people were forced to seek out even more dangerous alternatives to alcohol during prohibition.

Adding fuel to the flames of this time period, Brandon experienced its largest disaster to date when two trains collided on Jan. 12, 1916, killing 19 people.

The accident instantly killed 16 men, and three more later died from injuries.

CPR was found to be at fault because of poor communication, but poor visibility was also a determining factor of the accident.

“The majority of these workers were of Polish and Ukrainian backgrounds. They were from the north side of the town, the flats, the poor side of the city,” Wowchuk said.

The accident was acknowledged in The Brandon Sun, and a small display commemorating the 1916 Train Yard Disaster is featured inside of the old CPR station, now Immigration Services.

“To this day it’s considered Brandon’s most deadly accident with 19 victims,” Wowchuk said. “The city, however, has not made any moves yet to install a more accessible monument acknowledging the most deadly accident of our history and the lives lost.”

The struggles continued in Brandon, and on Jan. 17, 1916, the Wheat City saw a department store fire claim the lives of five people, all in their 20s.

“January of 1916 was just one tragedy after another for Brandon,” she said. “It was just one thing after another for that year.”

This trauma brought on by these series of unfortunate events also aided in a rise of spiritualism. Many saw friends, family and other loved ones die in the First World War, from the Spanish flu or in other disasters, leaving many aching to reconnect with those who died.

“They were looking for ways to try and help the grief process,” Wowchuk said.

However, with the surge in spiritualism came a rise in scammers looking to take advantage of those living with sorrow.

In Winnipeg, the grifters were taking advantage of people’s personal heartache, which sparked the creation of bylaws aimed at psychics.

Wowchuk added in some old Brandon Sun archives she found advertisements from clairvoyant psychics falsely advertising they could help reconnect the living with the dead.

“You had all this grief and people were just trying to channel it,” Wowchuk said.

Wowchuk has been creating a series of walking tours based around the dark history of Brandon. One was hosted with the Brandon Chamber of Commerce and two were hosted by the Brandon Public Library.

She is currently thinking about adding more walking tour dates.

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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