The neighbourhood that never was: How Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest was almost a paved-over paradise

Many of the 18 kilometres of trails that now exist in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest follow the old road cuts from a neighbourhood once planned out but never developed. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)
Many of the 18 kilometres of trails that now exist in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest follow the old road cuts from a neighbourhood once planned out but never developed. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)

White-tailed deer leap into cover of thick prairie grass and owls take flight from branches in the groves of aspen and oak — many felled by beavers and offering shelter to rabbits — while turtles poke their heads up from the wetlands.

Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest can sometime feel like a Disney scene.

It is the largest urban forest in Canada, at 285 hectares, and home to a variety of wildlife, dozens of songbirds and hundreds of plants, some rare.

But it might have ended up looking like any other suburban area in the city, if not for the stock market crash in 1929.

Many of the 18 kilometres of trails — bordered today by Roblin and Shaftesbury boulevards, Wilkes Avenue and Chalfont Road — follow the old road cuts from a neighbourhood once cleared but never developed.

"I refer to them as scars," Evan Duncan, city councillor for the Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood area, said of the road cuts.

City of Winnipeg
City of Winnipeg

"It should serve as a reminder of what could have been. Some people might look at it as, 'Wow, I would love to live in such a prime area of the city,' and others look at it as, 'Wow, did we ever dodge a bullet.'

"You can't get back what you cut down and destroy and set up for development. I'm happy with the way that things played out."

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Frederick William Heubach began buying farmland, raw prairie and forest west of Winnipeg.

In 1905 and 1906, his Tuxedo Park Company (named after a New York suburb) acquired 3,000 acres (about 1,200 hectares) of land from one family for $540,000, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.

Move the slider on the images below to see what Assiniboine Forest looks like now, versus the original plan:

Heubach contracted Montreal landscape architect Rickson Outhet to plan out his suburb. Outhet had trained with Frederick Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park and Montreal's Mount Royal Park.

But in 1910, Heubach had increased his land holdings to 4,500 hectares and created the South Winnipeg Company, replacing Tuxedo Park. He needed a new plan and hired Olmsted's sons.

Around the same time, the University of Manitoba was outgrowing its downtown Winnipeg site on Broadway and was looking for a new campus location.

Heubach offered up 61 hectares for free at the corner of Roblin and what he called University Boulevard (later renamed Shaftesbury), hoping to gain leverage from his proximity to a new agricultural college planned by the province in the area.

City of Winnipeg Archives
City of Winnipeg Archives

But the university — which had also considered locating at Fraser's Grove in East Kildonan — settled on a bend along the Red River in Fort Garry. When it moved there in 1913, the agricultural college relocated with it.

The planned agriculture college property is now the Asper Jewish Community Campus, and Heubach's proposed U of M site is now the Tuxedo Golf Course.

There is a post-secondary presence in the area, though, with Canadian Mennonite University at the southeast corner of the golf course.

Most of the elegant Olmsted plan, with arced streets and sweeping broad boulevards, was never fully implemented.

Plans 'pale in comparison' to forest: councillor

Heubach Park, originally called Olmsted, was to have horse-riding trails, a wading pool for children, pergolas, flower beds, shrubs and shade trees. The latter two features exist, but nothing else.

According to the Manitoba Historical Society, developments closer to the city centre attracted the investors who might otherwise have been interested in Tuxedo.

"No matter what they had proposed, I think they pale in comparison to what we have there now with the Assiniboine Forest and the ability to experience that unique environment right in the city of Winnipeg," said Duncan.

Charleswood Rotary Club
Charleswood Rotary Club

Despite its setbacks, the Town of Tuxedo was incorporated in 1913, with Heubach as inaugural mayor. The first houses were built in 1915 but the First World War impacted progress once again.

Attention returned to the area around the forest in 1920, when the road cuts were made.

In this Google satellite view, you can see the path through the middle of the forest, connecting West Taylor Boulevard with Eldridge Avenue.

Old maps show it was intended to be a continuation of Eldridge, but another world event put another halt to development: the Great Depression.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

Over the next few decades, the forest area was used by local residents for recreation while a few locations were utilized as small landfill sites. The trees grew and the wildlife returned.

But the plans stayed on the books.

Maps from as late as the 1960s, after Grant Avenue cleaved the forest and Heubach Park in half, still show the planned streets.

In 1972, Tuxedo amalgamated with Winnipeg and 12 other suburbs, and in 1973 the forest was preserved as a municipal nature park.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

Lobbying for protection

The Charleswood branch of Winnipeg's Rotary Club has been custodian of the forest for nearly four decades, maintaining and adding to the amenities.

According to a planning study, it's considering adding a cross-country ski trail in winter, improving wheelchair accessibility and building a second parking lot, among other things.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

The forest sees 180,000 visitors annually, according to Mike Dudar of the rotary club's forest committee, but there is only one small parking lot, at the corner of Grant and Chalfont.

That means neighbouring streets are often choked with cars.

The new lot would go just inside the forest, near Taylor and Shaftesbury, and would incorporate bioswales — channels that can collect and concentrate stormwater runoff.

Public City Architecture
Public City Architecture

Change is a challenge, though, because some see it infringing on the forest's natural state and want to keep it "as their own private domain," Dudar said.

But there's always the risk the forest will face another bulldozer, he said.

While the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is now lobbying to get the forest certified as a national urban park and permanently protected, "there's nothing within the city bylaws that protects the forest," Dudar said.

"If a number of councillors decided they wanted to develop it, while there'd be a lot of protest, they could do that."

That would be a sad loss, he says.

"It would be just like driving in the city anywhere — there would be nothing," said Dudar.

"You would never know."

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC