Winnipeg’s bustling intersection of Portage and Main wasn’t always teeming with traffic, tall buildings and Jets fans (see photo number 12 from 1872), but it’s certainly been a happening spot for a long, long time…

Portage Avenue from Main Street, ca. 1930

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

The Marlborough Hotel (pictured here in the centre of the photo) opened to the public on November 14, 1914 at 331 Smith Street. Just nine years later, the hotel had become so popular that a $400,000 extension was added to accommodate more guests. Today, the hotel remains one of Winnipeg’s most historic and elegant buildings.

Portage and Main, ca. 1910

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

When Henry McKenney, a merchant from Upper Canada, decided to build his store on a low, swampy piece of land far from the river, people thought he was out of his mind. Today, the site he chose is the centre of the city and is built up with Winnipeg’s tallest buildings.

Portage and Main, date unknown

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

Portage and Main has served as the inspiration for some pretty well-known artists and musicians over the years. According to CBC, a British band called Blurt wrote a song called Portage and Main and Stompin Tom Connors’ song Red River Jane mentions the intersection several times.

Portage and Main, ca. 1940

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

A sign for James Richardson & Sons can be spotted in the lower right-hand corner of this photo. The grain merchandising firm came to Winnipeg via Kingston in 1896. Over the next 100 years or so, the company would grow exponentially, taking on new enterprises like food processing and oil and gas exploration. Today the company is a massive international corporation, managing several operations and undertakings around the world.

Portage and Main, date unknown

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

In 1923, the Bank of Montreal commemorated their employees who died fighting in the First World War by erecting the statue in the left-hand side of this photo, calling it simply “World War One Soldier.” Because the creator of the statue, James Earl Fraser, was from the US, the soldier is clothed in an American uniform — a mistake that the veterans took notice of immediately.

Portage and Main, ca. 1910

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

Before streetcars, buses and automobiles, the city of Winnipeg tried its hand at a few other options for public transportation. On July 19th, 1877, a horse-drawn omnibus transported passengers from Main and McDermot to Point Douglas. Seeing as it only lasted one day, it’s safe to say that the omnibus was not a great success.

Portage and Main, 1913

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

Designed by prominent American architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, the Bank of Montreal building at Portage and Main exhibits regal, neoclassicist style. Since its erection in 1913, the building has served as a stately landmark and a major source of pride for the city.

Portage and Main, date unknown

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

Streetcars operated in Winnipeg until 1955, when they were terminated to make way for a new, more efficient transportation system. On September 19th of that year, the last few streetcars did a tour of Main Street, sporting crying faces and the words “we’ve had it!” written along the top of each car.

Main Street, north from Portage Avenue, date unknown

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

On the back of this postcard, a handwritten note reads: “[—] at street of the Town, Keeping well hoping to find all the same How is Tom getting along Where is Ned working, Yours Sincerely George.”

Portage Avenue looking towards Main Street, ca. 1909

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

And the message on this postcard reads: “June 21st 1909, My dear Mrs. Thayer, We are having a fine time in this new old place and will leave with regret this evening. I was so sorry not to have seen you again to say good bye. Did Anna tell you I met a girl friend of Adele’s on the train. Miss Lemione she was such a sweet attractive young miss and so kind to me we became great friends. Love to all, Katherine.”

Portage Avenue, looking west from Main Street, ca. 1906

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

Before the Winnipeg Free Press was established, the Manitoba Free Press was launched by William Fisher Luxton and John A. Kenny in 1872. After buying a printing press and renting out a small office on Main Street, they set to work and produced their first issue on November 30th of that year. The eight-page edition featured a story, poem, editorials and more.

Portage and Main, ca. 1872

Portage and Main
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Before it became an official road, Portage Avenue was referred to as Portage Road. Once it had been established as Portage Avenue, a second name change was proposed in 1881. A petition to change the name to Queen Street was approved, but residents of Winnipeg just couldn’t get used to it and it remained as Portage Avenue.

Portage Avenue near Main Street, ca. 1939

Portage and Main
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1939, Queen Elizabeth and King George VI traveled across Canada by train. While they were in Winnipeg, they stayed at Government House — the same place Prince Charles and Camilla, his wife and the Duchess of Cornwall, would stay during their visit 75 years later.

Main Street looking north from Portage Avenue, ca. 1915

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

For years, crowds have been gathering in downtown Winnipeg for the annual Labour Day Parade. The holiday was originally created because of the poor working conditions and child labour taking place across Canada during the time period. In Toronto in 1881, children made up 11 per cent of the workforce and could earn as little as 20 cents for a 12-hour shift.

Portage and Main, ca. 1920

Portage and Main
Photo: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

The Bank of Montreal has had offices in Winnipeg since 1877, three years before the first Canadian Pacific train reached the town and just seven years after Manitoba became the country’s third province. When the train arrived in 1880, a BMO representative headed to the platform to welcome its passengers.

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